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Looking Back at 2013 - Part 1: Good Wagnerians And Bad Wagnerians

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 20 November 2013 | 8:18:00 am

 First in a series of articles looking back on 2013

This year has been somewhat of an exhausting one for me. Now, of course, one might expect that to be the case in Wagner's bicentenary year, where we have been "flooded" with Wagner productions, recordings, books, papers, documents, etc. But this is not the case for someone who spends as much time with the old mystic, revolutionary, anarchist as I do - even if I did need to take the odd, extended, break to spend time with Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Weber, Bloch and a number of other 20th century composers who occupy a significant amount of my "classical music" time. No, what exhausted me most were two things: ever present media references to Wagner as "Hitler's favourite composer" (he wasn't - although Hitler certainly used the perverted influence of the "Bayreuth Circle" to progress his own agenda) and even more so, to being informed with certainty in documentary after documentary - especially in the UK where this has become an especially prevalent obsession this year - that Wagner's works are littered with negative Jewish stereotypes; with everyone from Kundry to Klingsor, Mime to Alberich and Beckmesser, to even Wotan. being deconstructed - and possibly reconstructed - to support this argument.

No. No. Don't stop reading for this was not why I was exhausted either. You see, while I find the evidence far from conclusive at best, I am not closed to the idea. After all, as John Deathridge has pointed out, nearly everything that obsessed Wagner found its way into his work in someway or other and Wagner - like most people of his time, especially social revolutionaries, who found an easy scapegoat in the Jews as the supporting pillar in the temple of capitalism  - was antisemitic (and in Wagner's case, they were much easier to criticise publicly then those very capitalists he needed to fund him - it might be argued). And this was certainly, if we accept Judaism in Music and Cosima's  diaries as just the only evidence, an obsession of Wagner's. Why then, should not Wagner's, common at the time, paranoid fantasies about the Jews not find its way into his work? Especially in a time when using such negative racial stereotypes helped define an artist's intentions around his characters quickly in the group mind of its audience (See for example, Dickens' Fagin who is referred to only 43 times by his name compared to 257 by his Jewish origins in the novel Oliver Twist). Indeed, it is for this reason that I have always found a lack of Jewish stereotypes in Wagner's work so strange or that he never once - in his voluminous writings about his work or in Cosima's diaries - notes the fact. Even when speaking of characters that are typically held-up as "certain" stereotypes he not only never mentioned that he wrote them to represent "Jewishness" but found himself being sympathetic to them - Alberich for example. Hardly the actions of a vehement antisemite. But again, this does not mean that they do not exist or more importantly that researchers should not be allowed to discuss and produce papers and books on the subject.  As Barry Millington told us in an interview last year;  "It’s better to have an honest debate about it and try to understand how the ideology informs the art. It makes the works all the richer and more fascinating in my view." And I would have to agree with him.

No, it is not this that has exhausted me about this line of research, but two further arguments that have been put forward because of it:  that the "actuality" of the argument is not a matter of debate but a "certainty", now fully proven and rubber stamped by some ill defined academic rigour and that to argue against it - or even to suggest that the argument is far from proven - somehow makes you a "bad Wagnerian". Worse, - if we ignore the worrying, even "fascist", trend this might point to in research in the arts -  is the number of documentaries and books deliberately aimed at a viewer thought to have little knowledge of Wagner or his work that mark this as a "fate accompli".

Take for example, "Pappano's Essential Ring Cycle" a rather enjoyable introduction to the Ring, written and produced this year and featuring, the clearly enthusiastic Antonio Pappano. Of little real depth to anyone familiar with Wagner or the Ring, it is clearly aimed as a general introduction to the work. And yet despite this only one side of the debate we are discussing is noted. See clip below:

This begins with Pappano stating with certainty that "...Wagner's anti semitism does not only appear in his music..."! Next, the ever lucid  Wagner scholar John Deathridge notes that Wagner's antisemitism "..must have something to do with the Ring" And finally, Keith Warner, director of the present ROH Ring cycle, notes, "A lot of the appalling and terrible antisemitism in the Ring centres on the character of Mime" He concludes "I think you have to plant it (antisemitism) in the production as subtly and obscurely as it has become part of the libretto".

