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T h e   h e a r t   o f   t h e   r e v o l u t i o n
Verdi and Wagner and the spirit of 1848

“I want to destroy the ruling structures that split up a unified humanity into hostile tribes – the powerful versus the weak; the privileged versus the disenfranchised; rich versus poor – because they are always a source of misery. I want to destroy the structures that turn millions into the slaves of a tiny minority, and this minority into slaves of their own power and riches.” Today, these could be the words of an anti-Wall Street protester or a Spanish indignado. But the quotation is taken from Die Revolution, a pamphlet written by Richard Wagner before the 1848 revolution, when popular uprisings were breaking out all over Europe after years of political restoration.

The 1848 revolts began with the February revolution in France, when liberals demanded reforms to voting rights. In June, the workers and the unemployed also took to the streets in an uprising that was violently suppressed. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables describes this event. Before long, uprisings also broke out in Germany and Italy. Liberal and social goals were coupled to ideas of national unity. It was the composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi who, in their operas, gave a musical voice to their people’s longing to live in freedom, united as one great nation. Even though to opera lovers the gulf between these two composers’ musical worlds may seem immense, in C(H)ŒURS, they stand shoulder to shoulder in brotherly unity.

It was during work on C(H)ŒURS that the Egyptian revolution broke out. The similarities between the demands of the Arab people and the political aspirations voiced in the choral music of Wagner and Verdi are striking. In his essay Le réveil de l’Histoire,the French philosopher Alain Badiou points out several fascinating parallels between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the 1848 ‘revolution’: ‘the same apparently anecdotal cause, the same general uprising, the same expansion to cover an entire historical region (the whole of Europe in 1848), the same differences from country to country, the same fiery but vague collective statements, the same anti-despotic orientation, the same uncertainties, the same underlying tension between the intellectuals and the middle classes on the one hand, and the workers on the other…’


Richard Wagner developed his most important artistic principles in the years leading up to 1848. He wrote some of his best-loved works in this period (Tannhäuser and Lohengrin) or sketched the broad outlines of later masterworks (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Ring des Nibelungen). This was the time when Wagner, who as a 17 year old had already taken part in the student revolts in Leipzig in 1830, reacted so passionately to the German people’s struggle against all things reactionary. He sought out a connection with ‘Junges Deutschland’, a literary movement that espoused an amalgamation of unconnected ideas; ranging from opposition to conservative politicians and the crumbling of Germany, to resistance to the so-called ‘emancipation of the flesh’. This wasn’t so much about the emancipation of women as a cult of free love, a strange combination of notions of purity and the desire for a full erotic life. Tannhäuser and Lohengrin would have been inconceivable without the literature of ‘Junges Deutschland’. The years leading up to 1848 were crucial for Wagner’s intellectual and political development. He not only drew inspiration from the atheism of Feuerbach and the anti-capitalism of Proudhon, but also adopted the anarchistic idea of terrorist ‘direct action’ against exploitation by the ruling classes. It was no coincidence that during the Dresden May uprising of 1849, he stood on the barricades with the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin.

In Tannhäuser the ‘young German’ issue of the ‘emancipation of the flesh’ is central. The Minnesinger Tannhäuser is tossed about between lust and salvation, pleasure and purity, body and soul, the intuitive and the rational, the world of the heathen Venus and that of St Elizabeth. The chorus plays a central role. On the one hand it stands for the world of conventions, for the community that shuts out all that it finds threatening and insists on a collective definition of what is ‘normal’. Anyone who is different is violently excluded. This is to be the fate of the opera’s lone wolves: Tannhäuser, Venus and even Elizabeth. Each in their own way opts for a pure surrender to an ‘ideal’ love. But in Tannhäuser the chorus also represents the pilgrims who have been sent to Rome as scapegoats for the ‘normal’ community. When they return, purified, in the famous pilgrims’ chorus ‘Beglückt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen’ they are readmitted to the collective ‘us’. In the finale, ‘Heil! Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Heil!’, Wagner interweaves the Christian hymn of the pilgrim’s chorus with the frenetically vibrating pulse of the Venus music. According to Slavoj Zizek, this is not about a simple synthesis between, or reconciliation of, two principles, but about a tension that will remain unresolved until the opera’s final note.

