Universal Brotherhood – February 1899



The world knows Richard Wagner as a daring musical genius; a few know him as a poet who wrote the poems for his own dramas; fewer still know him as a writer, philosopher and mystic. His voluminous prose works are being translated into English by Mr. W. Ashton Ellis, of the London branch of the Wagner Society, and the work will be completed by the end of the century. When these writings become familiar to the reading public, Wagner will be much better understood than he is now; the vast scope of his work, and its harmonious relation to other universal schemes of work which make for the elevation of the human race, will be more fully recognized. Then the narrow and ignorant criticisms of a Nordau or a Tolstoi, will have no foothold in the mind of an enlightened public.

In the previous series of articles entitled "Richard Wagner's Music Dramas," my purpose was to throw some light on the inner meaning of those dramas. In doing this some quotations were made from the prose writings, where Wagner has made actual explanations or thrown out hints of his meaning. In dealing with the prose works themselves, my aim will be to show the basis of Wagner's reform in the field of dramatic art, and the great motives which led him to strike out a totally new path. And here at the outset let me say that no brief review of these volumes can possibly convey any clear conception of their contents; it will therefore be necessary to devote several of these articles to the more important essays. The volume with which I am about to deal opens with an


Wagner wrote this in 1843, at the request of a German editor. In it we see the germs of his future genius, and I will select such details as serve to indicate them. Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born at Leipzig on May 22, 1813, and learnt to play a little on the piano at the age of seven. Two years later, when the family migrated to Dresden, he used to watch Weber "with a reverent awe," as the composer of Der Freischutz passed to and fro to rehearsals. Thereupon his piano exercises were speedily neglected in favor of the overture to Der Freischutz executed "with the most fearful fingering."

"But this music-strumming was quite a secondary matter: Greek, Latin, mythology and ancient history were my principal studies." At this time he wrote some prize verses on the death of a schoolfellow. "I was then eleven years old. I promptly determined to become a poet, and sketched out tragedies on the model of the Greeks." He also translated twelve books of the Odyssey, and learnt English in order to study Shakespeare. "I projected a grand tragedy which was almost nothing but a medley of Hamlet and King Lear. The plan was gigantic in the extreme; two-and-forty human beings died in the course of this piece, and I saw myself compelled in its working out to call the greater number back as ghosts, otherwise I should have been short of characters for my last acts."

Being removed to the Leipzig Nikolaischule he there for the first time came into contact with Beethoven's genius; "its impression upon me was overpowering. . . Beethoven's music to Egmont so much inspired me, that I determined — for all the world — not to allow my now completed tragedy to leave the stocks until provided with suchlike music. Without the slightest diffidence, I believed that I could myself write this needful music, but thought it better to first clear up a few of the general principles of thorough-bass. . . But this study did not bear such rapid fruit as I had expected: its difficulties both provoked and fascinated me; I resolved to become a musician."

Thus far we see the embryo poet-musician. In his sixteenth year the mysticism in his nature was roused by a study of E. A. Hoffmann: "I had visions by day in semi-slumber, in which the 'Keynote,' 'Third,' and 'Dominant' seemed to take on living form and reveal to me their mighty meaning." These visions are curiously confirmed by the scientific phenomena of Chladni's sand figures and the sound forms of Mrs. Watts Hughes. The fact that sound is the means through which all form is produced is a very old teaching. Pythagoras, who brought the art of music from India to Greece, taught that the Universe was evolved out of chaos by the power of sound and constructed according to the principles of musical proportion.

About this time Wagner seriously studied Counterpoint under Theodor Weinlig. In less than six months he was dismissed as perfect. "What you have made by this dry study," he said to his youthful pupil, "we call 'Self-dependence.'" In 1832 he composed "an opera-book of tragic contents: Die Hoch-zeit" his sister disapproved of the work and he at once destroyed it, although some of the music was already written. Die Feen (The Fairies) followed in the next year and was the first of his completed operatic works. At the age of twenty-one he tells us: "I had emerged from abstract Mysticism, and I learnt a love for Matter." The result was Das Liebesverbot founded on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, in which "free and frank physicalism" prevails over "Puritanical hypocrisy."