Nowhere here, in this introductory guide to the Ring, is the counter argument mentioned or indeed that such an argument exists - even among Wagner scholars.

Even more surprisingly the normally level headed John Deathridge described anyone who questioned such a "truth" as simply "delusional" in a Radio 4 interview early this year. (This may make me sound like a critic of Deathridge but I am not and would heartily recommend his fine work "Wagner: Beyond Good and Evil").

And not only is it in TV and Radio introductions to Wagner's work. Take for example Barry Millington's Wagner: The Sorcerer Of Bayreuth where,  while he does present the counter argument, he does so superficially with nothing less than a wave of his wrist in a discussion which would be best summarised as anyone who thinks otherwise is simply "silly" At one stage he notes, "Over the last couple of decades a powerful case for the the prosecution has been made out, centring on the town clerk, Beckmesser, in Meistersinger and the Nibelung brothers in the Ring" Yet the evidence he then refers to is one of his own, debated, papers. (Again, this should not be seen as an overall criticism of Millington or his work on Wagner  - as some do. There have been few, if anyone, who can claim to have done as much to promote Wagner and his work this year in the UK. And anyone, who founded and edits a journal dedicated to Wagner must be considered to have some "chutzpah" (in the positive meaning that this has acquired in English and not in its original less kind Yiddish form) who commissions and publishes a review of his book which so strongly criticises his stance on this subject in his very journal! (And Wagner: The Sorcerer Of Bayreuth is a recommended book also).

For me this derision of anyone who questions the stance of the "New Wagner academics" is exemplified in a "paper" given by Marc A. Weiner at conference a few years ago (click here to view in its entirety) named: "Wagner And Anti-Semitism". In his opening, Weiner notes, that in Wagner research there are "good guys and bad guys" with the "good guys" supporting the theory being questioned here and the "bad guys" being those that deny or question it.  Going on to note that some still carry on this trend today but refusing to name the present "Bad Wagnerians" concluding "...such as Micheal Tanner or Brian McGee" (Much laughter from an audience that probably should know better). Again, it should be noted that despite this simply rude and outrageous behaviour  Weiner again has a deep respect for Wagner's music and dramas, noting this is not the only important part of Wagner's work. Indeed, saying we should move on from this discussion - although this is because the conclusion is now so clearly and "obviously" been proven. (Interested readers are recommended to checkout  Weiner's book : Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. And for those put off by his argument or indeed his treatment of Tanner or McGee, should note that it is difficult to not pursue the the thoughts of a writer who concludes his discussion at the aforementioned conference with the statement, "The redemption we recognise in the Wagnerian artwork, may actually be our own redemption from it".

Alas, as much as I would like to agree with Weiner that we can now "move on" from this debate I am afraid that is not possible while a small number of, alas prominent, Wagner scholars insists that it is now fully proven or indeed label anyone that questions this less than accepted theory as a "bad Wagnerian. This is worse, when these ideas - with no counter - are presented to an unknowing public.

My background is in the sciences - despite having also studied the "arts" at an academic level "for fun" -  where clearly a very different form of academic "rigour" is required in what defines "truth". Which oddly allows me to conclude with a famous - although not necessary true tale - about Galileo Galilei. It is rumoured that while at the feet of the Grand Inquisitor in Rome, forced under threat of torture and death to recant his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun, he is supposed to have stamped the ground with his walking stick and muttered, "Yet she moves". That the earth revolves around the sun is now proven with actual evidence and not supposition and interpretation. However, had it not been, I would hope that we would be presented with both sides of the argument - just call me old fashioned.

For a detailed discussion of this debate the reader is recommended to read the following discussion over at the Wagner Journal's website between  Mark Berry and Barry Emslie:  Wagner and Anti-Semitism


Edit: In the debate between Berry and Emslie above, Emslie calls those that do not fully subscribe to his theories,  in polemic common in such discussions, as "Flat Earthers. This is odd, since in basic research terms, the evidence used to support such a theory is similar to that of The Flat Earth Society and Atlantis as the origin of civilization theorists.  Indeed, and somewhat embarrassingly, the evidence  given by the Atlantis theorists is a tad stronger - it might be argued.