Through the almost 900 pages of the two volumes the
revolutionary in music dwells upon a thousand trivialities which would fit well into the family chronicles of a German middle-class man desirous to leave the impression after his death that the constant endeavor of his life had been to follow faithfully the path of virtue. There is a goodly dose of profound self-righteousness in the book.
The opponents of Wagner’s music have eagerly seized the opportunity offered by the Autobiography to renew sharpened accusations against the character of Wagner. Especially have the references to his marriage and the alleged bad treatment of his wife Minna been multiplied by the critics of My Life.
This washing of family linen is of little importance. Much sadder it is that Wagner often looks upon the great and significant things of life from the perspective of the frog pond.
In the last analysis his first marriage was a typical average marriage. They quarrelled to the verge of vituperation, unpacked the shortcomings and faithlessness of each other, and
made up again. Repeatedly it reaches the point of separation, but the philistine hope of
sweet home draws them again together. To make the typical (childless) bourgeois marriage complete, the Wagners were not even without the parrot Papo and the pet dog Fips, which—according to Wagner’s own remark—considerably helped now and then to bring their relations into concord. God bless the two little beasts for serving so ethically and bravely to preserve the marriage relation.
Quite different it was with Cosima, the daughter of Liszt and former wife of the splendid musician and original character, Hans von Bülow. She, the amanuensis to whom Wagner dictated his recollections, finely understood how to dispense respect and incense,—and Wagner—Wotan, the god supreme, loved such signs of admiration only too well.
Cosima, faithfully following the once-for-all firmly established rites of the Wagner cult, has managed to exploit Beyruth in a rational, business-like manner, using the shingle on which Wagner has to figure as the saint and deceased business partner.
The wretched dependence of art upon money and power is disclosed in the Autobiography with brutal clarity. Little understanding and inner sympathy as Wagner had for the people who crossed the path of his life, he was heart and soul in his music and operas. Thus we constantly see him circling around influential high personages in whose hands it lies to dispense money and power. There is hardly a European princeling at whose doors he fails to knock, seeking entrance for his music-revolutionizing ideas. He approaches even Napoleon III., notwithstanding he hates him as the butcher of the Republic, the criminal of December 2d, the perpetrator of the coup d’êtat.
But all in vain. These kings, dukes, archdukes, and princesses are hedged about with tradition and convention, and surrounded by hosts of toadies and flatterers, who see in every innovation a danger to throne and altar. The utmost with which these
most high circles favor Wagner are a few crumbs, often permeated with the disgusting odor of charity. To be sure, they do not wish to let the so persistently knocking artist starve, but they show not the least appreciation of the extraordinary character and the significance of his art. Moreover, Wagner had sided with the people in the revolution of 1848, though in a rather uncertain and timid manner, but sufficient to injure his reputation at the royal and princely courts. Only the proved devotion of the canaille is appreciated there.
Wagner, indeed, does not stoop so low; yet he often speaks with evident respect of the great dukes and archdukes. It seems almost as if he had greater admiration for these than for men like Heine, Herweg, Gottfried Keller, or Turgeniev, with whom he was acquainted and whom he considers worthy only of the most casual and inadequate mention.
With the exception of a few theatres of secondary importance, the stage had for decades refused to open its gates to Wagner. His genius proved of no avail there. Money and patronage on a large scale were lacking, and thus the doors remained closed to the musical creations which later were to produce such a tremendous universal impression. He had first to be
discovered by the neurotic and hereditarily insane King of Bavaria, before he could attain the material opportunity to demonstrate what he could and what he wanted. How miserable and tragic that all this had to depend upon the whim of a demented king!
The suffocating dependence of artistic production upon wealth and patronage should cause the true artist—who is not content to produce mere market ware—to turn relentless rebel against the existing standards, to become a communist. But because the enjoyment of true art is to-day the monopoly of the rich—the common people getting but the shabbiest and shoddiest—therefore the artists bend the knee and serve the vulgar but solvent taste.
