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Wagner and the Jews

Perhaps no other composer in history sought to combine such obviously incompatible elements in his works. The qualities that make Richard Wagner’s supporters so enthusiastic are often the same ones that repel his opponents, such as his tendency toward extremes in every aspect of composition. Although he stretched the limits of harmony and operatic form to the breaking point, the realization of his musical concepts always remained exceedingly economical. Paradoxically, this very economy defines the incomparable dimension of his structures. Perhaps he found it necessary to make especially frugal use of certain individual elements in order to make the effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—even greater and more unexpected.

A good example of Wagner’s economy can be found at the beginning of the first act of Die Walküre, in which a wild storm rages. Even Beethoven made use of all the orchestral instruments in the storm in his Sixth Symphony, and given the instrumentation available to Wagner, one could assume that his storm would take on even grander proportions.

Instead, however, he allows only the strings to unfurl the full force of the storm; the result is a far more direct, naked, and compact sound than a full Wagnerian orchestra with brass and timpani would have produced. It is the precision of Wagner’s directions in the dynamic structuring of his scores that brings out the emotionality of the music. Wagner was the first composer to very consciously calculate and demand the speed of dynamic developments. When he wants to achieve a climax, he generally applies one of two techniques: either he lets a crescendo grow gradually and organically, or he lets the same musical material swell two or three times in order to let it explode the third or fourth time.

In Wagner’s operas, there are frequent cases in which the musical material swells up and down in two bars the first time it appears. The second time Wagner allows the same material to grow for two bars with a subito piano—sudden quiet—immediately afterward. Only the third time is there a climax after four bars of crescendo. A mathematical equation therefore gives rise to sensuality and fervor. It is his skillful intellectual calculation that creates the impression of spontaneity and purely emotional sensation.

Another characteristic of Wagner’s musical uniqueness can be observed in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, in the continuation of the famous “Tristan chord” at the beginning of the opera. A composer with less genius and with a poorer understanding of the mystery of music would assume that he must resolve the tension he has created. It is precisely the sensation caused by an only partial resolution, though, that allows Wagner to create more and more ambiguity and more and more tension as this process continues; each unresolved chord is a new beginning.

Wagner’s music is often complex, sometimes simple, but never complicated. It is a subtle difference, but complication, in this sense, implies among other meanings the use of unnecessary mechanisms or techniques that could potentially obfuscate the meaning of the music. These are not present in Wagner’s work. Complexity, on the other hand, is always represented in Wagner’s music by multidimensionality. That is, the music is always made up of many layers that may be individually simple but that constitute a complex construction when taken together. When he transforms a theme or adds something to it, it is always in the sense of multidimensionality. The individual transformations are sometimes simple but never primitive. In other words, his complexity is always a means and never a goal in itself. It is also always paradoxical, since its effect can be intensely emotional, even staggeringly so. In his literary work Opera and Drama Wagner wrote:

In the Drama, we must become knowers through the Feeling. The Understanding tells us: “So is it,”—only when the Feeling has told us: “So must it be.”

I find it all the more important to do away with certain misunderstandings and false claims about Wagner precisely because perceptions of him are often so confused and controversial. Here I also want to discuss extramusical sides of Wagner’s personality, and among these are of course his notorious and unacceptable anti-Semitic statements.

Anti-Semitism was not a new development in nineteenth-century Germany. Only in 1669 did it become legal for Jews to move somewhat freely in Berlin and the surrounding area, and even then only rich Jews were allowed to take up residence there. Jews who were only passing through Berlin (like the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) had to enter the city through the Rosenthal Gate, which was otherwise used only for livestock, and had to pay the same tax a farmer or merchant would have paid for his livestock or wares. Jews, in contrast to Huguenots, were forbidden to own land, to trade in wool, wood, tobacco, leather, or wine, or to pursue a profession. There were taxes for every imaginable occasion in the lives of Jews, whether for traveling, marriages, or births, among other things.

Wagner’s anti-Semitic statements must be seen against this background. The anti-Semitism of his era had been a widespread illness since time immemorial, even if Jews were accepted, respected, and even honored in certain circles of German society. A considerable measure of anti-Semitism was an unquestioned component of the nationalistic movements in late-nineteenth-century Europe. It was nothing extraordinary to blame the Jews for all current problems, whether political, economical, or cultural. In addition to the age-old hatred that had previously been directed against the Jewish religion, the anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth century was also justified by criteria of “ancestry” and “race” and was directed against the now largely emancipated and assimilated European Jewry. The center of this trend was Vienna.

As we know, these notions were followed up and intensified in the twentieth century. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet once wrote in an article about Artur Schnabel that he may have been a great pianist and a wonderful musician, but that one always had the impression from his style of playing that he belonged to the Jewish people because he manipulated music the way Jews manipulated money.

This historical background does not change the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite of the worst kind whose statements are unforgivable. The reasons for his anti-Semitism lay partly in the success of his Jewish contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Some of the negative characteristics Wagner accused the Jews of possessing—egotism and preoccupation with their own advantage—he in fact shared, and they moved him to make certain exceptions to his own anti-Semitic convictions. Without Hermann Levi he would not have found such a brilliant conductor for his Parsifal; and without Joseph Rubinstein, a piano score of Lohengrin might not have existed in Wagner’s lifetime.

Wagner first published the essay “Judaism in Music” in 1850 under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (“K. Freethought”) in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in Leipzig. In 1869 he published it again as an independent brochure under his own name. In this work he writes:

The Jew—who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself—in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that.

The only revision of this statement that he ever allowed himself was a comment made to his wife Cosima late in his life:

If I were to write again about the Jews, I should say I have nothing against them, It is just that they descended on us Germans too soon, we were not yet ready enough to absorb them.

Publicly, however, he supported even more vehement anti-Semitic positions—he took the “Jewish race” to be the “born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it”; he claimed that “it is running us Germans into the ground, and I am perhaps the last German who knows how to hold himself upright in the face of Judaism, which already rules everything.”

As we have observed during the most recent debates in Europe over integration, racist statements, whether against Jews or currently against Muslims, have by no means disappeared from today’s society.

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