The Wagner Question

By: Peter Klein

Woody Allen once quipped that every time he listened to the music of Wagner, he got the urge to invade Poland. Woody isn’t alone. Many people can’t hear Wagner’s music without thinking of Nazism and Hitler. Some Jews can’t bear to listen to it at all.

Seattle Opera is presenting three complete cycles of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung on August 9-30. The mammoth four-opera saga of Nordic gods and heroes has a long tradition here. The Ring is also at the center of the controversy about Wagner. Why does the issue persist, 126 years after Wagner’s death, and 64 years after the fall of the Third Reich?

The problem is that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was both a great composer and a notorious anti-Semite. A half-century after his death, his music and writings became part of the cultural and intellectual foundations of Nazi Germany. And in between, a number of Wagner’s prominent followers and family members contributed to the malignant threads of German thought that eventually made the Holocaust possible.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism first came to light in the 1850 essay “Judaism in Music.” Several more such essays followed over the next three decades. Wagner’s letters and private conversations (recorded in his wife Cosima’s diaries) are peppered with anti-Semitic remarks.

Wagner objected to the Jew’s “disagreeably foreign” appearance and mannerisms. He decried Jewish prominence in commerce, finance and the press. Jewish speech was “a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle.” Even talented Jews could create only shallow artifice, not great art, Wagner claimed, because they had no real connection with European peoples and their languages, and were thus incapable of genuinely expressive song, music, or poetry. He saw Jewish conspiracies against himself and his music, Jews as a force of decay, and Judaism itself as “the evil conscience of our civilization.”

Many Germans of Wagner’s time shared his views. But Wagner’s status as a great composer gave those views greater weight and longevity.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism was primarily religious and cultural. He argued for total Jewish assimilation and conversion to Christianity, through which all Jewish characteristics would, he hoped, disappear. Then late in life, he befriended Count Arthur de Gobineau, who pioneered the concept of a superior Aryan race polluted by miscegenation. Wagner argued with Gobineau over the latter’s racial theories. But in his 1881 essay “Know Thyself,” Wagner crossed the line into racism himself. And when told of a fire in a Vienna theater which killed 900 people, half of them Jews, he remarked: “All Jews should be burned at a performance of Nathan the Wise” (a play advocating religious tolerance).

Despite all this, Wagner could be friendly with individual Jews. He genuinely liked and admired conductor Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi. Yet he suggested that Levi be baptized before conducting the premiere of Wagner’s mystical Christian opera Parsifal. Levi refused, still conducted the opera, and the friendship endured.

By the time of Wagner’s death, Wagner-worship had become something of a cult. The Bavarian town of Bayreuth, home to the composer’s family and to summer festivals of his operas, became a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. Loving the music was only part of it. Many of Wagner’s admirers adopted—or already shared—viewpoints that Wagner expressed in his prolific writings.

This included anti-Semitism. Under Cosima’s guidance, Bayreuth became a magnet for Jew-haters and extreme German nationalists. One was the British-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married Wagner’s daughter Eva, and called Hitler “God’s gift to Germany.” Chamberlain’s racism-laced history The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century had great influence on Nazi ideology.

Adolf Hitler adored Wagner’s operas. There is much evidence that he saw the world through a lens shaped by the grandiose myth-telling of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the revolutionary heroics of Rienzi, and the ritual of Parsifal. Beginning in 1923, Hitler regularly visited Bayreuth. He found a great friend and supporter in Winifred Wagner, wife of the composer’s son Siegfried, who took over the Bayreuth Festival after Siegfried’s death in 1930. Hitler subsidized the Festival after coming to power, was a frequent guest of the Wagner family, and became “Uncle Wolf” to the composer’s grandchildren.

Hitler used his friendship with the Wagner family to link his image to the composer’s. Wagner’s music is heard in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film “Triumph of Will.” Nazi mass rallies were staged with Wagnerian spectacle in mind, and began, by Hitler’s order, with Wagnerian overtures. Historian William L. Shirer wrote in his Berlin Diaries: “Wagner’s influence on Nazism, on Hitler, has never been grasped abroad.” Hitler himself declared, “To understand National Socialism, you must first understand Wagner.”

The Nazis used the music of other Romantic composers, particularly Bruckner (another Hitler favorite), Liszt, and Beethoven. But only Wagner had been a public anti-Semite. Yes, the Nazis appropriated Wagner, but he fit too easily and too well.

Which leads us to the fundamental question: Can we separate Wagner’s music from its creator’s odious views? It’s complicated. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a fact. The link between Wagner and Hitler is real. To deny or minimize these inconvenient truths, as some Wagner apologists do, is simply dishonest. But to hear only Nazism and anti-Semitism in the music is to miss out on some very beautiful, powerful and important music.

Musical associations are a funny thing. Play Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” to anyone my age or older, and we inevitably think, “The Lone Ranger.” That’s not what Rossini had in mind, but years of hearing the overture as a radio and television theme have cemented the connection.

