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.