The Wagner Conundrum: Art as Transmoral or Ethical?

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 11, 2010 - Pages 119-130

My first encounter with the music of Richard Wagner was by way of the fine recording of his Rienzi Overture by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra as a budding music student in high school. The noble and majestic theme of Rienzi’s prayer moved me to tears. The brilliant brass fanfares that punctuate the score thrilled me to my core; and they still do. I thought that this was great music, and I sought to know more Wagner. This led to me to other Wagner recordings—the instrumental music of the Ring cycle, the overtures and preludes, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Before long I was purchasing recordings of these compositions by other great orchestras and conductors and getting my hands on the scores to study the music in greater detail.

At the time I knew little about Wagner the person, his proclivities, and how as an individual he was reprehensible on many levels. For me, it was all about the music. I knew nothing of Wagner’s relationship with Friedrich Nietzsche, his anti-Semitic views, his adulteries, his megalomaniac behavior, or how Adolph Hitler viewed his music in the context of Aryan supremacy. In fact, I understood little about the personal lives of the composers whose music I enjoyed. It mattered little to me that Beethoven could be an anti-social lout, or that Schumann went insane, that Richard Strauss and Carl Orff were members of the Nazi party, or that some of my pop music idols had severe addictions and were social miscreants. The music was all that mattered.

Only when in college, as I began to study music history and the lives of these artists, did I begin to see the larger picture. Only then could I understand the reasons why Jews might not be in favor of the Israel Philharmonic performing the Rienzi Overture, or why Jascha Heifetz playing the music of Strauss in Israel might cause serious consternation for some.

This, of course, begs several questions: What effect does a person’s morality play on one’s creative endeavors? Does enjoying Wagner’s music mean one is giving tacit credence to his odious worldview, or that one is either anti-Semitic or anti-Christian?

Unification theologian Young Oon Kim posits that art possesses a “transmoral” dimension.[1] In Dr. Kim’s estimation, the aesthetic qualities of a Ming dynasty vase or a Chopin ballade stand apart from the morality of the artists who did the creating. Imagination, combined with considerable talent and technique (and discerning taste) are the fundamental elements that determine the aesthetic qualities of a particular artwork. These elements stand apart from the artist’s personal moral, ethical and political inclinations. In this respect, it is not easy to overlook the deep humanity of Wagner’s music, regardless of what we may feel about his moral proclivities, his life choices, his politics and Hitler.

Some have argued that there is something within Wagner’s music that fosters bigotry, especially of an anti-Semitic bent. In purely musical terms, what chord progressions, pitch sets or rhythms can one identify as being inclined towards bigotry? If one takes this particular view at face value, then it stands that repeated listening to Wagner’s music would have the affect of transforming one into a bigoted and intolerant individual. I have listened to this music for decades, and I feel I can say without equivocation that I am neither. The same can be said about many of my friends and colleagues who perform Wagner’s music with great regularity. That said, having traveled to Israel on many occasions I now possess a deeper understanding of the underlying sensitivities about Wagner among many in the Jewish community, but that has not diminished my appreciation for his music on purely musical grounds.

As I continued to discover more of Wagner’s music I became aware of a central theme in the libretti of his operas, namely, the redemptive power of love. This narrative is present in most of his mature works (Tannhauser, The Flying Dutchman, Parsifal, etc.). The paradox of the man, his music, his narratives and the extra-musical associations continues to create many cognitive dissonances more than century after his death, and perhaps none as disquieting as the idea of a highly gifted artist who expounded in such brilliant musical fashion on the power of love, being a vile and reprehensible person, a person for whom many people (Jewish or not) find to be unlovable.

In his book, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, Catholic priest M. Owen Lee offers several insights into the Wagner paradox. Speaking to the issue of religious attributes accorded to music, he offers a decidedly theo-centric perspective on the issue of art’s metaphysical reality.

