Wagner and Ancient Greece


open quotesIn any serious investigation of the essence of our art today, we cannot take one step forward without being brought face to face with its intimate connection with the art of ancient Greece. For, in point of fact, our modern art is but one link in the artistic development of the whole of Europe; and this development found its starting- point with the Greeks.close quotes

[Richard Wagner, Art and Revolution, 1849]


Wagner's Greek Optimism

Athenian Tragedy and Attic Festivals

The origins of the festivals dedicated to Dionysus are lost in the mists of time but beyond all doubt they began as fertility rituals. In the Attic country festivals (the Rural Dionysia) there were animal sacrifices, processions in which slaves carried a large phallus, and performances of tragedies, comedies and dithyramb. At Eleutherae there was a cult of Dionysus of the black goatskin for which men dressed in goatskins and danced a satyr dance. Probably during the 6th century Dionysus Eleuthereus arrived in Athens where a spring festival was established (the Great Dionysia). There were sacrifices and processions in which Dionysus was accompanied by goatlike satyrs, culminating in four days of theatrical performances. In the classical period it became the tradition for three playwrights to compete, each with three tragedies and a satyr play, performed over these four days. The tragedies presented gods, heroes and other characters that the audience would be familiar with from myths or from the poems of Homer. The satyr play was a bawdy comedy, which typically would parody the tragedies that had preceded it, with a chorus (thiasos) of satyrs telling riddles and vulgar jokes while waving their exaggerated fake genitalia at the audience.

Early in the 19th century AD there was a growing interest in classical Greece, not only among scholars but also amongst other literate people, throughout Europe and especially in Germany. The young Richard Wagner, who as a schoolboy had been fascinated by the poems of Homer, became inspired by accounts of the Attic festivals. Although he had grown up in a theatrical family, Wagner was disenchanted with the commercial theatre. The kind of theatre that he proposed would be performed in festivals, like the Dionysia, in which the local community would come together to share the experience of dramas based on themes from their own mythic traditions. These dramas would, like those of classical Greece, involve poetry, music and dance. While he was composing a serious opera about a legendary song contest held on the Wartburg in the middle ages, Wagner had the idea of following it with a "satyr play", a comic opera, in which the song contest of Tannhäuser would be parodied: this would be written around a story about the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs.

Surprisingly, given his enthusiasm for classical Greece, Wagner never visited the temples and ampitheatres of Athens, Ephesus or Epidauros. In 1850, whilst in exile from Saxony and in conflict with his wife Minna, Wagner met Jessie Laussot, the English-born wife of a Bordeaux wine merchant. It seems to have been more of an intellectual friendship than a love affair, although that it may have been too. Wagner and Jessie planned to escape to Greece and Asia Minor. This scheme was blocked by the intervention of Jessie's husband, an action which Wagner in his autobiography decribed as unreasonable and intolerable. But M. Laussot removed his wife from Bordeaux and reported Wagner to the police; and that was the end of plans for an expedition to the ruins of classical Greece.


The Ring and Classical Greek Drama

Several commentators (see below for selected references) have pointed to connections between classical Greek tragedies and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Most obviously, the latter is a tetralogy, as were the Attic tragedies and intended for performance at a festival over four days. Although Wagner's "satyr-play" comes not at the end but as an introductory evening: he never called it a satyr play. Wagner had the greatest admiration for the Oresteia of Aeschylus, saying on the last day of his life, my admiration for him never ceases to grow. Michael Ewans has discussed in detail the connections and parallels that he saw between these dramas. There is at least one reference in the Ring to another play by the same poet: in Götterdämmerung, at the end of act one, Brünnhilde (who is confined to a rock) says, en eagle came flying to tear at my flesh. This is unmistakably a reference to Prometheus Bound. It has been argued that there is something of Prometheus in Wagner's Loge1.

