Michael Portillo On Richard Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 18 March 2016 | 10:02:00 pm

Text of remarks made by Michael Portillo at the Longborough Festival Opera, Friday 2 July 1999.

"Then there’s Mime, the whining and potentially murderous dwarf. Well, the Tory party abounds with people who could take that role."

"A friend of mine once put it to me that for the Conservative Party the issue of Europe has been like the Curse of the Ring. Since long ago, when we were first seduced by the Rhine maidens of Euro federalism, every Tory leader who has possessed the ring ­ that is who has held power - has come to a sticky end"

I’ve made a number of unwise speeches in my time, but this one probably takes the biscuit. In my experience, few audiences are less tolerant of error, or more fanatical about precise detail, than Wagner fans. To speak about the Great Genius, is to enter the lions’ den.

I thought, therefore, that I had better speak mainly about politics. Some of you may know that I used to be in that line myself once.



A friend of mine once put it to me that for the Conservative Party the issue of Europe has been like the Curse of the Ring. Since long ago, when we were first seduced by the Rhine maidens of Euro federalism, every Tory leader who has possessed the ring ­ that is who has held power - has come to a sticky end. My first thought, then, was that I might speak about that parallel today.

Who was the first Conservative to be so seduced? The analogy clearly casts Sir Edward Heath as Alberich, the Niebelung, a bachelor, who is robbed of power by trickery ­ and who spends four whole operas plotting his revenge. Alberich lost the ring of power to Wotan. Logically that would make Lady Thatcher Wotan, the eternal wanderer, blind on one side. Eventually she lost power. She broke faith, by signing the Single European Act, and so gradually the Spear, with which she commanded loyalty and obedience, lost its magic. Whilst that casting of Mrs T has much to commend it, it seems such a waste of her, when later we shall need a convincing Brunhilde, and we are unlikely to find a more type-cast Walkure than she.

Michael Heseltine would make a plausible giant without much need for make-up, and could play Fafner. I don’t of course mean that he’d be willing to kill his own brother for power, but Michael is frequently described as a big beast of the jungle, and so would surely fit right in as the dragon in the forest.

Then there’s Mime, the whining and potentially murderous dwarf. Well, the Tory party abounds with people who could take that role

Then there’s Mime, the whining and potentially murderous dwarf. Well, the Tory party abounds with people who could take that role. But it was when I came to recognise that William Hague would be Siegfried that I began to see that the whole analogy was just too dangerous, even for someone like me who has retired. So I abandoned the whole idea.

Instead I thought I would discuss a rather more serious problem - how we should handle Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and its political consequences. This is delicate indeed. I started thinking about it when a few years back while I was at Bayreuth, a Jewish friend said to me that Wagner hadn’t been anti-Semitic. Of course Hitler had enjoyed Wagner, my friend said, and put the operas and the Bayreuth Festival to perverted use, but that was no reflection on Wagner himself.

I was astounded. Wagner was clearly anti-Semitic. He wrote about it most explicitly, and became more so as he grew older.

Others, uncomfortable with Wagner’s anti-Semitism, assert that it was just a commonplace of his time, and crucially his racial feelings didn’t enter his art. So, they argue, we need have no qualms about enjoying the operas. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism may have stemmed from that most unhappy period of two-and-a-half years that he spent in Paris between 1839 and 1842. He failed to get noticed there as a composer of opera. Meyerbeer, on the other hand, was hailed by Paris society as the great maestro. Wagner began to write anti-Jewish tracts, containing both generalisations about Jews, and attacks on individuals such as Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was, according to Wagner, an example of a Jew with rich talent, who nonetheless could not once produce the "deep, heart-searching, soul-seizing experience that we expect from art". Wagner’s abuse was also directed against Jewish mannerisms, and singing in synagogues. Later, Wagner developed elaborate racial theories to explain the shortcomings of Jews and Jewish musicians.

In mitigation, it is actually true that many others at that time were also anti-Semitic, including Karl Marx. The German obsession with the history of the German people ­ so-called "volkism" - and German nationalism were in the ascendant at that time. Those movements portrayed Jews as intrinsically un-German. It can also be noted that while Wagner abused Jews, amazingly he still had many Jewish friends - and Jews who idolised him, such as Mahler and Schoenberg.

The Wagner commentator Bryan Magee has argued that Wagner’s anti-Semitism didn’t prevent him from achieving some important insights. Wagner was the first to develop a plausible theory for why, before the nineteenth century, there were so few great Jewish creative artists. In a sentence, the argument is that being ghettoised until then, Jews had not been in a position as artists to articulate the anguished concerns of a society from which they lived apart. That explains what Wagner meant by that comment about Mendelssohn. But can one really agree that Mendelssohn failed to achieve the deep experiences that we expect from art; or was Wagner simply blinded to his ability by his own prejudice?

