Where is Wagner's Faust?

by Irmgard Wagner
Lecture to the Wagner Society 13 May 2004

The question almost poses itself. Here we have, on the one hand, Goethe's Faust-drama, the most talked-about, the most written-about work by Germany's most revered poet, who was still alive and at the peak of his Europe-wide fame during young Wagner's formative years - Wagner was 19 when Goethe died. On the other hand, there is Richard Wagner, preeminent German opera composer in the second half of the 19th century. This same time period saw Goethe's Faust enter the international repertoire in two musical transformations. First, a mere 14 years after Goethe's death, in Hector Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust (1846). Wagner got to know Berlioz during his various Paris sojourns and respected his music highly. Yet, in all the reminiscences about Berlioz and his works in Wagner's autobiography, he never once mentions the Faust composition. Gounaud's Faust opera, another 13 years later (1859), is a different matter. Wagner is decidedly derisive about it. Here is the evidence:

After Tannhäuser was spectacularly nixed by the infamous Jockey Club conspiracy in Wagner's second Paris period (1861), Gounaud, who admired Wagner's work and promoted the German composer everywhere, is said to have exclaimed: "Que Dieu me donne une pareille chute!" Wagner reports this in his autobiography and continues: "For a reward I gave him a score of Tristan und Isolde, for his behavior made me all the happier as no consideration of friendship had been able to make me listen to his Faust."
"Zur Belohnung hierfür schenkte ich ihm eine Partitur von "Tristan und Isolde", denn sein Benehmen freute mich um so mehr, als mich keine freundschaftliche Rücksicht dazu hatte bewegen können, seinen "Faust" anzuhören." (ML 654)

So during his extensive stay in Paris at the time (Sept '59 - end July '61), Wagner refused to see Gounaud's immensely popular opera. In his opinion, Gounaud did the wrong thing with Faust. Why then did Wagner not feel tempted to correct Gounaud and do the right thing?

In contrast with Wagner, someone did. Another decade later (1868), the young Italian avantgardist, Arrigo Boito (1842 - 1918), who was himself accused of "Wagnerism", felt provoked by Gounaud's Faust interpretation to compose his own Faust-opera against Gounaud. He selected the title Mefistofele in order to mark its difference, its opposition to Gounaud's work. Still during Wagner's lifetime Boito's opera became a rousing success, even though its first performance at La Scala in 1868 had caused a scandal, such as Wagner knew very well from his own opera career. Yet he does not pay it any attention, never mentions the opera or even the name of its author. [revised, much shortened version 1875 Bologna "a rousing success"; after Venice, NY, London, Lisbon, returns to La Scala 1881.]

And Faust's popularity as an opera theme does not stop with the 19th century. Two major composers of the 20th century continued the musical transformation of Goethe's masterpiece. Both of them used their Faust opera to break new ground in music and in this sense they followed the Wagner tradition of provocative innovation: Ferruccio Busoni during World War I (premiered only 1925), and Hanns Eisler in the German Democratic Republic in the 1950s. So what is it with Wagner that kept him away from Faust?

The first and simplest answer is, of course, that Wagner insisted on writing his own opera texts. The text of Goethe's Faust, however, was a given. It was already by Wagner's active time a monumentalized poetic text that brooked no alterations, that barred any new text as a substitute. It was different for the French and Italian composers: Berlioz, Gounaud, and Boito. Their audiences could not have insisted on the authentic text, since Faust was available to their cultures only in translation anyway. The composer of a German opera, for a German public, could not have taken liberties with Goethe's canonical text. This may have been the rationalization that Wagner himself used to explain his Faust-resistance. I would, however, like to suggest a different answer, an answer that takes into account Wagner's position toward Faust as it developed over his growth to maturity as a poet and composer.

First phase. Like all educated Germans of his era, Wagner was raised with Faust. But unlike most of them, he got hooked on Faust at an early age. It is worth noting that he does not tell us that himself in his autobiography. There we read of his fascination with the fantastic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann and with Shakespearean tragedy. Yet he does tell us of his interest in Faust, which was very strong at that time, piqued no doubt by the extraordinary interest his amateur philologist Uncle Adolf showed for this Goethean work. Young Richard's interest would be heightened by the Uncle's refusal to take up Faust in their literary conversations. The Uncle told his 15-year-old nephew that he wouldn't understand it as yet. (ML 31) We all know the effect of such an answer.

