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  Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

wagner(Wilhelm) Richard Wagner German romantic composer noted chiefly for his invention of the music drama. His cycle of four such dramas The Ring of the Nibelung was produced at his own theatre in Bayreuth in 1876. His other operas include Tanhäuser (1845 revised 1861), Tristan and Isolde (1865), and Parsifal (1882).

Wagner certainly advocated vegetarianism, at least for the last few years of his life, but for how long, and to what extent he attempted it himself is less clear.

The following extract is from a summary of Theosophy in the Works of Richard Wagner, by William Ashton Ellis, 1886, (article in the Transactions of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society):

. . . correspondence Ellis reveals he had already had with "a lady who had most intimately known the composer for the last thirty years of his life". He quotes a passage from this lady's reply on the subject of vegetarianism and Buddhism: Wagner was "in principle" a vegetarian, she says, but "in practice, however, neither his health nor the orders of his physician allowed him to be a vegetarian."

The obvious lady in question would be his second wife, Cosima, as she had indeed first met Wagner 30 years before he died. Assuming it to be accurate, and it was only three years after he died, then Wagner was never a vegetarian. Though it does imply that he should have made some sort of attempt to at least reduce his meat consumption....

We also have a very similar comment from Lilli Lehmann, about her dinner with Wagner in 1875, though written many years later. See below.

In The Vegetable Passion by Janet Barkas (New York 1975, p103) we have another similar comment:

His closest living relative, Winifred Wagner, widow of his son Sigfried, explained during our interview in February 1972 that Wagner would have liked to have been a vegetarian for ethical reasons, but his poor health prevented him from changing his diet: he suffered from a weak heart and eczema of the face, gesichstrose.

It should be noted that Winifred did not know Wagner personally as she was born 16 years after he died, so this must be from other family memories - most likely again from Cosima who was Winifred's mother-in-law for 15 years from 1915-1930.

There are some references to Wagner and his first wife, Minna, visiting Hydropathic (water cure) sanitariums in the 1850s when they were in exile in Zurich. These were usually completely vegetarian at that time and Wagner apparently made various attempts to apply the principles to his daily life, but with his typical extreme inconsistency, frequently changing his mind about the best version, then giving up.

In 1854 Wagner was introduced to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which he would later call this the most important event of his life. Schopenhauer was never a vegetarian, but did have a great deal to say about the treatment of animals - especially in The Basis of Morality (PDF 25mb) first published in 1840.

We also have examples of his concern for animals during this time, such as letter to Minna after he visited London Zoo - saying how much he appreciated her love of animals as well. Though none of this stopped him from eating or wearing them - or visiting zoos.

The following extract is from a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck in 1858 [Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. Translated and edited by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, New York 1987]:

Recently, while I was in the street, my eye was caught by a poulterer's shop; I stared unthinkingly at his piled-up wares, neatly and appetizingly laid out, when I became aware of a man at the side busily plucking a hen, while another man was just putting his hand in a cage, where he seized a live hen and tore it's head off. The hideous scream of the animal, and the pitiful weaker sounds of complaint that it made while being overpowered transfixed my soul with horror. Ever since then I have been unable to rid myself of this impression, although I had experienced it often before. It is dreadful to see how our lives - which, on the whole, remain addicted to pleasure - rest upon such a bottomless pit of the cruellest misery! This has been so self-evident to me from the very beginning and has become even more central to my thinking as my sensibility has increased. . . I have observed the way in which I am drawn in the (direction of empathy for misery) with a force that inspires me with sympathy, and that everything touches me deeply only insofar as it arouses fellow-feeling in me, i.e. fellow-suffering. I see in this fellow-suffering the most salient feature of my moral being, and presumably it is this that is the well-spring of my art. (for full text see: Richard Wagner, Letters to Mathilde Wesendonck (plain text file 827k), 1905 edition, p.47.)

We know that Wagner was not vegetarian in 1869 - an extract from Cosima's diary from September 19, 1869:

Coffee with Prof. Nietzsche; unfortunately he vexes R.[Richard] very much with an oath he has sworn not to eat meat, but only vegetables. R. considers this nonsense, arrogance as well, and when the Prof. says it is morally important not to eat animals, etc., R. replies that our whole existence is a compromise, which we can only expiate by producing some good. One cannot do that just by drinking milk—better, then, to become an ascetic. To do good in our climate we need good nourishment, and so on. Since the Prof. admits that Richard is right, yet nevertheless sticks to his abstinence, R. becomes angry.

