Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Wagner Problem

Today on the blog, we welcome back guest blogger Jonathan Caves as he addresses a difficult topic not often discussed among Wagnerites. All opinions expressed in our guest posts are those of the author and not necessarily those of Seattle Opera. Read on!


Upfront let me state that I love all of Wagner's Operas and I cannot wait for the Ring cycles at Seattle Opera (I am attending all 3 cycles): but when it comes to the man himself I have a problem. Richard Wagner as a person had many faults, extreme egotist, serial adulterer, and anti-Semitic; and it is this last trait that causes me the most problem. Wagner's anti-Semitism is indisputable: he twice published an essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music): when he first published it in 1850 he used a pseudonym but when he re-issued the essay in an expanded form in 1869 he used his real name. The essay attacked what Wagner perceived as the negative impact of Jews on German Music and by extension on German Culture in general. While it can be argued that part of the reason for the initial essay was a fit of extreme jealousy on the part of Wagner for what he considered the undeserved success of the openly Jewish composer Meyerbeer this does not explain the re-issue of the essay. In 1869 Wagner was himself successful and Meyerbeer was dead (he died in 1864) and his operas were already being forgotten. So we are, I believe, forced to accept that Wagner really was anti-Semitic and furthermore that the publication of this essay did, in a small way, help the rise of anti-Semitism in 19th Century German.

The question then is can we and should we enjoy a piece of great art, like the Ring, if we know that the artist held views which are considered almost universally to be highly objectionable? I think we can as long as a couple of conditions are met:

1) We as the audience must acknowledge and accept the faults of the artist

2) The art itself does not further the objectionable views of the artist

The first condition is pretty clear but we need to take a closer look at the second condition: is The Ring itself anti-Semitic? I believe that the answer is no. The one character that is regularly held up as a caricature of a Jew is Mime in Siegfried, but I find that Mime is neither particularly Jewish nor the most objectionable character in the Ring. Almost all the characters are all pretty flawed. Wotan: willing to trade his sister-in-law for a castle; and does anybody really like Siegfried? I for one find him a pretty annoying character. Wagner himself hinted that the person that Mime most closely resembled was Wagner himself - something that appears believable given Wagner's nature: especially the way he (ab)used people for his own ends. Of course if we believe that art reflects the artist that created it then there must be some anti-Semitism in the Ring but that doesn't mean that it is overt and as long as we are aware of this we can still enjoy the art.

Also I don't believe that the fact that a lot (but not all: Tannhäusser was considered “inappropriate”) of Wagner's music was used by the Nazis cannot be held against Wagner. The Nazis also used Beethoven and Bruckner extensively and they have both survived the experience untarnished, and, apparently, Hitler's favorite opera was The Merry Widow by Lehár and as far as I know no one has ever suggested that this opera should be banned.

So where does this leave us? I believe that to understand the art you need to understand the artist and with Wagner there is a lot to understand – he was an incredibly complex character. He was, unfortunately, definitely anti-Semitic but I don’t believe that this extremely unfortunate trait is explicitly obvious in the Ring. So we can and should still enjoy this beautiful work of art. To summarize I will paraphrase a quote that Toscanini originally made about Richard Strauss: “To Wagner the composer I take off my hat; to Wagner the man I put it back on again.”.

Two books I have been reading this summer that have provided me with some new insights into this very complicated and difficult issue are:
"The Wagner Clan" by Jonathan Carr - this is a very readable book that deals not only with Wagner himself but also with his family and the Bayreuth Festival. Before reading this book I didn't realize how close the relationship was between the Wagner family and Hitler and I certainly had never heard of Houston Stewart Chamberlain Wagner's posthumous son-in-law who was way more anti-Semitic/pro-Aryan than Wagner ever was.

"The Rest is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century" by Alex Ross - while this book doesn't directly focus on Wagner it does devote a chapter to the how the Nazis used music and art as propaganda tools. It also details the relationship between the Nazis and the Bayreuth Festival, as does the “The Wagner Clan”, but Alex Ross is much more critical than Jonathan Carr.
I would highly recommend both of these books.


Seattle Opera note: a recent article in JTNews (released August 6,2009) also covers this topic.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Uh...Alberich is often held up as a Jewish caricature, not just Mime.

Felicia Mehl said...

Alberich is the character which causes the most difficulty for me. There are a lot of different opinions on this and I think it's great that you all are discussing it. For myself, I find it difficult to enjoy art when I believe the art represents beliefs which conflict with the rights of others, even if it's not so explicit. There are many examples of this in art, music and literature. And I do believe we are influenced by the art we experience.
Maybe one of the answers is the creation of new operas which reflect our own (the modern audience's) ideas.

Anonymous said...

Do we throw out Shakespeare with the toilet water because he created the character of Shylock??

hyperbolus said...

What is the meaning of Wagner's anti-Semitism? Wagner was a Romantic, a bourgeois revolutionary, which is to say after the French Revolution a pseudo-revolutionary. He traded his anti-capitalism for anti-Semitism, the Jew being a symbol, token, embodiment of capitalism. He left real politics for symbolic, token, identity politics, for anti-politics. This move, this mix, is evident in the Ring. And it's our problem today, as well.

