Beethoven, by Wagner

Armando Sobral (Journal de Resenhas)


Commentary on Beethoven by Richard Wagner

The emblematic text of the composer Richard Wagner, Beethoven, was written in 1870 in celebration of the centenary of the homonymous composer, as a grand homage. Wagner himself speaks in the pamphlet as a reaction against the lack of “an opportunity worthy of such a celebration” (Preface, p. 5). Loaded with heavy erudition, perhaps the text would not go down in history without the repercussions that the reading of a young philologist named Friedrich Nietzsche, then 26 years old, gave it. This doubly explains the importance of the text for its current readers, especially since in 2020 the musical world celebrates the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. Here is an interesting moment to revisit the text.

For music students, this is essential reading, which sheds light on key features of a fundamental moment in the history of music. As for philosophy students, it should be read as the duplicate of a work that is, today, one of the most important books in the history of aesthetics, O birth of tragedy, written a year after Wagner's book and in many ways indebted him [1]. If Wagner's text seeks to elucidate German developments regarding discussions about tragedy, this happens, above all, in its relationship with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The influence of Wagner's writings on Nietzsche's first book is now a commonplace of reception. Let us see in what terms Wagner elaborated his homage.

The text coincides with the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Unified, Germany began the search for a then elusive identity with great strides. Imagining that his text could be “discussed”, Wagner indicates his twofold intention: “(…) to offer a contribution to the reflection of truly cultured people on the philosophy of music; on the one hand, this is how the present work should be considered, on the other hand, the assumption that it had actually been delivered, as a speech, before a German audience, on a certain day of the year so singular and significant, suggests a living relationship with the serious events of that time” (Preface, p. 6).

If we could express its background, there is no doubt that the aesthetic dimension was important, but the motivation went far beyond a philosophy of music. Wagner manifests this political self-awareness and marks the place he would like his essay to occupy: “(…) I would be pleased to allow the German feeling, in a state of great tension, that closer contact with the depth of the German spirit than the painful national life everyday life does not allow” (Preface, p. 6). What would Wagner mean by “the depth of the German spirit”? A tense and retroactive question, because today it is inseparable from subsequent events.

Wagner's nationalism was clearly political, Nietzsche's leaned towards the cultural dimension; a subtle but decisive difference. This discrepancy is fundamental for any approximation that is made today. Something that stands out from the first paragraph is the almost ethereal condition of the place occupied by music and musicians in the context of culture. Wagner derives this central place in music from his readings of Schopenhauer. If his text is dependent, in this aspect, on the reading of The world as will and representation (Unesp), in no way owes him the appropriation he makes of Beethoven. When referring to the intuitive state of musical creation, Wagner ventures an analogy: “Only one state can surpass that of this artist: that of the saint (…). Because his art is related to the set of other arts, in fact, as the religion for the church” (p. 25-6).

The role of the musician elevated to the status of mystery, consecration, almost ecclesiastical imperturbability, but also – in the political game – outside any critical framework. In one of the most intriguing moments of the text, Wagner describes two scenes he experienced in Venice and in Uri. In the first, a gondolier whose lament in the form of a song led him to a sublime listening experience; in the other, in the alpine landscapes, a shepherd's cry “inviting him to dance in a circle”, while Wagner allowed himself to be crossed by that mixture of voices.

By invoking popular experiences as a source of genuine creation, Wagner pointed to a philosophical origin of the impulse of the non-apparent, of full music. So he shifts this listening experience to the concert hall, listening to a work that “truly moves us”, but which is lost in a spectacle that is “in itself the most dispersive and the most insignificant, and which, intensively observed, would lead us astray. entirely from music and would even seem ridiculous” (p. 28). It is a matter of public and perception here.

This outcome of the first large block of the text allows for a digression on the status of Wagner's work. He himself preferred the term “musical drama” to distinguish it from “grand opera”. It matters little to debate whether Wagnerian drama ended up becoming an exacerbation of the operatic excesses of bourgeois opera, but it is important to know that Wagner invented himself as a post-Beethoven second act. Wagner was the inventor, the genius, the revolutionary, the writer, the philosopher and the only one who knew how to emulate himself, like a celebrity. before la lettre.

The second part of the text begins as a biography of Beethoven. The main point for Wagner is the demonstration of the honoree's autonomy in relation to his predecessors, such as Haydn, whose student he was and with whom he broke up, but also in relation to Mozart. The text reveals for many pages an image of the composer that can, at the very least, be more emotional than real. It is interesting, in the continuity of our reading, to touch on the ethical-aesthetic dimension. Beethoven would be a living analogy of virtue and the German essence, as he would have removed from music the banal function of pleasing and distracting, returning it to the place of an art that “makes the world as sharply clear to consciousness as the deepest philosophy is capable of to clarify it to the thinker versed in concepts” (p. 42). But it is in the midst of this defense and a link between this haughtiness and what would be truly German that Wagner exposes a pre-project that would be absorbed by the young Nietzsche: “we welcome the classical form of Roman and Greek culture, we imitate their language and their verses, we were able to appropriate the ancient intuition, but only to the extent that we express, through them, our own spirit” (p. 44).

The text is more a self-referential sketch than a rigid approach to Beethoven's works, and Wagner does not hesitate to expose this when he states that “trying to explain such works would be a foolish task”. He would dissect his master's compositional form like few others, but preferred to present his order of succession, in order to show with “increasing clarity the penetration of musical genius into musical forms” (p. 44). Wagner operates a clear analogy between Beethoven as a supporter of a Germanic morality, while tying up a kind of lineage to which his work completes. For this reason, structural and formal aspects seem to be of little interest to him, emphasizing other issues: “The power of the musician cannot be represented here except through the idea of ​​enchantment” (p. 45).

All these reading possibilities make this text an emblem of the history of Germany and also of the history of music. To the reader, specialized or not, the text is of great interest, either as an object of confrontation with other authors and other works, or as a portrait of the transition between ritual music and music as we know it, that is, as part of of our increasingly fast and empty day-to-day life.

*Henry Burnett is professor of philosophy at UNIFESP.


Richard Wagner Beethoven. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2010 (


[1] Cf. the article by Ernani Chaves published in the earth is round (

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