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Wagnerism essentially has to do with the music, theoretical writings, political ideas, and aesthetics of the German composer-conductor and essayist Richard Wagner (1813-1883). One of the most influential cultural figures of the nineteenth century, Wagner has had both swooning admirers and rabid detractors.

For some, Wagnerism was above all, a political rallying call, first appealing to class-consciousness, then degenerating into proto-Fascism. For others, it fed the most diverse idealistic beliefs and Romantic sensibilities. Wagner's works brought together mythology and philosophy in a way that was radically different from any opera that had come before.

Simultaneously erotic, death-obsessed, and spiritual, Wagner's music dramas (his preferred term for his art) suggested both sin and redemption, the ideal atmosphere in which a nineteenth-century aesthete could immerse him (or her) self.

It is primarily in this realm that Wagnerism influenced and inspired the so-called Decadents and Symbolists, who were largely concerned with non-conformist sensibility and sexuality, including same-sex desire.

Influence on Nineteenth-Century Art and Culture

Adherents of the Symbolist movement in art and literature championed Wagner during the second half of the nineteenth century. One of Wagner's early admirers was the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Inspired by the concert overtures of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Der Fliegende Holländer performed at the Paris Opera, Baudelaire wrote enthusiastically of the composer's idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (a unification of all art forms into a single event), linking it to his own aesthetic of synaesthesia (basically, the co-mingling of the senses).

According to Baudelaire, Wagner's music promoted a dream-like reverie and suggested more than it explained. Wagner's theory of the unity of the arts and Baudelaire's idea of correspondences gave the Symbolists a rough framework from which to champion their movement.

Very little of late nineteenth-century European culture was untouched by Wagnerism. A Symbolist periodical La Revue Wagnérienne was founded in 1885 to promote the cause of Wagner. Contributors to this journal included J. K. Huysmans, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.

Wagnerism was by no means limited to French authors and artists, however.

Oscar Wilde included a characteristic comment about Wagner in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray ("I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says").

Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for The Ring cycle and his sexually explicit farce, "The Story of Venus and Tannhauser" (also published as "Under the Hill"), complete with his erotic illustrations, also indicate the scope of Wagnerian influence among the fin de siècle Decadents.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, once a friend and admirer of Wagner, denounced what he perceived as Wagner's decadent aspects: "How closely related Wagner must be to the whole of European decadence to avoid being experienced by them as a decadent. He belongs to it: he is its protagonist, its greatest name." What Nietzsche probably did not intend is that his essay managed to make Wagner's decadence seem downright attractive.

For many, Wagner's music took on quasi-religious overtones, and followers of his music were referred to as "disciples" who "made the pilgrimage" to the festival house in Bayreuth. Concert-goers were reported to have fainted at the performances as if under the influence of some religious fervor or ecstasy.

The Swan King

In spite of his early poverty, Wagner insisted on living in luxurious surroundings and wearing silk and velvet-lined clothing. "I am a different kind of organism," Wagner justified, "My nerves are hypersensitive, I must have beauty, splendor and light."

Given these declarations, it is no wonder that Wagner appealed to nineteenth-century French dandies. When Wagner sent a seamstress to obtain specially-ordered dressing gowns, silk underclothes, and perfumes, she told the customs officials that they were for a countess in Berlin!

Wagner needed much money to settle his debts, build his dream theater in Bayreuth, and live in a style he felt was owed to him. Luckily for him, a dreamy eighteen-year-old Bavarian prince who identified himself with the swan-knight Lohengrin was about to become King Ludwig II.

Ludwig had grown up among paintings and tapestries of the same Teutonic legends Wagner employed in his operas. Attending his first Wagner opera was a deeply moving dream come true for the young prince; and upon ascending to the throne, Ludwig immediately requested that Wagner come to Bavaria.

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Richard Wagner (top) and his home, Wahnfried, in Bayreuth (above).
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