Richard Wagner: A Life in Music

people, music, composer,

Richard Wagner: A Life in Music, by Martin Geck, translated by Stewart Spencer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, 444 pp,£24.50

Christians involved in the arts, whether on the practical or theoretical sides, have long labored under the suspicion that art somehow competes with religion for the hearts of the faithful. This suspicion has its justifications. The nineteenth century saw the flowering of thought forms that elevated art to that of a religion. Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps said it best when he spoke of art as “the highest task and real metaphysical activity of this life.”[1]

No one in that century embodied or advanced this metaphysical elevation of art more than Richard Wagner (1813-1883). So much has been written about Wagner that one wonders what more can be said. Martin Geck, however, has advanced Wagner scholarship with a text that seeks to pursue one basic question:

How is it, a century later, that Wagner’s operas still have the capacity to capture imaginations and inspire enthusiasm?

Geck’s answer: the music.

As the subtitle suggests, Geck’s book follows Wagner’s life by focusing almost exclusively in terms of the development of his art. Biographical material is certainly here, but one will have to turn to other accounts for the details of Wagner’s colorful life. Rather, Geck explores Wagner’s life as the unfolding of an aesthetic mission, one that can be summarized as the redemption of human experience through art.

Wagner’s art was, of course, musical drama. While still classified as opera, Wagner’s mature work sought to transcend the conventions of nineteenth-century opera with what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,.” Ideally, this work synthesized all the sensuous media – music, poetry, drama, and the visual arts of the stage presentation – into an integrated and satisfying whole.

It is a staple characterization for Wagner’s plots to center on the theme of redemption through love. Geck argues that this thematic core is better thought of as redemption-through-destruction, be that of the individuals involved, their countries or, as in The Ring of the Niebelungs, heaven itself. One can argue both and perhaps arrive closer at the ethos of Wagner’s work, and its appeal to nineteenth- and twentieth-century imaginations, with the combination of both themes. This tragic redemption portrayed in Wagner’s works appealed to and gave further rise to the concept of art for art’s sake, as well as secularized accounts of human meaning, including aestheticism, existentialism, and nihilism. For all his subsequent repudiation of Wagner, Nietzsche himself remains one of the most logical and persuasive expressions of the tragic redemption motif in Western thought.

Throughout the book Geck argues that neither Wagner’s poetry nor the plots and metaphysical conceits of his stories would hold much attention apart from the overwhelming power of the music. It is the music, Geck argues, that effectively transforms Wagner’s materials into stories of mythic import and persuasive rhetoric. As a musicologist, Geck describes accurately and accessibly the means by which Wagner manipulated the existing structures of nineteenth-century music and advanced that tradition with revolutionary melodic, harmonic and orchestral innovations.

Students of art and theology need to wrestle with, and perhaps even enjoy, the work of Richard Wagner. Geck’s book is one place to start. It is demanding, often written in a kind of Frankfurt School style of social criticism that tends to assert things as self evident, but the reader will benefit from exposure to much of contemporary German and European scholarship and criticism of a figure who remains one the most important in the Western musical canon.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 17-18.


Reviewed by James McCullough


  • James McCullough is a graduate of ITIA, completing a PhD in 2013 under the supervision of David Brown. He is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), and more recently, with Philip Krill, Life in the Trinity: The Mystery of God and Human Deification (Wipf & Stock, 2022). He currently teaches theology, literature and music appreciation in the Archdiocese of St Louis.

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