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Richard Wagner

The German composer Richard Wagner was a controversial figure during his lifetime, and has continued to be so after his death. [1] Even today he is associated in the minds of many with Nazism and his operas are thought to extol the virtues of Aryan supermen. The writer and Wagner scholar Bryan Magee has written:

"I sometimes think there are two Wagners in our culture, almost unrecognizably different from one another: the Wagner possessed by those who know his work, and the Wagner imagined by those who know him only by name and reputation."[2]

Most of these perceptions arise from Wagner's published opinions on a number of topics. Wagner was a voluminous writer and published essays and pamphlets on a wide range of subjects throughout his life. (Many of Wagner's writings are available online in English translations at The Wagner Library.) While his music-dramas have an immediate appeal, Wagner's writing style is verbose, unclear and turgid, which has greatly added to the confusion about his opinions.

Several of his writings have achieved some notoriety, in particular his essay Judaism in Music ("Das Judenthum in der Musik"), a critical view on the influence of Jews in German culture and society at that time. His attitudes to the unification of Germany were complex: he disliked the first German Chancellor Bismarck, however he often expressed his belief that German Art should be extolled and protected, most notably in Hans Sachs' final oration in his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The essays he wrote in his final years were also controversial, with many readers perceiving them to employ an endorsement of racist, Aryan beliefs.

Wagner was also promoted during the Nazi era as one of Adolf Hitler's favourite composers, and Hitler is alleged to have said that "Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner." [3] Historical perception of Wagner has been tainted with this association ever since, and there is debate over how Wagner's writings and operas might have influenced the creation of Nazi Germany. Finally there is controversy over Wagner's paternity. It is suggested that he was the son of Ludwig Geyer, rather than Carl Friedrich Wagner and some of his biographers have suggested that Wagner himself believed that Geyer was Jewish.

Contents

Paternity

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the Leipzig police service and Johanna Rosine Wagner[4]. Wagner's father died of typhus six months after Richard's birth, by which time Wagner's mother was living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer in the Brühl, at that time the Jewish quarter of Leipzig. Johanna and Geyer married in August 1814, and for the first 14 years of his life, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer. Wagner in his later years discovered letters from Geyer to his mother which led him to suspect that Geyer was in fact his biological father, and furthermore speculated that Geyer was Jewish. [5][6][7] The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of Wagner's closest acolytes, and proof-read Wagner's autobiography Mein Leben. It may have been this closeness that led Nietzsche to claim in his 1888 book Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner) that Wagner's father was Geyer, and to make the pun that "Ein Geyer ist beinahe schon ein Adler" (A vulture is almost an eagle) —Geyer also being the German word for a vulture and Adler being a very common Jewish surname. Despite these conjectures on the part of Wagner and Nietzsche, there is no evidence that Geyer was Jewish, and the question of Wagner's paternity is unlikely to be settled without DNA evidence.

Antisemitism

Prior to 1850 there is no record of Wagner expressing any particular antisemitic sentiment [8]. However as he struggled to develop his career he began to resent the success of Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer and blamed them for his lack of success, particularly after his stay in Paris in 1840 - 1841 when he was impoverished and reduced to music copy-editing. Ironically, at the same time Wagner did have considerable contact with Meyerbeer, who loaned him money and used his influence to arrange for the premiere of Rienzi, Wagner's first successful opera, in Dresden in 1842; Meyerbeer later expressed hurt and bewilderment over Wagner's written abuse of him, his works, and his faith. Wagner's first and most controversial essay on the subject was "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Judaism in Music"), originally published under the pen-name "K. Freigedank" ("K. Freethought") in 1850 in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In a previous issue Theodor Uhlig had attacked the success in Paris of Meyerbeer's Le prophete, and Wagner's essay expanded this to an attack on "Jewry" in all German art. The essay purported to explain popular dislike of Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, who is not mentioned by name but is clearly a target. Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their "alien" appearance and behaviour: "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, because they had no connection to the genuine spirit of the German people.

