October 19, 2018

The Wagner Problem

“Amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with gospels of the superman … and the superiority of the German race, he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character,” The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg wrote about Richard Wagner in “The Lives of the Great Composers.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Wagner to the Ring Festival LA — or don’t welcome him. But if you demur, know that you will be missing some of the most sublime music ever written when LA Opera’s complete “The Ring of the Nibelung” appears in May and June.

Representatives of various institutions participating in the festival are billing it as the largest, most significant cultural festival in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, rather than a celebration of Wagner the man.

“We’re not celebrating the human being,” said James Conlon, music director of LA Opera, who will conduct Los Angeles’ first complete performances of the full Ring cycle, staged here by Achim Freyer. “It is all about the art. We don’t like the person, Richard Wagner.”

Conlon added that “there is no relationship between a good person and good art.” In fact, he said the opposite is often true. “Wagner is one of the largest examples of this, partly because everything about him was large. He revolutionized opera, harmony, theater and poetry. His influence is that of a colossus.”

Conlon will take part in a number of festival panels, including “Wagner, His World and His Critics” on June 9 at the Huntington Library. But, as important, this month the conductor leads LA Opera in the U.S. premiere of Franz Schreker’s “The Stigmatized.” One of the most successful composers of his time, Schreker found his career curtailed by the Nazi regime.

Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University (AJU), said he understands why people love Wagner’s operas. “But we don’t want any celebration of Wagner without significant counter testimony.” For Berenbaum, this means discussing not only Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but also “a consideration of it in his art.”

Berenbaum will moderate the June 6 AJU seminar, “Art & Morality — Music of an Anti-Semite,” with Conlon among the panelists. Marc Weiner, a Germanic studies professor at Indiana University and author of “Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination” is the keynote speaker.

Weiner fell in love with Wagner’s music when he was 16. He had just finished reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” when his mother told him that “Tolkien stole all of it from Wagner.” “I was infuriated,” Weiner recalled, “but she took out a scratchy old record of ‘Ring’ highlights. I thought it was the coolest thing.”

When Weiner started reading about Wagner, he quickly learned that the composer was an anti-Semite filled with paranoid and self-aggrandizing notions of racial purity that approached outright madness.  Weiner, however, said he doesn’t feel “the least bit guilty” about enjoying Wagner’s art, and added, “I would argue there’s no connection between Wagner and Hitler’s national socialism.”

Conlon agreed. “The Nazis hijacked Wagner,” he said. “Hitler took his party generals and high brass to concerts and was angered when half of them snored through it. They were a bunch of hoodlums.”

Still, the issue remains an open wound in Wagner studies, not least because Hitler is on record as having said, “Whoever wants to understand National Socialistic Germany must know Wagner.”

At a Hammer Museum symposium last February, conductor and Bard College President Leon Botstein said that he believed murder — genocide — was never part of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. He just wanted, Weiner agreed, “the Jews to go away.”

“I know that Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite,” Weiner continued. “That doesn’t mean I have to only look at his work through those eyes. And it doesn’t mean that enjoying Wagner’s work means I agree with his views. Wagner was a greater dramatist and composer than he was a racist.”

Weiner said that the characters who “carry the marks of anti-Semitism” in the “Ring” are actually the most compelling. “Hagen, Alberich and, to a lesser extent, Mime, are very moving human characters,” Weiner said.  “That’s because Wagner conceives of them from their point of view. He writes their music with that in mind.”

Citing an essay by German philosopher Theodor Adorno, “In Search of Wagner,” Weiner said that Wagner might have “with horror recognized himself in Mime. So he omitted a lot of the original descriptions of him: the small stature, the constant whining and the avarice. His hatred is stronger with Mime, which is one reason why he’s a less successful character than, say, Alberich.

“It would be irresponsible to look at Wagner without thinking about Hitler in the background,” Weiner continued, “but that doesn’t mean we should anchor ourselves to that. There’s so much more we can acknowledge and pursue in Wagner that we don’t need to hammer people over the head with it and say, `Now don’t enjoy it too much, because Hitler really loved him.’”

King’s College Wagner scholar John Deathridge, author of “Wagner: Beyond Good and Evil,” who will take part in several museum panels, including “Mythic Legends and Wagnerian Fables,” a day-long seminar on June 5 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said that the entire controversy is recent and didn’t really gather steam until the late 1960s.

“If you asked the local vicar, he would have been very surprised to hear Wagner was an anti-Semite, because Wagner had been performed in England and America during the war,” he said. “He was simply regarded as a great composer. It’s when the younger generation in Germany started growing up and challenging their parents:  ‘What did you do in the war?’ That’s when Wagner becomes a symbol for the Germans’ nefarious past.

“It’s important to get a perspective on this,” he continued. “Things start getting out of kilter. Wagner was taken for a bully-boy for a lot of things, because it’s easy to focus on one person in the past and say he influenced everything. But it’s a much more complex picture than that.”

Deathridge argued that Wagner’s most enthusiastic admirers are often those who are “into all the clichés about him.” He called them the composer’s “worst enemies.” “It’s important to be informed about what he did and what he stood for,” he said. “To make sure you don’t fall for these constantly repeated myths about him.”

One of the worst myths, he said, was that Wagner caused the Holocaust. “That’s an absurd argument. There is very little evidence that Wagner’s works influenced anti-Semitism during the 1920s and 1930s. Or the myth that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer.”

Deathridge called Wagner’s autobiography “a pack of lies.” “Wagner did it deliberately,” he said, “because he knew people would believe it.”

Still, Wagner’s art continues to be reinvented. “The works are still powerful,” Deathridge said. “People are genuinely touched. They come out shaken. The ‘Ring’ brings a lot of modern problems to the fore. Wagner is uncovering all these nasty things in the middle-class unconscious, which is why the works are still more powerful than a lot of operas written for the Met in the last 10 or 20 years.”

Wagner’s art also survives because Jewish musicians, among others, supported it. “The composers I am defending who died in concentration camps or whose lives were ruined by the Nazis, or who were forced to emigrate, idolized Wagner, even knowing about his anti-Semitism,” conductor Conlon said. “You can go down the list: Schreker, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Ullmann — the cream of Europe’s culture in the early 20th century.”

For Conlon, the Wagner problem needs to turn on something far more important than his despicable anti-Semitism. “The Nazis, whose worst crime was mass murder, also damaged culture. They have enjoyed a posthumous victory. The fact that today — 65 years after the end of the Nazi regime — there is still a massive volume of music not played for audiences by classical musicians. … That is an issue where everybody should be fired up in a constructive way.”

Once asked how he could love Wagner, Leonard Bernstein replied, “I hate Wagner — on my knees.” But Wagner the person carries a warning. Or, as Berenbaum put it: “Let’s remember both sides of Wagner. You, me, all of us have to integrate our talents with our humanity. Wagner shows us what happens when genius is linked to depravity and not humanity.”

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

For more information about Ring Festival LA events, visit