God speaks to us through works of art. What is it that we have a right to expect great art to say to us, to do to us? To delight us, of course, but also to open our awareness of the things that matter, to enable us to accept darkness and pain, to tell us what we might have wanted to know but needed to know, to make us into something more than we were before, more human, more compassionate. And most of all I think, to enable us to see into ourselves.[2]

For Father Lee, and many who profess a strong religious conviction, the idea of redemptive love has powerful and deeply spiritual connotations. The Judeo-Christian tradition especially sees God as a loving parent (the Father), the embodiment of unconditional love and compassion. Without compassion, forgiveness would be an impossibility.

Friedrich Nietzsche, an early admirer of Wagner and who was staunchly anti-Christian, turned against the composer and came to view Wagner’s obsession with the idea of redemptive love in a derisive way. In his 1888 essay, The Case against Wagner, Nietzsche wrote:

The problem of redemption is certainly a venerable problem. There is nothing about which Wagner has thought more deeply than redemption: his opera is the opera of redemption. Somebody or other always wants to be redeemed in his work: sometimes a little female—this is his problem….I was capable of taking Wagner seriously…Ah, this old magician, how much he imposed upon us![3]

Nietzsche’s early admiration of Wagner was due in large part to the composer’s contumacious attitudes regarding Christian virtues, especially as they pertained to sexuality. For Nietzsche, the Christian ethics of self-denial and sacrifice were exercises of negation and morbidity, whereas his concept of “master morality” (saying “yes” to oneself) was life affirming and ascending, beautifying, transfiguring and rational. Over time, Nietzsche’s admiration of Wagner diminished due to the composer’s conversion to Christianity late in his life.

Some have argued that Wagner’s increased use of chromaticism (with its departure from accepted theoretical rules of traditional, functional harmony) in his late works was in fact a musical revolution against the “common practice” of tonality which is predicated upon strict adherence to syntactic rules and musical grammar. Catholic theologian E. Michael Jones views this musical development as Wagner’s spiritual alignment with Nietzsche’s revulsion of Christian values vis-à-vis sexuality and family. Regarding Nietzsche’s perspective, Jones avers, “Sexual intercourse liberated from the bonds of morality and the confines of family was the only force in nature powerful enough to be turned against the Christian West and to bring about the transvaluation of all values.”[4] For Jones, “Wagner’s [musical] sin was primarily sensual,”[5] in that chromaticism was a very effective musical device in evoking sensuality, and this was concomitant with Nietzsche’s intellectual attack on “a stable sexual morality” and his advocacy of sexual liberation.


Beauty’s Transmoral Dimension

Though Nietzsche had become an apostate to the Wagnerian ethos long before the composer’s final opera, Parsifal (with its overt Christian narrative), he nonetheless found Wagner’s score beguiling in the extreme. In a letter from 1877 to his friend, composer Johann Heinrich Koselitz, Nietzsche’s impressions of the Parsifal prelude were extremely laudable.

Speaking from a purely aesthetic point of view, has Wagner ever written anything better? The supreme psychological perception and precision as regards what can be said, expressed, communicated, here, the extreme of concision and directness of form, every nuance of feeling conveyed epigrammatically; a clarity of musical description that reminds us of a shield of consummate workmanship; and finally an extraordinary sublimity of feeling, something experienced in the very depths of music, that does Wagner the highest honor; a synthesis of conditions which to many people, even ‘higher minds,’ will seem incompatible, of strict coherence, of ‘loftiness’ in the most startling sense of the word, of a cognizance and a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. We get something comparable to it in Dante, but nowhere else. Has any painter ever depicted so sorrowful a look of love as Wagner does in the final accents of his Prelude? [6]

Having similar feelings when I first heard the Parsifal prelude, the paradox for Nietzsche is not unlike that of many of us who love the music, but loathe the musician. If one is oblivious to the extra-musical associations that play into so much of the Wagnerian reality, one finds music of immense emotional power, sublime compositional skill and the effulgent “loftiness” that Nietzsche alluded to. Rienzi’s prayer, the Pilgrim chorus in Tannhauser, the Parsifal prelude, the final act of Gotterdammerung, this is indeed lofty music—music that approaches the aesthetic condition that Dr. Kim attributes to being “godly.” Herein lies the essence of her assertion regarding the “transmoral” dimension of beauty and art.

