Hermann Levi's Shame and Parsifal's Guilt - Laurence Dreyfus

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 20 September 2011 | 2:38:00 am

Hermann Levi
The following is the first few paragraphs of Laurence Dreyfus counter argument to the oft held revisionist notions that Parsifal  is really (and most importantly only) about Aryan supremacy and in essence highly antisemitic,  while Levi - as Wagner's friend and conductor of Pasifal's premier - should be seen as a "self hating Jew". Not only does he argue that these are over simplistic arguments but are essentialist to the extreme (I simplify highly and the argument is far more complex than this would suggest but I hope you get the gist). And don't worry, the title is ironic. The rest of this paper can be found by following the link below. There are five reasons for brining this to your attention:


1 - It's well argued
2 - It examines an argument one has been  heard far to often (e prominently in the work of Peter Gay and  Paul Lawrence
Rose) with little coherent counterargument. It is also an argument highly insulting to Levi who rather than being a "self-hating Jew" is shown by Dreyfus to have "gained strength" from his Jewish heritage and been both proud of, and closely associated with, it.
3 - The argument that Dreyfus counters is one that has begun to dominate new stage productions of Wagner's work - alas, especially at Bayreuth of late.
4 - It is well written.
5 - It is such a fine piece of Wagnerian research it would be a shame for it to remain "obscure"


Before starting, it is worth noting that Dreyfus is at his academic "worse" and that this is an academic paper. Thus, he writes in that particular style so loved by academics - he will use six obscure sentences where one would have done (see Wagner for an example of this taken to its ultimate conclusion - and as an unintentional parody perhaps). However, this is prominent only in the opening few paragraphs. Stick with it if you not familiar with this style - it gets better and becomes wonderfully well written  - it is well worth the initial, but thankfully brief, effort. It should also be noted that Dreyfus is more that capable of writing highly engaging material for the general reader


Hermann Levi's Shame and "Parsifal'"s Guilt - Laurence Dreyfus
Originally published: Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2. (Jul., 1994), pp. 125-145.



Two dissimilar subjects - Hermann Levi (1839-1900), a Jewish Wagnerian who conducted the Bayreuth premier of Parsifal, and Parsifal itself - can be seen in a critical discourse that binds them together in a paradoxical relationship. In accounts of both Levi and the opera he conducted, certain historians and critics
have made a point of stripping away a supposed veneer of aesthetic deception in order to expose the raw underbelly of historical truth. In these revisionist readings, Levi's enthusiasm for Wagner and his music amounts to a shameful form of Jewish 'self-hatred', while Parsifal, far from espousing a message of
compassion and redemption, propagates ideas of Aryan solidarity and racial supremacy. To advance these arguments is tantamount to claiming that moral and psychological categories such as shame and g d t are appropriate ways to describe a musician's life or the historical legacy of an opera; and these are views
I find difficult to share. The slogan in my title should thus be understood as an ironic commentary, as well as a call to formulate the questions in a new way.Although I can only sketch the outlines of an alternative approach, I will suggest that critical accounts shaming Hermann Levi for his Wagnerism, and damning
Parsifal for its anti-Semitism, are cut from the same cloth; they need to be revalued by a musicology that traffics in both an aesthetic understanding of art works and a critical assessment of the cultural framework in which this understanding is produced. What is remarkable in the accounts with which I take issue is the sneering tone with which writers often censure - from dubious moral high ground -what they take to be objectionable. Their basic flaw is essentialism, by which I mean the tendency to reduce and confine cultural and aesthetic representations to manifestations of a single identification, to one stylised essence. In the first case, the Munich court conductor Hermann Levi, son of the chief rabbi of Gienen and the conductor
of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival from 1882 to 1894, is filtered exclusively through the prism of his Jewish identity and then judged a shameful self-hater for having capitulated to one of Europe's most vocal anti-Semites. In the second case, the  opera Parsifal is reduced to a shadow-play for Wagner's racialist theories of
regeneration, in which a de-Judaised Christian Brotherhood is called upon to cleanse its blood and to celebrate the symbolic annihilation of the Jews. The essence in this reading of Parsifal is ideology, a category understood as lying at the deepest layer of the work, assumed to provide the props and pull the strings. In both cases, a naive essentialism causes partial truths to eclipse the larger picture. Levi's life, in fact, was far too varied and productive to be reduced to whatever ambivalence he felt as a Jew, just as Parsifal is far too complex an opera to be whittled down to its putative political essence.

The chief irony of this essentialism - quite apart from its suspicion of musical experience and its misunderstanding of what draws people to music - is that it mimics Richard Wagner's own, noxious essentialising of 'Jewish-ness' and  'German-ness'. Instead of repudiating a vulgar nineteenth-century anthropology in which political or social identities provide the key to the 'true story' or 'deep structure' of human experience, our neo-essentialists reinvent it. So, instead of  Wagner the ideologue holding forth on what is morally objectionable in the Jewish  influence on art, historians and critics in the late twentieth century pronounce on the morally objectionable in Wagner and his music. What is curiously covered up in this

