Studies of the Wagner music dramas abound; but few of them explore, as Mark Berry does in this dense, difficult but rewarding book, the background of philosophical and political ideas from which the dramas emerged. Wagner was a man of universal intellect, who had been steeped in the Young Hegelian philosophy that shaped the ideas of Marx, and who took an active and foolhardy part in the revolutionary movements that briefly shook the Continent. Greek tragedy was as important an influence on his artistic development as the music of Beethoven, and his growth as a composer went hand in hand with a more hidden but equally significant growth as a thinker. His prose writings – hectic in style, and frequently cryptic in content – testify to an intensely serious philosophical vision. Wagner wanted to understand the modern world in its full spiritual complexity, to present its inner truth in artistic form, and to find, through art, a meaning that would both illustrate and compensate for the loss of the old religion. The result of this quest for the truth of modern life is contained in his masterpiece, the Ring cycle, and Berry’s exploration of the philosophical and political ideas that inspired the drama marks a step forward, both from the cheeky Marxism of George Bernard Shaw, and from the attempts, of Donington and others, to read the drama in purely ‘inner’, psychological terms.
Berry is an academic historian, a specialist in the history of ideas. But he has read widely in philosophy and literature, and is musically literate, able to illustrate his argument from the score. This adds to the book’s cogency by reminding us that music is the vehicle of the drama