Anti-Semitism: The Controversy Over Richard Wagner
by Lili Eylon
When, in 1985, the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, Germany, opened an exhibition entitled "Wagner and the Jews," its organizer, museum director Manfred Eger, said it was a plea not for Wagner but for the truth. The truth is that some Germans, like many Israelis, still cannot "digest" Wagner, and that the antisemitic composer continues to be an issue - lukewarm in Germany, hot in Israel.
"Richard Wagner's antisemitism throws a considerable shadow over his person and his work," Eger states in his introduction to the exhibition: "There are expressions used by him which could have been attributed to the National Socialist violently anti-Semitic Der Stürmer and which are used today to brand him as a proponent of the Holocaust. But there are also remarks in which he retracts some of his earlier pronouncements. Moreover, several of his colleagues and friends were Jews." (One cannot help recalling the quotation attributed to Field Marshall Göring "It is I who determines who is a Jew.")
The fact that an exhibition of this nature was organized on Wagner's home ground is an indication that even there Wagner is still highly controversial.
While Richard Wagner lived decades before the birth of Nazism, his influence on the National Socialist movement and especially on its leader was enormous. In a tractate, Das Judenthum in der Musik, first published in 1850 under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Wagner wrote that Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense. The Jew, he claimed, has no true passion to impel him to artistic creation. The Jewish composer, according to Wagner, makes a confused heap of the forms and styles of all ages and masters. To admit a Jew into the world of art results in pernicious consequences. In Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik, Wagner spoke of the "harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation," adding that the subversive power of Jewry stands in contrast to the German psyche.
All these ideas, together with the ultranationalistic character of his operas, especially "The Ring," provided a fertile feeding ground for Nazi ideology and cultural conception.
In his exhibition introduction, Eger tries to prove that the roots of Hitler's antisemitism did not have their origins in Wagner. The exhibition brochure dwells heavily on Wagner's appreciation of Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn (his "Hebrides Overture") and Halévy (his opera "The Jewess"). Eger cites in detail Wagner's friendships with Jews such as the choirmaster Heinrich Porges and the conductor Hermann Levi, a rabbi's son. (There was even an affair with the half-Jewish French writer, Judith Gautier, daughter of author Theophile Gautier and Jewish singer Giulia Grisi).
Eger reduces Wagner's anti-Semitic rages to jealousy over the operatic triumphs of another Jewish composer, his contemporary, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner's Jew-hating pronouncements are quoted in the company of similar antisemitic statements by Voltaire, Marx, Luther, Napoleon and others (as though anyone doubts that antisemitism did not come into the world with Wagner). These days, claims the brochure, "there is not a trace of antisemitism in Bayreuth: in 1983 alone, the Bayreuth Festival had three Jewish conductors."
Eger states that with this exhibition the museum did not want to withhold facts but, he admits, it cannot close an open wound. If the wound is still open in Germany - how much more massive is the wound in Israel, with its Holocaust survivors and their memories? Should Wagner's music be played publicly in this country? The controversy is still very much alive and is often acrimonious.
When, in August 1995, Wagner's opera "The Flying Dutchman" was broadcast on Israel radio during prime time (Saturday evening), it partially broke a taboo. But in July 2001, a performance of the "Tristan und Isolde" overture at the Israel Festivel in Jerusalem proved that the contesious debate over Wagner is by no means settled. Wagner's music had been unofficially banned in public in Israel ever since Kristallnacht in 1938. Since then, the debate has raged. It is a debate carried on passionately not only among music-lovers, but also by citizens, young and old, who bring forceful arguments to support their stand. The clash is marked, on the one hand, by vehement emotion, on the other, by an attempt at a rational approach. Those advocating the rational approach say one must separate art from politics and that emotion should not stand in the way of art. But music, after all, is a matter of the emotions. Music in all its forms appeals to people's feelings - they react to music with their hearts, rather than with their minds. What is undisputed by adherents and objectors alike is the conviction that Wagner's music is superb. Equally undisputed is the perception that Richard Wagner was the spiritual father of much of Nazi ideology, especially its antisemitic character. Wagner coined the expressions "Jewish problem" and "final solution" - by which he meant the disappearance of Jews and Judaism. Thousands of Israelis, both of European origin and native Israelis, perceive Wagner, a loudly-proclaimed favourite of Hitler, as a symbol of the Nazi era.
"I don't believe in tying music to racism. If we did, we would have to stop playing Chopin in Israel - he too was a rabid antisemite," says Nechama Rosler, a violinist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. "But, because Wagner's music arouses such deep emotions, I feel strongly that as long as it disturbs anyone who associates it with the Nazis, with his own or his family's suffering in the Holocaust, Wagner's music should not be played publicly. The function of music, after all, is to soothe, to make the listener feel good, to stimulate or pacify his or her soul. Whoever wants to hear Wagner's music can listen to it in private."
"As a listener, I consider Tristan und Isolde a masterpiece of 19th century music, but I am at the same time repelled by Wagner's Weltanschauung. I cannot just sit and enjoy his music. I never put on Wagner's music in my home... Richard Wagner's antisemitic writings will always overshadow my life." So says Gottfried Wagner, the composer's great-grandson, who recently visited Israel on a lecture tour. "I cannot separate the operas from his theoretical work. His writings and his music form a unified whole... He always considered himself a philosopher first, and a composer only second," says Gottfried Wagner, who has been disowned by his family and lives under threat from neo-Nazi groups. He spends his professional life writing and lecturing on the antisemitism of Richard Wagner and its consequences on German politics and culture.
