Wagner the Revolutionary

Saxony at long last honors its prodigal, politically ambivalent son.
By Jens F. Laurson

In 2013, the year of the Wagner bicentennial, Saxony was keen to capitalize on its connection with the composer. Both Leipzig, where Wagner was born, and Dresden, where he reached artistic maturity, are part of the German state. Perhaps Saxony felt it was missing out on Wagner tourism to Bayreuth, where the composer erected his cult headquarters, and Switzerland, where he lived off and on between 1849 and 1871.

During the Wagner year, plans to honor him buzzed about the state. The composer’s downtown birthplace was adorned with a memorial plaque, and several restaurants offered Richard Wagner menus. Apparently the cooks have all read the same letters describing his meals, because one is invariably offered minced pork meat with a quail egg on sourdough at some point during the dining experience. It’s what Wagner enjoyed after the premiere of his Symphony in C Major in Prague.

This is not the first time that Saxony has tried to commemorate the composer. For a number of years, monuments were planned — and aborted. In 1913, for Wagner’s centenary, Leipzig’s Wagner-lovers commissioned a statue from Max Klinger, but it wasn’t ready on time and was subsequently cancelled; only the large marble base with what are either naked Rheinmaidens or the three muses of music, poetry, and drama had been completed. For almost two hundred years it stood about, context-free and nicknamed "porno-cube” by the irreverently pragmatic Leipzigers. In 2011 it was moved into the ensemble of outdoor steps where it was meant to stand, but still sans Wagner, until this year. In the ’30s, a fifteen-hundred-foot-long memorial grove (the Richard-Wagner-Hain) was planned to go on the banks of the White Elster River. Although not commissioned by the Nazis, Hitler himself placed the cornerstone — an association which led the German Democratic Republic regime to abandon the project after the war. The first Wagner statue in Leipzig wasn’t erected until 1983, and it stands well hidden behind the opera house.


For many years, cities in the formerly Communist state were not so proud of the Wagner association — presumably because of his reputation as a conservative, pro-monarchy, Third-Reich-tainted figure.

Perhaps they would have changed their tune had they been more aware of just how much of a left-wing radical the composer was in his younger years. After all, when Wagner was still in Saxony he actively worked towards the toppling of the monarch. It’s a side of Wagner that went carefully unmentioned in the official and unofficial Wagner auto-, bio-, and hagiographies — until Hans Mayer, in his Wagner, An Illustrated Biography (1959) brought this chapter to light. Both Wagner and his successors must have considered it embarrassing to be reminded of just how thoroughly the composer — who was hob-knobbing with and benefiting from royals in his later years — was involved in the revolution. But he decidedly was.

After returning to Dresden from Paris in 1842 disillusioned, frustrated, and impoverished, Wagner was out for complete social, political and artistic realignment, and only a revolution would do: “We need to break open a dam here, and the only means is a revolution!” he wrote to an acquaintance in Berlin. In his essay “Wagner, the Revolutionary” Udo Bermbach writes, “Wagner was actively, pivotally involved in the Dresden uprising. He was a member of the innermost circles of its planners, and he assisted the revolutionary government. It’s an irrefutable fact that there was a warrant out for his arrest. It’s an irrefutable fact that he escaped arrest only through sheer luck. And it’s all but certain that he would have been condemned to death for treason in case of capture… a sentence that might later have been commuted to a life sentence.”

Wagner and fellow composer, conductor, and left-wing small-‘r’-republican August Rockel were friends with the foremost radical Anarchist of the time, Mikhail Bakunin. There was a cache of weapons in Wagner’s backyard. His architect buddy Gottfried Semper built barricades against the royal troops (he would later, like Wagner, graduate to grander circles, building Dresden’s royal court theater, the Semperoper). And Wagner himself sat on the tower of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche to report to the rebels on the movements of the troops.


Lenin purportedly said that if Germans wished to storm a railway station, they would all buy platform tickets first. It’s funny because it’s true: there are aspects of Wagner’s revolutionary zeal that support the quip and can be found in several of his operas. After all, by the 1840s, during the time of the Dresden revolution, Wagner had already conceived the nucleus of his operatic output, the basic ideas for all his operas to come.

On the one hand he excoriated anything to do with the aristocracy and preached republican, socialist-utopian values (albeit not communism, “that most insipid and most pointless doctrine.”) But then he also suggested that King Frederick Augustus II should be included in the reforms and become, as it were, the first servant of the republic, the Saxon state’s primus inter pares (though the fact that this term was used by the Roman emperors to downplay the appearance of dictatorship might presage the cozy relationship with royals that Wagner would later cultivate). It’s no coincidence that he was working on his drama “Jesus of Nazareth” at the time, and found himself fascinated by the line “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9.35).

