The Wagner Group's love for Richard Wagner

Charlie Millar, Immortality II


Nazism influenced the mercenary group's distorted aesthetic, but so did Hollywood's Wagnerian spectacle.

“Wagner cancels threat to march in Russia’s capital” was the disorienting main story in the June 25, 2023 edition of the newspaper Times. The eternally troubled composer Richard Wagner, the godfather of all canceled artists, was once again at the top of the news, seventy-eight years after the Daily Mail reported Nazi radio memorials to Hitler under the headline “Wagnerian Death Concert”.

Having spent much of my life sifting through the chaotic aftermath of Richard Wagner's life and work, I assumed that the old wizard's notoriety was past its prime, but his ability to dismay the world again should never be discounted. A Russian mercenary organization called the Wagner Group, whose name was provided by a former GRU agent with Nazi leanings, was protesting the erratic conduct of Russia's war against Ukraine – a country that, according to Russian propaganda, was invaded. by neo-Nazis, even though Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, is Jewish. To quote Hans Sachs in “The Mastersingers": "Craziness! Craziness! Madness everywhere!”

On August 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the Wagner Group, and Dmitry Utkin, who coined the name, died when their plane fell from the sky. As the Valkyries carry their corpses to the army surplus Valhalla that awaits them, one question remains, one that may never be fully answered: What role, exactly, did Richard Wagner play in the mercenary imagination? Prior to the group's founding, around 2014, Utkin used "Wagner" as his military code name.

Most observers assume that he adopted the name because of his fondness for Nazi imagery. He had a habit of signing letters with two angled S strokes, signifying the SS. As hundreds of articles about the group have reminded us, Richard Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer; therefore, it must have served as a code for Hitlerism. Anyone collecting evidence of Wagner's inherent odiousness could be satisfied that the case had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, Utkin did not appear to be a “pilgrimage to Bayreuth” Wagnerian. Luke Harding, reporter for The Guardian who has written extensively about the Wagner Group, states that the mercenary's main inspiration was the sequence "Ride of the Valkyries” (Ride of the Valkyries) in the film Apocalypse Now – the scene in which a squadron of American helicopters destroys a quiet Vietnamese village while listening to Richard Wagner on the loudspeakers. The suggestion that Utkin's interest in the composer was mediated by big-budget Hollywood spectacle changes the complexion of the matter. It exposes the degree to which Richard Wagner has become a floating signifier in pop culture – a vessel through which modern furies pass.

Richard Wagner has deep roots in Russia. The cult of his music began to form in the late 1900th century and reached its zenith in the years after XNUMX, when an impressive array of personalities, from Tsar Nicholas II to the radical theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, embraced his operas. Russian Symbolists hailed him as the prophet of artistically integrated dream worlds, and when people like Alexander Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov turned to Bolshevik radicalism, they took Wagner with them. Alexander Blok wrote: “When revolution begins to sound in the air, the art of Richard Wagner responds back”.

In the early years of the Soviet Union, Richard Wagner was presented as an exemplary proletarian artist. Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar for Education, sponsored a translation of the essay Art and Revolution, by Wagner, from 1849, comparing it to the “Communist Manifesto”. The operas received surprising stagings in constructivist and futurist styles. Lenin himself was a casual fan of Richard Wagner; After his death in 1924, the Siegfried's Funeral Music was played at his memorial. The Bolshevik taste for Richard Wagner disappeared with the rise of Stalin, although, in the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Sergei Eisenstein managed to mount a production of Die walküre. The German invasion of 1941 put an end to Russian Wagnerism for generations.

Things changed in the 1990s, when Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, began conducting operas regularly. In 1997 he presented the first Russian staging of Parsifal in nearly eighty years; in 2000, she turned to the Ring cycle. At that time, Valery Gergiev showed little interest in politics. When I interviewed him in 1998, he told me: “You never know what kind of communist, socialist, president or military dictator will emerge. It is better for you to do what you can do tomorrow than to think seven years ahead.”

