Wagner, Art, and Life

By Roger E. Bissell

January 1970



Richard Wagner occupies a special place in my musical and philosophical development. On the performance side, my first exposure to classical symphonic music was playing a transcription of the overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in high school concert band. Later in college, I became aware of Wagner's power and stature as a composer and dramatist through music theory and opera courses at Iowa State University.


More significant, however, is his influence upon my ideas in the field of esthetics. For a music history project at Iowa State University, I researched Wagner's esthetic theories, reading excerpts from the Strunk source readings and Edward A. Lippman's critique.


In this essay, I consider Wagner's esthetic theories and present a critique of tragedy and of the standard definitions of "Classicism" and "Romanticism." In addition, I offer some observations on art, life, and the issue of reason vs. the emotions.


I owe a considerable intellectual debt to the Objectivists, Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Nathaniel Branden. More than anyone else, they have influenced my thinking with their ideas on epistemology, esthetics, psychology, and history of philosophy.


Part 1: Tragedy–the dramatic aspect of Wagner's Tristan


Historically, there are two major literary precedents to Wagner's musical tragedy, Tristan und Isolde. Both of them have some basic characteristics in common with Wagnerian tragedy.


The Greek tragedies presented human beings as creatures ruled by an inexorable fate beyond their control, regardless of their choices, wishes, or actions. In the end, conflicts were resolved by the intervention of the gods, with human beings always going down to defeat, unless the gods willed otherwise.


Shakespearean dramas showed human beings as being determined by uncontrollable passions or weaknesses within them, by a "tragic flaw" that is irresistible and that defeats all their hopes, plans, and intentions (as in Hamlet and Macbeth).


In a later literary form, modern Naturalism, "fate" takes the form of the omnipotent power of society, family, upbringing, social caste, economic status, etc. (It is no coincidence that the doctrines of social and environmental determinism were offshoots of this school of writing.) A journalistic "slice of life" is presented by means of overwhelming floods of irrelevant details (as in the novels of Emile Zola, an arch-Naturalist of the 19th century, as well as those of the Social-Realist, Gustave Flaubert).[i] This method merely substitutes statistics and averages in place of a standard of values and ideas.


Since Naturalists portray the typical or the normal rather than the unusual or the proper, they are much closer to being historians, who record their environment, than they are to being creators who transform their environment. They are, in effect, cultural photographers. (In this same vein were Carmen by Bizet, La Boheme by Puccini, and the school of Italian opera known as verismo, which Longyear refers to as the generic term for a short-lived operatic movement that attempted to combine the musical portrayal of raw emotions with literary realism.)[ii]


The basic similarity of the foregoing examples to Tristan is obvious. In all cases of "fate," human beings are the pawns of forces beyond their control. The universe is closed to their achievement and hostile to their interests. Success, achievement of goals and values, is not accomplished by human effort, but by fortuitous circumstances.


Note how Tristan and Isolde were trapped by their society's moral strictures and could not openly, fearlessly, guiltlessly express their love for one another. Note further that what finally brought their love for each other out into the open was not courage and desire to live, but their mistaken belief that they had taken a death potion, and that it wouldn't matter anyway. It took Brangana's deceit and a love potion in disguise to finally bring them together–and even then it was in vain, for Tristan became mortally wounded when he and Isolde were discovered together in the throes of passion. Death, master of us all, always wins.


Centuries ago, Aristotle held that tragedy was the greatest art form and tried to give a rational explanation of it its efficacy and popular appeal in his writings on art.[iii] By placing the characters in tragedy face to face with the threat of destruction, the emotions of pity and fear would be evoked in the audience. Supposedly, once pity and fear were objectified in tragedy, the tragic pleasure, "catharsis," occurs. The viewers take courage to meet the destructive aspects of life, since seeing imaginary characters experience frustration and despair is supposed to lighten one's own problems, making them more bearable (like slapstick comedy and television soap operas).


