115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Richard Wagner’s indebtedness to Heinrich Heine’s Middle Ages

Andrew Warren, University of Toronto (Canada)

This paper examines Heine’s influence on Wagner's operatic depiction of the Middle Ages. In particular, I examine the ways in which Heine’s emphasis on the tensions produced between medieval Christian spiritualism and pre-Christian pagan sensualism in the Middle Ages find their way into Wagner’s work.


Richard Wagner’s literary debt to Heine is clear.  Both Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser were directly inspired by works of Heine, and as Paul Rose has argued, there are deeper connections between works such as Heine’s Elementargeister, which is a kind of compendium of German folk tales, and Wagner’s Lohengrin and the Ring cycle.  Moreover, for a few years around 1840, Richard Wagner and Heinrich Heine were friends and collaborators, with Wagner coming to defend Heine publicly as a result of Heine’s controversial book on the life and work of German author and revolutionary Ludwig Börne.  However, by the end of the 1840’s, Wagner had completely turned against Heine, and in his infamous Judentum in der Musik, accused Heine of being the “conscience of Judaism, just as Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern Civilisation.”

Although Paul Rose has successfully argued that Heine’s reluctance to challenge Wagner’s attack on him in Judentum in der Musik was in large part the consequence of Wagner using Heine’s own caustic rhetoric against targets whom they shared (for example, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer), there is still much to be said about the profound ways in which Wagner’s operatic output was influenced by Heine’s writing and thought about the Middle Ages, and that, far from rejecting Heine’s thought, Wagner found himself unable to fully escape Heine’s influence.

I show that Heine’s relationship to the German Middle Ages is much more complicated and fraught than has been previously assumed; this will have consequences for Wager as well.  Although Heine famously declares in Die romantische Schule that Romanticism is “nothing other than the revival of the poetry of the Middle Ages”, I contend that, far from rejecting both Romanticism and the Middle Ages, Heine wishes to rescue the Middle Ages from the Romantics, in large part due to his concerns that the German Middle Ages had been effectively co-opted by reactionary forces which he had long opposed.  As a result, Heine creates an alternative narrative of the German Middle Ages, one where art flourished as a result of the tensions produced between medieval Christian spiritualism, and pre-Christian pagan sensualism. 

It is out of this very milieu that Heine produces works such as his Tannhäuser poem and Elementargeister, and where I believe Wagner, perhaps unwittingly, winds up advocating for many of Heine’s intellectual and philosophical positions, even as he explicitly rejects Heine the author and poet in his turn to a full-throated anti-Semitism.  Nevertheless, every Wagner opera, right up to Parzival, betrays the legacy of Heine’s Middle Ages, and it is the traces of this legacy that I aim to show in this paper.