Wagner and Bakunin: the odd couple of political pyromania

Wagner and Bakunin, friends and comrades, fighting together on the barricades in doomed rebellion against the Prussian army. It seems comically incongruous. Hitler’s favourite composer — the fervent nationalist and anti-semite — allied with the anarchist firebrand. But it was the case — and Wagner, at least, was deeply affected by their short time togeher.

Bakunin, wanted by the Austrian authorities for his role in the 1848 Pan-Slavic Congress, was hiding in Dresden. Here Wagner, then conductor of the Dresden orchestra, had chosen to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a show of liberal sympathy:

Michael Bakunin, unknown to the police, had been present at the public rehearsal. At its close he walked unhesitatingly up to me in the orchestra, and said in a loud voice, that if all the music that had ever been written were lost in the expected world-wide conflagration, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of our lives

Three weeks later, Bakunin would burn down the Opera House.

By that point Wagner was overawed by Bakunin and by revolution, to the point of being filled with “strength and freedom” on the destruction of his workplace. It was ugly anyway, he rationalised.

The Opera House was a victim of was the Dresden May Uprising, one of the last aftershocks of the revolutions of 1848. Its aim was to force the Prussian king to accept a constitution. To Wagner, it appealed to his mythic sense of German nationalism. Bakunin didn’t much care about Dresden or German nationalism — but he loved nothing more than a good fight.

So Bakunin and Wagner both joined the rebels, each in his own style. Bakunin jumped straight in, won over a public meeting, arranged defence, stayed with the rebels even when they had obviously failed, was consequently arrested and spent eight years in jail. Wagner hesitated, wrote articles, made weapons, stood watch, got off lightly ,and fled to Zurich.

Given the circumstances and Wagners own ideals, it’s no surprise that Bakunin made such a great impression on him. His extreme and nihilistic politics (“dreadful ideas”) mattered little, personal energy much more:

I was immediately struck by his singular and altogether imposing personality. He was in the full bloom of manhood…. Everything about him was colossal, and he was full of a primitive exuberance and strength.

in this remarkable man the purest impulses of an ideal humanity conflicted strangely with a savagery entirely inimical to all civilisation

Bakunin, in short, embodied the epic personality which Wagner would spend a lifetime trying to describe. As his opera Tannhauser was described by Baudelaire:

On the satanic thrill of an indefinite love soon follow ecstasies, raptures, victory cries, the groans of gratitude, and then a wild howl, accusations of slain victim and the nefarious hosanas of the bucher, as if the blinde brutality taking in the drama of love, always place and the pleasure of the senses, would lead to an inescapable satanic logic, to the daylights of the crime.

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