By presenting misery as that which one should try to avoid (but which eventually, of course, wins out anyway), the tragedists were asserting that pain and death are metaphysically significant—that to which one gives the foremost attention. Thus, the tragedists (and Wagner) were basically negative in their approach to life and art. They portrayed the basic psychological orientation of the human condition as fear of (or desire for!) death, rather than love of life. They opposed (at best) death, destruction, and misery, rather than expose life, construction, and happiness. Or rather, they held that life, constructive purpose, and happiness were impossible to achieve and enjoy, because of the overwhelming power of the negative forces. The better characterizations portrayed people of strong character who were determined to succeed in spite of those around them—a rather Byronic view, at best.


Viewing man’s misery is not enough to help one improve one’s own lot in life. One must also know what constitutes an improvement. This requires that one know what the good is and how to achieve it (not just that one know what the evil is and how to avoid it). Of course, values and goals entail risk and the possibility of defeat. Success is not automatically granted to human beings, and disappointment is certainly possible. But what is the percentage in entertaining such an irrational doctrine as fatalism or in dwelling upon the inevitability of death?


What, after all, is worthwhile to present or view in art? To one with a pro-life orientation, only that which is worth contemplating in life. Quoting Ayn Rand, “Misery, disease, disaster, evil, all the negatives of human existence, are proper subjects of study in life, for the purpose of understanding and correcting them—but are not proper subjects of contemplation for contemplation’s sake. In art, and in literature, these negatives are worth re-creating only in relation to some positive—but not as an end in themselves…That one should wish to enjoy the contemplation of values, of the good—of man’s greatness, intelligence, ability, virtue, heroism—is self-explanatory. It is the contemplation of the evil that requires explanation and justification…”[iv] Thus for a pro-life artist, death, evil, and unhappiness are used as foils to life, goodness, and happiness (rather than the other way around, as in tragedy) in order to add excitement, color, and tension to the artwork; they are not the artwork’s emotionally dominant aspect.


Although journalistic information, scientific education, or moral guidance may be found in a work of art as secondary consequences, the fulfillment of a deeper psychological need is what people seek from art. During the life-long process of pursuit and achievement of goals, human beings need the opportunity to experience a “sense” or “feeling” that their task has been completed, that they are “living in a world in which [their] values have been successfully achieved.”[v] This gives them a moment’s rest to refuel, so to speak, before moving farther. Art acts as a psychological life-line to the extent to which it gives him people that experience. Especially in today’s culture is this function of art a crucial one.


People do respond strongly to tragedy, that much is true. But what kind of “fuel” does it provide? In an artwork there are many varied aspects to which one responds, other than the existential one (subject-plot-outcome) to which I have referred above. Any one of these—whether aspects of characterization or of style—may be non-tragic and in direct contrast to the tragic orientation of the plot (e.g., the orchestration of Puccini’s La Boheme, the beautiful love affair in Romeo and Juliet).


The fact that even the gloomiest tragedy has something “to be cheerful about” explains why people have such conflicting responses to what is predominantly a psychological death-line. They see beauty and life in the midst of death and suffering, and because of this, they cannot bring themselves to identify the nature of the psychological torture to which they are submitting themselves. What they are responding positively to is still on the side of the pro-life, although in a confused, semi-contradictory way. My strongest criticism is not aimed at them, however. They are merely the victims of the philosophers who influenced artists such as Wagner.


In Opera Guide, Westerman writes that around 1850, “Two important experiences…influenced the composer’s work: the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and his passionate yet self-denying love for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his Zurich friend and patron.”[vi]


Wagner’s love for his patron-friend’s wife is represented in parts of several of his operas, among them being Tristan. One may well imagine the depth of the feeling for her which inspired the intensely passionate love affair between Tristan and Isolde. One also sees the similarity between the triangle relationships: King Mark-Count Wesendonck, Isolde-Mathilde, and Tristan-Wagner. No doubt, Wagner’s own passions, loyalties, and frustrated desires were projected into the character of Tristan.