This was expanded by Nietzsche's sister Elizabeth in The Nietzsche-Wagner correspondence (PDF 9mb) edited by Elizabeth, pub. London 1922. p.45, the Chapter headed 'Experiences during the Winter of 1870':

My brother was also very fond of the children and was regaled with a new assortment of children's stories each time he went to Tribschen. Little Eva [Wagner's youngest daughter], in particular, was fond of making up all sorts of stories about the "good Herr Nützsche." Sometimes she called him the "Good Herr Fressor" a name which always brought forth a reproof from Isolde [the next oldest] who insisted that it was "Professor, not Fressor; he is not going to eat anyone!" (The point of this little story is entirely lost in English as the emphasis lies on the word "fressen" "to eat" which is only used when applied to animals.)
Eva also took the greatest interest in my brother's physical well-being and was very much concerned that there was "never any meat on the good Herr Nü-tzsche's plate."
Both Wagner and Frau Cosima made strenuous efforts to convert my brother from the vegetarian diet to which he was addicted, and, in time, he did abandon this, whether out of love of Wagner, or of little Eva, I cannot say.

Elizabeth's view of vegetarianism as an addiction gives an insight into the blinkered thinking of the time....

In late 1874 Cosima Wagner wrote to Nietzsche congratulating him on his book about Schopenhauer, including: "your wonderful picture of the relationship existing between animals and men" (p.231 of the above correspondence). There seemed to be some convergence of thinking at this point.

However, something soon began to change, in My Path Through Life (1914) the singer Lilli Lehmann wrote of her first visit to Bayreuth for rehearsals in 1875:

We stayed to a meal with the Wagners, during which he talked much about vegetarianism that he wanted to adopt entirely, but his physician was opposed to it. After what I know of it to-day from my own experience, I am certain that Wagner, without going to the extremes of vegetarianism, would have found it a means of lengthening his life. [Lilli became vegetarian herself some years later].

The word 'compromise' in his response to Nietzsche, is perhaps Wagner's excuse for all his many contradictions. In 1876 the friendship between Nietzsche and Wagner had broken down, for more on their relationship see:

  • The Young Nietzsche (PDF 12mb) by his sister, English edition London, 1912. Goes up to 1878, age 34 - makes no specific mention of his vegetarianism, but does account for how he gave it up.
  • Nietzsche (PDF 12mb) biography by Crane Brinton, Harvard, 1941. Makes a very brief mention of Nietzsche's vegetarianism.
By 1879 Wagner's ideas seem to have progressed further and he was actively supporting an anti-vivisection group in Dresden.

The thought of their sufferings penetrates with horror and dismay into my soul, and in the sympathy evoked I recognise the strongest impulse of my moral being, and also the probable source of all my art. The total abolition of the horror we fight against must be our real aim. In order to attain this our opponents, the vivisectors, must be frightened, thoroughly frightened, into seeing the people rise up against them with stocks and cudgels. Difficulties and costs must not discourage us . . . If experiments on animals were abandoned on grounds of compassion, mankind would have made a fundamental advance. - Letter to Ernst von Weber, 19 October 1879

The following year he wrote at some length about the benefits of vegetarianism, some of which can be found in The Highest Motive for Vegetarianism - extracted from three of Wagner's essays from "Religion and Art", published in 1880 (as printed in the 1957 IVU Congress souvenir book, the title was thiers, not Wagner's.)

This teaching [of the sinfulness of murdering and living upon our fellow beings] was the result of a deep metaphysical recognition of a truth; and, if the Brahman has brought to us the consciousness of the most manifold phenomenon of the living world, with it is awakened the consciousness that the sacrifice of one of our near kin is, in a manner, the slaughter of one of ourselves; that the non-human animal is separated from man only by the degree of mental endowment, that it has the faculties of pleasure and pain, has the same desire for life as the most reason-endowed portion of mankind. - Art and Religion 1880

Human dignity begins to assert itself only at a point where man is distinguishable from the beast by pity for it. - The Regeneration of Mankind 1880

  • Religion and Art - full text which originally appeared in the Bayreuther Blätter for October 1880, constituting the whole of that number of the journal.