And indeed, we do have the report from an older schoolmate at the Gymnasium, who remembered and told his sister about it after Wagner had become famous. The sister then recorded her brother's report: how the 16-year-old Wagner was obsessively reading Faust, hiding the text under the schoolbooks on his desk. The schoolboy absorbed Faust not only by reading but in stage performance as well. One of his sisters was an actress playing Gretchen in the first Leipzig production of Faust (1828, WChr 9), and young Richard could watch from the wings. His favorite shows then, he tells us, were Shakespeare's and Schiller's plays -- AND "finally Goethe's Faust aroused in me deep excitement and enthusiasm." ["endlich der Goethesche Faust erregten und begeisterten mich tief." (ML, 44)]

This same schoolmate, who was musically inclined, further reports that the teenage Wagner drafted an opera plot for him, based on the episode of the Witches Kitchen in Faust. This very first opera sketch already contained some typically Wagnerian features. (Otto, 13f)

At this point we need to remind ourselves that Wagner started out with poetic, not musical ambitions. To create music, you needed after all, training in composition, which the adolescent did receive in due time, but not as early as his theatrical enthusiasm seized him. A poet, by contrast, could be an autodidact. And indeed, Wagner's first creative production was a drama: a melodramatic love-tragedy with plenty of play for his love of the fantastic, and more than forty characters who end up dead on the stage.

But his professional career, as we also know, took him into music. And it was this development, Wagner's professional orientation towards music that allowed, thus goes my thesis, for his Faust fascination to go underground, into hiding, into the unconscious. The first phase in Wagner's Faust position can be summarized as absorption, as internalization to the point where Wagner - unconsciously - identified with Faust, the character in Goethe's drama. [[We're still only talking about Part I; Wagner read Faust II at a very much later date (1867 Sept).]]

For this unconscious identification I offer two pieces of evidence from the autobiography. First, Wagner's explanation of his over-hasty marriage at far too young an age [24 Nov 1836 Königsberg] to a beautiful, sexually attractive and active actress, who already had an illegitimate daughter. The daughter remained a well-kept secret - from Wagner, too, and for how long? We don't know. As we read Wagner's veiled excuse-explanation of this early misstep in his life, we need to keep in mind two things about the immediate audience of the autobiography. First: Wagner's addressee, the intended reader, was his patron, young King Ludwig of Bavaria. Second: Wagner did not pen the text himself; he dictated it to Cosima over a very long time (1865 - 1880). This second fact is the more significant one. The Wagner-Cosima relationship is to me utterly enigmatic, and it rather complicates the autobiographical narrative. The author-"dictator" [margin note in W's hand ML p. 94] would have to question himself how his narrative words would impress, would impact her who was taking his dictation, and he would undoubtedly adjust his recollection accordingly.

It is not surprising, then, that he narrates the wedding ceremony from an ironic, a distancing perspective. What is surprising, though, is that he tells of it at such length and in great detail. And then, at one point, there is a sudden shift from irony to deep seriousness, a shift into an utterly different dimension - the visionary - from the banal setting of the wedding account. When the moment of exchanging rings arrives, Wagner writes:

Mir wurde es in diesem Augenblick wie durch eine Vision klar, daß sich mein ganzes Wesen wie in zwei übereinander fließenden Strömungen befand, welche in ganz verschiedener Richtung mich dahinzögen: die obere, der Sonne zugewendete, riß mich wie einen Träumenden fort, während die untere in tiefem unverständlichem Bangen meine Natur gefesselt hielt. (ML 142)

We can interpret this enigmatic statement about the higher versus lower parts of his being in various ways concerning Wagner's view of himself and his life's path. But for anyone who is familiar with Faust, the crucial passage on Faust's "two souls" emerges as the origin of Wagner's "vision". "Two souls unfortunately live in my breast etc." Wagner sees himself in the image of Faust.