Lohengrin, the opera that Wagner completed in 1848, brought together all his utopian and progressive ideas. It also brought the tension between progress and conservatism to the stage, a tension that was very much part of the daily political reality of the time. In the famous Prelude he already presents Lohengrin, a Knight of the Grail, in the purest utopian terms. Nowhere does Wagner give tangible shape to this utopia – his political ideas remained vague and incoherent right up to this death – but the radiant A major key, the ethereal orchestral sound, the endlessly flowing melody and harmony, and the perfect build up of tensionleave no doubt as to Lohengrin’s sacred nature. In his blinding light all reactionary principles must perish.


In Italy, a country that was still partially occupied by foreign armies and was divided into a series of city statesinhabited by a population eighty percent illiterate and speaking widely differing neo-Latin dialects, music was able to serve as a common language for the spread of political ideas amongst all layers of society. Nevertheless, Giuseppe Mazzini (along with Cavour and Garibaldi, one of the founding fathers of Italian Unification) condemned the hollow virtuosity, individualism and lack of moral strength of Italian Bel Canto. In his 1836 Philosophy of Music he wrote that there should be a new type of opera that prioritised realism and social themes. The music would thus contribute to the resurgence of the Italian nation. According to Mazzini, none of the composers of his time was capable of creating such a programme. He therefore hoped for the emergence of a ‘young unknown, who somewhere in our country, while I am writing these words, is being inspired, and who is carrying the secret of a new era inside him’.

Between 1842 and 1850 Verdi was to answer this call with a series of patriotic operas, of which Nabucco was the first. Even though at its premiere neither the composer nor the audience was immediately aware of the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the piece, ‘Va pensiero’ (the famous Jewish chorus that mourn their lost freedom and dream of their fatherland on the banks of the Euphrates) soon came to be understood as a metaphor for the fragmented and occupied Italian nation. Verdi had given a musical voice to the political Resurgence movement, to its struggle for freedom and national unity. Until Italian Unification, he would deliberately allow his music to fulfil a political role. Verdi appeared on the scene when the public were asking for something new: more truthfulness and closer links with the collective. He brought a new sound to Italian music. His raw sonority, his brutal harmonies and his frenzied, almost primitive orchestral sound are striking. Verdi’s music betrays traces of his rural childhood; from the songs the farmers sang as a choir in his father’s tavern in Le Roncole, to Busetts brass band.It was this youthful energy and refusal to conform to classical rules and to ‘good taste’ that made Verdi’s music resonate at all levels of Italian society.

In Germany, revolutionary ideas also ran parallel to the struggle for national unity. Wagner combined mythology and patriotism in Lohengrin. In the third scene of the third act (‘Heil König Heinrich!’) we hear a clear call for national unity: ‘Für deutsches Land das deutsche Schwert! So sei des Reiches Kraft bewährt!’. In phrases that leave no room for doubt (‘des Ostens Horden’, the hordes from the East), Wagner warns his contemporaries against the threat of tsarism, which at that time had allied itself to the side that supported political restoration and which had brutally repressed the revolt of the Hungarian people against the Habsburgs.


The wave of revolutions in 1848 was quickly repressed. Wagner fled into exile in Switzerland, where for a number of years he remained true to his revolutionary ideals. From 1854, under the influence of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, he slowly transformed himself into a cultural pessimist, an anti-political and anti-humanist aesthete. His wife Cosima did everything she could to delete all traces of Wagner’s revolutionary sympathies from his letters and documents, or to dismiss them as youthful folly.