In the conclusion to the essay, he wrote of the Jews that "only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus — going under!" Although this has been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it seems to refer only to the eradication of Jewish separateness and traditions. Wagner advises Jews to follow the example of Ludwig Börne by abandoning Judaism. In this way Jews will take part in "this regenerative work of deliverance through self-annulment; then are we one and un-dissevered!"[9] Wagner was therefore calling for the assimilation of Jews into mainstream German culture and society - although there can be little doubt, from the words he uses in the essay, that this call was prompted at least as much by anti-semitism as by a desire for social amelioration. (In the very first publication, the word here translated as 'self-annulment' was represented by the phrase 'self-annihilating, bloody struggle').[10] The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner repeated similar views in several later articles, such as "What is German?" (1878). Wagner's anti-semitism was thus motivated largely by religion and cultural factors, not by race or physical appearance.

Some biographers, such as Theodor Adorno and Robert Gutman[11] have advanced the claim that Wagner's opposition to Jews was not limited to his articles, and that the operas contained such messages. In particular the characters of Mime in the Ring, Klingsor in Parsifal and Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger are supposedly Jewish stereotypes, although none of them are identified as Jews in the libretto. Such claims are disputed. The arguments supporting these purported "hidden messages" are often convoluted, and may be the result of biased over-interpretation. Wagner was not above putting digs and insults to specific individuals into his work, and it was usually obvious when he did. Wagner, over the course of his life, produced a huge amount of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, including his operas and his views on Jews (as well as many other topics); these purported messages are never mentioned.

Despite his published views on Jewishness, Wagner maintained Jewish friends and colleagues throughout his life. One of the most notable of these was Hermann Levi, a practising Jew and son of a Rabbi, whose talent was freely acknowledged by Wagner. Levi's position as Kapellmeister at Munich meant that he was to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera. Wagner initially objected to this and was quoted as saying that Levi should be baptized before conducting Parsifal. Levi however held Wagner in adulation, and was asked to be a pallbearer at the composer's funeral.

Aryanism

Some biographers have asserted that Wagner in his final years came to believe in the Aryanist philosophy of Arthur de Gobineau.[12] However the influence of Gobineau on Wagner's thought is debated.[13][14] Wagner was first introduced to Gobineau in person in Rome in November 1876. The two did not cross paths again until 1880, well after Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal, the opera most often accused of containing racist ideology. Although Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races was written 25 years earlier, it seems that Wagner did not read it until October 1880.[15] There is evidence to suggest that Wagner was very interested in Gobineau's idea that Western society was doomed because of miscegenation between "superior" and "inferior" races. However, he does not seem to have subscribed to any belief in the superiority of the supposed Germanic or "Nordic race".

Wagner's conversations with Gobineau during the philosopher's 5-week stay at Wahnfried in 1881 were punctuated with frequent arguments. Cosima Wagner's diary entry for June 3 recounts one exchange in which Wagner "positively exploded in favour of Christianity as compared to racial theory." Gobineau also believed, unlike Wagner, that the Irish (whom he considered a "degenerate" race) should be ruled by the English (a Nordic race), and that in order to have musical ability, one must have black ancestry.[16]

Wagner subsequently wrote three essays in response to Gobineau's ideas: "Introduction to a Work of Count Gobineau", "Know Thyself", and "Heroism and Christianity" (all 1881). The "Introduction" is a short piece[17] written for the "Bayreuth Blätter" in which Wagner praises the Count's book:

"We asked Count Gobineau, returned from weary, knowledge-laden wanderings among far distant lands and peoples, what he thought of the present aspect of the world; to-day we give his answer to our readers. He, too, had peered into an Inner: he proved the blood in modern manhood's veins, and found it tainted past all healing."