My second piece of evidence is still more deeply buried in Wagner's unconscious. Here, the identification with Faust happens not on the verbal level, but on the level of action, of experience. In this event, Wagner structures his experience after that of Goethe's character at a crucial moment. I am talking of Faust's ominous encounter with the black poodle that runs circles around him, whom he takes home with him and who turns out to be the Devil. Whereupon Faust's life, as we all know, takes its decisive turn.

Again, as in the wedding narrative, Wagner takes an inordinate amount of text to tell an apparently unimportant occurrence. It happened, however, on an important day, a day of heavy fog in Paris and, in Wagner's assessment, a day of unmitigated disaster. On this day in November 1839, the huge black dog (named "Robber") that the Wagners had brought with them through storm and starvation on their escape from creditors across the Baltic and the English Channel and that finally ran away in Paris - Wagner writes that he was kidnapped ("entführt") - this same dog reappeared a year later and kept Richard chasing after him for hours without ever letting himself be recaptured.

On this day, Wagner, not unusually, had gone out to try and borrow some more money. "The streets were covered with thick fog ... and the first thing I saw was [the dog]. I thought I was seeing a ghost", but he calls him and the dog evidently recognizes him, yet refuses to come close. So Wagner "like a madman" [wie ein Rasender"] chases after him through a maze of befogged streets. When he finally has lost sight of the dog for good, Wagner is shaken up beyond belief:

"Eine Zeitlang stand ich wie erstarrt da und stierte in den Nebel hinein. Ich frug mich, was diese gespenstische Wiedererscheinung des Gefährten meiner Reise-Abenteuer an diesem schrecklichen Tage zu bedeuten habe. Daß er mit der Scheu eines wilden Tieres vor seinem alten Herrn davonfloh, dünkte mich, wie es mein Herz mit einer seltsamen Bitterkeit erfüllte, als ein grauenvolles Anzeichen. Tief erschüttert machte ich mit wankenden Knien mich zu meinen traurigen Geschäften weiter auf." (ML 199-200)

Again, we could spend a lot of time interpreting this passage. But the most important thing is that Wagner believes the event is fraught with significance beyond the rational dimension. It is, at the least, "a horrible omen". Omen of what Wagner doesn't know, it's exactly the question he asks himself: "I asked myself what ... [it] might possibly mean." And it is Wagner himself, of course, who transports the event into the irrational sphere by seeing it as a "gespenstische Wiedererscheinung" , a ghostly reapparition. Wagner's word "Wiedererscheinung" calls up the French word for Ghost, spook: revenant. And it leaves him deeply shaken, with trembling knees. My answer for Wagner's inexplicable over-interpretation is: he reads into it the Faustian dog-story, with all its ominous burdens.

It is no accident that in his memory narrative - in writing his autobiography - Wagner links the dog-trauma with Faust. In real time, in the Paris winter of 1839-40, Faust was very much on his mind. He was composing a Faust Symphony, the symphony that ended up abbreviated as "Faust Overture." And this marks the beginning of the second phase in Wagner's Faust position. For in this second phase, he turns life into music. Freud would have said: he sublimates unconscious problems in art. Hegel would have termed it "Aufhebung." Those of us who have done it know that it works. Wagner became a master at the transformation of problems into art, and maybe that is the deepest secret about the fascination of his music for audiences still today: He does so well what we only occasionally and imperfectly achieve.

Wagner's step into the second phase of his Faust position also marks the moment when he found his own musical voice. It happened under the impact of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Wagner heard this composition played "in such a perfect and gripping way" [so vollendeter und ergreifender Weise] by the excellent Conservatoire orchestra of Paris. It was an epiphany, a moment of revelation. He had heard it before, but in a terrible performance by the Dresden orchestra under its "biedren" conductor Poblenz, a performance which Wagner called a "Hinrichtung" = execution. But now, "as if with one blow, the image of this wondrous work, which I had intuited in my youthful enthusiasm, appeared before my eyes in utmost clarity so that I could literally grasp it with my hands." ["wie mit einem Schlage stand das in meiner Jugendschwärmerei von mir geahnte Bild dieses wunderbaren Werkes sonnenhell wie mit den Händen greifbar vor mir." (ML 185)]