So it is with Wagner. Those who lived during the Nazi period heard Wagner’s music as the soundtrack behind Jewish descent into non-personhood and the death camps, and Europe’s descent into flames. Is it any wonder that many of them found that music too horrible or painful to bear, and conveyed these feelings to their children?

I myself came face to face with this when I reviewed Seattle Opera’s 1985 production of Die Walküre, the second of the Ring operas. Act III opens with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries.” The string tremolos began. The curtain rose. The Valkyries flew on wired carousel horses above a stage filled with backlit mist. It was a perfect theatrical moment. I felt that ecstatic sensation one gets in the theater when everything is just so right. Then the brass began to play the “Ride” melody, and I began to cry.

I felt soiled, unclean. I was actually enjoying the theme song of those who murdered millions. How could I? I have not had this reaction since, but I’ll never forget it.

Why did I react so strongly? Two of my family members were gassed at Auschwitz. My mother believed that Wagner inspired the people who did it. Whenever Wagner was played on the radio in my boyhood home, she switched it off. Even after I spent years learning to appreciate Wagner for the great musician he was, those old associations remained.

The Ring and its mythology figured prominently in Hitler’s vision of German glory. And on the surface, the operas seem to glorify some pretty deplorable values that the Nazis certainly shared. But it is precisely these “Nazi” values—undying hatred, revenge, brute force, absence of conscience and the lust for absolute power—that lead to the destruction of Valhalla and the world. And a recurring theme in Wagner’s operas, including the Ring, is redemption through love—not something Hitler had in mind.

Much has been written about possible racist and proto-Nazi messages coded into Wagner’s music, and of anti-Semitic stereotypes in several of his characters. I don’t find the former convincing, and the latter only occasionally rings true. Today, much depends on how the operas are presented and the characters portrayed.

Despite his bigotry, Wagner is simply too great and important a composer to dismiss. His unifying of music and drama in long, through-composed works is a monumental achievement. He took chromatic harmony to its limits, and paved the way for 20th century music. His orchestrations show a tonal imagination second to none. At his best, Wagner can stir the senses and emotions like no one except Mahler.

Consider this: Theodor Herzl was a great admirer of Wagner’s music, and first conceived of creating a Jewish state during a performance of Tannhäuser. On the other hand, a Web search for the terms “anti-Semitism” and “Wagner” brings up a disturbing number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sites. Wagner is quoted in the online book by James von Brunn, who murdered a guard when he opened fire at the U.S. Holocaust Museum last June.

As I said, it’s complicated.

This article previously ran in the August 7, 2009 issue of the JT News.


11 thoughts on “The Wagner Question

  1. Just wondering: What is the original source of Hitler’s quote, “To understand National Socialism, you must first understand Wagner.” Where did he say it? When? I suspect that if he did say it, Hitler didn’t understand Wagner.

  2. Thanks. A web search on the exact quote comes up with very little (mostly unsourced). I wonder if he actually said it or if it’s an opera urban myth.

  3. Dave, I doubt it’s an urban myth. I found the quote (in several slightly different English translations) in several places, including at least one book. I recall at least one first-person account where someone who knew Hitler claims Hitler said it to him.

    Whether Hitler actually understood Wagner is another matter. By many accounts, Hitler’s musical taste was relatively unsophisticated, and devoted to “old-fashioned” things he’d heard in his youth and young adulthood. The Ring can easily be seen as a cautionary tale against the dangers of absolute power, but obviously Hitler didn’t see it that way. Goebbels evidently did, and saw to it that there were no complete performances of the Ring cycle during the war. Bayreuth became instead a place where recovering wounded soldiers were treated to concerts and lectures on Wagner as “guests of the Fuhrer.”

    A very good, even-handed book on the whole issue is Jonathan Carr’s “The Wagner Clan.” Carr genuinely loved Wagner’s operas, but didn’t blind himself to the dark side of things. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject of Wagner, his family and followers, and their relationships with each other and with German politics and culture. It’s a great read.

  4. To find numerous versions of the quote, type the following into your favorite search engine, INCLUDING quote marks:

    hitler “understand national socialism” “understand wagner”

    Or, follow this link:*&start=10&sa=N

    Ignore the references to the recent movie “Valkyrie” if you wish, but you’ll find many, many other references to it.

  5. No greater exercise in grasping the nettle. My answer is this: I don’t subscribe to Wagner’s anti-Semitism (I don’t subscribe to Verdi’s, either), but I do subscribe to his writing for strings.

  6. Shalom All
    Although Wagner was an anti semite he also had jewish friends. There are no proof that he agreed with the extermination of the Jews. There are no accurate data about how many Jews and infidels were exterminated by the Inquisition and nobody points fingers to the Church anymore. Pope John Paul II appologhized and this is the end. Wagner music is beautiful. I am right now listening to his music and the Maestro is a Jew. This tells something.

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