The dictator did appear, and Valery Gergiev got along well with him. Under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, the maestro became one of Russia's most powerful cultural figures. Perhaps Valery Gergiev's transformation into an oligarch under Vladimir Putin encouraged Richard Wagner's absorption into militant Russian nationalism. The fascist-leaning pseudo-philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, whose advocacy of a Eurasian sphere of influence influenced both Vladimir Putin and the Wagner Group, may also have played an important role.

Aleksandr Dugin once tried to turn a phrase from Parsifal – Gurnemanz’s enigmatic declaration “Here time becomes space” – in a “proclamation of the triumph of geopolitics”. However, Aleksandr Dugin's knowledge of opera seems small; he claims the phrase comes at the end of Parsifal, which is not the case. It is doubtful that mercenary Wagnerism can be understood without reference to Hollywood.

Hollywood has a long history of fetishizing Richard Wagner, dating back to the Ku Klux Klan assembly in The birth of a nation, in 1915. The composer's IMDb page contains more than fifteen hundred entries. (Many of them, of course, are for the Bridal Chorus of “Lohengrin,” which generally has no ideological ramifications). For a few years now, I have been compiling an annotated list of Richard Wagner's film appearances, currently going back to 1950. His career as a receptacle of Nazi malevolence begins in the late thirties.

One of the earliest and strangest examples is Busby Berkeley's 1939 film of the Rodgers and Hart musical, Babes in Arms, in which disaffected vaudeville kids act out a vaguely Nazi torch-lighting and bonfire ceremony, at one point inventing new words for The Ride of the Valkyries: “Why are we cheering? What are we here for?” (The music kill da wabbit, by Elmer Fudd, is more appropriate). The figure of Richard Wagner's Nazi-loving villain, a reliable device to this day, was inaugurated by Conrad Veidt in the film EscapeOf 1940.

Research into German cinema from the same period shows that the Nazis used Richard Wagner more sparingly than one might expect. There were no heroic biographical films, nor did “Cavalgada” figure in many battle scenes. In general, despite Hitler's lifelong infatuation with Richard Wagner, the composer's propaganda value proved limited.

His work was too long, too complicated, too ambiguous in its implications. The Mastersingers it was performed every year at Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, but the Party ranks found the ritual onerous; once, an irritated Hitler had guests brought in from a nearby hotel to fill the empty seats. Some members of the Nazi hierarchy had doubts about Richard Wagner's suitability for the new Germany: an aura of decadence surrounded him and rumors circulated that he was of Jewish descent. Winifred Wagner, the composer's daughter-in-law, asked Heinrich Himmler to stop the dissemination of Jewish stories.

The most flagrant use of Richard Wagner in Nazi film occurs in the war film. Stukas, from 1941, in which a fighter pilot suffers a loss of morale after sustaining an injury. As part of his recovery process, he is sent to the Bayreuth Festival – Hitler truly believed that wounded soldiers could benefit from exposure to Richard Wagner – and is miraculously healed. When the pilot hears the chords of “Siegfried's Voyage on the Rhine”, his eyes light up and his mind fills with memories of joyful service to the fatherland.

However, when he returns to flying, he and his companions sing not Richard Wagner, but a lusty combat anthem: “We are the Black Hussars of the air, / The Stukas, the Stukas, the Stukas.” Joseph Goebbels, who controlled Nazi cinema and radio, had a keen sense of how popular culture could energize the masses. During the war, classical music was heard less frequently on the radio. One Wehrmacht survey respondent wrote: “The soldier fighting at the front wants light music, dancing and jazz.”

Hollywood's wartime enthusiasm for Richard Wagner, therefore, did not originate solely from a desire to reproduce the soundscape of Nazi Germany. It had deeper, more twisted roots. Films had long used Richard Wagner as a shorthand: “Ride” was already a popular choice for horse stampedes and battles. The proliferation of Nazi villains allowed this practice to continue, in a somewhat hypocritical way: Wagner could give his thrilling orchestral charge to action scenes even when he was being demonized as a Teutonic threat.

