"For Wagner, there were good Germans and bad Germans, good Jews and bad Jews.” Irad Atir

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 11 February 2013 | 2:42:00 am

When we mange to track down a full copy of Dr Irad Atir's paper we will reprint it if possible.

The legendary German composer wasn't quite the anti-Semite people think, says Irad Atir, whose PhD paper was praised by Yad Vashem.

By Haggai Hitron

Richard Wagner wasn't an anti-Semite who hated every Jew because he was Jewish, says Irad Atir, who recently completed his doctorate on the controversial German composer. At worst, Wagner was a special kind of anti-Semite.

“His opposition to Jewishness was part of his opposition to the sociopolitical and cultural reality of the period in general, including the non-Jewish German reality," Atir says. "He criticized certain aspects of Germanism; for example, the conservatism, religiosity, pride in aristocratic origins, and militarism. He also criticized Jewish separatism and lust for money. For him, there were good Germans and bad Germans, good Jews and bad Jews.”

According to Atir, the only way to understand Wagner’s art, which expresses political, sociological and musicological ideology, is to approach it neutrally. The usual link between Wagner, racism, anti-Semitism and Hitlerism should be ignored.

What's the main new element in your theory?

“All the research done so far – and it's plenty – has viewed dealing with Judaism in Wagner's operas as something marginal. But research paid more attention to this after the war, after 1945, because the Jewish issue was very sensitive. I argue that [Wagner’s] dealing with Judaism as the other – complementary – side of his dealing with Germanism is prominent in all his important operas. A possible explanation for this is that Wagner, a non-Jewish composer, knew and worked with more Jews than any other significant composer. He also suspected he was half Jewish. The detailed research I’ve done on this obsessive preoccupation shows that Wagner's attitude toward Jews and Judaism was complex and changing. It certainly wasn't just hatred.”

As a musician, you base your theory on Wagner’s complex attitude toward Germanism and Judaism on Wagner’s operas as musical dramas. Can this theory be arrived at by scrutinizing Wagner’s writings and libretti without the music?

“This can be concluded, and I show that the musical research underscores and clarifies this thesis. Even Wagner's much-maligned essay 'Das Judenthum in der Musik’ ends by calling for a unification of German and Jewish culture, not destruction or conversion. To my mind, Wagner’s call succeeded that by Beethoven for universal brotherhood in his Ninth Symphony, setting to music the words of [German poet Friedrich] Schiller that ‘all men will be brothers.’”

According to your research, Wagner even expresses a positive attitude toward Judaism in his operas.

"He points out and alludes to Jewish characters; for example, through text that contains sibilant consonants in the case of Alberich and his brother Mime in 'The Ring.' The most important example of a positive attitude, or at least a complex one, is taken from 'The Ring.' The character who must be understood as Jewish – I explain why it must be so through musical analysis as well – is the character Loge, the god of fire. He is cunning but also acts in a positive way, helping good people; a Jew who has undergone change. The music associates him with the German world and the Jewish world. Sometimes it's gratingly chromatic compared to the accepted mid-19th century taste, and sometimes it's different, expressing purity.

"It's important to stress that if Wagner had wanted to express a one-dimensional attitude of hatred of Jews, he would obviously have created a single Jewish character as a caricature. The fact that he attached Jewishness to a number of different characters in his operas shows that his approach to Jews was not one-dimensional.

“Another example: the Rhinemaidens mock Alberich, an ugly ‘Jewish’ character, although he committed no crime against them. The 'dark' world within Alberich turns to evil only after the ‘good’ world has hurt him without cause. That means the ‘good’ world also contains elements of evil.

"Wagner sometimes expresses in music his criticism of the German reality by linking tonal, banal music – sometimes with a sense of violence and power, a kind of whipping of the emptiness – to unjustified arrogance. By the way, Wagner twice refused to sign an anti-Semitic petition demanding restrictions on Jewish rights, which was presented to Chancellor Bismarck. And from 1942 the Nazis themselves banned the performance of some of his operas.”

Wagner’s attitude toward Felix Mendelssohn figures centrally in your work.

“True. I show that despite Wagner’s criticism of Mendelssohn in his essay ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik,’ he wrote that Mendelssohn’s works expressed great talent, but they couldn't touch the depths of the soul because of his Judaism, because Jews don't have the ability to create real art.

"But Wagner was an admirer of Mendelssohn. In his youth he wrote with enthusiasm about Mendelssohn’s oratorio ‘St. Paul,’ and Wagner in his operas quoted famous Mendelssohnian motifs and used Mendelssohnian themes that the audiences of his day knew. And he used them not necessarily to identify Jewish characters.”