Richard Wagner Criticism - Essay

Northrop Frye (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Frye, Northrop. “The World as Music and Idea in Wagner's Parsifal.Carleton Germanic Papers 12 (1984): 37-49.

[In the following essay, Frye surveys the literary and mythological sources of Wagner's opera Parsifal, and associates the work's theme and music with the concepts of Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy.]

On the subject of Wagner I have to speak as a pure outsider. I am interested in Wagner as a creative figure with an immense cultural influence, but I have never been to Bayreuth: I have seen very few Wagner operas, and the whole spectacular side of Wagner, the spears that freeze over the heads of the virtuous, the swans and doves and...

(The entire section is 6533 words.)

David C. Large and William Weber (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Large, David C., and William Weber. Introduction to Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics, edited by David C. Large and William Weber, pp. 15-27. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpted introduction, Large and Weber consider the extensive influence of Wagner's music and thought in the social, political, and intellectual movements known collectively as ‘Wagnerism.’]

The name of a great artist may earn immortality, but such a name is not often adopted to form the title of a social movement. Much of what was extraordinary about the support for Richard Wagner can be seen most simply in the widespread use of the English...

(The entire section is 5943 words.)

Thomas D. O'Sullivan (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Sullivan, Thomas D. “The Perfect Wagnerite: Shaw's Reading of the Ring.English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 30, no. 1 (1987): 39-47.

[In the following essay, O'Sullivan critiques George Bernard Shaw's interpretation of Wagner's Ring as a political allegory.]

George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite1 is generally recognized as a lucid, witty, and informative introduction to Richard Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Shaw's allegorical exegesis of the Ring has often been characterized as unbalanced, however, because of its heavy emphasis on political economy. Robert Donington, for example,...

(The entire section is 3887 words.)

L. J. Rather (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rather, L. J. “On the Quality of Wagner's Poetry and Prose.” In Reading Wagner: A Study in the History of Ideas, pp. 32-58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rather chronicles Wagner's development as a prose writer and as a poet (particularly in regard to his Ring librettos). Rather concludes by noting Wagner's theories on the decline of language.]

Wagner's writings, including the nine volumes of collected works published during his lifetime, together with his voluminous correspondence and huge autobiography, constitute a formidable bulk of material, much of it still available only in German. William Ashton...

(The entire section is 10935 words.)

M. Owen Lee (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, M. Owen. Wagner's ‘Ring’: Turning the Sky Round, pp. 47-79. New York: Summit Books, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Lee probes the mythic, musical, and psychological elements of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried.]


act i: In a forest storm, Wotan's mortal son, Siegmund, finds shelter, not knowing that he has come to the house of the very enemy he has been fleeing from, Hunding. He is befriended by Hunding's wife, the gentle Sieglinde, but he keeps his name from her. Hunding, according to primitive rites of hospitality, will shelter the fugitive for the night, then fight him...

(The entire section is 8770 words.)

Mark Poster (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Poster, Mark. “What Does Wotan Want?: Ambivalent Feminism in Wagner's Ring.New German Critique 53 (spring 1991): 131-48.

[In the following essay, Poster addresses several sociopolitical interpretations of the Ring and argues that the work should also be viewed in terms of its representation of gender.]

In the four operas of the Ring cycle, Wagner presents a world in crisis and undergoing change but a coherent, rule-governed world nonetheless. Using as his raw material the medieval saga of the Nibelungenlied,1 Wagner works up a presentation of a world in which the central character, Wotan, ruler of this world,...

(The entire section is 7592 words.)

Sandra Corse (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Corse, Sandra. “The Voice of Authority in Wagner's Ring.” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 19-38. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Corse demonstrates “how the voice of authority or power is created and subverted in the Ring,” especially through the technique of quotation.]

The Ring cycle is a mass of quotations. The most obvious, of course, are the musical quotations, the series of musical reminiscences or leitmotifs. Almost as important, however, are the many instances in the text when characters quote, directly or...

(The entire section is 7482 words.)

John Daverio (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Daverio, John. “Wagner's Ring as ‘Universal Poetry.’” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 39-53. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Daverio discusses the unifying structure and technique of the Ring operas.]

The text which serves as the point of departure for this essay is the 116th of the fragments published in the Athenäum (1798), a short-lived but highly influential journal founded by Friedrich Schlegel and his brother August Wilhelm. Although Friedrich Schlegel's name does not surface too often in discussions of music, he is...

(The entire section is 5381 words.)

Ruth Koheil and Herbert Richardson (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Koheil, Ruth, and Herbert Richardson. “Why Brünnhilde is the True Hero of the Ring Cycle: An Analysis of Her Psychological Development.” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 177-89. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Koheil and Richardson present a reading of the Ring as “mythological psychology,” viewing Brünnhilde as the central protagonist of the operas as she undergoes the process of ego development and sacrifice.]

The source of The Ring is myth. This means that although both humans and gods are characters in the drama, the...

(The entire section is 4274 words.)

Peter Morris-Keitel, Alexa Larson-Thorisch, and Audrius Dundzila (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Morris-Keitel, Peter, Alexa Larson-Thorisch, and Audrius Dundzila. “Transgression and Affirmation: Gender Roles, Moral Codes, and Utopian Vision in Richard Wagner's Operas.” In Re-Reading Wagner, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, pp. 61-77. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Morris-Keitel, Larson-Thorisch, and Dundzila offer a feminist examination of gender in Wagner's operas, concentrating on the traditionally bourgeois-capitalist gender roles of Wagner's characters.]