In "Know Thyself"[18] Wagner deals with the German people, whom Gobineau believes are the "superior" Aryan race. Wagner rejects the notion that the Germans are a race at all, and further proposes that we should look past the notion of race to focus on the human qualities ("das Reinmenschliche") common to all of us. In "Heroism and Christianity",[19] Wagner's proposes that Christianity could function to provide a moral harmonization of all races, and that it could be a unifying force in the world preferable to the physical unification of races by miscegenation:

"Whilst yellow races have viewed themselves as sprung from monkeys, the white traced back their origin to gods, and deemed themselves marked out for rulership. It has been made quite clear that we should have no History of Man at all, had there been no movements, creations and achievements of the white men; and we may fitly take world-history as the consequence of these white men mixing with the black and yellow, and bringing them in so far into history as that mixture altered them and made them less unlike the white. Incomparably fewer in individual numbers than the lower races, the ruin of the white races may be referred to their having been obliged to mix with them; whereby, as remarked already, they suffered more from the loss of their purity than the others could gain by the ennobling of their blood...[I]f the noblest race's rulership and exploitation of the lower races, quite justified in a natural sense, has founded a sheer immoral system throughout the world, any equalising of them all by flat commixture decidedly would not conduct to an aesthetic state of things. To us Equality is only thinkable as based upon a universal moral concord, such as we can but deem true Christianity elect to bring about."

Gobineau stayed at Wahnfried again during May 1882, but did not engage in such extensive or heated debate with Wagner as on the previous occasion, as Wagner was largely occupied by the preparations for the premiere of Parsifal. Wagner's concerns over miscegenation occupied him until the very end of his life, and he was in the process of writing another essay, "On the Womanly in the Human Race" (1883),[20] at the time of his death. The work discusses the role of marriage in the creation of races:

"it is certain that the noblest white race is monogamic at its first appearance in saga and history, but marches toward its downfall through polygamy with the races which it conquers."

Wagner's writings on race would probably be considered unimportant were it not for the influence of his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who expanded on Wagner and Gobineau's ideas in his 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a racist work extolling the Aryan ideal which later strongly influenced Adolf Hitler's ideas on race.

Nazi appropriation

About the time of Wagner's death, European nationalist movements were losing the Romantic, idealistic egalitarianism of 1848, and acquiring tints of militarism and aggression, due in no small part to Bismarck's takeover and unification of Germany in 1871. After Wagner's death in 1883, Bayreuth increasingly became a focus for German nationalists attracted by the mythos of the operas, who came to be known as the Bayreuth circle. This group was endorsed by Cosima Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was considerably less complex and more virulent than Richard's.[21] One of the circle was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the author of a number of 'philosophic' tracts which later became required Nazi reading. Chamberlain married Wagner's daughter, Eva. After the deaths of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930, the operation of the Festival fell to Siegfried's widow, English-born Winifred, who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a fanatical student and admirer of Wagner's ideology and music, and sought to incorporate it into his heroic mythology of the German nation (a nation that had no formal identity prior to 1871). Hitler held many of Wagner's original scores in his Berlin bunker during World War II, despite the pleadings of Wieland Wagner to have these important documents put in his care; the scores perished with Hitler in the final days of the war.

Many scholars have argued that Wagner's views, particularly his anti-Semitism and purported Aryan-Germanic racism, influenced the Nazis. These claims are disputed. Recent studies suggest that there is no evidence that Hitler even read any of Wagner's writings and further argues that Wagner's works do not inherently support Nazi notions of heroism. [22] For example, Siegfried, the ostensible "hero" of the Ring cycle, may appear (and often does so in modern productions) a shallow and unappealing lout—although this is certainly not how Wagner himself conceived him; the opera's sympathies seem to lie instead with the world-weary womaniser Wotan. Many aspects of Wagner's personal philosophy would certainly have been unappealing to Nazis, such as his quietist mysticism and support for Jewish assimilation. For example, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister banned Parsifal in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, due to the perceived pacifistic overtones of the opera.[23]

For the most part, the Nazi fascination with Wagner was limited to Hitler, sometimes to the dismay of other high-ranking Nazi officials, including Goebbels. In 1933, for instance, Hitler ordered that each Nuremberg Rally open with a performance of the Meistersinger overture, and he even issued one thousand free tickets to Nazi functionaries. When Hitler entered the theater, however, he discovered that it was almost empty. The following year, those functionaries were ordered to attend, but they could be seen dozing off during the performance, so that in 1935, Hitler conceded and released the tickets to the public.[24]

In general, while Wagner's music was often performed during the Third Reich, his popularity actually declined in favor of Italian composers such as Verdi and Puccini. By the 1938-1939 season, Wagner had only one opera in the list of fifteen most popular operas of the season, with the list headed by Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.[25] Ironically, according to Albert Speer, The Berlin Philharmonic's last performance before their evacuation from Berlin at the end of World War II was of Brünnhilde's immolation scene at the end of Götterdämmerung.