It is when one considers the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), however, that one begins to see the power of philosophy—i.e., the power of ideas. Quoting Leonard Peikoff, “Life, Schopenhauer holds, is nothing but suffering and defeat; caught as we are in a nightmare universe, man’s existence can be only an extended process of agony—and life- and self-mortification is Schopenhauer’s counsel to his fellow-sufferers. The blessedness of release, however, will come—Schopenhauer tells us—when we are swallowed up by Nothing, i.e., when we reach Nirvana…”[vii]


This morbid view of existence finds its way into Tristan und Isolde, to be sure. Wagner borrows a sort of day/night symbolism from Schopenhauer, in which a profane, agonizing kind of love (as well as jealously and war) are attributed to “day” or life, and peace and serene love are attributed to “night” or death. Thus, in Tristan und Isolde, we are handed the ideal of an otherworldly frame of non-existence, while this world is held to be nothing but torment and tragedy.


Such a view was made explicit by Wagner in his last group of essays around 1880. He saw Beethoven’s symphonies as the successors to Christianity, as a new religion of pity and sympathy, and aspired to bring his own music dramas up to this level.[viii] According to Lippman, Wagner held that “all true religions ideally espouse two main points: the nullity (or lack of significance) of this world, and the reversal of the will to live” (i.e., the desire to exist in another dimension separate from this world is nurtured and encouraged).[ix]


Here the full conscious power of Schopenhauer’s philosophy upon Wagner takes effect. Near his death, Wagner adopts an explicit view of life which, had he adopted it at the beginning of his career, would surely have left him paralyzed and unable to write a single note. This same view is presented to us, albeit in mixed form, in Tristan. How are we to respond to this drama? Why, with pity and sympathy, of course. Does it inspire us to push onward and to make a good, happy life for ourselves? Why no, it tells us that life and happiness on this earth are impossible.


If Wagner represents the climax of musical accomplishment in Western music, it has to be because of his effectiveness at presenting his morbid sense of life, for he does this with incomparable skill. It cannot be because of his view of life, for in this respect he is no further advanced than the ancient Greek tragedists.


Part 2: Wagner's aesthetic theory

and the dichotomies which it implies


If we wish, we may dismiss Wagner’s tragic view of life on this earth as the emotional outpouring of a passionate but frustrated old man. This is only one side of Wagner, the philosopher, however; this is but his metaphysics. Also important in an understanding of Wagner is an understanding of his earlier writings on aesthetics which date from around 1850.


In these essays, Wagner stressed three main interrelated concepts: (1) the social role of art, (2) the completeness of the artwork, and (3) feeling as a primary aesthetic value.[x] The first two deal with the relationships of human beings (and thus, of art) to nature and society (i.e., to reality), and the last one deals with the relationship of human beings to themselves (i.e., of their minds and bodies or their reason and emotions).


Wagner is an extreme realist in one respect. He is seeking to present the purely, essentially human, present in human beings regardless of place or time, a constant, eternally true human nature separable from a particular environment’s accidents. Quoting Lippman, “Wagner believes that the universal core of human life is what remains of man when a particular setting of civilization is removed.”[xi] To Wagner, the aim of art was to present the entire and unspoiled nature of humanity, people in their full physical, intellectual, and emotional reality. To this end, Wagner employed myths because, according to Grout, “they embody, in a concentrated, poetic, and picturesque fashion, certain philosophical issues that are of fundamental importance in human life.”[xii]


Thus, in his quest for reality, Wagner resorted to unreal settings for his dramas, choosing myth rather than historical subject matter. Interestingly enough, Wagner’s realism is not centered in this world. Even more intriguing is the fact that this other-worldly emphasis is not motivated by a tendency toward “escapism,” but rather by a desire to present more effectively a story which would be valid for all men of all ages. We can see, then, two basic dichotomies which are dealt with in Wagner’s aesthetics: the universal-particular dichotomy (with respect to the extent of applicability of subject and theme; i.e., to how many people it is relevant), and the myth-reality dichotomy (with respect to the setting of the story).


