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

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was Bismarckian Germany’s most important composer and conductor, but it is often forgotten that he was also an essayist. He grew up in the Kingdom of Saxony; from 1831, he studied music in Leipzig. In the late 1830s and 1840s, he served as musical director in a number of cities and lived for a time in Paris. He returned to Dresden in the 1840s and composed some of his greatest operas, including The Flying Dutchman [Der fliegende Holländer] (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1848). Wagner fought on the barricades – on the side of the revolutionaries – during the Dresden Uprising of May 1849. Thereafter, he was forced to flee to Paris and beyond. During this time, he wrote essays describing his vision of opera as a total work of art [Gesamtkunstwerk]. He also authored “Jewry in Music” (1850), an antisemitic tract that was republished in 1869. Wagner went on to write more operas, including his massive four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen [The Ring of the Nibelung]. To encourage audiences to escape from the distractions of the big city, he chose the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth as the site for his Festival Theater, which opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring Cycle. The preamble that Wagner wrote to the following text suggests that it was begun in 1865 and completed in 1878. In addition to its antisemitic passages, this essay illuminates Wagner’s yearning for a unified German art – indeed, for a German national identity.

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When lately searching through my papers, I found in disconnected paragraphs a manuscript of the year 1865; to-day, at wish of my younger friend and colleague in the publication of the “Bayreuther Blätter,” I have decided to hand over the greater portion for issue to our more distant friends of the Patronatverein.

If the question “What is German?” was in itself so hard for me to answer, that I did not presume to include the all-unfinished article in the Collected Edition of my writings, my recent difficulty has been the matter of selection; for several of the points discussed in these paragraphs had already been treated by me at greater length in other essays, particularly in that on “German Art and German Policy.” May this be my apology for the present article’s shortcomings. In any case I have still to close the train of thought I then sketched out; and that close – to which, after thirteen years of fresh experience, I have certainly to give a colour of its own – will this time be my final word upon the sadly earnest theme. –

It has often weighed upon my mind, to gain a clear idea of what is really to be understood by the expression “deutsch” [“German”].

It is a commonplace of the Patriot’s, to introduce his nation’s name with unconditional homage; the mightier a nation is, however, the less store it seems to set on repeating its own name with all this show of reverence. It happens seldomer in the public life of England and France, that people speak of “English” and “French virtues”; whereas the Germans are always appealing to “German depth,” “German earnestness,” “German fidelity” (Treue) and the like. Unfortunately it has become patent, in very many cases, that this appeal was not entirely founded; yet we haply should do wrong to suppose that the qualities themselves are mere figments of the imagination, even though their name be taken in vain. It will be best to seek upon the path of History the meaning of this idiosyncrasy of the Germans.

[ . . . ]

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