This rebellious idea for some time stirred in the mind of Wagner. The revolution of ’48 filled him with the hope of a radical change even if—as he himself admits,—he judged it from the standpoint of his art interests. But the Prometheus fire of social revolution as it blazed in the soul of Michael Bakunin dwelt not in the breast of Richard Wagner. To him Bakunin, whom he met in Dresden, is a phenomenon. He admires him; he speaks in glowing terms (a rare occasion) of this remarkable Russian who seeks to destroy everything; he feels toward him
unvoluntary horror and irresistible attraction.
As manager at the Dresden court theatre, Wagner conducts the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. After the performance the following incident takes place:
Michael Bakunin, unknown to the police, had been present at the rehearsal. At its close he walked unhesitatingly up to me in the orchestra, and said in a loud voice, that if all the music that had ever been written were lost in the expected world-wide conflagration, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony even at the peril of our lives.
In the ideas set forth in his Art and Revolution, Wagner shows the very probable influence of Bakunin and August Reckel. The latter was one of the participants in the revolution of ’48 who realized the inadequacy of a merely political revolution and saw the snare hidden in constitutional changes, and who therefore concentrated his thoughts and efforts upon the reconstruction of society. Together with Bakunin he was sentenced to death for the part he played in the revolution, then
pardoned to life-long incarceration, and finally liberated, after many years passed in prison.
The part that Wagner played in the insurrection was limited mainly to sympathetic observation. However, he had to flee the country and to suffer for many years persistent and petty persecution by the authorities of Saxony.
One of the significant events of his life—relates Wagner—was his acquaintance with the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Georg Herweg had presented to him The World as Will and Representation. From this time on, Wagner tells us, dates a great change in his conceptions of life. In place of revolution, renunciation begins to develop. Parsival is in the making,—the work of which Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
Is this our mode?
Think well! Ye still stay for ingression….
For what ye hear is Rome—
Rome’s faith without expression.
Nietzsche, in his psychological dissection of Wagner, says, maliciously, that after Wagner became acquainted with Schopenhauer, he translated his Niebelingen Ring from the optimism that had faith in the future into Schopenhauerism. Now
everything was wrong, everything goes to ruin, the new world is as bad as the old—Nothingness, the Indian Circe, makes a sign… Brunnhilde, who, according to the earlier design, had to take leave with a song in honor of free love, solacing the world in anticipation of a Socialistic Utopia in which
all will be well, has now something else to do. She has first to study Schopenhauer; she has to put into verse the fourth book of the World as Will and Representation. Wagner was saved…. The service for which Wagner is indebted to Schopenhauer is immense. It was only the philosopher of décadence who enabled the artist of décadence to discover himself.
My Life contains references which justify this malice of Nietzsche. On page 731 Wagner relates that he met in Paris Malvida von Meysenburg, with whom he had previously had an unpleasant encounter in London.
The occasion on which we had met in London had been at an evening party at the house of a family called Althaus, where I found her full of the desires and projects for the future perfection of the human race to which I had given expression in my book (Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft), but from which under the influence of Schopenhauer and a profound realization of the intense tragedy of life and the emptiness of its phenomena, I had turned away with almost a feeling of irritation. I found it very painful in discussing the question not to be understood by this enthusiastic friend and to have to appear to her in the light of a renegade from a noble cause.
Alongside of Schopenhauer the King of Bavaria became Wagner’s patron saint. From the heights of the royal favor he never again descended to the people. But what does it matter? The people are not a mushroom growth. The dream that Wagner once dreamed in Art and Revolution will some day be realized by the people,—nor will they need the aid of philosopher or king.
-  My Life, by Richard Wagner, 2 vol. Dodd, Mead & Co., New York ↩
-  She had spent many years in the home of Alexander Herzen, the celebrated radical Russian author, whose daughters she was educating. She was acquainted with the young Carl Schurz, and in later years became friendly with Nietzsche. ↩