Wagner was also firmly convinced of the primary importance of feeling in art; his arguments for completeness and the social role of art contain much of the basis for this view. Historically a central component of aesthetic theories has been the view of art as an expression of feeling. Man is viewed as a creature of heart (emotion) and mind (reason), with feeling and understanding being the two basic factors of all human experience and activity. Originally man’s mind and body were in a natural, harmonious unity, but they split apart (presumably this refers to the point in time when man is supposed to have become civilized and capable of independent, rational judgment, and to have turned away from nature and instincts). Then man’s mind became “over-developed,” without the benefit of the moderating influence of his instincts or emotions; and resultant were all of civilization’s ills (e.g., war, vice, poverty, exploitation, etc.).[xiii]


Art is held by Wagner to be the one force which can re-unite these two aspects of human nature. However, this unity is to be one which suppresses the complexities of thinking consciously and in terms of concepts and principles. “We must be brave enough to deny our intellect,” and “The Volk must burst the chain of hindering consciousness.”[xiv] Here, then, is another dualism in Wagner’s aesthetic theory: the mind-body (reason-emotion) dichotomy.


To resolve the traditional split between reason and emotions, Wagner would suppress the mind, because, after all, the mind is impotent and only gets in the way. This is completely consistent with the view of life he inherited from Schopenhauer: reason causes all of life’s ills, and therefore must be dispensed with, if the torture which is life is to be made even minimally bearable. In his disdain for reason, however, Wagner has not even reached the stature of the ancient Greeks. They were not other-worldly mystics, nor were they instinct-driven brutes. They had a profound respect for reason and life on this earth.


Part 3: Romanticism and Classicism Reconsidered


Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the above ideas have been part of a larger debate about the nature of what are considered to be two major art trends: Classicism and Romanticism. There has been much controversy and disagreement about a suitable definition of these two terms, and the matter has not been resolved to this day.


The biggest problem has been that of failure to observe the rule of fundamentality with respect to definition, as laid down by Aristotle.[xv] In defining a concept, one must first locate the distinguishing characteristic(s)—the characteristic(s) which set(s) things of a particular kind apart from all other things. Then one looks for the particular distinguishing (if more than one exist) characteristic which explains and makes possible all the others (or the greatest number of the others). This is the fundamental characteristic or essential distinguishing characteristic and is the proper defining characteristic of the concept.


Traditionally, definitions have linked Classicism with reason and objectivity; with reality and this world; with the universally valid; and with conformity to pre-determined standards, stylistic copying, and imitation. On the opposite pole, Romanticism has been characterized by the qualities of emotion and subjectivity; by fantasy, myth, and other times and places; by individual, personal expression; and by rebellion against pre-determined standards, innovation, and aspiration. Classical has been taken to imply detached, reserved, and serene; Romantic, to imply involved, striving, and yearning. Opposed to the balance and order of Classicism is the ideal of climax, of a peak(s) of emotional intensity and excitement by Romanticism.[xvi]


In this massive array of items, there are two which will lead directly to the fundamental characteristic of Romanticism and which will furnish the key to understanding the nature of the controversy: emotion and striving. Striving is directed motion toward a goal, toward that which one regards as conducive to one’s welfare and interests, toward that which one values. Since an emotion is merely the psychosomatic response to that which one regards as conducive to one’s welfare and interests, i.e., to that which one values, it can be seen that values and value-judgments are the cause of emotions.[xvii]


Values imply the presence of volition or free will. It is on this metaphysical level, in response to certain particular questions, that various art movements are formed.[xviii] In this case, the relevant question is, “Is choice possible to human beings?”, or “Do we have free will?”


One answer, with two different (but related) implications, is: no, a person’s life and character are determined by forces beyond his control. Choice of values is therefore impossible; apparent values are only an illusion.


