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Anti-Semitism in Wagner's Operas | Kim Chernin | Scene4 Magazine-August 2018 |

in Wagner’s Operas


Kim Chernin

Public performances of Wagner’s music have been banned in Israel since the state was founded, in 1948.  Some Holocaust survivors had protested  the performance of Wagner’s music on the grounds that he was Hitler’s favorite musician and that his work was heard at Nazi rallies and in the death camps, where Jewish musicians were compelled to perform Wagner’s music. When, in 1981, Zubin Mehta introduced the prelude to Tristan and Isolde as an encore to his performance with the Philharmonic, members of the audience shouted “Shame, Shame!”  An usher rushed  to the stage and pulled up his shirt to show scars of wounds inflicted by the Nazis.

Another chapter in this debate was opened at the Israel Festival in 2001  when Daniel Barenboim planned to lead the visiting Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra in a piece by Wagner. Barenboim had originally programmed the first act of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, but under pressure from the Festival Committee he substituted Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. At  the end of the concert he addressed the audience and asked if they wished to hear something by Wagner as an encore. He invited those who would be offended to leave the hall. Some members of the audience called him a fascist, shouting that performing Wagner was a “disgrace and deception.” Thirty minutes of debate took place, dozens of people marched out, banging doors, but the majority remained and warmly applauded the overture to Tristan and Isolde.  “Not playing [Wagner] in Israel,” Barenboim said, “is like giving the Nazis one last victory.”

Certainly, there is every urgent reason to respect the sensibilities of survivors who have been forced to know Wagner through the Nazi’s propagandistic use of him. That he cannot be performed in concert halls in Israel, where people are free to go or not, raises the old question whether Wagner the artist can be separated from Wagner the anti-Semite who became after his death Hitler’s favorite composer. Can a man who loathed Jews have written operas in which this hatred is not represented? Given that it is Jews who want to perform Wagner in Israel, can we understand why so many Jews have consistently admired Wagner’s work, from his day to our own?

Wagner caricature

Wagner wrote a vicious, infamous tract called “Judaism in Music.”  He wanted to explain “that unconscious feeling which proclaims itself among the people as a rooted dislike of the Jewish nature.”  On Jewish culture he is yet more strident: “Who has not had occasion to convince himself of the travesty of a divine service of song, presented in a real folk synagogue? Who has not been seized with a feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound confounding gurgle, yodel and cackle (“zischend, schrillend, summsend, mucksend”), which no intentional caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here in full, in naïve seriousness?”  (I’ve always wondered what business Wagner had visiting a “real [Jewish] folk synagogue?”)

Clearly, this man is no lover of the Jews.  In some of his remarks to Cosima, which she noted in her diary, he referred to Jews as: “Rats and parasites living off the bodies of other people.” Yet, knowing what I know about him, I nevertheless have been a defender of his work against the charge that the operas themselves are anti-Semitic, as Theodore Adorno believed, writing (along with many others) that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was unavoidably written into the deep tissue of the operas. 

I disagree.

It  may help here to invoke the idea of something larger than the individual passing through the individual, who must be open to serving as its expressive vehicle.  The Romantics thought of it as inspiration, the Greeks as enthusiasm, by which they meant possession by a god.  By whatever name, it is useful in accounting for the possibility that music, or an idea, or a vision, or a message of compassion, can come through a troubled or conflicted or damaged human being without being contaminated by this passage.

Is this so strange?  I really don’t understand why it creates so much fuss and bother for us.  It happens, in fact, all the time, as any of us can testify who has ever had the opportunity to meet our favorite authors,  or to form an intimate connection with inspiring teachers or former analysts or advisors.  When the idealization in which we have held them is cracked, or eroded, and we come face to face with human beings in all their limitations, the teaching, vision, wisdom they imparted can remain untainted, meaningful, transformative, in spite of the fact that it came from a person we now know to be infinitely less than we had once imagined. There is, obviously, a considerable distinction between the individual fussing and fuming through life, causing discord, arousing acrimony, and the creative being who opens up to the odd stuff of the universe that comes flowing through. 

Wagner in Paris 1867

This distinction was particularly marked in the case of Wagner who was, indeed, a liar and a cheat, a scoundrel and a thorough-going anti-Semite. Yet, this seriously flawed individual managed to capture in sound the music of the inner life—he managed, in spite of these failings, to make audible the soul’s haunted yearnings, which was his great accomplishment and intention:  “Song,” he wrote, “is just talk aroused to highest passion: Music is the speech of Passion.”  If this is a statement about his own music he is undoubtedly correct.

