Music’s transcendent potential

By Gloria Tessler, May 24, 2013
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On Wednesday, it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. In his birth city of Leipzig he will be celebrated throughout the year. But many Germans have voiced their wariness about music that, to some, resonates with something harsher - Wagner's proclaimed antisemitism and his adoption by Hitler as a primal force behind Nazism.

Wagner lived five decades before the Nazi ideology was conceived. He could not have lent personal credence to Hitler's views. He is said to have refused to sign any public declaration against the Jews. Yet whether he was a theoretical or a practical antisemite, Wagner was conflicted.

He resented the success of Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, but had a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi and - to quote a cliché - some of his best friends were Jews. This did not stop him writing a pamphlet in 1850 deriding the work of Jewish musicians and blaming them for the decline in German culture. Yet he was admired by Theodor Herzl. He also wrote music of great beauty, even spirituality.

An informal, if controversial, boycott of the composer persists in Israel despite attempts by Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta to include him on the grounds that great music transcends politics. His work was not performed in public there until 2000. Music is not ideological, Barenboim argues. Wagner was antisemitic. His music wasn't.

Still, Israeli concert planners are inclined to respect the anguish of Shoah survivors, who recall Wagner being played in the camps, or the raising of the SS banner when Meistersinger was played during the Nuremberg rallies. Mass protests led Tel Aviv University to cancel a Wagner concert last year.

Why is this particular composer so hated? Can he really be blamed for Hitler's patronage? Does this make him worse than other composers, also outed as antisemitic? Carl Orff was a self-confessed card-carrying Nazi, and Richard Strauss managed to ban all Jewish performers from public view during the Nazi era. Writers from Charles Dickens to T S Eliot have derided Jews or cynically portrayed them in what could be seen as a kind of contemporary social antisemitism - the rejection of "the other". No one bans them.

But music works in more subtle ways. Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, about the downfall of the gods, includes Jewish caricatures, the dwarves Mime and Alberich. In its time, it was viewed almost as an antisemitic epiphany, an attempt to free German culture from Franco-Jewish influences, eagerly taken up in 1940s Germany.

Broadcaster Paul Mason considers that in his later works, Wagner developed depth and humanity. His three modernist operas are real human dramas, Mason feels. He claims that under the influence of the philosopher Schopenhauer, Wagner abandoned racial purity myths and began to incorporate strands of eastern thought. And Dominic Lawson, in the Independent, argues we should learn to love the music but hate the man.

Perhaps this is the point. Learning to love. Even without charges of antisemitism, some of Wagner's music is terrifying, suggesting the martial threat that made him Hitler's favourite composer, and also the brooding quality generated by the Second World War. But then there is the pure elegance of the finale to Tannhauser.

So did Wagner grow out of his small-minded racism and virulent antisemitism to create some of our greatest music? The two seem so contradictory. But in a way, does it really matter? Shouldn't great art be transcendental? Surely it comes from a different place within the soul of humanity, a place beyond the consciousness of even the greatest artist?

In Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, the composer Salieri complains that Mozart, base and unworthy, had been blessed with the musical genius Salieri himself so deeply craved.

Here is the disconnect: the only resolution lies in the eternal truth that, once the work is born, it is a separate entity from its creator, and must be allowed to live for its own sake.

Last updated: 9:45am, May 24 2013