Richard Wagner and anti-Semitism

Posted on May 28, 2013

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It is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. His music is celebrated and played all over the world, or almost everywhere. There is one exception, a country where playing Wagner’s music in an opera house would stir intensive reaction and protests, and this country is Israel. Wagner’s music has been recognised as one of the most robust pillars of Western music, his innovations in the field of opera led to the development of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (Total art work), an experience of complete union between theater, music and staging. However, his perceived anti-Semitism hangs above the Wagner-experience like a black cloud, a topic intensely debated by the audiences, radio broadcasts and newspaper articles. Wagner was a prolific publicist and writer of his own time, involved in debates about music, social matters and philosophy. Scholars have identified references to Judaism in the way he had drawn some of his characters based on contemporary Jew stereotypes, for example Alberich, Mime, and Hagen in the Ring cycle, Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Klingsor in Parsifal and in several of his essays. However, these references would have a minor role compared to his pamphlet Judaism in Music (Das Judenthum in der Music)  published in 1850 under the pseudonym of K. Freigedank (the name literally meaning “free thought”). The pamphlet was re-published under his own name in 1869, and stirred protests and controversies about his music ever since.

To get a first-hand picture of Wagner’s views I read the original article published in 1850, translated to English by William Ashton Ellis. The text of the article is dense and some parts are difficult follow, with contorted explanations. The proposed aim of the article is to find the root causes of the “involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering then our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof” (quote from the translation of Wagner’s article).

Although Wagner stated in the introductory passages that the text would limit itself to the field of Art, and especially to the field of Music, he later comments extensively on ethnic, political and social issues that he found relevant to the topic. He gives a stereotypical description of Jewish people as a group which remained alien from the countries where they dwell from generation to generation. Wagner talks about the “Jewish mode of speech”, which he finds “outlandish and unpleasant”, “a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle”, an “intolerably jumbled blabber”, characterised by a “cold indifference” as a result of not speaking it as a mother tongue but as a foreign language.  From this point somehow he jumps to the conclusion that the speech of a Jewish person “never by any chance rises to the ardour of a higher, heartfelt passion”, making them unable of “mutual interchange of feelings” with those belonging to the host nation. In continuation he formulates the argument that a Jewish person is infinitely far away from being able to express himself in song, which is the “vividest and most indisputable expression of the personal emotion-being”. Wagner makes similar generalising comment on the outward appearance of Jewish people.

Wagner differentiates between the cultured Jewish elite, possessing large fortunes and the “common Jew”, a working class person. He describes the elite as a group that lost contact with its own cultural origins, arrogantly rejecting it, but which cannot connect emotionally with the culture of the host nation, which originates from its own folklore. He expresses his view about the Jewish elite becoming a strong financial power in Europe “Creditor of Kings” and “King of Creeds”, influencing distribution and development of artworks through the power of money, turning artistic value into mannered bricabrac. Wagner writes: “What the heroes of the arts, with untold strain consuming lief and life, have wrested from the art-fine of two millennia of misery, to-day the Jew converts into an art-bazaar.

Regarding music composed by artists of Jewish origin he analyses the output of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and the artwork of an opera composer whose name is not explicitly stated, but it is widely recognised as Giacomo Meyerbeer. The former is characterised as a musician “with the amplest store of specific talents”, owning “the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour”, who had the technical ability to combine various stylistic elements in his music in the style of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but failed to meaningfully represent the “deep and stalwart feelings of the human heart”. The latter he sees as a false-artist, who merely exploits the public’s confusion of music taste providing them cheap cultural entertainment, which is meant to alleviate their boredom, without genuine expressive artistic meaning.

While reading the text I found it easy to identify the typical cognitive errors characteristic to hate speech, first of all emotional reasoning (presuming that negative feelings expose the true nature of the things) i.e. Wagner trying to justify his involuntary repellence against Jews. This is supported by other errors of similar kind, such as overgeneralisation, jumping to conclusion (without sufficient evidence), mental filtering (focusing entirely on negative aspects), all-or nothing thinking and blaming (blaming one party for the unfair state of matters). It is clear that Wagner was full of emotions such as anger, and perhaps despair, when he initially wrote this essay, maybe because of his debts or feeling unsatisfied with the public perception of his works. However, the fact that he expanded and re-published the pamphlet about twenty years later makes me think that it was more than one impulsive outburst of hatred, and it points towards a well-established anti-Semitic attitude.