The essence of Beethoven's music, as Wagner saw it now - literally saw it, in his imagery - was: "a stream rising from innumerable sources, the stream of a never-ending melody which pulled my heart along with nameless violence." [wie aus zahllosen Quellen der Strom einer nie versiegenden, das Herz mit namenloser Gewalt dahinreißenden Melodie." (ibid)]

This overwhelming impression of Beethoven's Ninth provoked the desire, the "deep inner longing" (innige Sehnsucht) to create something in the same vein, something which would give him the same deep-inner satisfaction, the happiness ("tiefinnerliche Genugtuung") that hearing Beethoven's work had provided. And it was this momentous undertaking that made him turn to Faust as a suitable theme. He started to compose a Faust Symphony.

Wagner never forgot what this early work had meant for him. In the autobiography, when he talks about its revision 15 years later, the Faust overture is "that composition which once had caused such a significant turn in my conception of music." [diese Komposition, welche einst eine bedeutungsvolle Wendung in meiner musikalischen Konzeption hervorgerufen hatte" (ML 525).]

However, we have to deal with the fact that Wagner aborted the symphonic project after the first movement, even though he says he had the second, the Gretchen movement, all worked out in his head. (ML 186) And we have to account for Wagner's negative feeling about the completed work, even in its shorter form. Sorely in need of music for a planned concert in Paris, he yet rejected his latest composition with a rather lame excuse: "I didn't yet have confidence in my new Faust-Overture, particularly because of its tender conclusion." ["Meiner neuen F-O traute ich noch nicht, namentlich ihres zartausgehenden Schlusses wegen ..." (ML 203).]

Fifteen years later, on the advice of his wildly successful friend Franz Liszt, he revised it. He obviously thought the problem was one of compositional structure, which he hoped to correct now from the vantage point of his own knowledge as a mature composer. Yet still, even after Liszt had successfully performed the revised work at Weimar, Wagner excluded it from a concert tour planned for the same year (1855) in London. How unsure he was about the Faust overture, how insecure he felt in face of his own creation, this becomes clear at that moment. He had actually conducted it, as try-out for the London tour, with his home orchestra of Zürich in spring 1855, "as I thought, with good success. My wife, however, felt that the piece came to Nichts Rechtem (nothing right, nothing good, nothing worthwhile), and she asked me not to perform it on my London tour." ["wie mich dünkte, mit gutem Erfolge. [] Nur meiner Frau schien es, als ob es darin zu nichts Rechtem (sic) käme, und sie bat mich, als ich noch in diesem Jahre nach London ging, sie dort nicht aufzuführen." (ML 526)]

This was the first and last time that Wagner - according to himself - ever listened to his wife's judgment in musical matters. While that alone is astonishing, the truly astonishing fact is that he not only says so but that he even records her words of judgment, namely: that in this work "es zu nichts Rechtem käme," with emphasis (italics) on "nichts Rechtem." How are we to read this account if not as (1) testimony to Wagner's profound insecurity versus his Faust piece, and (2) as agreement with his wife's negative judgment.

What then was it that informed Wagner's negative feeling? I will boldly state: his Faust overture gave him the creeps. "Nichts Rechtes" can be read in various ways. One reading is: something not-right, something wrong. The overture then, would lead to something wrong? Yes indeed, if we consider that Wagner placed a motto, a verbal leitmotif, over it. It is a crucial quotation from Faust, spelling out the protagonist's rejection of life, his death wish that leads him into betting with the Devil against life. "Therefore existence is a burden for me,/ Death is desirable, life despicable." ["Und so ist mir das Dasein eine Last,/ Der Tod erwünscht, das Leben mir verhaßt."]

By picking this line out of Faust, Wagner shows that he has grasped the essence of Goethe's most famous work better than most academic critics. As one of my teachers said, Faust is about the essential human question: whether life is worth living. Actually, he said it in French, quoting Albert Camus, the existentialist guru in his essay on the Sisyphus myth: "La seule question philosophique c'est la question si la vie vaut la peine d'etre vecue." - " The only truly philosophical question is whether life is worth the trouble, the pain of being lived." To that question Faust says No, and he bets his life on it, too. So this is how Wagner understood Faust, and it scared him.