Nevertheless, Wagner's operas have never been staged in the modern state of Israel, and the few instrumental performances that have occurred have provoked much controversy. Although his works are commonly broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations, attempts at staging public performances have been halted by protests, which have included protests from Holocaust survivors. For instance, after Daniel Barenboim conducted the Siegfried Idyll as an encore at the 2001 Israel Festival, a parliamentary committee urged a boycott of the conductor, and an initially scheduled performance of Die Walküre had to be withdrawn. On another occasion, Zubin Mehta played Wagner in Israel in spite of walkouts and jeers from the audience. One of the many ironies reflecting the complexities of Wagner and the responses his music provokes is that, like many German-speaking Jews of the pre-Hitler epoch, Theodore Herzl, a founder of modern Zionism, was an avid admirer of Wagner's work.

Bibliography

  • Adorno, Theodor (2005). "In Search of Wagner." Verso ISBN 1-84-467500-9.
  • Evans, R. J. The Coming of the Third Reich, London 2004 ISBN 9780141009759
  • Gutman, Robert (1968, revised 1990). "Richard Wagner : The Man, His Mind and His Music." Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ISBN 0-15-677615-4 (1990).
  • Magee, Bryan (2002). "The Tristan Chord." Owl Books, New York. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4).
  • Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). "The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music." Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1.
  • Rose, Paul Lawrence (1992) "Wagner: Race and Revolution." Yale University Press. ISBN 0-30-005182-4.
  • Spotts, Frederick, (1999) Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. Yale University Press ISBN 0-7126-5277-9.
  • Wagner, Richard "Mein Leben." (My Life) vol 1 available online at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5197.

References

  1. ^ Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 passim.
  2. ^ Magee, Bryan (2002). The Tristan Chord. Owl Books, New York. ISBN 0-8050-7189-X. (UK Title: Wagner and Philosophy, Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, ISBN 0-14-029519-4)
  3. ^ Shirer, William "The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich" Arrow Press ISBN 0-09-942176-3
  4. ^ Wagner, Richard "Mein Leben" (My Life) vol 1 available online at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5197
  5. ^ Magee, Bryan (2002)ibid pages 358 - 361.
  6. ^ Gutman, Robert (1968, revised 1990). "Richard Wagner : The Man, His Mind and His Music". Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ISBN 0-14-021168-3 pbk (1971), 015677615 4 pbk (1990) page 4.
  7. ^ 'A Vulture is Almost an Eagle'
  8. ^ Katz, Jacob, (1986) "The Darker side of Genius: Richard Wagner's Anti-Semitism", Brandeis University Press ISBN 0-87-451368-5
  9. ^ Wagner, R. Judaism in Music
  10. ^ Wagner, R. Judaism in Music, note 37
  11. ^ Gutman, Robert (1968, revised 1990)ibid passim.
  12. ^ Gutman (1990) ibid pages 418ff
  13. ^ Gregor-Dellin, Martin (1983)"Richard Wagner: his life, his work, his Century." William Collins, ISBN 0-00-216669-0 pages 468,487.
  14. ^ Parsifal and Race
  15. ^ Gutman (1990) ibid page 406
  16. ^ Gutman (1990) ibid page 419
  17. ^ Introduction to a work of Count Gobineau's
  18. ^ Know Thyself
  19. ^ Hero-dom and Christendom
  20. ^ On the Womanly in the Human Race
  21. ^ See e.g. Evans (2004), 32-33
  22. ^ Evans, Richard J. (2005), The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939, The Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-074-2.
  23. ^ "The 1939 Ban on Parsifal" on the Parsifal Home Page
  24. ^ Spotts, Frederick, (1999) Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival. Yale University Press ISBN 0-7126-5277-9 page 156
  25. ^ Evans, Richard J. (2005), The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939, The Penguin Press, pp198-201, ISBN 1-59420-074-2.

See also








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