Then there is Homer, a poet who fascinated Wagner in his schooldays. M. Owen Lee has detailed the parallels and similarities between various scenes in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the visit of a ghostly Alberich to Hagen in Götterdämmerung. These scenes typically begin with Are you sleeping? and they have the character of a dream. At a deeper level there are classical Greek models for characters and their relationships in the Ring. Wagner's goddess Erda, who was originally (in Siegfried) a sybil or vala, conjured up by the Seid-practising Odin, later was added to the scenario of Das Rheingold. Like the earth-goddess Gaia (Gaea) in classical vase paintings, Erda rises up out of the earth: in Das Rheingold she is only visible above her waist (see Lloyd-Jones, ref. below). It has been argued that other characters in the Ring were, at least in part, based on Greek gods and heros. Clearly the relationship of Wotan and Fricka more closely resembles that of Zeus and Hera, than it does the marriage of Odin and Frigg. Further, we can regard Siegmund in relation to Wotan and Fricka as another Heracles (Herakles).


Community and Ethos

Wagner's revolutionary writings, in particular The Artwork of the Future, read like a manifesto for the future of communal drama, which was to take place in festivals and not in the commercial theatre. But there is a discernable subtext: Wagner was also writing about the project that was forming in his mind, that of expanding his opera about Siegfried into a tetralogy. This specific artwork would follow the new principles that he set out in Opera and Drama and it would be an exemplary "artwork of the future". This artwork and others that Wagner expected to follow it, made on the same pattern, were to be created in the spirit of classical Greek tragedy. Not as a re-creation of that genre in the spirit of superficial literalism but embodying its artistic essence. Wagner believed in communities (Gemeinden) and in a concept of the people (das Volk) — he was a communitarian rather than a communist — as individuals brought together by a collective sense of need and ready to act in accordance with their common need. The community would gather to witness a performance, as the Athenians had done, to share in a common ethos (the word that Wagner employs is Sittlichkeit) that was to be reinforced by the words and action of the drama they witnessed. As Wagner described it, the Greek artwork reinforced the common ethos of the community; when that common ethos split into a thousand lines of egoistic cleavage, it led to the downfall of the Athenian state and with it the end of the festivals. It would appear that the Gesamtkunstwerk, as public art, the art of the people, was only viable where there was a commonality of ethics and aesthetics. This reveals the dark side of Wagner's project: a community should join together in a festival of public art as the citizens of Wagner's (unhistorical) Nuremberg do in Die Meistersinger: where those who do not share in the common ethos, such as Beckmesser, must be rejected.

Wagner held that Greek tragedy was the highest point so far reached in human creative activity and that the Athenian festivals exemplified that ideal relation dreamt of by me between theatre and public. Bryan Magee has summarised Wagner's reasons for this conclusion:

open quotesFirst, it represented a successful combination of the arts — poetry, drama, costumes, mime, instrumental music, dance, song — and as such had greater scope and expressive powers than any of the arts alone. Second, it took its subject matter from myth, which illuminates human experience to the depths, and in universal terms. The unique thing about myth is that it is true for all time; and its content, no matter how terse or compact, is inexhaustible for every age. Third, both the content and the occasion of performance had a religious significance. Fourth, it was a religion of "the purely human" [das Reinmenschliche], a celebration of life — as in the marvellous chorus in the Antigone of Sophocles which begins: Numberless are the world's wonders, but none/ More wonderful than man .... Fifth, the entire community took part. This art-form was ideal because it was all- embracing: its expressive means embraced all of the arts, its subject matter embraced all human experience, and its audience embraced the whole population. It was the summation of living. close quotes

Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner, first edition 1972, pp.12-13

The first and shortest of the revolutionary essays is Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution). It sets out the basic ideas that Wagner would elaborate upon in later essays.