Then, according to one line of reasoning, human beings are impotent to achieve their goals and engage in purposeful action. Any attempt will fail because of forces beyond their control. Their failures (and infrequent, temporary successes) bear no relation to their actions. This is characteristic of Fatalism and tragedy.


It is also claimed that, once volition (and, hence, goals, values, and purposeful action) is denied existence, there is no effective motivational principle to use in characterization.[xix] Thus, characterizations and events are copied from real life, no attempt being made to project goals or characters other than the ones pre-existing in society. The trend based on this premise is known as Naturalism or Social Realism.


Another answer is: no, the artist must confine himself to working within a set of arbitrary, concretely detailed rules which represent the “final and absolute criteria of aesthetic value.” The rules must embody the Classic Greco-Roman ideals of balance, proportion, clarity, moderation, and serenity. Despite their claim to be the school of reason, Classicists (i.e., the Neo-Classic revivalists) never offered a justifiable reason for the artificial limitations they set down.[xx]


Still another answer is: yes, and with no arbitrary restrictions, except those chosen by the artist. In the interest of emotional intensity, color, imagination, originality, excitement—i.e., in the interest of communicating a value-oriented view of life—the artist’s right to individuality is asserted. The expressive purpose (or theme) determines the style, characterization, plot, subject, and form. These principles are the basis of Romanticism. (Philosophically—i.e., in terms of the issue of free will—Romanticism’s opposition to Classicism is much more superficially based than is its fundamental cleavage with Naturalism and Fatalism.)


In music, Classicism never existed as a broad movement in the sense mentioned above. Throughout music’s history there has been a continuous increase in harmonic complexity, a steady succession of innovations in instrumental color, and a constant expansion and revision of old forms as well as the invention of new forms. Those areas which did have a tendency to resist change formed a loosely-knit sort of “Establishment,” against which creative composers have always risen to prominence. Whenever a certain composer is referred to as being a Classicist (or a Neo-Classicist), it is not because he has adhered to certain musical formulae necessarily, but rather because he has tried to embody the qualities of balance, order, reserve, serenity, and “objective” detachment in his music. (Accompanying such qualities is the absence of any definite, “unsettling” climax.) It is in this sense that the so-called Classical period in music is held up today as the antithesis of Romanticism.


Thus, in music and in the other arts, Romanticism (by the rule of fundamentality) can be seen to be volition-oriented art. This is not an attempt to deny that there are no aspects of volition (and value) present in other art movements, because all art has to smuggle in value, at least to some extent, on the implicit premise that what is presented will be of some value to the reader, viewer, or listener.[xxi] It is merely to point out that the traditionally-recognized characteristics of Romanticism have their root in the concept of volition (and value).


Part 4: Reconsidering the dichotomies


Striving, yearning, and emotional experience of some kind or other is a universally, objectively valid fact of human experience. So is the fact that such attitudes and experiences are of the individual rather than the collective. In their attempts to express these things, the Romanticists were achieving precisely that which the Classicists were alleged to have achieved, but never did convincingly: universality and objectivity.


Since they could not conceive of their values being achieved in this world, many Romanticists resorted to settings in mythology or the Middle Ages. Others chose such settings in an attempt to add to the interest and excitement of their stories. In Wagner’s case it was a desire to present the universally valid that motivated his use of the myth. In any case, the romanticists were very reality-oriented, in a deeper sense of the word than that concerned merely with spatial-temporal setting. They were all value-oriented and value is one of the most significant aspects of reality. Each was trying to present values in the best way he could, explicitly or implicitly.


If I had been a Romanticist and had been told that Classicism was the representative school of reason in aesthetics, I would have said, “If this is reason, to hell with it!” Never questioning the matter further, the Romanticists took just this attitude and accepted emotion as an aesthetic primary, as opposed to reason. Actually, however, the emotions are far from being primary; the psychological progression, as shown above, is from volition to value to emotion. Furthermore, the faculty of volition is identical with the faculty of reason. Whether a particular emotion is in response to a first-time value-judgment or to a long-since-automatized value-judgment which is reactivated in a new situation, it is always the faculty of reason—perceiving, identifying, and integrating certain aspects of reality—which mediates and directs every conscious value-choice. To an artists who takes the matter of value-choice seriously, the critical rejection of arbitrary standards is never unreasonable; nor is the uncritical acceptance of them reasonable.