It scared him because it had gotten him exactly to the opposite side of where he wanted to be when he had embarked on his Faust Symphony: "To create something that would give me deep inner contentment, satisfaction." Instead Wagner was looking into the abyss of discontent: of terminal unhappiness, of despair that can end up only in a death wish. And he decided not to stay with it, not to try and work it out through the next three symphonic movements. It was too scary.

I'm not saying that he was aware of the problem, that he analyzed his reaction to the music he had just created. But there is evidence that he considered the piece sinister, ominous, poisonous, dangerous. The most telling piece of evidence is an account given by Mathilde Wesendonk to a Berlin musicologist long after Wagner's death (in 1895/6).

He intended, she tells us, to dedicate the newly revised (January 1855 in Zürich) Faust Overture to her. "Suddenly, however, the thought struck him that this was impossible! "Impossibly!" he exclaimed, "can I pin to your ("Ihnen"!) breast the terrible (furchtbare) motto..." There follows a long quote of six lines ending with the two crucial lines we already know: "Therefore existence is a burden to me; /Death desirable, Life despicable." Mathilde continues: "So he contented himself with presenting me the score, with the few words written underneath: "To the dear woman."" (Otto 191)

It is, however, remarkable that in time, in very good time, after Wagner's success was assured and he was feted everywhere, he did come to terms with his ominous creation. The Faust Overture even seems to have acquired a special meaning for him, the meaning perhaps that we have already discussed: it had become the work of the crucial turn in his musical development.

To give one example: In the spring of 1871, with Berlin all aglow with victory enthusiasm, Wagner was inducted as an honorary member into the Royal Academy of Art. A concert given in his honor by the famous Berlin Singakademie included the Faust Overture. At the end of the program, Wagner asked permission to conduct himself a repeat of the Faust piece, at the same time assuring the conductor that it was in no way meant as a critique of his wonderful performance. The explanation he did offer was so patently false that we need to look for another reason. What he said was: "The author, who for so long had not held the baton, wanted to take part once again in the performance of his work." ["der Autor, der so lange nicht den Taktstock geführt, wollte gern einmal wieder an der Ausführung seines Werkes sich beteiligen."]

Why the explanation was patently false: This concert was on the 30th April; on April 5 Wagner had conducted a whole concert of his own works in the Berlin opera house. [That program contained not the Faust overture, but instead opened with the dreadful "Kaisermarsch" - which on demand of the audience had to be played as an encore.) Any suggestions of a reason? (mine: the FO was music of the type he wanted to make; the KM was shall we say a potboiler, command music?)]

Still, Wagner was not done wrestling with Goethe's Faust. And now, we have to step back again from the celebrated artist of 1871 to the struggling Dresden Kapellmeister of the 1840s - struggling above all to elevate the musical taste of his audience to the point where they could accept and appreciate late Beethoven. To achieve this purpose, he set Faust to music yet again, if in a different way and with a different outcome. The different way was that he set Goethe's text not to his own, but to Beethoven's music. And the different outcome was a reorientation not in Wagner's music, but in his ideological direction.

The Beethoven piece of this moment was, yet again, the ninth symphony. In 1846, the ambitious Dresden Hofkapellmeister set himself - and his orchestra - the task of producing an adequate performance of this consummate work of symphonic music.

It may seem strange to us today, when The Ninth has conquered Pop Muzak etc, but at that time Beethoven's late work was practically unknown. Nobody performed it, and there were, of course, no recordings yet that one could enjoy on one's own. This was true especially of the Ninth, simply because it required such a huge investment of performers: not only instrumentalists, but Heaven Help Us, even vocalists!

So, in order to make his musicians understand what this piece was all about, Wagner resorted to an innovative strategy. He wrote a "Programm" to explain, to accompany the instrumental parts of the Ninth. For this Program, Wagner selected and commented passages from Faust's monologue in the beginning of the drama, passages which explain the hero's path to suicide and the last-minute prevention of suicide. And then, of course, as Beethoven goes vocal, Wagner's Program leads into Schiller's words of the "Ode to Joy", which Wagner also partially quotes and comments.