Sam Fontaine said...

Bourgeois. That's a word we haven't heard in a while. Does anybody analyze in terms of Marxist dialectic anymore, except maybe in France? Aah..Paris..1968..the left bank...Red Rudi...those were the good old days.

Perry Lorenzo said...

Indeed this is one of the most important issues burning around the figure of Richard Wagner. As a Wagner-lover, and as a Christian who despises even the least appearance of anti-semitism in any of our cultural monuments, I am deeply worried by the continued fire of this question and would like to address it.

I do not think Richard Wagner's operas are anti-semitic at all. Remember that Richard Wagner wrote a lot of prose about his operas, more than most people would ever want to read. I have read all of it. And never, never once, have I found a prose passage in which Wagner connected his operas to a clear anti-semetic ideology. Now Richard Wagner was capable of many many things: arrogance, overcompensation, unclarity, endlessness. But one thing he wasn't capable of was SUBTELTY: and if Richard Wagner had wanted to be anti-semetic in his operas, if he had wanted us to have anti-semetical feelings in his operas, he would have made it abundantly clear.

In fact, I think it does a grave diservice to the reality of the suffering of 20th and 21st century suffering victms of anti-semitism to simplisitically blame Wagner as an anti-semite in his operas. He wasn't.

hyperbolus said...

Wagner was an anti-Semite, that cannot be honestly denied. And at least some of his operas bear traces of his anti-Semitism. How could it be otherwise? It's a fantasy to believe that anyone's ideology can be hermetically separated from his work, even or perhaps especially in the case of an "artist". But Wagner's very greatness (and indeed subtlety) as an artist means we don't have to share his attitudes to enjoy or appreciate his art. But it's best to be maximally conscious. So, for example, just because "we" don't hear the word "bourgeois" anymore doesn't mean there are no more bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary.

Perry Lorenzo said...

To Hyberbolus: No, Wagner was not absolutely for sure an anti-semite. There are many sorts of anti-semitism: which sort of Wagner's if any? That's what we need to see. And if we can name Wagner as an anti-Semite, then to be fair we must name him all the more largely an anti-Christian/Jew/Muslim. For all his life Wagner was indeed against western religion. I imagine there are lots of movie directors in Hollywood today who share this ideology. And just add the intensity of the anti-Jewish attitude, on account, let's say, of this hypothetical movie director's personal frustration with Jewish producers early in his career. This is exactly the path Wagner's own attitudes developed.

hyperbolus said...

I earlier tried to explain the nature of Wagner's anti-Semitism, that it replaced his anti-capitalism. We might map this as a move from Bakunin, through Schopenhauer, to Gobineau; so, from revolutionary anarchism, through pessimism/depoliticization, to reactionary racism. Many 1960s radicals made a similar move, into New Age-ism, ecology, and even neo-conservatism.

I agree that Wagner is anti-Christian (I have no idea what he thought, if anything, of Islam). The Ring is meant as a kind of parody, a replacement, of Judeo-Christianity--Moses/Yahweh becomes Wotan, Jesus becomes Siegfried. I have no doubt Wagner meant the Ring as a real religious festival, neo-pagan I guess. What I do not know, not having seen it, is if Parsifal is a repudiation or confirmation or revision of the Ring.

hyperbolus said...

I should add: Wagner was a serious artist, who took ideas seriously. His anti-Semitism is not merely a personal/psychological matter (i.e. "fear" that his father may have been Jewish, or bad personal/professional relations with Meyerbeer), not for himself, and not for us (insofar as we would take Wagner seriously, and we should). Contrariwise, the simply bourgeois takes everything (merely) personally.

Anonymous said...

Aside from Wagner there were other famous composers who held anti-Semitic views, as well as some who have been accused of anti-Semitism and were NOT.

Does this mean we should ban the performance of compositions by anti-Semitic composers? I think not.

Perry Lorenzo said...

Or, for that matter, other artists, like writers, painters, poets. Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, just to name a few in English. I think that the attitude "Im against Wagner because Wagner was against Jews" is an easy canard, an easy slur, rendering the speaker so-called "moral" without any real thought or moral philosophy. Stupid really. And unfortunately, since I firmly believe that the total thrust of Wagner's dramatic and musical work is AGAINST any such intolerance as anti-Semitism.

Felicia Mehl said...

Going back to my original comment, I have difficulty with the character of Alberich. I also have difficulty with the character of Shylock, although I do not doubt Shakespeare's genius.

I have been researching this issue and I thought since there was a post on your blog, there could be a meaningful discussion. Nothing I see here is new or particularly insightful. Perhaps you should read some of the articles written about this by the organizers of Bayreuth, in the Jewish press or academia.

Felicia Mehl said...

Just a short additional note, I only became aware of this issue while I was in the process of studying the Ring in order to attend a performance. It's not new nor are the people involved in an honest discussion of this crackpots or lacking "real thought".

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