It is in the transmoral dimension of aesthetic experience that beauty approaches God. All the laws from and within God – give and take, polarity, harmony – connect beauty from all cultures. And to the extent that they clearly amplify and substantiate God’s nature they evoke a response of love and appreciation from man. Since God represents absolute love and freedom, beauty is never confined.[7]

Dr. Kim’s perspectives may seem to be at odds with the axiological precepts espoused by Dr. Sung Han Lee, author and editor of Unification Thought, who posits that beauty in art is fundamentally linked to one’s behavior in relation to one’s moral and ethical choices, especially in the context of one’s family, society and the Almighty. Unification Thought juxtaposes the axiological and aesthetic aspects of art under the premise that art has two distinct, yet related, purposes.

Man has the desire to realize beauty through his deeds and life by offering beauty to the whole such as family, neighbors, society, nation, mankind and God for their enjoyment. And he wishes to gain joy from seeing or hearing about beautiful countenances or beautiful deeds. This is the desire of seeking after beauty, and the former desire is to realize beauty. This is why there can be both creation and appreciation in art. An artist’s creation comes about due to the desire to realize beauty, and appreciation comes about due to the desire to pursue it.[8]

Dr. Sung Han Lee’s views echo those of Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Gandhi and other cultural/philosophical commentators who viewed beauty through the prism of axiology (values, morality and ethics.) Certainly the role of the artist in contributing to the betterment of the society in which he/she lives and works is of high importance and that in and of itself can be considered a beautiful aspect of the artist’s life. The theories of axiology and art in Unification Thought are predicated on its ontological premises and its attempt to clarify the existence of the purpose of creation and the essence of value created through the give-and-take action between correlative elements—in this case the correlative elements of the purpose of the self and the purpose of the whole vis-à-vis art and those who create it.

Sung Han Lee asserts that a primary consideration in the creative process is to achieve both the “purpose of the whole” through the process of creation and the “purpose of the individual” by way of appreciation. This polarity of purposes thus contributes to what he refers to as “object-consciousness,” in which several rationales for creating and performing are exhibited. These include comforting the heart of God, promoting virtue and goodness as a way to establish a culture of peace, harmonizing the incorporeal and incorporeal realms, and reflecting the laws of nature, which in turn can manifest aesthetic beauty and reflect God’s invisible nature and deity (Rom. 1:20). From this perspective Dr. Lee is repudiating Nietzsche’s decidedly inhumane and corporeal attitudes about love, family, and perhaps most importantly, sexuality. On the contrary, the essence of sexuality for Lee is a divine attribute and is the most potent force in manifesting the highest purpose of the individual. It empowers us as co-creators with God in establishing ideal families that radiate true love into our communities and culture.

In this regard, artists such as Wagner, Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron viewed (or experienced) love based on a “fallen” perspective, one that stands quite apart from the sanctity of the pure love the God originally intended for humankind. According to Dr. Lee, “works of such artists were expressions of their fallen love and their agony”[9] rather than expressions of true love born out of God’s ideal.

Dr. Kim’s perspective is echoed by Father M. Owen Lee, who believes that Wagner, like many great artists, possessed the gift of being able to understand the human condition in spite of his own human failings. “Let me suggest that the god of music… gave Wagner… a wonderful, powerful gift, and then visited on him characteristics many have thought loathsome, so that he hated and was hated.”[10] These characteristics, according to Father Lee, had the effect of allowing Wagner to obtain profound understandings regard­ing human weakness and corruption, good and evil, “the conflicting forces within the human psyche.” They allowed him to identify with and come to terms with these forces, and in the process convey the importance of redemp­tive love in his libretti and the transcendent music that accompanies them.

