The eternal Wagner dilemma: Should Hitler’s favourite composer be cancelled?

No, he may have been a despicable man but Wagner had some genius creations

September 29, 2023 17:17

The current run of performances of Das Rheingold at Covent Garden has had rave reviews. Any new production of the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle — or of any of the other three operas — is always notable, but in this case there is an especially interesting factor at play.

The director, Barrie Kosky — widely regarded as the world’s leading opera director — is Jewish.

That gives an added focus to the debate between those who regard anything to do with Wagner as being beyond the pale— which leads, for example, to the de facto ban on live performances in Israel — and those (like me) who consider the Ring Cycle to be among the pinnacles of human artistic achievement.

The most trite way of looking at this is the perennial issue of whether art can be separated from its creator. Do we really need to go here again? Of course it can — and almost always is. Has anyone, ever, not looked at a Caravaggio painting because he was a murderer?

Wagner is, I acknowledge, different — especially for Jews. In his 1850 essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), written anonymously when first published, he wrote that Germans were repelled by Jews because of their “alien” appearance and behaviour: “[W]ith all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews’s emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.”

Jews could only produce shallow and artificial music because they had no connection to the genuine spirit of the German people.

“Mendelssohn has shown us that a Jew can have the richest abundance of talents and be a man of the broadest culture,” Wagner wrote, “but still be incapable of supplying the profound, heart-seizing, soul-searching experience we expect from art.”

In the conclusion he added years later when republishing the essay in his own name, his message to Jews was that “only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus — self annulment!”

The problem with Wagner is not just his antisemitic theorising. His work can also be seen as having antisemitic caricatures.

Alberich, Mime and Hagen in the Ring cycle, for example, and, most obviously, Beckmesser and Klingsor in Die Meistersinger and Parsifal can all be taken as representing aspects of the supposed Jewish character as repeatedly portrayed in Wagner’s era (and beyond).

But it is a mistake to think, as many do, that his antisemitism is in itself the problem with Wagner.

It is not and never has been. Chopin, Liszt and Mussorgsky — to name just three more or less contemporary composers — were all antisemitic and I have never come across anyone who seeks to cancel their music as a result.

Indeed, had he not written Judaism in Music, Wagner’s antisemitism might never have been regarded as anything other than unexceptional and simply an example of him being beholden to typical and widespread stereotypes of Jews. I am being deliberately obtuse.

Because two words that I have so far ignored explain the focus on Wagner, of all antisemitic artists: Hitler and Holocaust.

As Paul Lawrence Rose, author of Wagner: Race and Revolution, writes: “There was a Holocaust and Wagner’s self-righteous ravings, sublimated into his music, were one of the most potent elements in creating the mentality that made such an enormity thinkable.

"If time renders ridiculous the ban on Wagner, then the simple passage of time will also cause the Holocaust itself to fade into a distant memory.”

This is a powerful argument, albeit overwrought. Wagner was, indeed, Hitler’s favourite composer.

But why should a 19th-century composer be held responsible for an act of 20th-century genocide?

Tosanini was lauded in Tel Aviv in 1936 for performances of the preludes to Acts 1 and 3 of Lohengrin with the Palestine Philharmonic, the precursor to the Israel Philharmonic.

The “ban” only came in because of what Daniel Barenboim has called the “use, misuse and abuse” of his music by Hitler. It is, to be blunt, irrational (although ignoring the role of emotion in such debates is obviously foolhardy).

Wagner was, quite apart from his antisemitism, a despicable human being, who betrayed his friends in every conceivable way — a leech and a liar.

But so what? We don’t listen to Wagner the man. We listen to the creations of a genius. Which, in the end, is all that matters.

September 29, 2023 17:17

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