In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, offered an encore at the close of a subscription concert. Commotion broke out, with shouts from the audience aiming to silence the music. In introducing the piece from Tristan und Isolde, Mehta had made a short speech in which he spoke of Israel as a democracy in which all music should be played. But, he added, if this particular music offended the feelings of some of the listeners present, they were free to leave. (Two orchestra members had, at their request, been excused from playing the encore). Some older members of the audience quietly got up and went home. A few continued for a while to protest noisily, even running threateningly onto the stage, but the piece was played to the end.
A few years later a survey was conducted on the question - should the Philharmonic play Wagner's music? Of those questioned, 50 percent were against playing Wagner, 25 percent for, and 25 percent had no firm convictions on the subject. In 1992, the Philharmonic conducted its own poll among its subscribers. The majority was in favour, 30 percent were against. In view of the large minority, it was decided to continue to refrain from playing Wagner, at least for the time being.
In July 2001, the prestigious Berlin Staatskapelle performed the "Tristan und Isolde" overture at the Israel Festival. While the orchestra's condutor, Daniel Barenboim (himself a Jew), had promised to respect the ban on Wagner's music, he surprised his audience by asking them if they wanted to hear Wagner as an encore following the scheduled performance. Most of the audience was in favor of the encore, which received a standing ovation from all but a few of the listeners. However, during a half-hour debate that preceded the performance of the overture, numerous Israelis protested and walked out of the theater, some shouting insults as they went.
The controversy over the foreign orchestra's performance rekindeled the debate over what course the Israeli orchestras should pursue. Yaakov Mishori, a leading Philharmonic musician, feels the orchestra should play Wagner. "After all," he says, "Wagner died 50 years before Hitler came to power. Moreover, he was a kind of private anti-Semite, refusing to sign any public declarations against the Jews. He actually worked with many Jews. Wagner's public relations man was a Jew named Neumann, Hermann Levi conducted Wagner's works at the time, and a musician named Rubenstein finished the orchestration of some of his operas."
"I am opposed to any ban on culture," says Avi Chanani, director of the classical music division of Israel's state radio. "Zubin Mehta risked playing Wagner in one fell swoop, but I believe in introducing him gradually, and that is what I have been doing. Wagner was a revolutionary in music. His work is central to the development of European music. Without Wagner it is difficult to understand the history of music. That is one important consideration for playing his music. But what I feel is cardinal in my decision to present Wagner on the radio is my belief that in a democracy, the public has a right to know; it must be exposed to all information."
Reuven Dafni, an ex-diplomat, who parachuted into Nazi-held Yugoslavia, concurs: "Even though Zubin Mehta once told me that no orchestra can be a real orchestra without playing Wagner, I would wait until the last of the Holocaust survivors is no longer with us. Nevertheless, I think we are being hypocritical in that we play Carl Orff without compunction - Orff, who was a self-declared, card-holding Nazi." When, in the 1940s, the ban on Wagner was imposed, it included the music of another Richard - Strauss. About 13 years ago, conductor Igor Markevitch was eager to conduct Strauss with the Jerusalem Radio Orchestra (today the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra). This was denied him. But he did make a studio recording of Til Eulenspiegel. Ever since then, radio listeners have been hearing the music of Richard Strauss, "gradually," stresses the radio director.
Actually, the stories of the two Richards are quite different. While Wagner was a theorist whose ideas were meant for posterity, Strauss was a compliant pragmatist. Strauss had been appointed head of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1933; in his two years in this position he managed to get all performing Jewish artists removed from public view. His own undoing came when, in 1935, Nazi censors came upon a letter of his to Stefan Zweig - who, together with another Jew, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, wrote many of his libretti - stating that he wanted to continue working with him.
Interestingly, the music of Carl Orff is frequently performed in Israel's concert halls, particularly his popular Carmina Burana, which he composed in 1937, expressly for the leaders of the Nazi regime. At one point, when the Nazi cultural establishment wanted to get rid of the name Mendelssohn as the composer of the popular "Midsummer Night's Dream," they asked Strauss to rewrite the music. He refused, upon which Orff was asked to undertake the task and he agreed. However, the project never came to fruition. Orff seems to have been forgiven, while Wagner remains so controversial.
Motti Schmidt, leader of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, states: "Wagner was a genius. His was a complicated personality - he was like a many-layered cake - but he was not a good man. If his music still hurts the feelings of people in this country, we should respect the rights of the minority and not play Wagner." Moshe Landau, a retired Supreme Court judge and presiding judge at the Eichmann trial, says: "I have the same opinions today that I held in the 1940s. It was enough for me to have read Judenthum in der Musik. No, I don't think Wagner's music should be played here."
The basic question remains - can a discussion of Wagner be continued to be reduced solely to his music? When one talks of "not mixing art and politics," is that not exactly what this German composer did, who not only created the music but also wrote the libretti with a supernationalistic message?
The entire argument about playing Wagner in Israel does not, in reality, centre around the quality of his music. The question is not whether Wagner's music is of high or low quality, nor is the argument about how deep-seated was his antisemitism really relevant. There is no doubt that there have been other composers who were no less antisemitic. While it cannot be maintained that Wagner was directly responsible for German national socialism, there is no doubt that he was a powerful symbol in the Nazi era, and his music held a singular importance in the Nazi psyche. Thus, for Jewish survivors of the Nazi horrors, Wagner's music represents a vivid reminder of that regime. The argument that music must be separated from politics is not cogent in general, and certainly not in this case. If anybody introduced politics into music, it was Richard Wagner himself.
Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs