A sound and highly readable exploration of the composer’s philosophical milieu.
What were the ideas floating through Wagner's head when he wrote his operas, and how can they be seen at work in his music? Veteran popularizer Magee (Confessions of a Philosopher, 1998, etc.) offers intriguing answers. Here, he maps Wagner’s intellectual and emotional transformation by tracking the influences that shaped his worldview. The first concepts to inspire him were Hegel’s living reality, Feuerbach's liberation of mankind through love, and the anarchists’ direct action. Young Wagner fought at the barricades of Dresden side by side with Bakunin and believed that just as injustice arose, so righteousness might rise instead. Society gave life meaning and value, he affirmed, even though the society he lived in was loathsome and in need of radical realignment. These notions can be seen at play in Wagner’s first operas, particularly in the early elements of the Ring Cycle. There, love and sex and art can be seen in the context of socially subversive intoxication with specific ends in mind. But Hegel and Feuerbach gave way to Schopenhauer as Wagner gave in to the bitterness of a disappointed middle-aged left-winger; in his life and art, political struggle was superseded by metaphysics. Wagner's outlook at this time evinces an Eastern sensibility, considering life as indecipherable and touched with a generalized pessimism that pervades the latter parts of the Ring, Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal, which view any form of political power as corrupting. Magee also convincingly argues that, contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche’s philosophy had no effect on Wagner's music.
Clearly aware that intellectual influences are only one stream flowing into great operas, Magee doesn't overstate the significance of such currents, yet his mellow, lucid interpretation of how they informed and nourished Wagner's libretti is highly persuasive.