It soon became clear that the silver screen had a general weakness for Nazi iconography, as Leni Riefenstahl had first demonstrated in The Triumph of the Will. The orderly columns, the banners and swastikas, the well-cut uniforms, the well-defined faces and superhero bodies: Hollywood continues to recycle this material because it captures attention. At the end of the original movie Star Wars, Lemi Riefenstahl's aesthetic is triumphantly appropriated by the American-style Rebellion.

This is the subtext of the play “Cavalgada das Valquírias” in Apocalypse Now, in which the music of Hitler's favorite composer becomes the theme of American military aggression. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed the film, and Walter Murch, who edited the soundtrack, no doubt intended it to have a critical component, aligning the bloodthirsty Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore with the Wagnerian generals of war films past. Even so, Apocalypse had the effect, inadvertently, of creating a new form of Wagner fetishism. US soldiers played "Ride" over loudspeakers during the invasion of Grenada and during both Iraq wars. Dmitry Utkin's attachment to Richard Wagner was evidently a baroque variation on this military fashion.

The hypermasculine bombardment of Hollywood is the dominant model for the Wagner Group's own propaganda efforts, which are collectively known as the Wagner Extended Universe or Wagnerverse. From what I saw, the composer of the Anel quality Tristan and Isolde plays little or no role in this body of work: it is more likely that Enter Sandman, by Metallica, is used as an accompaniment to a recruiting video.

In 2019, Prigozhin began releasing Hollywood-style films that celebrate mercenary action. These projects mix the flamboyant style of old-school action films – Rambo, Red Dawn and the like – with the pornography of first-person shooters. The soundtracks follow the current Hollywood trend of dark drones, thunderous beats and minor-mode minimalism. A climactic scene in a Wagner Group film called Tourist echoes the Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, previously heard on Platoon.

From the point of view of cultural history, therefore, the Wagner Group is more of an American problem than a German one. The cult of violence, the appeal to the rage and bloodlust of young males, the celebration of a robotic desire to fight to the end – Hollywood has been injecting these into the global identity for nearly a century. Richard Wagner, an artist who was primarily concerned with the tangles of earthly power and spiritual love, has no place in this world except as a source of jagged music memes.

Utkin and Prigozhin managed to tarnish Wagner's name for a new generation. Those who see the composer as anything other than an irredeemably evil figure may wonder whether he will ever escape the historical purgatory in which he lives. Most likely, he will not escape, nor should he. Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism was lethally intense and seeped into his operas. His chauvinism fueled a sense of German supremacy. O Anel it may be a critique of power, but its very flexing of musical muscles undermines its gospel of love. Thomas Mann masterfully articulated this dilemma when he observed that Wagner's work lends itself to its own misuse. Stukas e Apocalypse Now they are distortions; however, the music allows these distortions with its desire to dominate the viewer.

At the same time, the annals of Wagnerism offer a series of contrary messages. A long procession of outsiders and dreamers used the composer to alleviate their sense of isolation or to convey their ideals. There have been and are socialist Wagnerians, mystical Wagnerians, feminist Wagnerians, black Wagnerians, Jewish Wagnerians, gay Wagnerians.

The latest issue of the German academic journal Wagnerspectrum highlights the last name, going so far as to place a rainbow flag on the cover. At the turn of the last century, Bayreuth served as a haven for homosexuals, mainly because Wagner's son Siegfried, who ran the festival for several decades, was known to be gay. Kevin Clarke, in an essay by the Wagnerspectrum on “hidden LGBT networks” in Bayreuth, notes that the festival has never officially recognized its substantial gay heritage; rainbow flags are not flown there, as in many other institutions.

In the permanently contested case of Richard Wagner, neither sweeping apologies nor blanket condemnations will suffice. The difficulty is that contemporary discourse has little patience with maddening contradictions of the kind that Richard Wagner embodies. Was he bad or good? Did he make the world better or worse? To this, the best answer is Tristan's response to King Mark: “O king, this / I cannot tell you; / what you would ask / you can never know.”

*Alex Ross is a music critic. Author, among other books, of The rest is noise (Company of Letters).

Translation: Henry Burnett.

Originally published in the magazine The New Yorker, on September 02, 2023.

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