Allan Bloom would seem to agree with Father Lee’s assessment here, but he views it from the perspective of the poet.

Above all, [the poet is] a skilled observer of human beings without any necessary prior commitment to theory. Everything, of course, depends on how good his eyes are… [Poets] take seriously what they see and are, in a profound sense, phenomenologists. If love is indeed the highest expression of the soul, the recognized link between love and the poetic muse further fortifies their claim. And so does the fact that love is primarily love of the beautiful, for although it is perhaps difficult to remember today, art more than any other human endeavor was dedicated to the beautiful. The artist depicting the soul of lovers is also experiencing the genius of the artist himself. He must observe what goes on in his own soul as he creates the souls of the lovers.[11]

Bloom would surely acknowledge that poetry and music are different in both their realization and effects on our soul and consciousness. As Leonard Bernstein reminds us, to the extent that music is a language it is a metaphorical language, and as such is suggestive rather than literal.[12] Any portrayal of love and/or beauty in musical terms requires the use of apposite musical materials to make the poetic image or “suggestion” convincing. If love is a condition in which the harmonization of souls, minds and hearts is manifest as a condition of beauty in the internal/spiritual sense, then employing pitch sets, chords and rhythms that resemble or reflect a harmonized actuality becomes a fundamental necessity. Wagner’s use of the requisite musical materials to realize an expression or suggestion of love in a beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fashion results his music fulfilling both its internal/subjective and external/objective purposes. Wagner was able to accomplish this to a great extent, his personal failings notwithstanding, in all likelihood due to what Bloom might ascribe as Wagner’s phenomenological instincts.  


Art as a Facilitator of “Godliness”

I’m often puzzled, and regularly astonished, when composers readily acknowledge the considerable unifying and potentially healing aspects of music in the realization of peace and altruism, yet continue to offer deep bows to the avant-garde and utilize the most caustic and dissonant materials in their works. This results in music that exhibits little or no ingratiating aesthetic. It has the effect of creating alienation and estrangement between the artist/creator and the audience/appreciator rather than a communion. If peace “is a virtue… a disposition for benevolence” as Spinoza claimed, then it would seem that any effective and meaningful representation or suggestion of peace in musical terms would utilize the requisite melodic, harmonic and rhythmic properties, properties that actually embody, convey or evoke (metaphorically) the spirit of benevolence.

Wagner’s music exhibits great aesthetic beauty due to a wonderfully poetic use of musical materials. Even in the more chromatic moments of his compositions—the moments that E. Michael Jones ascribes a sensual connotation—his music remains deeply affecting as a result of its embodiment of certain “godly” attributes and principles that suggest or convey the feelings or emotions associated with the poetic narrative of love and its redeeming aspects. His music never sounds unpleasant, ugly or discordant but rather alluring, even beguiling. Sensuality, in and of itself, may not be out of the sphere of “godliness”; think of the alluring sensuality of a beautiful sunset or majestic mountains. The aforementioned axiological aspects of art, its creation and appreciation, especially with regard to motivation and intent, remain primary concerns.

The diminishing of the spiritual function of art music in the later half of the twentieth century has been due in large part to the dissolution of religion and religious practice in general. Citing Nietzsche’s proposition that “God is dead,” cultural commentator Robert C. Reilly views this correlation as being central to the crisis of life, and art, in modernity.

The crisis of the modern age is principally one of faith, as it is premised upon Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death” of God. With God’s “death,” there was no transcendent left to make perceptible. This loss of purpose is the source of exhaustion in modern music, not some supposed depletion of tonal resources. Also, the loss of the transcendent eliminated beauty as the object and goal of art. The ugliness of twentieth century art is a reflection of a spiritual problem, not of a horror that has surpassed, for instance, the Black Death. Composers did not write atonal, cacophonous music after the plague wiped out nearly half of Europe, because they did not lose their faith. It was only in the twentieth century that a composer like [Arnold] Schoenberg could declare himself "cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.[13]

This lack of faith gave rise to a plethora of justifications for the abstract compositional rationales of the post-World War II era. It has resulted in a climate where the pursuit of aesthetic beauty and the “object consciousness” referred to in Unification Thought was lost in the abyss of secular reason and theoretical analysis.

