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Wagner and the Jews

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 16 August 2015 | 3:42:00 am

Two centuries after the great composer’s birth, his anti-Semitism remains a bitterly contested issue. Perhaps that’s because no one has yet come to grips with its, or his, true nature.


In 2013, as the classical-music world lurched from crisis to crisis, with orchestras on strike and opera companies vanishing into thin air, the bicentennial of the birth of the towering German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) offered a brilliant exception to the prevailing gloom. Productions of his operas filled houses from Seattle to Buenos Aires, and the great companies of Europe and the United States vied to present ever grander stagings of the colossal 15-hour cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. At a time when so many preeminent musical institutions are collapsing into bankruptcy or labor disputes, Wagner is one institution that seems to endure.

Yet Wagner’s powerfully continuing appeal in terms of dollars spent and seats filled is only a part, and the less important part, of his enduring significance. Wagner has always been remarkable not only for the breadth but for the depth of his impact, a depth that can be measured both by the intensity of the devotion that his works inspire and by the fact that his devotees have included many of the intellectual and political elite of Western society. When his fame was at its zenith in the latter part of the 19th century, his most fervent admirers were as varied as the young Friedrich Nietzsche, the poet Charles Baudelaire, and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who helped to bankroll Wagner’s great festival in the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth.

Today the Bayreuth festival, dedicated exclusively to Wagner’s works, stands at the apex of German cultural life, counting Chancellor Angela Merkel among its regular guests, while the years surrounding the recent bicentennial witnessed an outpouring of reflections on and encomia to the composer from figures as divergent as the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Pope.

At the root of the fascination and devotion that Wagner commands is the immersive, captivating power of his works, a power that has no exact parallel in the history of the arts. His early admirers found themselves reaching, time and again, for language of a revealing erotic or religious intensity. Baudelaire spoke for many when he wrote to Wagner that “I owe you the greatest musical pleasure I have ever experienced,” a pleasure that he likened to being “ravished and flooded” as if “tossing in the sea.” Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, found in this music both an expression of “the true reality, the heart of the world,” and a force by which the listener might be “extinguished” in “a spasmodic unharnessing of all the wings of the soul.”

Ravished, flooded, extinguished: these are the keynotes of the Wagnerian experience. We encounter his operas not as spectacles that we contemplate from afar, but as a world into which we enter and which threatens at times to subsume us. Such encounters could carry the force of a conversion, as they did for Baudelaire, in whom Wagner inspired (in the words of the great German novelist Thomas Mann) an answering “ambition of making music with language, of emulating Wagner with language alone.” Similar claims could be made about art, philosophy, even politics; without Wagner, the face of the 19th century would look very different.
The Wagner question lies at the intersection of the moral and the aesthetic spheres, with the hatefulness of the composer’s polemics set against the acknowledged majesty of his work.
And not only the 19th century. Those enraptured by Wagner have not been limited to artistic luminaries like Baudelaire or Marcel Proust. They also include, notoriously, a frustrated painter from Linz, a man who would one day bend the full resources of a modern industrial nation toward effacing the Jews from the canvas of Europe. More troublingly, it is often claimed that Hitler found inspiration not only in Wagner’s music but in his ideas, among which were a nationalism and anti-Semitism whose virulence had shocked even the composer’s contemporaries.

For this reason, Wagner’s bicentennial has been greeted not only with new productions but with renewed acrimony, as the perennial, often bitterly contested debate over his anti-Semitism rises back into view, a dark lining surrounding the brilliance of the Bayreuth galas, sold-out performances, and glittering eulogies. This debate—what we might call the Wagner question—lies at the intersection of two spheres, the moral and the aesthetic, with the hatefulness of the composer’s polemics set against the acknowledged majesty of his work. What is at issue, fundamentally, is how we connect, if we can connect, these two sides of him.

To many of Wagner’s defenders, the two sides cannot be connected: art is art, and life is life, and never the twain shall meet. This position is neatly summed up in the dichotomous title of a book by M. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. By contrast, most of Wagner’s critics contend that no such separation between the man and the art is possible.

Approached this way, the Wagner question would seem to be one instance, if the most extreme and dramatic instance, of a more fundamental question: the question of the morality of art, and more specifically the morality of music, the most abstract of the arts. Is music pure, inhabiting a realm of transcendent form beyond the corruption of politics? Or does the taint of guilt—the guilt of the everyday world, with its struggles for power, its cruelty and barbarism—fall on music as well?

But Wagner resists reduction to such generalities. It is not only the passions brought to the debate, but the very terms in which it is framed, that prevent his defenders and detractors alike from seeing him clearly. This is both because the moral question asked about him is unlike any other moral question, and because his art itself is unlike any other art.