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As for assuming the link between Wagner and Nietzsche, that's a simpler mistake to rectify: Wagner simply didn't read Nietzsche; the traffic was all the other way.

The philosopher who most impressed Wagner was Schopenhauer, and here Magee gives a very good account of how and why. Other critics with greater knowledge of philosophy than I have rebuked Magee for his chatty style, which they feel simplifies the issues. They cannot be simplified enough for me. Michael Tanner, himself a wonderful explicator, complained that Magee's accounts of Kant and Schopenhauer, while fluent, "have a curiously weightless feel about them".

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Cycles of misunderstanding

You could counter that this is just as well; and besides, Magee's never mind Wagner's enthusiasm for Schopenhauer may well make you want to go off and read him for yourself - which is surely better than getting him second-hand. Still, all criticism and evaluation is at best second-hand; and, as it goes, this is very good indeed. In a sense it is the book about Wagner I have been waiting for, ever since release from salaried employment gave me the time to listen to his works.


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Schopenhauer had a bleak and pessimistic view of the world. We are dominated by an impersonal Will which relentlessly drives us to struggle against the sufferings of the world and which fills us with restless and unattainable longings. For Nietzsche, later, there would be a fierce joy in accepting the Will and cooperating with it; but for Schopenhauer the Will was a terrible affliction.


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If only we could free ourselves from its thrall! Schopenhauer thought that there were a few escape routes: In these ways we could escape from the sufferings in the phenomenal world the world of appearances into the ethereal realm of the noumenal world. After he had formulated this idea, he found it present in Buddhism and Hinduism: Wagner had already expressed this longing for nothingness in The Flying Dutchman ; and he had already preached the redemptive power of music.


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He had then come to the conclusion that society was actually irredeemable, and this had plunged him into his profound depression. Now Schopenhauer showed him that redemption was possible for individuals even if it was not possible for society.

Wagner and Philosophy

He had intuitively used the motif of renunciation in The Flying Dutchman , in Tannhauser and in Lohengrin He now found his intuition articulated in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. He even found that the shape of the entire libretto for the Ring, which, it will be remembered, had been conceived as early as , although the music for the end of the cycle had yet to be composed, had moved from the quasi-political nature of Rheingold to the metaphysical message of the Gotterdammerung.

From until his death Wagner steeped himself in Schopenhauer; and Magee traces the way in which the composer quite specifically and deliberately introduced one Schopenhauerian idea after another into his libretti and into the music which was conceived with more intensely philosophical meaning than any music had ever been before. The whole of Tristan and Isolde is about a yearning so intense and unfulfillable that it can only end with the death that both lovers wish for and that alone can unite them: Schopenhauer had written that in the noumenal world that lies behind appearances everything is an inseparable part of the One, and we are therefore all part of one another.

We sometimes glimpse this intuitively, and this recognition, he believed, was the basis of Compassion. Compassion was therefore another way of escaping the fetters of the ruthless Will that operates in the noumenal world.

Review: Wagner and Philosophy by Brian Magee | Books | The Guardian

Because of the Christian symbols that figure in this work, it has often been taken to be a Christian work. Magee argues powerfully against this: Wagner was no more a committed Christian when he composed Parsifal than he had been a committed pagan when he put the Germanic gods on the stage in the Ring. In any case, in Parsifal it is a human being and not Christ who is shown as the redeemer of the world.

Wagner still believed what Feuerbach had taught him — that all religions say something significant about our innermost nature. Indeed, for about twenty years Wagner had toyed with the idea of writing an opera with a Buddhist scenario, to be called Die Sieger The Conquerors, in the sense of those who conquer or overcome their thrall to the world.

As is well known, Nietzsche began as a hero worshipper of Wagner.