Part 5: Application to Wagner's Tristan


With respect to its metaphysical orientation, Tristan und Isolde is a perfect example of Fatalistic tragedy. The music is so organically linked with the drama that it is hard to pronounce a different verdict on the music. Indeed, Salzman comments that, “Wagner’s extreme chromatic freedom, ‘atonal’ as it may seem at times, is still based on the listener’s expectation that one musical event implies another—Tristan is built on the very idea of defeat of expectation.[xxii]


There are strong undercurrents of Romanticism—great emotional intensity is expressed—but the overall focus is on the futility of life on earth, both explicitly in the tragic outcome of the drama, and implicitly in he denial of expectation in the music.


Tristan und Isolde is a monumental work, embodying two contradictory premises: passionate love and impossibility of enjoying it in this world. It is particularly disappointing to see the result of the victory of the death-premise in a man as great as Wagner.




Bambrough, Renford, ed. 1963. The Philosophy of Aristotle, a new selection. New York: New American Library.


Bernstein, Martin and Martin Picker. 1966. An Introduction to Music, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


Branden, Nathaniel. 1966. Emotions and values. The Objectivist, vol. 5 (May 1966).


Grout, Donald J. 1960. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton.


Lass, Abraham H. and Brooks Wright, eds. 1967. A Student’s guide to 50 European Novels. New York: Washington Square Press.


Lippman, Edward Arthur. 1958. The esthetic theories of Richard Wagner. Musical Quarterly (April 1958).


Longyear, Rey M. 1969. Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


Obrecht, Eldon. 1969. Personal lecture notes from lecture on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in course on late 18th and 19th century composers. December 3, 1969.


Pauly, Reinhard G. 1965. Music in the Classic Period. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


Peikoff, Leonard. 1969. Nazism versus reason. The Objectivist, vol. 8 (Oct. and Nov. 1969).


Rand, Ayn. 1963. The goal of my writing. The Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 2 (Oct. and Nov. 1963).


Rand, Ayn. 1965. The psycho-epistemology of art. The Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 4 (April 1965).


Rand, Ayn. 1969. What is Romanticism? The Objectivist, vol. 8 (May-July 1969).


Wagner, Richard. 1893. Beethoven, with a supplement from the philosophical works of Arthur Schopenhauer. Trans. Edward Dannreuther, 2nd ed. London: W. Reeves.

Westerman, Gerhart von. 1968. Opera Guide. Trans. Anne Ross. New York: E. P. Dutton.

[i] Lass and Wright 1967, pp. 117-120, 199-201, and 206-211.

[ii] Longyear 1969, p. 187.

[iii] Bambrough 1963, pp. 97-131.

[iv] Rand 1963, p. 38.

[v] Rand 1963, p. 41.

[vi] Westerman 1968, p. 219.

[vii] Peikoff 1969, p. 163.

[viii] Wagner 1893.

[ix] Lippman 1958, p. 217.

[x] Lippman 1958, p. 210.

[xi] Lippman 1958, p. 211.

[xii] Grout 1960, p. 385.

[xiii] Lippman 1958, p. 210.

[xiv] Wagner 1966, p. 105.

[xv] Aristotle 1963, pp. 80-103.

[xvi] Grout 1960, pp. 339-344, Bernstein and Picker 1966, pp. 279-282; Pauly 1965, pp. 2-5; Longyear 1969, pp. 2-3.

[xvii] Branden 1966, p. 69.

[xviii] Rand 1965, p. 16.

[xix] Rand 1969, p. 66.

[xx] Rand 1969, pp. 68-69.

[xxi] Rand 1969, pp. 70 and 85.

[xxii] Salzman 1967, p. 5.