[Nietzsche had now gone in the opposite direction. In 1876 he fell out with Wagner, then in 1882 published strongly anti-vegetarian views.]

Wagner's last opera Parsifal, written in 1882, possibly contained some elements of his views on animal rights and vegetarianism, but there is much debate about the extent of any 'message' in it. In 'Wagner and Philosophy' Brian McGee says in his introduction that in the rest of the book "...I have discussed the belief about the oneness of all living things, with its consequent requirement of compassion for animals, on which his vegetarianism was based, and which found expression in Parsifal." McGee expands on this in his chapter on Parsifal (C.16 The Crowning Achievement,s.V):

Even more with animals than with man, he says, does he feel kinship through suffering, for man by his philosophy can raise himself to a resignation that transcends his pain, whereas the mute unreasoning animal can only suffer without comprehending why. "And so if there is any purpose in all this suffering it can only be the awakening of pity in man, who thus takes up the animal's failed existence into himself, and, by perceiving the error of all existence, becomes the redeemer of the world. This interpretation will become clearer to you some day from the third act of Parzival, which takes place on God Friday morning." Manifestly, then, the Parzival drama had already defined itself within him as the drama of compassion'. [the quote is from the 'Venice Diary' of 1858 when Wagner was writing the early draft of Parsifal - and now being strongly influenced Schopenhauer]

After Wagner's letter to Ernst von Weber about vivisection in 1879, Cosima recorded his concern that this would be seen as the basis for Parsifal, but if McGee is right then the concern was clearly much deeper and much older.

In Act Three the Knights of the Grail avoid eating meat, though some argue only from necessity, and below is a scene from Act One of Parsifal which leads to some of the speculation:

Just at this moment, cries are heard from the Knights: a flying swan has been shot, and a young man is brought forth, a bow in his hand and carrying a quiver of matching arrows. Gurnemanz speaks sternly to the lad and tells him that this is a holy domain. He then asks the lad if he did this deed and the lad boasts that if it flies, he can hit it ("Im Fluge treff' ich was fliegt!") The elderly Knight asks what harm the swan had done, getting the lad to notice the swan's blood-flecked remains, limp wings and lifeless eyes. Now remorseful, the young man breaks his bow and casts it aside. . . . [next scene] The boy . . . is roughly ejected . . . with a warning not to shoot swans. A voice from heaven repeats the promise, “The pure fool, enlightened by compassion." [the boy, or the 'pure fool' is Parsifal]

In The Real Wagner, published 1987, Rudolph Sabor expands on this:

While [Wagner was] still in Pravonin [1832, age 19], for instance, he is persuaded to join a hunting party. What follows affects him so deeply that he still remembers it after forty-one years. He and Cosima [41 years later] have a roast hare for lunch, and before going to bed that night she writes in her diary:

R. says that when he was young he once went hunting in Bohemia, on Count Patchta's estate. He fired at random, without taking aim, and was told that he had hit the rear leg of a running hare. At the end of the hunt, a hound had discovered the poor animal and had dragged it along. Its cries of terror had pierced him to the core. People told him, 'That is your hare', and he vowed to himself never again to take part in such an entertainment. (Cosima's diary 13.12.1873)

Although it did not stop him dining on roast hare . . . Soon he is to write in his new opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), in which we come across this passage:

You, huntsmen, be on your way!
Hoho, blast loudly your horn!
O see, how tired is the beast!
Set to! The arrow, it flies!
See how it flies! My aim was good!
But see, the beast can weep!
A tear is glistening in its eye!
With broken glance it looks at me!
(Die Feen, Act 3)

This was written at the age of nineteen. Fifty years later Gurnemanz remonstrates with the young Parsifal who has just shot a flying swan:

So you could murder in this sacred forest,
Where gentle peace enfolded you?
The woodland beasts came close and trusted you,
Greeting you, friendly and tame.
From their branches, what warbled the birds to you?
What harm did the faithful swan?
. . .
Here, see here! You pierced him here.
The would is all blood, his wings are lifeless,
His snowy plumage crimson defaced.
Quite broken his glance - look at his eyes!
Now does your evil action haunt you?
(Parsifal, Act 1)

Cosima's diaries bear frequent witness to the whole family's involvement with the animal world.