Critics of modern atonal music often advocate music with tonal elements and less use of dissonance. New Yorker Magazine music critic Alex Ross, writing about the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was renowned for mixing tonal and atonal elements to create extremely colorful and deeply inspiring music, observed:

God spoke to Messiaen through sounding tones, whether the mighty roar of the orchestra or the church organ, the clattering of exotic percussion, or the songs or birds. The Lord could manifest Himself in consonance and dissonance alike, though consonance was His true realm.”[14]

Ross’ view suggests a misunderstanding of the laws of nature in relation to the tonal syntax. It does not give credence to the idea that polarity is ontologically correct. It is tantamount to saying that the Almighty prefers men to women, or positive valences to negative valences, or sperm to the egg, or the yin to the yang. The “nature of nature,” ontologically speaking, is to strive for balance and harmony between polar opposites as the way to attain and sustain productive energy in the pursuit of progress and development. Unification Thought posits that nature reflects God’s image in substance, and as such, the interaction between correlative aspects of male and female—or consonance and dissonance in music—result in making God’s deity evident. The creative/sexual act is the union of two equally important aspects, where if one aspect were missing procreation could not occur. In tonal music, dissonance plays a vital role. It is intrinsic to the tonal syntax due to the fact that dissonant intervals exist in the acoustic spectrum of the overtone series (the principles of physics of sound realization) and are as much a part of nature as consonant intervals.

Eventually even Schoenberg acknowledged that the “relatedness” and the subsequent “binding together” of “opposites” that is intrinsic in the natural “ebb and flow” of key-centered, tonal music was what gave that syntax the feature of what he termed “cohesion.”[15] He admitted that in atonal music, where the paradigm of polarity was not employed nor readily apparent to the listener, the emotional impact was deficient. In fact, he saw the manipulation of atonal materials with the intent of creating the same type of emotional impact as tonality as the singular task for any composer working in atonal realms. He would go so far as to say that the laws and principles underpinning the atonal methodology that he and his fellow Austrian, Josef Hauer, had developed as the alternative to the “common practice” of tonality were “mystically unproven” and seemingly without any “cosmic” or “occult” foundation.[16]

Thus we can understand that any compositional theory or system that is not predicated on a spiritual or cosmic aspect to its causal dimension will not be wholly effective in ability to express, convey or evoke spirituality or the aesthetics that we ascribe to beauty. If, as Schoenberg suggests, beauty is no longer the desired goal for musical composition, then perhaps atonality can find its rationale. However, our intuition tells us that seeking beauty in our lives is both necessary and desired. It is part of the human instinct. To be attracted to beauty is natural. Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, contends that great works “seldom make overt assertions of fact or instruct people on how they must behave,” however they “possess a relentless capacity to arrest attention and excite the mind, generation after generation. Their nobility and grandeur also flow from their ability to address deep human instincts.”[17]

Dutton supports the proposition that the aesthetic beauty manifested in music is the result of how materials are utilized.

Works of music are not beautiful because they arouse emotions in us as a drug might; they are beautiful because of how emotions are created by the total structure of the music itself…the emotional tone of art reaches deeply into the mind, not by manipulating general moods or kinds of feelings, but by creating the highly individual work of art from which unique feelings emerge.[18]

It is an immutable fact that our instinct to seek beauty is a fundamental aspect of our humanity, individually and collectively. It becomes apparent that beauty is achieved when the process of how art is created (the object reality) is in balance or in accord with the purpose, motivation and intent (the subject reality) of creating. When a composer is utilizing musical materials in such a way that embody the godly laws and principles that Dr. Young Oon Kim cites, the beauty that appears is manifest quite apart from the character of the individual creator.