Actually, a closer look at his work shows that many of his revolutionary ideas continue to permeate it until far beyond 1854. Even though Wagner completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg some twenty years after the 1848 revolution, this opera also reflects the German unification movement. Indeed, Wagner remained true to the basic ideals of 1845, the same year in which he composed Lohengrin. The concept for this opera is revolutionary: in Wagner’s Nürnberg there is – contrary to the historical sources upon which he based his work – no mention of political leaders, of any form of government or City Council. The people, who forge an alliance with his artists (‘Wach auf!), make all the decisions and act as their own judge. Because art is the Germans’ true fatherland – according to Wagner, Germany’s essence could not be created at a political level – in the finale the chorus sings: ‘Zerging das heil’ge römische Reich in Dunst, uns blieb doch die heil’ge deutsche Kunst’.


Verdi continued to be involved in Italian politics throughout his life, and even became a member of Italy’s first parliament. As the process of Italian unification progressed, his explicitly nationalistic themes made way for a more general humanism. In the operas that Verdi wrote after 1850, there is far less emphasis on collective sentiments or conflicts between hostile nations. The emphasis had often shifted to the feelings and tragic experiences of the individual. From this point onwards, Verdi was obsessed with giving a voice to the outsider, whom he often portrays as being at odds with a hard, hypocritical society. This development culminates in La Traviata. In the preludes of the first and final acts, which have a transparency reminiscent of chamber music, we hear the beating heart of the courtesan Violetta. Verdi portrays her as a ‘poor sinner’, a victim with a pure soul, whose decline into prostitution is a consequence of her inability to escape big city corruption. She develops into an almost mythical characterisation of exclusion. In contrast to this hard reality, Verdi creates the idealised lovers Alfredo and Violetta. Even when it is clear that Violetta is dying, they still sing about the paradise of ideal love in the duet ‘Parigi, o caro’.

Even after the eventual Unification of Italy, the ideals of the Resurgence continued to play an important part in Verdi’s artistic thinking. At the end of the 1860s, Verdi became seriously disillusioned with Italy’s political and military leaders, whom he once described in a letter as ‘idle gossips’. After a series of military defeats and protracted financial difficulties, Italy began to be treated as a second-class nation by its European neighbours. Upon the death of Alessandro Manzoni, Italy’s most important romantic poet and, just like Verdi, an advocate of Italian unity, Verdi planned to write him a Requiem. He honoured the writer who had always remained true to the ideals of humanity and justice, and the requiem that was dedicated to him soon became known as a ‘Requiem for the Resurgence’. The striking thing about this work is the frequent repetition of the ‘Dies irae’ music, in which Verdi unleashes an infernal storm, punctuated by dull beats on the bass drum and agitated trills from the wind instruments.As a committed humanist, Verdi continually confronts his audience with the end of the world, and with an apocalyptic presentation of the ‘Day of Anger’, as well as giving a deeper dramaturgical and political dimension to the emotional pleas for calm, peace and liberation in the ‘Libera me’, with which the composer presented the ultimate ode to the Resurgence and the ideals of 1848.


The ‘Day of Anger’ was also the name given to a number of prayer Fridays in Egypt in 2011. According to news agencies’ estimates, many tens of thousands of people protested in Cairo and other big cities against the authoritarian regime of President Mubarak: against poverty, corruption, repression and limited freedom of expression. Neither the 1848 revolution nor the Arab Spring resulted in the immediate creation of a new state or social structure. But in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – who, just like Wagner, were both defeated ‘barricaders’ – published the Communist Manifesto, a text that would have been unthinkable before the ideas propagated in 1848 and which fundamentally influenced the politics of the following century (or centuries). According to Alain Badiou, the uprisings in the Arab world appear to herald a worldwide return to emancipated political thinking and action. Just as, in his Requiem, Verdi replies to the theatrical thunderclaps of the ‘Dies Irae’ with the laborious, polyphonic work of the ‘Libera me’ fugue, so, after the ‘Day of Anger’, there is still a long road to be followed before the desired change in the political landscape is achieved. Slavoj Zizek recently advised the occupiers of Wall Street not to lose themselves in the romanticism of the revolution, but to use the revolution as an gateway to another way of thinking: “Don’t fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we’re having here. Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our everyday life will be changed. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions about what we don’t want, but about what we DO want. What social organisation can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? The twentieth-century alternatives clearly aren’t working.”

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