Most shockingly, after this derogatory analysis, Wagner ends his essay with the following closing sentence, addressing himself to the Jewish people: “But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of you curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus – Going under.” This latter sentence sounds horrific to me, and even if it doesn’t state unambiguously that Jewish people have to disappear from Europe, it doesn’t close this option, allowing to such an interpretation. According to the legend, a Jewish man called Ahasuerus (or Ahasverus), after he refused to grant a short rest for the cross-carrying Jesus, suffered the curse of wandering the earth carrying in himself an unending life. This figure became a symbol of the Jewish nation over the past centuries, restlessly traveling around among well settled nations. For him redemption could mean the end of such a life, and it remains a matter of interpretation whether it could be achieved by death or by self-renunciation. It is very well possible that Wagner meant cultural assimilation, and not annihilation by this sentence; such an argument is supported by the fact that he had many Jewish friends and associates. I don’t think he could even imagine / envision such horrors as the Holocaust brought about. However, for a mind with predisposition towards destructive tendencies such as Hitler and his allies, this sentence could be easily red as a call for annihilation of the Jewish people.

In the same time, it is clear that Wagner created his artwork in the full bloom of ethnic revolutions in Europe, where all the higher order social structures were trying to define their own identities by “national ideals”, drawing the borders of social organisms that have been called “countries” ever since. Wagner considered himself a German composer (although according to some scholars he may have had Jewish ancestry himself), drawing ample inspiration from Teutonic legends in his operas, with characters suggesting national heroic superiority, such as Sigfried.  This sense of superiority is not a specific German issue, but seems to be a common element in nationalist artwork worldwide. And wherever there are “superiors” there are also “inferiors”, and these are the ones who could not establish a land for themselves protected by a fence. Such communities would include Jews, Gypsies and migrants of different origins, who would always play the role of a scapegoat whenever social tension arises. So when we pass judgment on Wagner’s attitude we have to take into account that he was not alone with these anti-Semitic ideas, as he lived in a social milieu that widely promoted such views. Also, we have to take into account that writing anti-Semitic pamphlets and making musical caricatures about Jews make up a relatively minuscule part of Wagner’s output.

I think that it is a good thing that our generations are aware of the problem of anti-Semitism and we actively debate this matter. Wagner’s anti-Semitic views and the fact that his music was later idolised by Hitler certainly cast a dark shadow on the appreciation of his artwork today. I can appreciate that many people with a Jewish identity feel deeply hurt by hearing his music. In the same time, the rest of the world still listens to his music, as it carries much beauty and sophistication, and has had a tremendous impact on the development of music in the last one-and-a-half century. I do not think that his music should or could be banned, as there is no evidence he would have approved the Nazi ideology which arose 80-90 years after the publication of the first pamphlet. But it is our responsibility to exercise a sharp sense of scrutiny and criticism to his work, making sure that his anti-Semitic views are never again promoted.

Personally, I think that Wagner was a creative genius who provided outstanding beauty by his artwork, but a man who, due to his intense nationalist feelings, was vulnerable to this type of poisonous ideology widely circulated at his time. He was making a gross error of judgment when writing these pamphlets and including stereotypical Jewish references in his music, and this will influence the perception of his music for a long time.

Tibor Kovacs

 

References:

Wagner, R. Judaism in music (Das Judenthum in der Music) (1850) Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen: Volume V, pages 66-85. Translation by William Ashton Ellis (1894) published in The Theatre, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Volume 3, pages 79-100. Available online at http://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/JudaismInMusic.pdf

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Paddock, F., Speigler M. (eds.) (2003) Judaism and Anthroposophy. USA: Steiner Books

Mourby, A. Can we forgive him? [online] The Guardian website. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/friday_review/story/0,3605,345459,00.html [Accessed 23rd May 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Richard Wagner [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner [Accessed 22th May 2013]

Wikipedia (2013) Wagner controversies [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner_controversies [Accessed 23rd May 2013]

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