This expression of Wagner’s revolutionary sentiment — which begins aggressively, but fails to go all the way — also shows up in his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, in which the irascible, anarchic Sicilians explicitly call for the governor’s laws to be burned to ashes, but then throw a welcome party for the returning emperor. Perhaps it was for the better that the audience at the Magdeburg premiere was so lost that — by Wagner’s own account — no one had any idea what they had just seen. A more tempered example of the same sentiment appears in Rienzi:

Blood flow, even if no drop be left Of aristocratic blood! Rise, Romans, up! To arms, And into battle every man!

As Wagner wrote in July 1851 to a friend in Zurich: “I yearn passionately for revolution, and only the hope to live to see it and participate in it gives me sufficient lust for life!” Later that year he wrote in another letter: “My entire politics is nothing but the bloodiest sort of loathing for our entire civilization . . . . Only the most dreadful and most destructive revolution can make men out of us civilized beasts.”


That same year, though, Wagner wrote in A Communication to My Friends that henever really bothered with politics, or if he did, then only from artistic motivation. “Pondering the possibilities of a fundamental change of the state of our theater scene I became convinced of the worthlessness of our political and social order . . . a state which in its very nature could never beget better conditions of public arts than those I was grappling with.”

When Rockel laid out a radical socialist program for the future, there were two points Wagner found himself unable to agree with: the abolition of marriage and, tellingly, the equal treatment of all workers. Without a special status for artists, Wagner wasn’t going to sign off on such an idea.

Wagner escaped certain imprisonment and possible death in Dresden by a hair’s breadth, via Chemnitz and Weimar to Zurich. As soon as he was in the clear he sent a letter to his wife Minna in which he assures her that this “worst possible catastrophe” that he had just experienced was something from which he “emerged a changed man, set on a new path.” Furthermore Wagner claimed that he really wasn’t a revolutionary at heart because a victorious revolutionary has to be ruthless to the core — a quality he simply couldn’t possess.

This is reminiscent of the “Prugelszene,” the tumultuous brawl at the end of Act 2 of Die Meistersinger, from which Hans Sachs emerges a changed, more conservative man. And while Meistersinger contains a call for unity amid fragmentation, for common ideals amidst external threats, and for a little bit of revolution (within reason), even the chaos of this skirmish is structured as a gigantic fugue: as ordered and rigorous a musical form as there may be.

Even without touching on the hot-button issue of his anti-Semitism, there is plenty of political ambivalence in Wagner: his small-‘r’-republicanism, his revolutionary zeal with inability to follow through, his unbridled egocentrism, his opportunism, later conservatism and associations with and sycophantism toward royalty. In that light, Saxony’s long ambivalence about erecting monuments to him only makes sense. Then again, such monuments are hardly necessary when each of Wagner’s operas is a monument and historical record in itself.

Wagner from Saxony & Beyond

Wagner & Spitzer

wagner-das-lieb.jpegAt its best Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”) is an entertaining Italianate grand German opera with a subject that exposes Wagner’s youthful psyche (think Elliot Spitzer, the Opera). Wagner himself set the bar so high for his own work that it might relegate this piece — for all its musical merit — to the interest only of Wagner completists. This performance, though, headed by Michael Nagy and Christiane Libor, gives the work all it can and provides a rare bonbon for Wagner explorers. Oehms delivers with libretto (German only) and exemplary liner notes (German and English).

Wagner With Cowbells

wagner-in-switz.jpgWagner lived in Switzerland longer than in any other place: 1849-58 in Zurich, and 1866-1872 in Tribschen. This is reason enough for the Tonhalle Orchestra to issue a lavishly produced CD — Wagner in Switzerland — a little postcard book with texts and colored illustrations of Wagner’s time there. At the center of it is outgoing music director David Zinman’s Wagner conducting: luscious and satisfying in gorgeous bleeding chunks that Wagner wrote while in Swiss territory — a Flying Dutchman overture with fantastically lilting Norwegian dancing bits thatcontrast beautifully with the stark sounds of the Dutchman’s crew. Rheingold, WalkĂĽre and Götterdämmerung excerpts follow in similar vein, and bass-baritone Egils Silins is a noble and virile Wotan and Dutchman. No tourism brochure has ever sounded better!

I’ll Have My Swan Medium-Fast

wagner-lohengrin.jpgMarek Janowski is renowned more for diligence than excitement, but his ambitious Wagner opera project for Pentatone with the RSO Berlin and the finest crop of current Wagner singers is shaping up superbly. So far they’re all gorgeous — some more, some less profound. His Lohengrin has moments of chamber-like delicacy and graceful singularity. Ever fluid, Janowski doesn’t celebrate moments, he creates arcs. The orchestra — and especially the Radio Chorus Berlin — contribute greatly to the beguiling nature; the singers (especially Annette Dasch as Elsa) do the rest. If you are a fan of Klaus Florian Vogt’s chorister-tenor timbre, he’s the foremost Lohengrin. Susanne Resmark is a seductively sordid Ortrud: no wonder Gerd Grochowski follows her willingly to his doom.

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