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Wagner’s Anti-Semitism

In response to:

The Ridiculous & Sublime from the April 22, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Rosen devotes so much of his review of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera [NYR, April 22] to my articles on Wagner that I would like the opportunity to correct the most serious of his misrepresentations.

I have never claimed that “Beckmesser [in Die Meistersinger] is Jewish” or that the character “was intended to be understood as a caricature of a Jew.” What I have argued, in a lengthy, fully documented article in the Cambridge Opera Journal (November 1991) is that “anti-semitism is woven into the ideological fabric of Die Meistersinger, and that the representation of Beckmesser incorporates unmistakable anti-semitic characteristics.” Rosen’s reductive formulation mangles my thesis almost as grotesquely as Beckmesser mangles Walther’s song in the opera. To dismiss the Grimm pun (only one element of my thesis) as simply “an example of Wagner’s disgusting anti-Semitic humor” without recognizing that that anti-Semitism is crucial to an understanding of the work is to resort to the naive, myopic view (espoused by both adherents and opponents of Wagner) that the man’s anti-Semitism was simply an unfortunate personal failing with no further significance. That is a view that reckons without either the historical context (anti-Semitism was deeply engrained in the culture and ideology of 19th-century German society) or Wagner’s belief in the “art-work of the future” as a vehicle of social regeneration.

I don’t agree, incidentally, that “Beckmesser was originally intended as a caricature of the critic Eduard Hanslick,” half-Jewish as he was. All that happened is that Wagner briefly, and maliciously, gave his Marker the name Hanslich: less of an identification than a cheap shot.

By the way, if discussion of the tonal structure of the Ring is such a peculiarly “British obsession,” why does Rosen devote so much column space to it? I seem to remember, too, that the use of tonality to define structure was once analyzed at considerable length in a brilliant book called The Classical Style.

Barry Millington
London, England

Charles Rosen replies:

Either Millington claims that Wagner’s contemporaries were supposed to recognize Beckmesser as a caricature of a Jew, or he does not. Only if Beckmesser is supposed to have Jewish traits clearly recognizable by the German public can anti-Semitism be “woven into the ideological fabric of Die Meistersinger.” However, except for an esoteric pun about an anti-Semitic Grimm fairy tale, all the arguments Millington brings forward in his Grove Opera article and in his fully documented Cambridge Opera Journal article, which I have now read, do not prove what he thinks they prove. I thought that when Millington claimed that Beckmesser in his serenade recalled synagogue chant (which I think is mistaken), mangled German prosody, and stammered—linguistic faults that Wagner ascribed to Jews—he meant that Wagner’s contemporaries would have recognized Jewish traits, or were meant to recognize Jewish traits. I now find that Millington is claiming something even more dubious. It is Millington’s formulation which is reductive. In Wagner’s ideology there was an important anti-Semitic component, and Wagner put his ideology into Die Meistersinger. Therefore, according to Millington, any part of Wagner’s ideology like anti-Semitism which does not appear on the surface of the opera must be considered to be woven into its fabric—the only thing it could be woven into, as it is not part of the plot, and there are no Jewish characters.

Balzac tells his readers that the title character of La Cousine Bette is an archetypal old maid, and that all of her actions spring from the fact that she is an old maid. However, a study of the genesis of the book has revealed that one of the principal models for Bette was, oddly enough, Balzac’s mother. That may tell us something interesting about Balzac’s personal psychology, but it would not justify a claim that motherhood is woven into the fabric of cousin Bette’s character.

Millington’s confusion is a common one among biographers; he thinks he is entitled to read into a work of Wagner’s any of the composer’s beliefs which the composer himself did not see fit to put into it. He allows his imagination full rein, searching Beckmesser’s traits for some kind of a relation to Wagner’s characterization of Jews. Some of these relations are more plausible than others, but none of them is valid. Wagner attributed all kinds of unpleasant traits to Jews, and he attributed some of these to Beckmesser—naturally, as Beckmesser is a wicked music critic. It is irrelevant that Wagner thought stammering a Jewish trait. The question is, whether anything about Beckmesser’s stammering allows one to associate him with Jewishness in Die Meistersinger. The opera does not even make him a non-German, who could be thrust out of society for ethnic cleansing. If it was really Wagner’s intention that Beckmesser be understood as proto-Jewish—which I do not believe—then he did not make his intentions clear, and he is indebted to Millington, who came along at last to help him succeed.

Why Wagner did not reveal his anti-Semitism clearly in the opera, however, is a question that Millington ought to answer. Perhaps Wagner thought it would be politic to omit it. In any case, I still do not see why “anti-Semitism is crucial to an understanding of the work.” It may be crucial to an understanding of Wagner’s social philosophy, but not to that part of the philosophy which got into the opera, either explicitly or by implication.

If Millington wants to maintain, however, that anti-Semitism was so important to Wagner’s thought that it must have contaminated Die Meistersinger, then he is probably right—but it also contaminated the Ring and Parsifal, too. There are overtones of anti-Semitism about those works, too, but no more than overtones, and Millington is mistaken if he thinks Die Meistersinger is more politically significant than the other operas, in spite of Sachs’s rhetoric at the end. (And Tristan? Does Melot’s treachery have a racial cast? Does the nasty insinuating music written for him compared to the bluff, hearty, Aryan, echt deutsch style of Kurwenal count for nothing? It is Kurwenal—and this is important to an understanding of his role—who sings in a style most resembling that of Hans Sachs in his more popular mood.) I already wrote in my review that there was a grain of truth in Millington’s theory, but he is exaggerating if he thinks it “crucial to an understanding” of either music or libretto.

It should be clear that I respect Millington’s research and acknowledge its importance. The argument is only about the extent of its relevance and the manner of its application.

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