open quotesDie Kunst und die Revolution starts with the statement that no progress in modern art is possible without considering where that art stands in relation to the [ancient] Greeks; it is only a link a chain formed by the development which they began. There follows a brief sketch of Greek life and art which contains three assertions that lie at the root of Wagner's whole conception of the music drama. First, Greek tragedy and comedy were not mere entertainment, but part of a religious festival; they were attended not merely by the rich and leisured, but by a large cross-section of the citizen body. Secondly, its subject matter was saga, which was the product of the people and which enshrined the people's ancestral wisdom. Myth was true for all time, so that the myths made use of by the tragedians were not irrelevant to the lives of their fellow citizens. Thirdly, tragedy was not merely verbal, still less purely musical, but was a combined work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk) employing words, music and dance; all were the work not of the people, but of a single man, who also trained the actors and chorus, and directed the performance. close quotes

[Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts]

When the Athenian festivals were abandoned, according to Wagner, the arts became separated and developed independently. It was necessary to draw them together again and to bring together the community to witness performances of life-affirming drama. The process of decay had started with the Romans, claimed Wagner (whose accounts of history were often fanciful), and then had been accelerated by Christianity, which had become a life-denying religion. Christian art was no true art, for it could relate only to abstract spiritual ideas and to the grace of the Christian Creator God. By Wagner's own time, modern drama had separated into spoken plays on the one hand and opera, in which words were secondary to the music, on the other. True drama like Greek tragedy would employ music, poetry and dance together. These arts could only be reunited by revolution. The artwork of the future, wrote Wagner, must embrace the spirit of a free mankind, delivered from every shackle of hampering nationality; its national imprint must be no more than an embellishment, the individual charm of manifold diversity, and not a confining boundary. Wagner developed these arguments further in his next essay, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future).

open quotes The Artwork of the Future has two main themes. It proclaims the doctrine of an art of the people, by the people, and for the people, an art which would necessarily appeal to the masses because it was an expression of their own thought, feelings and aspirations, a Gesamtkunstwerk in a political and social sense; and it portrays a work of art which is the product of a fusion of the separate phases of art, a rebirth of Greek tragedy in modern terms, a synthesis in which the individual phases contribute each in its own way to the total effect, a Gesamtkunstwerk in an esthetic sense. Both of these themes are of course a part of the heritage of Romanticism, and much of Wagner's idealization of the folk sounds like Herder or Rousseau, while his glorification of art as the satisfaction of the life-need in life itself is as romantic as you can get. Much of the essay is transparently tendentious... The positive content of The Artwork of the Future is the clear exposition of the esthetic basis of a synthesis of the arts. In this work, Wagner leaves even Lohengrin far behind and envisions an art form which manifests a genuine, continuous, and thorough union of the separate arts. This synthesis is in a real sense a culmination, for it is an expression, not only of the romantic drive for a union of the arts as we encounter it in the theories and experiments of Tieck, Novalis, Schelling, Hoffmann and others [but] it channels into this stream the eighteenth-century doctrine of the limitation of the arts; for Wagner is in his own way as firm about the boundaries surrounding poetry, visual movement, and music, as Lessing was in his Laocoön. Indeed, The Artwork of the Future is in some ways the answer to the tentative suggestions towards a synthesis made by Lessing in the sketches for a Part II of Laocoön. close quotes

[Jack M. Stein, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature, Harvard University: Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts, 1960.]


Antigone and Anarchism

open quotesO holy Antigone! on thee I cry! Let wave thy banner, that beneath it we may destroy and yet redeem! close quotes

Wagner's Opera and Drama, 1851, part II.

It is not the Oresteia or any other play by Aeschylus that Wagner highlights in his Opera and Drama, however. He devotes several pages to a discussion of the Oedipus plays by Sophocles. In particular he discusses the actions of Antigone: who was probably a major source of inspiration for Wagner's character Brünnhilde. As with Wotan, Fricka and Erda, Wagner's heroine is more like a character in classical tragedy that any found in the Eddas. Sophocle's Antigone was topical following an 1841 performance of the play in its translation by Johann Jakob Donner, and in a staging by Ludwig Tieck. This was given at the Prussian court theatre in Potsdam; with choruses and incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn2. Although Antigone, in an abridged version, had been staged already in 1809 by Goethe in Weimar, Tieck's staging was the first to attempt an "authentic" classical performance, with some concessions to modern tastes.

