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
"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 antisemitic
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 ultra-nationalistic
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 Théophile Gautier and Jewish singer Giulia
Eger reduces Wagner's antisemitic 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. 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 favor, 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.
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 antisemite, 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
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, center 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
This article was published in Ariel Magazine (The
Israel Review of Arts and Letters, Jerusalem) n° 103, 1996.
Wagners and the Rabbi
by Norman Lebrecht
April 3, 2002
The first thing everyone knows about Richard Wagner
is that he was anti-Semitic. The Israeli Knesset throws a fit any
time a visiting conductor strikes up the Tristan prelude, and apologists
like the philosopher Brian Magee tie themselves in tiny knots trying
to prove that Wagner did not really want to eliminate Jews ... just
to squeeze out giants like Heine and Mendelssohn from his "greater"
scheme of things.
The evidence of race-hate is abundant. Wagner, in 1850, wrote an
anonymous essay, Das Judentum in der Musik, arguing that Jews were
ineligible to practise art. He later had the tract reissued under
his own name. He abused Jews routinely, according to the diaries
of his second wife, Cosima, and based the devious characters of
Mime and Beckmesser, in part at least, on caricatures of his least
The Nordic myths of Wagner's operas helped form Adolf Hitler's outlook.
Magee, and Thomas Mann before him, argued that Wagner was Hitler's
first victim, his music hijacked by an evil ideology. But no study
of Nazism can avoid Wagner's influence. He provided, unwittingly,
the cultural legitimisation for genocide.
Wagnerian vileness pervaded a second generation. Wagner's son Siegfried,
with his English wife Winifred, were among Hitler's earliest supporters.
The couple invited him to Bayreuth in October 1923 and, after the
following month's failed Munich putsch, supplied him in jail with
home comforts and, it is said, with the paper on which he wrote
Mein Kampf. Bayreuth during the Third Reich was a national shrine.
The family continues to this day to suppress documentation.
The evidence they conceal, however-may be less incriminating than
they think. Take Siegfried, the son and heir. He would have been
a disappointment to his gritty old dad, who died when he was just
13. Siegfried wrote soft centred romantic operas, had little interest
in world dominance and fathered a love child with the local pastor's
wife; the boy was later employed at Bayreuth as a stagehand. This
was a youthful aberration. The adult Siegfried was mostly gay, actively
so. Bayreuth's treasurer paid off a string of would-be blackmailers.
Fired by Hitler's fervid personality, Siegfried designated the 1924
Ring cycle "a German redemption festival" and festooned
it with nationalist tokens. But the more his wife swooned over the
Führer, the cooler Siegfried grew. After his death in 1930,
the Nazis took possession of his papers from Winifred (contrary
to rumour, she never seduced Hitler; her lover was the collaborationist
stage director, Heinz Tietjen).
The Siegfried papers went to Berlin, where they were captured by
the Russians in 1945. They were found in Moscow at the end of last
year by a scholar from the Washington Holocaust Museum, who copied
100,000 pages and put some of the best bits online. Siegfried's
private observations amount to an unqualified renunciation of Wagnerian
racism, a point he made most trenchantly in heated exchanges with
a certain Dr Salomon, the rabbi of Bayreuth.
The rabbi had written first to Siegfried in June 1924, complaining
of a rise in "anti-Semitic influences" at the Wagner house.
Siegfried replied: "We are against the Marxist spirit, [but]
we have nothing against patriotic Jews ... Although I have found
regrettable things in my father's handwriting, I have no bad feelings
for Jews - that must be understood. Some of them have been of great
help to me in my work."
Siegfried maintained that his father's rhetoric had been hotheaded
and untrue to himself. For all his condemnation of " Jewishness"
in art, Wagner had specifically chosen a trinity of Jews to present
Parsifal, his quasi-religious opera. Josef Rubinstein had prepared
the piano score, Heinrich Porges led the choir
and Hermann Levi, a rabbi's son, conducted the premiere. Wagner,
argued Siegfried, was no racist in the Hitler sense of the word.
The rabbi wrote back, demanding to know exactly where Siegfried
stood on Nazism. "Art reaches us through the heart," replied
Siegfried equivocally, "and God gave hearts to all human beings."
A year later he was more forthright, assuring the rabbi that, contrary
to newspaper reports, he had not dropped a Jewish singer, Friedrich
Schnorr, because Hitler was in attendance. No Jew would be excluded
from Bayreuth. "Anyone who wants can come to the festival,
whether Hitler or [the pacifist] Harden," he wrote. In a further
letter, he sent the rabbi a pair of tickets.
Siegfried appears to have been a benign nationalist of the old school,
more German unifier than racial purifier. He claimed his father
had been the same. His view of Wagner was anathema to the Nazis,
who confiscated his archive, and to his widow, who suppressed his
works; his opera, Bruder Lustig, is about to appear on record for
the first time.
So if the Wagners, man and boy, were basically decent chaps, where
did the xenophobia spring from? The finger of suspicion points to
the bitter widows, neither of whom was German. Cosima, half-French
daughter of the Hungarian Franz Liszt, dominated Bayreuth until
her death in 1930.
Winifred, born in Hastings, died an unrepentant Nazi in 1980. Wagner's
image was spun by these women for a century after his death. The
finding of Siegfried's letters is the first chink in these old wives'
tales, the first chance to put their version of history into perspective
- and possibly into the dustbin.