I am certainly not suggesting that issues of ideology or cultural identity need to be in any way neglected: they are far too important. But if one begins with an aesthetic sympathy for great works of art -rather than with a moralising ideological agenda - one can live both with plumbing their musical depths and with taking
stock of their inevitable cultural and psychological baggage. Taking Hermann Levi and Wagner's P a r s e as a paired case study, I mean to suggest that biography and  criticism stand to gain when they weave together a number of narrative threads - even ideologically incompatible ones - without necessarily producing a unified
fabric. Among the writers I am grouping together are Hartmut Zelinsky and Rolf Schneider in Germany, Peter Gay in the United States and Paul Lawrence Rose in Israel.' By and large these are historians and critics rather than musicologists; but their views have a certain resonance within musical scholarship today

I begin with Herrnann Levi, about whom one story in particular figures in every account of the conductor's relationship with Wagner. Despite the importance of the event and its consequences, it is interesting to see how the story is used again and again as an emblem that collapses a complex human relationship into an exaggerated portrayal of Wagner's proto-fascistic sadism as well as Levi's ultimate capitulation
to 'service and self-hatred'.

The incident took place on 29 June 1881, the summer before the premiere of  Parsifal, when a letter arrived at Wahnfried demanding that Wagner 'keep his work pure and not allow a Jew to conduct it'. According to Levi's personal notes, as well as Cosima Wagner's diaries and correspondence, the letter -which does not survive - also raised suspicions of an amorous relationship between Levi and Cosima. Wagner asked Levi to read the letter, and queried him insensitively  about his silence; Levi left Bayreuth for Bamberg, apparently both insulted by Wagner's behaviour and troubled that the issue of his directorship should be questioned. In a note sent from Bamberg, Levi asked Wagner to relieve him of his conducting assignment. There followed a telegram from Wahnfried in which Wagner, without really apologising for his behaviour, assured Levi that 'you are my Parsifal conductor' while at the same time alluding obliquely to his hope that Levi might still want to
consider converting to Christianity,that Parsifal, as Wagner put it, might 'perhaps . . . be a great turning point in your life'. Levi gives his own account of the story in a notebook he provided to the editor of the Bayretltber Bliitter shortly before his death, in connection with a planned publication of the Wagner-Levi correspondence. A copy (not in Levi's hand) of these notes is in the manuscript collection of the Nationalarchiv der Richard-
Wagner-Stiftung at Bayre~th.~The editor of the correspondence, perhaps Hans von Wolzogen or possibly even Cosima Wagner herself, excised a number of important passages from the letters and printed only those remarks by Levi that were relevant to the printed passages in the letters. The editor also took the opportunity to contradict certain of Levi's reminiscences that he or she found inconvenient or implausible. For example, Levi's account of the Bayreuth episode ends with Wagner saying, When you return to Munich, give Herr . . . a slap in the face and tell him it comes from me. And thereafter the matter will be settled once and for all.' (Wenn Sie nach Miinchen zuriickkommen, geben Sie Herrn . . . eine Ohrfeige und sagen ihm sie komme von rnir. Und danach sei die Sache ein fiir alle Male abgethan.') 

From this it seems that, even though the letter was not signed and hence was correctly termed 'anonymous', both Wagner and Levi guessed the identity of a man in Munich who had sent it. Neither Cosima nor Richard Wagner seem to have believed that the letter would make such a disturbing impression on Levi, and
completely missed the fact that it was largely Wagner's humiliating behaviour in showing Levi the letter and connecting it with his intimations of disloyalty that so disconcerted the Capellmeister.
Cosima's diaries report the incident in this way: Around lunchtime Richard] comes to me in a state of some excitement: 'Here's a nice letter.' I: 'Something bad?' 'Ph, you'll see.' I read it, am at first astonished, but then join in R.'s lively merriment. But when the letter is shown to the poor conductor, he cannot master
his feelings, it seems that such instances of baseness are something new to him!

The next day's entries mention 'poor friend Levi - who cannot recover his composure' and the fact that Wagner had sent the telegram to 'friend Levi', after which Cosima comments: 'Life, and people who expect something from it!' O n 2 July, following Levi's return to Wahnfried, everyone is seemingly restored to good
spirits, and when Levi recounted his inspirational visit to the Bamberg Cathedral, Wagner, according to Cosima, 'indicates to Levi that he has been thinking of having him baptised and of accompanying him to Holy C~mmunion'.~I might also note that an added appeal in this story of humiliation was that Wagner is quoted as having used an obscenity which - despite the fact that it seemed to indicate he was on Levi's side -added yet another distasteful element to the narrative. However, whereas all references in the literature quote Wagner as
saying that 'we are entirely at one in thinking that the whole world must be told about this shit', everyone had merely guessed that the German abbreviation 'Sch. . .'found in the edited letters printed in the Bqretltber Bliiter referred to 'S~heiCie'.~In fact, Wagner had written 'Schweinerei', which the priggish editor had struck out with an ellipsis. 'Schweinerei' in this context means something akin to a colloquial form of 'gross insult', an elocution by which Wagner meant to assure Levi that he (Wagner) gave no serious thought either to the rumour of Cosima's sexual impropriety with Levi or to the objection that Parsifal should not be conducted by a Jew. Whereas the former was true, we know that Wagner in fact took the second 'insult' seriously, as evidenced not only by his writings on the Jewish question but by his numerous attempts to persuade Levi to give up his Jewishness by a conversion of some kind.