I spoke of Wagner's reorientation on the level of ideas, of philosophy or ideology that is in evidence in this Program. Here is how: Wagner decisively and explicitly steps away from individualism, from the glorification of subjectivity with all its pains and delights that German Romanticism had reveled in, and which has given us such words and concepts as Weltschmerz. Goethe's Faust had been the declared hero of German Romantics.

Where does Wagner's programmatic step away from individualism take him? Summarily stated: Towards a collective human identity. We may call it socialism, as in: - "Seid umschlungen, Millionen,/ Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! / Brüder ..." - or we may call it universalism, as in: - "der ganzen Welt" (can't we hear Beethoven's extreme emphasis on precisely these three words?) - or we may call it a cosmic, a mythic consciousness: "überm Sternenzelt muss ein lieber Vater wohnen". We could even call it hedonism: "Freude Freude Freude ...", but if we do, then we must understand it as a collective hedonism. Schiller's joy here does not work in isolation, only in togetherness with others: friends, brothers, co-celebrants ...

This then we could take to be Wagner's solution to the Faust problem, Goethe's and his own. It would be to get away from the fascination with subjectivity, with the individual's joys and sorrows that had been the discovery proper of European modernity; that had informed modern European literature, art, and music. To get not back, but beyond modern individualism to a recovery of collective consciousness and experience, to a rediscovery of myth. Before this Faustian turn, we have in Wagner's operatic creations: Rienzi, Holländer, and Tannhäuser; histories and legends of individual heroes, sufferers, and sinners. Afterwards, we have Lohengrin, the Ring, Meistersinger, and Parsifal, stories whose meaning depends on the collective or mythic dimensions. [Tristan: interruption of pattern based on Wagner's own love story. Interrupts the Ring, too!]

Let me now turn to the third phase of Wagner's Faust position. It is, we may say, the phase where his position has, finally, risen to the conscious level; where he has become aware of the how and why of his Faust view.

Wagner now explicitly rejects Goethe's Faust. This is a broad statement that needs to be qualified. He rejects the view of Faust that had been created and propagated by academic criticism and lapped up by an enthusiastic public, the newly ambitious German middle-class of Bildungsbürger. These Bildungsbürger - Wagner calls them philistines - loved to appropriate Goethe's questionable protagonist as their model, the model of their ambitions and illusions/ delusions.

Many books and more articles have been written in the last 40 years about the nefarious influence of Faust on the German mentality of the 19th and 20th centuries. Incredibly, Wagner, who gets so much blame for the original sin of Nazism, was an early doubter and warner. Not in public, of course. The public would neither have forgiven nor understood him. Such was the power of officially sanctioned Faust-veneration. He warned in private, and still, by some ironic quirk of fate, he did himself considerable damage. For his warning led, entirely coincidentally - did Wagner believe in coincidence? - to the collapse of the cozy relationship with his Wesendonk sponsors.

It happened in spring 1858. Wagner, with wife Minna and their pets, had been living for not quite a year in the extra house on the Wesendonk property, in close proximity with the dearly - and purely - beloved Mathilde. At the moment he was composing Act I of Tristan. [Sources of following: W-Chronik, 84; ML Anm to p. 576: text of Wagner's letter] On April 7, Mathilde and Richard had a serious disagreement ("ein dummer Goethestreit") on the subject of Goethe's Faust. Mathilde was among the Faust enthusiasts; Wagner evidently now was not. The next day, he sent her a letter through a messenger. The letter was rolled inside a pencil draft of the Tristan Prologue. Minna, Wagner's wife, long tormented by suspicion and jealousy, intercepted the letter, which teemed with effusions of passion and adoration for Mathilde, and which concluded thus: "Today I'll be in the garden, and I hope to find a moment alone with you. - Take my entire soul for a morning's greeting!" Well .... The rest is history. A scandal was scarcely avoided, but by July the Wagners were gone from Zürich for ever.