A great deal has been written about Wagner, more than ten thousand books and pamphlets during his lifetime, thousands since then, many of them concerned with his anti-Semitism.  Briefly summarized, the explanations for it fall into four distinct categories:

    a. The uneasiness created in him by his possible Jewish origins (hinted at first by Nietzsche) through his step-father Ludiwg Geyer, whom he long thought might have been his biological father.  Undoubtedly, it did not thrill Wagner that he was born in the Jewish ghetto in Leipzig.

    b. His jealous rivalry with the famous Jewish musicians of his time, specifically Mendelsohn, Meyerbeer, and Halevy.

    c. The influence of Cosima, (who may herself have had Jewish ancestors) and who was certainly even more of an anti-Semite than Wagner himself.

    d. The influence of the Zeitgeist, an argument that situates Wagner’s anti-Semitism in European culture of the time—itself a response to the then recent emancipation of the Jews. 

Wagner believed that his inspiration lay deep in the uncorrupted Volk spirit, to which true art, truly Germanic art, had access.  That is why he assigned to German art, “so great and grave a meaning.”  Wagner was intent upon supporting and creating the new German nation that was, in his day, nothing more than a collection of Prussian hand-workers and Saxon provincials with no coherent organizing center. Wagner’s stage was the sacred, ritual ground on which the new nation would be symbolically born, deeply attached to its native folkish roots, kept safe from endangering influences through the illusion of art.  Why would any thorough-going anti-Semite let Jews into this world of “noble illusion,” this “cure for life,” this nation reborn whole and complete?

Wagner conducting

Well, he might let them in to show how corrupt they were, or to conquer them symbolically, or dramatically drive them out of the new culture he was creating. To do so, however, given his own ideal concept of art, would have been an admission of creative failure, an artistic confession that he had not managed to achieve the pure Germanic art and Geist (spirit) he was seeking—from which the new Germany was to be born.  To let Jewish characters in here, into this world over which the composer was the absolute master, where nothing need happen that was not according to his creative will, would have been absurd. It is precisely because of his anti-Semitism that his work must be kept free of Jews.  It is because of his anti-Semitism that his work itself cannot be anti-Semitic.

Meistersinger,which most closely resembles this forecast of an idealized German nation, has a figure called Sixtus Beckmesser, often interpreted as a parody of  the Viennese Jewish critic Eduard Hanslick, one of Wagner’s most bitter enemies. Indeed, in a secondary draft for the drama, this much mocked and seemingly ridiculous figure was to be called Veit Hanslich. Wagner however quickly threw out this name in favor of Sixtus Beckmesser, the character’s original name.  In this naming competition we get a glimpse deep into the nature of his conflict about the intent and meaning of his own work, Wagner first proposing and then hastily erasing the Jewish name in favor of the originally Germanic. Others may see in Beckmesser a parody of the Jewish critic; Wagner himself saw Beckmesser as laudably and essentially German.  Wagner told Cosima: “With that venerable pedantry I imagined the German in his true essence, in the best light.”  He found him a man to whom everything, even elegance, was affected, “and yet he also has the highest pathos.”  We can imagine that Wagner’s temptation to personify and mock his Jewish rival was, almost immediately, overcome through the stronger, more urgent wish, in keeping with his high artistic purpose, to bring a representative of the German Nation onto the stage.  

In his notorious “Judaism in Music” Wagner had claimed that Jews were not a suitable subject for representation in the visual arts.   Can one imagine, given this sentiment, that Wagner found them a fit subject to be represented in his operas?

In fact, he imperatively did not. “…if plastic art wants to present us with a Jew, it mostly takes its model from sheer phantasy, with a prudent ennobling…But the Jew never wanders on to the theatric boards: the exceptions are so rare and special, that they only confirm the general rule.”   Are we listening?  Wagner is telling us that the Jew is not a suitable subject for the operatic stage.

Wagner at home

Frankly, when it comes to interpreting Wagner, too many people ignore Wagner’s obsessive Aryanism and instead loan an interpretive dominance to Hitler.  Yet Hitler was a cultural ignoramus.  When he attended a production of Wagner’s first opera, Rienzi, in Linz in 1906, the adolescent Hitler took the central character as  his role model.  But who is Rienzi?  He is a man so eager for power, so blinded in his political understanding, so desperate for the love and admiration of the masses that he brings about his own downfall. Here it is clearly not Wagner glorifying power but Hitler misunderstanding Wagner’s warning about the corrupting power of power.  Hitler as the definitive interpreter of Wagner?  I don’t think so.

Neither did those German Jews who had emigrated to London before the war and continued to admire Wagner’s Ring. At the beginning of the Nazi regime, when Jews were still permitted to attend the theatre in Germany, they went with particular glee to  Götterdämmerung so that they could, at least on the stage, experience the downfall of the Third Reich.  They clearly saw in it a study of power and the quest for absolute power, never missing the rather blatant fact that the gods of The Ring and particularly Wotan, the chief God, were as deceitful and corrupt as any fascist.  It was probably easier for them than for most Germans to understand the Ring because they already had as part of their biblical heritage the theme of twilight, the fall of great cities, the destruction of temples.  Reading the Ring in a similar way, the BBC regularly broadcast the Twilight of the Gods into Germany.  Eventually the Nazis caught on to the idea that the Ring was not a celebration of power, but a story of the greed and corruption that doomed it.  Therefore, in 1942, they forbade the production of Ring, having finally noticed that the downfall of Wagner’s Gods mirrored their own impending twilight.