“Our existing opera is a culinary opera. It was a means of pleasure long before it turned into...

(The entire section is 8039 words.)

Jean-Jacques Nattiez (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. “The Theoretical Essays of 1849 to 1851.” In Wagner Androgyne: A Study in Interpretation, translated by Stewart Spencer, pp. 12-42. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Nattiez defines Wagner's mythologized theory of the splintering and reunification of western art.]

Hardly had Wagner completed the full score of Lohengrin on 28 April 1848 when a whole new series of ideas began to clamor for his attention—The Nibelung Legend, the prose draft of “Siegfrieds Tod,” an article on the Wibelungs, the prose draft of Wieland der Schmied, the essays. … [T]heoretical reflections...

(The entire section is 14684 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Wagner's Parsifal between Mystery and Mummery; or, Race, Class, and Gender in Bayreuth.” In The Return of Thematic Criticism, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 261-86. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski provides background to Wagner's opera Parsifal and makes a thematic analysis of its libretto, while noting the “racist, sexist, and elitist” assumptions of the text.]

In the century since its premiere Wagner's Parsifal (1882) has been venerated by its admirers as a semireligious mystery and vilified by its detractors as ideological mummery. The trend toward...

(The entire section is 9028 words.)

Herbert Lindenberger (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindenberger, Herbert. “Wagner's Ring as Nineteenth-Century Artifact.” Comparative Drama 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 285-310.

[In the following essay, Lindenberger identifies the Ring as “embedded in the world of its time,” while acknowledging the importance of its poetic experimentalism and epic mode of narration.]

Suppose that Wagner had died in 1853, exactly thirty years before his actual death. At this point he would have left behind at least three operas that count for us as major works, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Most important for the ideas I hope to develop in this paper, he would also have...

(The entire section is 11754 words.)

Marc A. Weiner (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weiner, Marc A. “Introduction: Wagner and the Body.” In Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, pp. 1-33. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Weiner scrutinizes the racial implications of Wagner's depiction of the body in his operas.]

There is no anti-Semite who does not basically want to imitate his mental image of a Jew, which is composed of mimetic cyphers.

—Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

Gleaming or dripping eyes, a resonant or screeching voice, the bodily aromas of youthful love or the stench of sulfur and...

(The entire section is 11225 words.)

Michael P. Steinberg (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Michael P. “Music Drama and the End of History.” New German Critique 69 (fall 1996): 163-80.

[In the following essay, Steinberg appraises Parsifal as a cultural and ideological text concerned with the crisis of modernity and the redemption of humanity.]


This essay is about Parsifal. It is about Amfortas's wound, the efforts to close it, and the meaning of the claim that it has finally been closed. That closure involves also the closure of music drama, the redemption of Wagnerian form now raised to the level of pure ideology. The essay's three-part argument involves the...

(The entire section is 7256 words.)

Leonard S. Zegans (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zegans, Leonard S. “Richard Wagner's Cosmology: Self-Deception, Self-Realization, and the Destruction of Nature.” In The Threat to the Cosmic Order: Psychological, Social, and Health Implications of Richard Wagner's ‘Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Peter Ostwald and Leonard S. Zegans, pp. 1-9. Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Zegans explores the essentially Romantic cosmology of Wagner's Ring, which he argues emphasizes the struggle between human will and the natural order.]

Audiences arrive at a performance of The Ring with a special sense of anticipation. Most attend not only to hear...

(The entire section is 3388 words.)

R. J. A. Kilbourn (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: R. Kilbourn, J. A. “Redemption Revalued in Tristan und Isolde: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 4 (fall 1998): 781-88.

[In the following essay, Kilbourn discusses the theme of redemption via the “conjunction of love and death” in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.]

This discussion of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde shares with the previous three chapters the recognition of Wagner's propensity to invert and even subvert his materials: formally, logically, musically, and ideologically. And yet, in a seeming contradiction, the ultimate movement of Tristan is one of completion and resolution, in terms of...

(The entire section is 3800 words.)

Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. “‘Alles was ist, endet’: Living with the Knowledge of Death in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 4 (fall 1998): 789-811.

[In the following essay, Hutcheon and Hutcheon interpret Wagner's theme of redemption in the Ring in terms of a modern, psychological acceptance of death.]


Richard Wagner's best-known work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is famous for many reasons: its music, its Germanic mythic allegory, its sheer length.1 Called a stage-festival play for three days and a preliminary evening, the...

(The entire section is 10542 words.)

John M. McGlathery (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGlathery, John M. “Parsifal.” In Wagner's Operas and Desire, pp. 235-67. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, McGlathery formulates a detailed explication of Wagner's final opera Parsifal with an emphasis on the work's representation of Parsifal's “triumph over desire.”]

In his last opera, Wagner returns to the realm of magic and miracle. This time—more plainly than in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin—it is the world of Christian myth and legend. Parsifal indeed presents us with a community of knights of the Holy Grail, and is to that extent, at least, a drama of piety. Miracles, moreover, take place...

(The entire section is 16515 words.)

John Tietz (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tietz, John. “Conclusion: What Does the Ring Mean?” In Redemption or Annihilation? Love versus Power in Wagner's ‘Ring,’ pp. 141-63. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Tietz sees in Wagner's operatic cycle a thematic “tension between power and love in society,” an emphasis on conflict, and a depiction of the ultimate dissolution of the world.]


With its great length, The Ring generates such tremendous momentum that it takes quite a while to conclude. There are in fact two long stretches of music in the final version of The Ring, but it could not plausibly have ended...

(The entire section is 11260 words.)