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Throwing a punch for Wagner: Revolution, gender, and the soundtrack of Decadence

Hooligans are not normally associated with classical music. Concert halls tend to be places of anticipatory silence, of repetitive and reverent ritual, and if there is any violence, it’s usually in the music rather than from the audience (except for the odd fierce glare). Not so in the concert halls of 1860s Paris – a city that throughout the nineteenth century was constantly dangling its feet over the edge of various revolutionary challenges and that would, in 1870, fall into near anarchy after a push from the Franco-Prussian War. In such an atmosphere, musical performances – which perhaps provoked all sorts of emotional needs – occasionally turned into pitched battles, and especially where the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was concerned. Divisive, radical – in tone as well as theory – and with a pan-European spice that could inflame nationalist tastes, an audience member might well have gone out to hear selections of the German composer’s music at the Cirque d’Hiver but come back with various injuries, just as the character Gagnière in Emile Zola’s novel L’œuvre (set in the 1860s) returns from a Sunday Wagner concert with a black eye. Verlaine himself may well have given one of those black eyes, though in his case, he would have been on the same pro-Wagner side as the fictional Gagnière. As Alex Ross notes in his recent book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, the poet recalls in Epigrammes (1894) that he ‘once threw a punch for Wagner’ (‘J’ai fait jadis le coup de poing | Pour Wagner’), and that it was probably at the Cirque that it was administered, during one of a series of concert populaires in which Wagner’s music had become a mainstay.1

Tannhauser Act II of the Paris 1861 production -  wood engraving, by Alphonse de Neuvile

The anti-Wagner conflicts began during the composer’s final residence in Paris in 1859-62. He had tried to conquer the city twice before and failed. His ‘second assault’, to quote Ernest Newman, had begun in the aftermath of the Dresden Uprising of May 1849, in which the composer had been implicated.2 Having fled, Wagner had become a version of the tragic hero of his own 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman, condemned to roam the earth in search of salvation through the spirit of music. Setting his sights on the European centre of art – the ever-hungry Paris – Wagner saw it as a fitting place to stage his opera Tannhäuser, about the eponymous knight enslaved by Venus in her subterranean palace of pleasures. But the production never happened, and so it was with renewed passion and with a re-written score and libretto that Wagner – never one for accepting defeat – returned for a third assault in 1859; the city, however, defended itself.

'The Music of the Future' Richard Wagner as depicted by Vanity Fair in 1877

The performance was doomed from the outset, according to Princess Pauline von Metternich (1836-1921), a Wagner supporter, who had been forewarned that ‘protests would be raised against the horrible “music of the future”’.3 Cat-calls and whistles punctuated the performance, until there was no end of ‘hissing, laughing [and] brawling’, while ‘in the club boxes the spectators behaved like men possessed’. The writer Malwida von Meysenbug (1816-1903), who had gone to the opening night with Wagner’s first wife Minna, was so outraged that she lambasted the audience from her box with ‘“So this is the audience that boasts of good taste and pretends to dictate to the world what is beautiful and excellent in art! A lot of street urchins”’.4 Aside from the fact that Wagner’s left-wing political credentials were well known, the Parisians were here objecting to his music’s apparent disregard for established and expected musical and operatic conventions. The city’s conservative audiences had little time for difference and innovation, and the critics – anxious to stave off any attempts against their own knowledge – led the charge, with the composer Oscar Comettant (1819-1898), calling the opera an ‘immense loud-sounding wind bag’ with ‘a confused mass of sonorous antitheses, pretentious and out-of-the-way combinations, dissonances, metaphysics, obscurity and chaos’.5 In London, having seen a rise in the number of performances of Wagner’s work over the previous years, The Times had also started crowing about ‘a species of nightmare, in the shape of Richard Wagner, [with] his monstrous theories and half-demented apostles’.6

Tannhäuser was taken off after only three performances and immediately branded a failure by many, including Wagner himself. But the violent reaction of the Paris critics and the centrality that the production has since gained in reception narratives of subsequent artistic movements, such as Symbolism and Decadence, suggests that the production was not a failure at all, but actually a huge success. Its notoriety and the myth that Wagner was wronged by Paris’s conservative philistines ensured that the composer became a hero to artists of the following decades who found their work pushing against the weight of artistic, social, and political conventions. It was this, amongst other aspects – such as Wagner’s gender-blending aesthetics – that undoubtedly appealed to Verlaine and his fellow combatants and, later, the Decadent movement.

Tannhauser by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1876, based on the Paris production of 1861

Ross’s book charts the many widely different and diverse groups of artists that described themselves as Wagnerites during the century after the Paris Tannhäuser. Some of these groups, at times, seem to have little in common, and indeed, one can often wonder exactly what is meant by the term Wagnerism. One linking factor, however, is that all of these groups undoubtedly felt that Wagner’s music was somehow giving a voice – or in modern terms, a soundtrack – to their own emotions. After attending one of the composer’s concerts in Paris in 1860, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) set the trend when he wrote a fan letter to Wagner in which he claimed that ‘I knew your music already […] it seemed to me that the music was my own’.7 Even today, this is often a reaction of listeners when they suddenly come to ‘understand’ Wagner. Somehow – and they are often not sure how – his music appears to be describing or revealing parts of their soul.