Antigone cancels the State (Bayreuth Ring) Left: Antigone cancels the State. Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde in the Bayreuth Ring directed by Frank Castorf.

At the time of his "revolutionary" theoretical writings (Art and Revolution 1849, The Artwork of the Future 1849, Opera and Drama 1851), Wagner was an anarchist in his political outlook, although he preferred to describe himself as utopian. In order to establish a better world, he argued, it was necessary first to tear down the institutions of the state, and then to replace a society which served the interests of classes and individuals with one that provided for common need, the needs of the community. His views had been influenced in particular by the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Both living in Dresden, they went for long walks together, during which Wagner talked about his plans for a "Siegfried opera" (Siefried's Tod) and Bakunin about his plans for world revolution. For the anarchistic Wagner, Antigone was the perfect model for an anarchistic heroine. Not just the perfect model but, as Wagner described her in part II of his Opera and Drama, Antigone was the perfect human being, the embodiment of love in its fullness and power. Wagner went on to declare: the love-curse of Antigone annulled the State!, which is exactly what a Wagnerian heroine had to do.


Music and Drama of the Future

After Schopenhauer

Scholars and other commentators will never agree on the extent of continuity in Wagner's thinking before and after his discovery of Schopenhauer's philosophy, which happened in the autumn of 1854, while Wagner was composing the first act of Die Walküre. There is a consensus, however, about this being a watershed event, dividing Wagner's life into two parts: before Schopenhauer, and after Schopenhauer. Before Schopenhauer, in his period of "Greek optimism", Wagner saw possibilities for making a better world, in which communities would come together to celebrate their ethos in festivals of dramatic art, in the spirit of classical Athens. After that time, mankind had taken the wrong path, and religion had failed the people by becoming life-denying instead of life-affirming. But as Wagner became converted to Schopenhauerian pessimism, he realised that his former view of the world was in error, and his hopes for revolution and a rebirth of the Greek idea could not be fulfilled. One consequence of his change in outlook was that the ending of his Ring tetralogy was no longer valid: instead of Brünnhilde declaring all you need is love as she, like Antigone, abolished the state, now there had to be a new ending to the tetralogy. One that was Schopenhauerian or even Buddhistic: Wagner struggled with this problem for years, finally deciding to cut most of Brünnhilde's closing speech and to let the music speak for itself. Wagner's reading of Schopenhauer's writings on metaphysics and ethics inspired him to sketch new dramas that engaged with the ideas he found there: Tristan und Isolde, Die Sieger and Parsifal. His satyr-play about Hans Sachs, which then existed only as a prose sketch, was reworked to fit his pessimistic world-view, although it would still bring a community together in a festival of song.


Wagner Festivals and Wagnerian Theatre

The Revolution arrives in Bayreuth Left: The revolution arrives in Bayreuth. The quotation is from Die Revolution, an article attributed to Wagner, written at the time of the Dresden uprising.

The Athenian festival was a religious festival, dedicated to the god Dionysus. The tragedies that were written for and performed in the Dionysia developed their content from myths about gods and heroes. From the fragments of them that remain (only one has survived complete), the satyr-plays were parodies of the tragedies that had preceded them but mainly about celebrating sex and wine. Even the tragedies were probably not performed in the hushed reverence typical of a modern Wagner festival. Wagner proposed that the reborn (and not recreated) Greek tragedies should be performed at festivals and not in the commercial theatre as part of its repertory. The performances of these new tragedies would be special occasions. Indeed, at one point he suggested that his "Siegfried opera" should be performed only once, in a specially built wooden theatre, and that after the performance, both the theatre and the score should be burned. Perhaps not an entirely serious suggestion but there was a serious idea behind it: one performance of Siegfried's Tod would be a world-changing event. It would show to the men and women of the (failed) revolution of 1848-49 the true meaning of that revolution. Then, inspired by Brünnhilde's valedictory lines, like the audience that had been inspired by Auber's La Muette de Portici, the audience would pour out of the theatre and begin the revolution anew.