It is the rest of the letter, the "Goethestreit" which, of course, interests us here. Wagner writes an extended argument contra Faust covering more than one page of closely-printed book format. It is a well-reasoned argument in a serious tone, which rises to high levels of philosophical abstraction, yet still reveals Wagner's passionate anti-Faust stance. Among the points he makes in support of his Faust-opposition, one is particularly intriguing. It is his protest against Faust being granted forgetfulness after the Gretchen catastrophe, so that in Part II of Goethe's drama the hero may continue his quest for meaning-in-the-world. How does Wagner, how do we reconcile this protest with the forgetfulness that Siegfried is given in Gutrune's potion?

Wagner's most passionate objection, however, goes against the major tendency of German Faust interpretation up to his time: "aus seinem jämmerlichen Faust einen edelsten Menschentypus machen zu wollen" = "the attempt to make over Goethe's miserable, wretched Faust into a super-noble type of human." Here Wagner pronounces a warning against the Übermensch paradigm, a paradigm which Nietzsche famously would develop later. It is a warning that was not heard in Germany until after the Second World War.

In conclusion, let me add a few succinct remarks on the traces of Faust in the operas. They exist, of course, as our overview of Wagner's Faust positions surely would lead us to expect. The Faust traces reflect the radical change in Wagner's ideological orientation that we observed in his Programm for the Ninth Symphony: a change from individualism to collective frames of reference. The traces also show the change in his personal view of Faust from unconscious captivation to critical distancing.

Thus, the early operas offer variations on Faust themes and on the Faust character. Both Holländer and Tannhäuser present the hero on a death trip, in the grips of a death wish. And both heroes need to be saved by a woman, who pays for her work of salvation with her life. Tannhäuser, being the later figure, is by far the more complex character: he is the man with two souls, a self-portrait, then, too, of our artist as a young man.

Among the later operas, the Ring and Parsifal can be seen as anti-Fausts. Anti-Faust creations in the sense that they propose an alternate universe and alternate utopias to Goethe's mythical superdrama. Wagner here has composed Faust-substitutes. For illustration, let me only point to the hero figures. Siegfried is happy and proactive precisely because he is Not-Faust, because he doesn't know and doesn't understand his situation, life, anything - except birds.

Parsifal is a Siegfried mutant: he can succeed only because he doesn't know and doesn't understand. Plus, of course, his definition includes "Mitleid" = empathy: he is "durch Mitleid wissend" = knowing through empathy. Nothing could be further from Goethe's Faust, who is supremely egotistic, monstrously egomaniacal.

For Wagner never stopped thinking about Faust - did he see a competition here? In his speech at the conclusion of the first Ring performance in Bayreuth in 1876, at the moment of his triumphal success, he quoted the famous last lines of Faust, the "chorus mysticus". Goethe's words were to serve as a seal of approval on his own achievement ---- and Wagner quoted them wrong. Intentionally or by way of a Freudian slip? Who knows. Here is his version:

Alles Vergängliche
Ist nur ein Gleichnis;
Das Unzulängliche
Hier wird's Ereignis;
Das Unausbleibliche [Unbeschreibliche]
Hier ist's getan;
Das ewig Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan. (Source: Otto, 559.)


All that is transitory
is but a parable.
Here insufficiency
becomes event.
The ineluctable [indescribable]
here it is done.
The eternal feminine
Draws us upward.



1. Richard Wagner, Mein Leben. Ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin. Revised ed. 1994. Muenchen: List-Verlag. (ML)
2. Werner Otto ed. Richard Wagner: Ein Lebens- und Charakterbild in Dokumenten und zeitgenoessischen Darstellungen. 1990. Berlin (DDR): Buchverlag der Morgen. (Otto)
3. Martin Gregor-Dellin, Wagner-Chronik: Daten zu Leben und Werk. dtv-edition 1983. First ed. 1972 Carl Hanser Verlag, Muenchen. (Wagner-Chronik)
4. Richard Wagner: Die Hauptschriften. 1956 Stuttgart: Kroener. - For the "Programm" to Beethoven's 9th symphony. (Programm)