Why have so many found Wagner’s music giving voice to their own concerns? In his polemic, Opera and Drama (1851), Wagner makes it plain that his aim for opera was to create a totalizing effect, where the music and its libretto were organic parts of each other. But Wagner also aimed for totalization in his opera’s effects on its audience. He no longer wanted listeners to merely hear music at a respectable distance; audiences were meant to feel, even participate in its emotions (and so it is ironic that the audiences of the 1860s got a little too carried away). The audience and the performers would now live in the musical moment together. Operas were not to be social events, Wagner demanded, but an artwork of the future which combined the two most important arts of music and poetry into a form of mass communion.

Wagner’s music captures its audiences and brings them together because of what it gives voice to. The characters of his operas tend not to express particularized emotions, which have arisen from complex situational narratives (indeed, the opera settings are often mythological stories that take place in no particular moment in time or space). Instead they evoke generalized but powerful, primal emotions – those common to all, such as desire, pain, ecstasy, agony – emotions that can be applied to, or aroused by, many widely divergent situations. It is this that has allowed people with radically different motivations (and politics) to feel that Wagner’s music somehow gives voice to their own needs. Examples of the release of such feelings in Wagner’s operas include the Tannhäuser overture or prelude, which in the Paris version manages to combine spiritual nobility and the orgiastic sounds of Venus’s palace, and the so-called Liebestod in the final moments of Tristan und Isolde (1865), where the eponymous lovers are joined together in death.

To the nineteenth-century mind, the expression of such strong and sometimes violent emotional responses was distinctly unmasculine (and it is clear that many of the vehemently anti-Wagner positions of the latter half of the century were energized by this view). Music was already thought of as a feminine art – but one in which male composers essentially controlled and gave form to emotional responses – and so by deliberately stirring up wild or ‘female’ hysteria in his audiences, Wagner and his ‘half-demented apostles’ were often characterized as sexually transgressive, subversive, and gay.

Aubrey Beardsley - Venus between Terminal Gods 1895

The Decadent movement of the 1890s was attracted by this reputation, and often through the legend of the failure of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861, with all the suggestions of the artist facing down reactionary attacks on art itself. The soundtrack to Oscar Wilde’s writings is often Wagnerian, and very much filtered through Baudelaire’s personal response. The gay Dorian Gray, for example, is specifically energized by the Tannhäuser prelude, with its extreme contrasts of nobility and sexual passion, for, we are told, Dorian sat ‘in his box at the opera, either alone or with Lord Henry, listening in rapt pleasure to “Tannhauser” and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul’. Aubrey Beardsley, too, perhaps identified with Tannhäuser, which, as Emma Sutton points out, is one the most recurrent figures in the artist’s work, which is often infused ‘by the duality of […] the sacred and the profane’.8 Beardsley’s 1891 Tannhäuser – possibly a self-portrait – shows the knight struggling through briars and thorns in a forest, as if seeking the open air of absolution. He also produced a Wagner-inspired and sexually explicit prose version of the legend, Under the Hill, which was originally published in the Savoy magazine from 1895. An unused illustration called Venus Between Terminal Gods – intended as the frontispiece to Under the Hill – shows a powerful identification of the sacred and the profane in its depiction of Venus as a proudly, even spiritually androgynous figure.

While at the end of the century, no one was openly throwing punches for Wagner, it is perhaps possible to sense those punches still being thrown in Decadent art, but in more sophisticated ways. The Decadent movement’s interest in Wagner and its open celebration of gender transgression channelled through depictions of music, could be viewed as perhaps part – even an amplification – of the same continuing cultural war of the 1860s between Paris’s reactionary and transgressive voices.

Michael Craske

Michael Craske recently completed his PhD, Swinburne and Wagner: Poetry and Music, at Queen Mary, University of London, where he is a teaching associate. He is currently researching gay slang in 1870s London for a project with Professor Frédéric Martel on Arthur Rimbaud, and also the archives of the Examiner newspaper for a different project on Leigh Hunt. He blogs at about late-Victorian song settings of Swinburne’s verse, the work of which is part of He also tweets, occasionally, @mjcraske


1 Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (London: 4th Estate, 2020), p. 84.

2 Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1941), III: 1859-1866, p. 3.

3 Quoted in Stewart Spencer, Wagner Remembered (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), pp.127-9. The ‘music of the future’ refers to Wagner’s theories as set out by the composer in his preface to a collection of four libretti to his operas, called Quatre poèmes d’opera (1861). The preface is generally known in English as ‘The Music of the Future’, following its first translation into English by Edward Dannreuther in 1873. Wagner wrote the preface to explain his music to French audiences.

4 Spencer, Wagner Remembered, p. 125.

5 Translation from Oscar Comettant, ‘The Judgement of Paris on Tannhauser’, Musical World, 39.15 (13 April 1861), 228-230 (p. 228).

6 ‘Henry Leslie’s Choir’, The Times, 5 November 1863, p. 9.

7 Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude, trans. by Rosemary Lloyd (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), p. 145.

8 Emma Sutton, Aubrey Beardsley and British Wagnerism in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 30.

Posted on:Tuesday 11th May, 2021