Wagner, Israel and Redemption

When in 2001 conductor Daniel Barenboim (who is Jewish and also has Palestinian citizenship status) presented Wagner’s music at an Israel Festival concert with the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra in Jerusalem, the uproar that followed, with the inevitable denunciations and condemnations, stoked the Wagner/Jewish debate yet again. There had existed an unofficial ban on performing Wagner’s music in Israel going back to the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, and Barenboim’s action elicited charges of arrogance and insensitivity.

The scenario: At the end of the concert, when he returned to the podium for what was to be a second encore, Barenboim did the unprecedented: He asked the audience if they wanted to hear Wagner. Addressing the audience, Barenboim cited the trepidation of the festival’s organizers’ views about performing Wagner, and also acknowledged that this could be problematic for some, but then averred that there might be many in the audience for whom listening to the music of Wagner would not necessarily summon Nazi associations. He then appealed to the audience’s sense of democracy and benevolence and asked if he could offer music of Wagner as an encore for those who might want to hear it. After a lengthy debate between Maestro Barenboim and the audience, a number people walked out of the auditorium, some shouting “fascist” as they left, but most of the audience remained and gave Barenboim’s performance of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde an enthusiastic ovation.[19]

One can surely empathize with those for whom Wagner’s music evokes the legacy of Nazi inhumanity, yet democracy provided for the opportunity to engage in pluralistic discourse. Barenboim’s actions, in not an insignificant way, may have initiated the reclaiming of Wagner’s music from the evil legacy to which it has been somewhat spuriously linked. Those who walked out of the auditorium in Jerusalem were fortunate to live in a free society where public dissent is not met with tyrannical retribution, and by making their choice to leave were exercising their democratic right.

Barenboim is seen by some as a being a grandstanding provocateur with a naïve political outlook, but in this particular instance he was providing an opportunity to make a choice based on certain moral convictions. In so doing he was demonstrating the power of free individuals to do what they believe to be good in a most democratic fashion, even when it is unpopular to do so.

Redemptive love, be it the progeny of a religious conviction or not, may be that which can save us from ourselves. Wagner’s music, free from the troubling, extra-musical appropriations that accompany it, reminds us of humankind’s immense capacity for truth, beauty and goodness. These attributes would seem to be necessities in the pursuit of a truly liberated and enlightened existence, an existence where love is celebrated in its highest expressions. As we know, without freedom, love remains merely a possibility—a hope. Better to have it as a reality, for without it, there is no truth, beauty or goodness—and no forgiveness or compassion born out love’s redemptive power.

Maestro Barenboim’s actions in Israel were a confirmation of Dr. Sung Han Lee’s assertions about art as being an activity of both creative and appreciative aspects by fulfilling the of the aforementioned “object-consciousness” in which the aesthetic beauty of Wagner’s music contributed to a moment of transcendence and harmony among those attending the concert. In that moment of communication, the greatness of art as the embodiment of beauty passes directly from artist to appreciator unmediated by other human concerns. Wagner’s personal proclivities were no longer a concern, as art and beauty fulfilled its ultimate, principled purpose.



[1] Young Oon Kim, Unification Theology and Christian Thought (New York: Golden Gate Publishing, 1975), 181.

[2] M. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Writings of Nietzsche/The Case Against Wagner, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York, Random House, 1967), 616.

[4] E. Michael Jones, Dionysus Rising (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 101.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Bryan Magee, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 325.

[7] Kim, 181.

[8] Sung Han Lee, Explaining Unification Thought (Barrytown, NY: Unification Thought Institute, 1981), 264-265.

[9] Ibid., 267.

[10] Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man.

[11] Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 263.

[12] Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, Six Talks at Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 139.

[13] Robert C. Reilly, “Musings on Minimalism,” World & I 4/7 (July 1989): 179-180.

[14] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 447.

[15] Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 207.

[16] Ibid., 209.

[17] Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 10.

[18] Ibid., 234.

[19] Daniel Barenboim, A Life In Music, edited by Michael Lewin (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2002).