This wild mood soon ceased under the pressure of petty cares; in 1836 he married the woman whose devotion helped him through so many years of bitter struggle. The following year he began his first large work, Rienzi, and became musical director at the Riga theatre. The poem was finished in 1838, and in 1839 when the music was nearly completed, Wagner embarked with his wife and his beloved big dog on board a sailing ship bound for London en route for Paris. His object was to get Rienzi performed there, but despite the influence of Meyerbeer he was doomed to disappointment and found himself stranded there in the utmost poverty. This, as we shall see from an essay later in the volume, was the turning-point in his life; but we have now to consider the next essay, the famous


The main theme of this fine article is the relation of Art to the Universal Brotherhood of Man. It is prefaced by an introduction written in 1872 which begins with Carlyle's trenchant words on "that universal Burning-up, as in hell-fire, of Human Shams." Wagner goes on to explain how the essay was written "in the feverish excitement of the year 1849." This was the revolution which cost him so many years of painful exile at Paris and Zurich. He says he was guided by an ideal which he thought of as "embodied in a Folk that should represent the incomparable might of ancient brotherhood, while I looked forward to the perfect evolution of this principle as the very essence of the associate Manhood of the Future."

After some explanations of certain technical words which might be misunderstood, Wagner introduces us to the essay itself. He begins by saying that the essence of Modern Art is only a link in a chain of causes started by the Ancient Greeks. The Grecian spirit found its fullest expression in the god Apollo: "It was Apollo, — he who had slain the Python, the dragon of Chaos who was the fulfiller of the will of Zeus upon the Grecian earth; who was, in fact, the Grecian people." Proceeding then to connect Dance and Song, as inseparable elements in early Greek Art, he says: "Thus, too, inspired by Dionysus, (1) the tragic poet saw this glorious god; when to all the rich elements of spontaneous art ... he joined the bond of speech, and concentrating them all into one focus, brought forth the highest conceivable form of art — the DRAMA.

That this Drama was a religious teacher connected with the Mysteries is very clearly brought out, and Wagner draws a fine picture of one of those great sacred days when thirty thousand people assembled to witness "that most pregnant of all tragedies, the Prometheus; in this titanic masterpiece to see the image of themselves, to read the riddle of their own actions, and to fuse their own being and their own communion with that of their god."

How fell this glorious Tragedy? "As the spirit of Community split itself along a thousand lives of egoistic cleavage, so was the great united work of Tragedy disintegrated into its individual factors." For two thousand years since then Art has given way to Philosophy; but "True Art is highest freedom" and can only arise out of freedom.

Then follows a splendid description of the brutal materialism of the Romans which hangs to this very day like a pall about her ruins: "They loved to revel in concrete and open bloodthirstiness." Mutual slavery of Emperor and people was the result, and "self-contempt, disgust with existence, horror of community" found their expression in Christianity. But this Christianity of Constantine Wagner is careful to distinguish from the teaching of "the humble son of the Galilean carpenter; who, looking on the misery of his fellow-men, proclaimed that he had not come to bring peace, but a sword into the world; whom we must love for the anger with which he thundered forth against the hypocritical Pharisees who fawned upon the power of Rome; . . and finally who preached the reign of universal human love." In short, one might say that Jesus and his teaching stood in the same relation to the later Christianity as Dionysus and the early pure mysteries to the later degraded and materialized Bacchic mysteries.

Then in a very fine passage Wagner indicts Modern Art, based, as it is, on fame and gain and serving all the lower needs of a debased public taste. The Drama is separated into Play and Opera; the one losing its idealizer — Music, — the other, its dramatic aim and end: "What serves it us, that Shakespeare, like a second Creator, has opened for us the endless realm of human nature? What serves it, that Beethoven has lent to Music the manly, independent strength of Poetry? Ask the threadbare caricatures of your theatres, ask the street-minstrel commonplaces of your operas: and ye have your answer!"

Think of it! This was written half a century ago, and in spite of it the Music Hall more than ever sways the masses, and the cheap inanities of the comic opera are the rage with the rest of the community. I shall review the remainder of this essay in the next article.

(To be continued.)


1. Dionysus was the productive or bountiful power of Nature, and the earlier and pure conception of him was of a beauteous but manly figure, attended by the Graces and presiding over dramatic, representations of Nature's mysteries. It was only in later tunes that he appeared as Bacchus, the God of wine and intoxication, attended by Bacchantes, and presiding over sensual and drunken orgies. (return to text)

Universal Brotherhood