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Richard Wagner, What is German? (1865/1878)

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When once I spoke my mind about the character of the Berlin performances of my “Lohengrin,"* I was reprimanded by the editor of the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,” to the effect that I must not consider myself sole lessee of the “German spirit.” I took the hint, and surrendered the lease. On the other hand, I was glad to find a coinage minted for the whole new German Reich, particularly when I heard that it had turned out so original-German that it would fit the currency of no other of the Great Powers, but remained subject to a “rate of exchange” with “franc” and “shilling”: people told me this was tricky for the common trader, no doubt, but most advantageous to the banker. My German heart leaped high, too, when Liberally we voted for “Free-trade”: there was, and still prevails, much want throughout the land; the workman hungers, and industry has fallen sick: but “business” flourishes. For “business” in the very grandest sense, indeed, the Reichs-“broker” has recently been patented; and, to grace and dignify the wedding-feasts of Highnesses, with oriental etiquette the newest Minister leads off the torch-dance.

This all may be good, and well beseem the novel Deutsches Reich; but no longer can I plumb its meaning, and therefore I must hold myself unqualified for further answering the question: “was ist Deutsch?” Could not Herr Constantin Frantz, for instance, afford us splendid aid? Herr Paul de Lagarde, too? May they consider themselves most friendlily invited to take up the answer to that fateful question, for instruction of our poor Bayreuther Patronatverein. If they haply then should reach the realm whereon we had to take Sebastian Bach in view, in course of the preceding article, I might perchance be able to relieve my hoped-for colleagues of their task again. How capital, if I should gain these writers’ ear for my appeal!

* Cf. Vol. III. p. 270–written in the year 1871.–TR.

Source of English translation: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, trans. William Ashton Ellis, vol. 4, Art and Politics, 2nd ed. London: William Reeves, 1912, pp. 149-69.

Original German text, Was ist deutsch? [What is German?] (1865/1878), reprinted in Richard Wagner, Die Kunst und die Revolution [Art and Revolution], ed. Tibor Kneif © 1975 by Rogner & Bernhard Verlags GmbH & Co. Verlags KG, Berlin, pp. 81-103.

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