Most controversy has raged about whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism penetrated his operas. The Wagner scholar Barry Millington and others have established fairly convincingly, for me anyway, that there are Jewish caricatures in the operas. There is a very complicated analysis of Wagner’s use of language, of allusions which are obscure but which cannot be a coincidence, which proves that Beckmesser in Meistersinger is such a caricature. I’m prepared to believe that Mime is meant to be Jewish too.

But interestingly, as the critic Michael Tanner has argued, Wagner is not explicit about this. The caricatures are either a superficial impression, or conversely are at a level of rather obscure allusion which only scholars can decipher. Wagner doesn’t tell us that these are intended to be satires of Jews. He would hardly write the operas in such code if the Jewishness of his characters were in any way germane to his operas’ plots. If they are Jewish satires, then the fact that the character is portrayed as a Jew seems to be incidental, a sort of in-joke. The caricatures may be unpleasant but the operas are not about Jewishness. Their themes are something else entirely.

Admittedly, it has been argued that the plots of Parsifal and Tristan can be read in an anti-Semitic way. You need a lot of imagination to view them in that manner. Even if you use all your ingenuity, it remains the case that Wagner didn’t seek to offer us that interpretation. 

Admittedly, it has been argued that the plots of Parsifal and Tristan can be read in an anti-Semitic way. You need a lot of imagination to view them in that manner. Even if you use all your ingenuity, it remains the case that Wagner didn’t seek to offer us that interpretation. He wrote copiously about how we should understand his operas, often changed his mind about what they were about, but never said, "this opera is about the danger from, or the inferiority of, or the un-Germanness of Jews".

So, as you might expect, the question of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas is complicated. My point is that it needs to be thought about and faced head-on. Some people can’t take the unpleasant discovery that their favourite music was written by a racist, and it gets worse for them if they understand that at least some part of that racism found its way into the operas. Such people are likely to go into denial and assert that it simply isn’t so. That doesn’t seem like an appropriate response.

On the other hand, I find that many German friends won’t go near Wagner because they associate him so strongly with the Third Reich. We all know the Woody Allen joke, "I can never hear Wagner without wanting to invade Poland". The problem is made worse by the very close association between Hitler and the Wagner family, that is Richard Wagner’s descendants. That was well documented in a recent book by Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great grandson, who is appalled by the linkage.

But to avoid the work of Wagner ­ one of the greatest artistic achievements in history ­ because of its historic connotations seems as unsatisfactory a reaction as denying that there’s anything to worry about. After all, as I have said, the content of Wagner’s work isn’t by any stretch of the imagination mainly racist. The Ring isn’t about a Jewish plot to subvert the world. If Parsifal is about master races, Wagner kept uncharacteristically mum about it. And cliché though it is, it remains true that Wagner isn’t responsible for what others did with his work and in his name. Just think that if it were not for Hitler, we might never have thought about whether Wagner was anti-Semitic, or at any rate, not any more than we worry about Marx’s anti-Semitism.

The trouble is that there’s a hidden truth in the Woody Allen quip. Wagner stirs people deeply. That’s why we like him, and why we’ve come here today. The words and music and drama penetrate our souls. Wagner created sounds like no one before or since. The music’s sometimes disturbing, but also uplifting and stimulating. Our passion for Wagner is testimony to the awesome power of his music. We must accept that great art can move the wicked as well as the good, and a demented mind can draw inspiration as much as a wholesome one. We cannot blame Wagner for that, but we need to understand that it is so.

Wagner is responsible for his own writings and works, and we must be honest about the sort of person he was. It’s tempting to push aside the dilemma presented by his views, because we think Wagner a great artist whatever he thought and said. Like Mahler and Schoenberg we tend to idolise him despite his faults. Whether or not we concur with Wagner’s criticism of Mendelssohn, we can agree that we expect great art to be a "deep, heart-seizing, soul-searching experience", and Wagner’s operas are all that. But perhaps a proper understanding of his views, and an admission that certain characters are intended to be parodies of Jews, will help to keep our Wagner idolatry in bounds.

Like you I am looking forward to the opening scene where the gold is stolen by Ted Heath, I mean by Alberich; and that’s when all the trouble starts.

But now the time is approaching to hear from the Genius himself. The grandiosity of his music will stir us all, even when we hear it in an upmarket barn and played by a small orchestra. Like you I am looking forward to the opening scene where the gold is stolen by Ted Heath, I mean by Alberich; and that’s when all the trouble starts.

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