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  • Darwin and Wagner: Evolution and Aesthetic Appreciation
  • Edvin Østergaard (bio)


Two of the most influential works of the Western nineteenth century were completed in 1859: Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. Although created within very different cultural traditions, these works show some striking similarities: both brought about a critical, long-lasting debate and caused conflicting reactions after their publications, and both had fundamental and compelling impact on their disciplines. The perspective discussed in this paper, however, is that both works address the notion of evolutionary thought. In 2009 we could have thus celebrated a double anniversary: it was 150 years since the manifestation of the evolutionary idea in such different disciplines as music and biology.

In this article I focus on the following questions: (1) How is the idea of evolution expressed in The Origin of Species and Tristan and Isolde? (2) What are common essences of that which Darwin referred to as “descent with modifications” and Wagner to as “becoming” (“das Werden”)? (3) What educational potential exists for exploring and understanding evolution when comparing its historical emergences in biology and music? Using a phenomenological approach, my aim is to survey, describe, and compare significant parallels between the two works rather than explaining the connections in terms of causality (which anyway would be impossible). When approaching the Darwin-Wagner kinship, my main presupposition is that their works can be regarded as imprints or manifestations of common ideas and essences expressed in such different disciplines as music and biology.1 I am aware of the fact that focusing on merely the evolutionary dimension of these two works necessarily will exclude other significant aspects. I deliberately avoid [End Page 83] discussing the highly controversial legacies of both men’s works: the (mis)-use of Wagner’s music and art views in the Nazi Germany political movements and the neo-Darwinian dispute on creationism and intelligent design. Rather, I expand the comparison of the two works to considerations of how teachers can facilitate students’ meaningful learning of evolution and which joint role art and science might play.

My Interest in the Idea of Evolution

I first came upon the curious connection between the Origin and Tristan in the middle of the 1980s. During my five years of studying life sciences, I had been especially interested in the descriptions of living nature. What is genuine living? How can one explain what makes an organism a whole, more than a mere sum of its composite parts? And how do organisms change over time? In spite of the definition of biology as the study of life, I couldn’t quite recognize the living itself: it seemed to vanish in schemes, physiological models, and chemical compound-based explanations. I had some vague idea of the living being somewhere “in between” the molecules, cells, and organs—something that kept it all together, but that itself was intangible. During these years of learning science, the history of science was hardly touched upon, and I had very few chances to reflect on the fact that this knowledge at one point in history actually had been new. On my own I gained insight into Darwin’s remarkable life and revolutionary theory. The fascinating story of the emergence of the 1859 publication of Origin, inevitably connected to Darwin’s biography, was not only history reading; it was the story of the becoming of an idea and its reluctant acceptance by society.

During my years of studying music, I met a totally different attitude toward the importance of history. Here, music history had a self-evident role in the curriculum; it was regarded as a necessity for understanding the nature of music, musical performance, and (in my case) musical composition. This view on history taught me to regard development of musical thought and practice as a stream of continuous change. Later I fully realized that this consciousness is especially important for the composer if his/her aim is to contribute something new to the already vast field of music. In my music history class, we eventually came to the great works of the European romantic period, and here Richard Wagner’s music, and...


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pp. 83-108
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