Wagner as Siegfried

It can’t hurt to eliminate the Nazis as interpreters of culture. Getting them out of the way will allow us to look at Wagner with a post post-war lens and with a distinctively Jewish lens. Wagner’s characters wander through their own sea-driven, stormy diaspora, never resting, ever driven on, longing for a home they cannot find.  I am thinking here of the Flying Dutchman, a narrative borrowed from the poet Heine.  Wagner did not take over the story without qualification. He left out the irony with which Heine treated the theme of redemption through a woman’s love (his story was named “Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski,” a name even more absurd when pronounced in German than in English.)  For Wagner, redemption through love is a matter of urgent seriousness, as it continued to be throughout his work.  Nor is Herr von Schnabelewopski understood by Wagner as the “wandering Jew of the sea,” an ironic, mocking theme more readily available to the Jewish poet Heine.

I am thinking of another opera that begins with the theme of exile; of Isolde and her outcry of rage and humiliation on board the ship taking her from her home in Ireland to alien Cornwall.  There is a tale of exile in the back-story too, where Tristan, seriously wounded, close to death and alone in a foreign land, is healed by Isolde before the opera as we know it begins, thus making Tristan and Isolde the story of two exiles.

Wagner exiled

Or consider Elsa of Lohengrin who stands falsely accused of the murder of a young boy. I have always heard in her plight a distant echo of the false accusations historically brought against Jews for ritual murder.  It makes no difference whether or not Wagner intended these parallels; obviously he did not.  Once we manage, however, to get Hitler out of the way, and get rid of the false presumption there must be a direct link between Wagner’s scurrilous essay and his music, a Jewish listener may be free to experience Wagner with an immediate responsiveness to his music and its themes, without bringing them in through an imposed interpretive filter.  Then, very likely, a Jewish listener would be sensitive to those dramatic moments in which Wagner’s characters are trying to assimilate, often without success.  I am thinking of Tannhäuser when he returns from the Venusberg and cannot make his way back into Christian society because of his wrenching loyalty to the world from which he has come.  If my identification with him ends here, and I cannot follow him on his pilgrimage to Rome, I can nevertheless understand his vain, urgent struggle for assimilation.

Most haunting of all perhaps, from a Jewish point of view, is Siegmund from Die Walküre.   He belongs to the God Wotan’s “chosen race,” is set apart, always alien, always disliked, a hunted man who cannot find common ground with the people he comes across, by whom he is always suspected and reviled.  Kinship, understanding, likeness can only be found among his own race, with his sister Sieglinde, who has been living in abusive and humiliating captivity.  In the thousands of books written about Wagner’s operas no one has suggested that Siegmund is a Jew; and no one, so far as I know, has thought of him as living out conspicuously Jewish themes.

Wagner Shofar

Of course these characters are not Jews. The obsessive hunt for Jewish characters (Mime,  Alberich, the Dutchman, Kundry, Beckmesser etc) serves to blind us to the more relevant Jewish thematic that threads itself through these operas and is written deep into their core.  Wagner’s themes are exile, alienation, perpetual wandering, false accusation, a race chosen of the gods and despised by everyone else, racial kinship, the unique splendor of the great Valhallian temple that will be destroyed,  the longing for homeland, the need for redemption from exile and profound suffering.  These themes are as much Jewish as they are anything else and many of them had been set out in song thousands of years before Wagner, by Isaiah, Old Testament prophet of corruption, materialism, the worship of false gods, the punishing destruction of a race, the trust in a saving remnant.

Presentation of Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen
containing the famous line “Kiss my ass!”

And so we come to the end of the vast staging of the Gods’ twilight and find what may be yet another Jewish theme in the saving remnant--those left, when a community has gone through a catastrophe.  It could be that Alberich, and his enslaved Niebelungen, are deliberately not accounted for in the twilight’s general sweeping away.  The gold has returned to the Rhine; Alberich, who might be seen as a malignant and twisted form of the surviving remnant, may have been left behind to steal the gold again and so start the story over, as if the note of soaring redemption on which the opera ends is perhaps as ephemeral as the power of the Gods.

No wonder Jews like Wagner. Obviously, he was unaware how consistently he was telling the story of the Jewish people, which was his  story, too.  For there is another character who is on the run, slipping across borders, hunted by the law, for many years a man living in exile, a true “wandering Jew,” whose name, we will not be surprised to learn, is Richard Wagner. 

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Scene4 Magazine -Kim-Chernin

Kim Chernin is an award-winning writer in many genres. She is the author of In My Mother’s House.
For more of her articles, check the Archives.

©2018 Kim Chernin
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




August 2018

Volume 19 Issue 3

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