Parsifal as Greek Tragedy

The stage-dedicatory festival play or Parsifal is the only Wagner opera that is based, for its outer action, on a Greek myth: that of Telephus. We can read in almost every program note, in programs that opera houses provide for the edification of their audience, that Parsifal is based on an epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach. That alone would be sufficient grounds on which to stop performances of Parsifal in commercial opera houses and once more restrict them to Wagner festivals. Wagner himself said that Wolfram had nothing to do with it (which is a slight exaggeration), adding that Wolfram was an immature phenomenon. It is true that the outer form of the action of the opera follows, in the broadest terms, that of Wolfram's poem: the boy wanders into the sacred forest, where he is admitted to the Grail Temple to witness a ritual of which he understands nothing; then after many years of wandering, when he has grown wise by compassion, he returns to the domain of the Grail and heals both the king and the community. Wagner makes a major change to the story, however, by making the recovery of the lost spear into Parsifal's mission. Of course the boy does not know that he has a mission before he has been kissed by Kundry and he does not know what is his mission until suddenly he has the spear in his hand. In fact, the entire second act of the opera has nothing at all to do with Wolfram's poem or, indeed, any other medieval Romance (except possibly for the Roman d'Alexandre).

As students of the Grail Romances will be aware, except in the unfinished Perceval, the resolution of the story (in those Romances) is that the "quester" returns to the Grail Temple — perhaps led there by an unseen hand — where he heals the Fisher King (Anfortas) by asking the healing question. The unasked question is the opposite of a riddle. As Claude Lévi-Strauss formulated the problem: the quester must know what he does not know. Wagner found an alternative resolution in Greek myth: like the hero Telephus, the hero Parsifal delivers healing in the form of a weapon that both wounds and heals. Telephus had been wounded by Achilles and, as a oracle revealed to him, he could only be healed by the weapon that had made the wound. Wagner applied this to Amfortas, directly connecting the recovery of the spear with the healing of the wounded king. In the last of his music dramas, Wagner returned to the classical Greeks.


Main references

  • Dieter Borchmeyer: The Ideal Audience: The Greeks and the 'Art-Work of the Future' in Richard Wagner: Theory and Theatre, chapter 6, pp.59-74.
  • Michael Ewans: Wagner and Aeschylus: the Ring and the Oresteia. Faber and Faber, 1982.
  • Jason Geary: Greek Tragedy and Myth, in The Cambridge Companion to Wagner's 'Der Ring des Nibelungen'. Ed. M. Berry and N. Vazsonyi, CUP 2022.
  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones: Wagner and the Greeks. Times Literary Supplement, 9 January 1976. Republished (abridged) in Wagner, vol.11 no.2 pp.62-74, 1990. Reprinted in his book, Blood for the Ghosts.
  • Bryan Magee: Aspects of Wagner. Panther Books, Granada Publishing Ltd., 1972 (first edition).
  • Ulrich Müller: Wagner and Antiquity, in Wagner Handbook, Müller and P. Wapnewsky, tr. Stewart Spencer, Harvard UP 1986.
  • Wolfgang Schadewaldt: Richard Wagner und die Griechen, in Hellas und Hesperien, Artemis Verlag, Zurich 1970 (second edition).
  • Jack M. Stein: Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts. Detroit, 1960.
  • Michael Tanner: The Total Work of Art, in The Wagner Companion, ed. P. Burbidge and R. Sutton, London, 1979.
  • Pearl C. Wilson: Wagner's Dramas and Greek Tragedy. New York, 1919.
  • Julian Young: The Philosophies of Richard Wagner. Lexington Books, 2014.



Footnote 1: Theodor Schaefer: Aischylos' Prometheus und Wagners Loge, in Festschrift 45er Versammlung deutsche Philologen und Schulmänner, Bremen, 1899.

Footnote 2: Jason Geary: Reinventing the Past: Mendelssohn's 'Antigone' and the Creation of an Ancient Greek Music Language. The Journal of Musicology, vol.23 issue 2, pp.187-226, 2006.