The Patron Saint of Burning Man: Wagner

That’s Dick Wagner, composer…not Dick Wagner, Pershing County judge. A blog called “Wagner Tripping” has proposed that the German musician be declared the Patron Saint of Burning Man. It seems there are many similarities between TTITD and Wagner’s vision for his performances:

Kinder, macht neues! Neues! Und abermals neues!  (Children, make something new! New! And new again!) – Richard Wagner1

brunnhilde_s_immolationWagner was an art revolutionary.  He believed that art should be at the pinnacle of society, and the thing that society should revolve around. Not church. Not state. Not business. Art. His call for art to continually change and renew was at the heart of his belief system, as his quote above clearly expresses.  His monumental life work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, demonstrated what he saw as “the artwork of the future.” He dreamed of a summer festival, in which his art would bring people together from all over the world to begin to build a new sort of community, one in which the values of art, community and love would supplant those of commercialization, greed, property and money.   

He originally envisioned that the premiere performance of the cycle would be held on the banks of a river, and  there would only be one cycle – “free, of course” (but three performances each day!) – followed by destruction of the theater, presumably by setting it ablaze, after the end of the cycle. And, then, move on to another work…

…Clearly, Wagner was the original burner, at least in conception

Much of the art is ephemeral and is burned at the end of the week. This is the quintessential Burning Man experience: lots of art; lots of fire…

Wagner, who was obsessed with the cleansing and renewing nature of fire, would have been absolutely enchanted with the burner community. These were the droids he was looking for!

There sure do seem to be some similarities here. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey is very well read, calling himself an “auto-didact” (which means, self-taught). He lectures around the world on the arts, it is certainly not inconceivable that he would have an awareness of Wagner.

According to the author, the similarities go even further. Wagner envisioned his festival as being free to the people, but as time passed, commercial realities took over.

wagner bmBoth festivals were founded on clear ideals, and succeeded wildly in some ways. In both cases, true believers come from all over the world, create a community around art, then go back to their homes renewed. However, ideals are one thing; reality is often far different.  

Wagner first conceived of his festival before he had written any of the music dramas, in 1849.  Over twenty years later, he was still nursing his dream when he began the Bayreuth project.  He had given up the hope of setting the site on a river—I am sure reluctantly—as impractical, however, according to biographer Barry Millington:

Wagner had every hope and intention of adhering faithfully to his original ideal conception of the festival: the theater was to be a provisional construction only…the enterprise was be be strictly non-profit making…with no admission charges and a number of seats to be distributed free of charge to the residents of Bayreuth.4 

All this would be paid for through a world-wide fund-raising program, with Wagner societies throughout the world springing up to help make this a reality, and a lot of free labor.  And, of course, with Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II, chipping in the lion’s share (though it came in the form of a loan.)

wagner jack bmThe reality was that the cost of building and putting on the festival left Wagner greatly in debt, forcing him to give up his ideals in the attempt to leave his family with a way to survive financially. (His wife Cosima was only 45 at his death, and had four children to support.)  He didn’t build Bayreuth to be a shrine to himself or his art; that was not his purpose.  Cosima, after his death, created that. But he had to turn it into a money-making enterprise or his family would have had no means of support.

He was, in fact, deeply disappointed in Bayreuth, in a number of ways.  Certainly foremost is that the people he wanted to see it—young people, university students and choral societies—couldn’t afford it.5  Instead, the rich turned out, and he hated the rich.6  He wrote to his supporter Friedrich Schön, “Since we have had no choice in the matter, these performances, as before, will have to be reserved for paying audiences,”7  but he then went on to ask Friedrich to rally his supporters to set up a foundation to “make it possible for people without means of their own to attend the performances.”8  This was done, and it still exists today.  It’s something, but very, very far from his dream.9

20130912-150125.jpgAs for Burning Man.  I think everyone who was a participant in the early years would agree that it has strayed far from its ideals.  It started as ritual, evolved to be an affordable and unique art festival in the early years, and now has become a money-making business where it is difficult for people who are not fairly well-off to afford to come.

Perhaps we will see some great operatic performances of Wagner’s works at Burning Man in years to come. This year’s visit by a Blackhawk helicopter had me humming “Ride of the Valkyries”…

2 comments on “The Patron Saint of Burning Man: Wagner

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