Parsifal in English verse : from the German of Richard Wagner (PDF 2mb) full text of Wagner's last work, first performed 1882, this edition London, 1899

It must be acknowledged that Wagner's well-known anti-semitism adds to the difficulties we have in considering his views on anything else. However, even this is difficult to untangle - in 1850 he wrote a leaflet on 'Judaism in Music' primarily attacking Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and expressing his dislike of their music, but by the time of Wagner advocating vegetarianism in 1880 a group admirers in Vienna, who were soon vegetarian following his influence, included the Jewish composer Mahler.

We also have a claim that Wagner forced vegetarianism on his followers, the singer Lilli Lehmann being quoted as an example of this (see note), she sang in the first Bayreuth festival, in 1876, and became a major Wagnerian singer. However we now have an interview with Ms. Lehmann from 1907 in which she states she had been vegetarian for five years, ie: from 1902 - not until almost 20 years after Wagner's death. It is also worth noting that, according to her biographers, Lilli Lehmann's mother was Jewish, and that not long before joining Wagner she had appeared in a Meyerbeer opera.

Rudolf Sabor, in The Real Wagner, 1987, gives the following extract of a letter by Hermann Levi (1839-1900), son of a Rabbi, who conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth for 12 years from 1882 to 1894 (written to his Rabbi father, before Wagner's death in 1883):

You said in your letter you would like to be able to feel kindly towards Wagner. That you can and that you shall! He is the best and noblest of men . . . As for his campaign against 'Judaism' - so he calls it - in music and in modern literature, his motives are entirely high-minded. He is not stupidly anti-Jewish, like the landed gentry or like some protestant churls. You can tell by the way he treats me and by the way he treats Joseph Rubinstein. As for poor Tausig, he was his intimate friend whom he loved very dearly.

Wagner's irrational anger was not just reserved for the Jews, some further extracts from Cosima's diary as quoted by Sabor:

Richard says there is nobody as stupid as the French. He has come to loathe them more and more (1882). . . . We decide to make our way to Abetone. But on the journey Richard gets so angry with the green mountains, and also with the bare mountains (1880) . . . During lunch he becomes very irritated and takes offence at the flies (1880). . . The Austrian Emporer's uniform annoys him (1881) . . . Richard also disapproves of the weather (1881) . . . Richard returns from his walk, infuriated by the marching music he had just heard (1881).

Returning to the question of anti-semitism, Sabor notes:

Porges, Rubinstein, Neumann, Levi, Tausig - they all had to endure his constant reproaches concerning their Jewishness, yet they all continued to love him with a self-effacing devotion. Occasionally Wagner is capable of a kind of magnanimity:

Visit by Kapellmeister Levi, who moves Richard to pity, because he regards himself as an anachronism, being a Jew. Richard assures him that the Catholics may think themselves more aristocratic than the protestants, but that the Jews were, after all, the oldest, the most aristocratic race. (Cosima's diary 2.7.1878)

The typically Wagnerian contradictions in all this don't seem to have concerned any of them too much. In 1882 Levi was conducting Parsifal at Bayreuth and wrote to his Rabbi father that he was dining with the Wagners at their house throughout the festival. George Bernard Shaw summed it up in 1908:

Wagner was not a Schopenhauerite every day in the week, nor even a Wagnerite. His mind changes as often as his mood. . . . Wagner can be quoted against himself almost without limit, much as Beethoven's adagios could be quoted against his scherzos if a dispute arose between two fools as to whether he was a melancholy man or a merry one.

  • Wagner in Dresden (1814-49)
    - his concern for animals seems to have been strengthened during this time after the hunting incident mentioned above in 1832, though he did not yet appear to have any interest in vegetarianism. However, Dresden is of some significance for IVU as the venue of the first Congress in 1908, and the Centenary in 2008.

Note: The claim about Lilli Lehmann originates from 'The Vegetable Passion' by Janet Barkas (now Jan Yager), published in New York, 1975. See page 103 of the paperback edition. The claim that Wagner forced his followers to go vegetarian is unsubstantiated apart from the incorrect claim about Lilli Lehmann.

This probably wouldn't matter if it were just in an obscure, long out of print, book from 1975. But, unfortunately, the section on Wagner was copied, almost verbatim, by Colin Spencer in 'The Heretics Feast' pp.282-283, first published 1993 in London - later re-titled as 'History of Vegetarianism'. Spencer cites Barkas as his only reference on Wagner, though a comparison of the texts shows that he did rather more than merely 'refer' to her, and he did no other research of his own.