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.

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Let Wagner Be Heard?

Why is it I simply cannot condone the presentation and celebration of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in Los Angeles, arriving with much fanfare this coming spring?

Because Richard Wagner was an extraordinary musician, and an even more extraordinary anti-Semite. Open his own writings: “Religion and Art” (1881) and his essay, “Judaism in Music” (1850). Wagner warns his readers of the “be-Jewing” of modern art and the “Judaic-infected corruption of the cosmopolitan idea.” Jewish music, Wagner argues, is a racial matter that threatens the “purity of German folk culture.” As an artist, Wagner insists that the Jew has never had an art of his own, and to the cultured, the music Jews create is “outlandish, odd, indifferent, cold, unnatural and awry.” The Jewish pathetic attempts at making art are “trivial and absurd,” because of the Jewish “incapacity for life.” 

Such so-called musical “geniuses” as Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Jewish converts to Christianity Felix Mendelssohn and Heinrich Heine are not, and cannot be, truly creative, wrote Wagner. Whether the Jew is converted or not, nothing can overcome his artistic inferiority. Baptism cannot wash away the traces of his origin. “The Jew is innately incapable of announcing himself to us artistically.” 

Richard Wagner concluded his essay on “Judaism in Music” with these ominous words: “But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahaseurus — destruction.” Wagner advocated the Untergang, the destruction, extinction and downfall of all Jews.

We are dealing with no drawing-room anti-Semite. Here’s a mentality that confesses the “rooted dislike of the Jewish nature.” More than dislike. Wagner declared openly and repetitively, “I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man…. I may well be the last remaining German who, as an artist, has known how to hold his ground in the face of a Judaism which is now all powerful.” He was not the “last.” The dirge cast its deathly shadow over the face of Europe. 

Wagner was no coincidental anti-Semite. He personally and actively orchestrated a circle of racist colleagues, among whom was his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the most influential exponent of racial anti-Semitism in the 19th century. It was Chamberlain who became a venomous disciple of Wagner’s Aryanism.  It was Wagner’s passionate hatred of Jews that provoked the German philosopher Eugene Dühring to declare that the answer to the Jewish question should be solved by “killing and extirpation.” 

Wagner deplored granting civil rights in 1871 to Jews and applauded political anti-Semitism. Wagner’s writings had great ideological influence on Adolph Hitler, who had Wagner’s operas performed at Bayreuth in connection with Nazi party conventions. 

In his own words, Wagner opened the eyes of people to their “involuntary feeling and instinctive repugnance against the Jewish primal essence.” It is noteworthy that the title Wagner chose for his essay is “Judaism in Music,” not “Jews in Music.” His diatribe cuts deep.

Still, biography is not musicology. Can an ugly anti-Semite not create a song of beauty? After all, opera is opera and philosophy is philosophy. What has one to do with the other?

I am anguished. I would hear, but my mind and heart cannot segregate the lyric from the song. We are being asked to disassociate, to listen to the art and pretend deafness to the artist’s demonizing of Jews and his evisceration of Jewish culture and talent. 

I admit my bias, my inability to engage in such schismatic play. The issue is not a matter of aesthetics or of culture. It is a matter of self-respect and respect for this great city that justly prides itself on its unity and diversity. To celebrate or commemorate anyone who relentlessly sought the downfall (untergang) of my people or any other people breaks the limits of tolerance. To detach emotionally and morally the life of the composition from the life of the composer tears apart the wholeness of memory. To offer earthly immortality to the designer of destruction of a people’s race, religion or dreams mocks the integrity and the pride of community. To attend or not, in either case, attention must be paid.

In this era of racial and ethnic tension, we need now, more than ever, gestures, projects and programs that bind us together. By all means, let him be heard. And by all means, let him be read. The artist is no disembodied spirit. See him whole. 

And let us discern.

Harold Schulweis is rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Jewish World Watch. He is the author of many books, including “For Those Who Can’t Believe” (Harper Perennial, 1995), “Finding Each Other in Judaism” (UAHC Press, 2001) and “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights, 2008).

Wagner Soap Opera

It was meant to be the "not Wagner" concert: Daniel Barenboim, the pride of Israeli music-lovers, conducting his Berlin orchestra, the Staatskapelle, on the last night of this year’s Israel Festival. Little did we know.

The festival had originally announced that the orchestra would appear with Placido Domingo and play extracts from "Die Walkurie." The very idea was denounced by Holocaust survivors and other Israelis who have not forgiven Wagner, known as Hitler’s favorite composer, for being a notorious (and well-documented) Jew-hater.

Israeli MPs beseeched the festival organizers to think again; so did Minister of Culture Matan Vilnai. He didn’t want to limit artistic freedom, you understand, but this was, after all, the Israel Festival, a state occasion. Barenboim, who launched his musical career as a child prodigy in Tel Aviv, got the message. Under protest, he agreed to change the program.

So, on Saturday night in the Jerusalem International Convention Center, 2,000 of us sat down to a rich, disciplined performance of Schumann’s "Fourth Symphony" by one of the world’s great orchestras, followed by an exuberant concert version of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring." When the Diaghilev ballet premiered the "Rite" in Paris in 1914, the audience went wild, some in anger, some in frenzy. The unshockable Israelis took it in their collective stride.

The drama came later. It was planned and choreographed. Barenboim, who has been trying to break the unofficial Israeli taboo on Wagner for years, manipulated the audience the way he manipulates an orchestra. He knew exactly what he wanted. He worked, subtly but firmly, to achieve it.

Israeli concertgoers expect encores. Barenboim gave us one, Tchaikovsky’s "Waltz of the Flowers." It was familiar and soothing after the pagan brass and percussion of the Stravinsky. We were relaxed, enjoying ourselves, and ready for more.

Then, after the applause died down, Barenboim turned to the audience. Speaking quietly, in Hebrew, without a microphone, he said he was talking to us man-to-man (and -woman). He reminded us why he had canceled the Wagner. But now, he went on, the official concert was over. If we really wanted to hear Wagner, they would play it as his "personal encore." Nothing to do with the festival, nothing to do with the orchestra. If not, the musicians would pack up and go home without a fuss.

The vast majority of the audience applauded enthusiastically. Yes, please, maestro. A handful walked out, perhaps in silent protest, perhaps because they had to relieve the baby-sitter (it was after 11). Half a dozen objected. "It’s a disgrace!" the widow of an eminent rabbi shouted. "It’s the music of the concentration camps!" an elderly man bellowed. Others yelled back: "If you don’t want to hear it, go home! You’ve had your money’s worth."

The dialogue continued for half an hour. Barenboim never raised his voice. At one point, the conductor invited a persistent heckler to come onstage and "discuss this like cultured people." The man, 40-something in a white shirt and small black kippah, declined and went on shouting. Another protested in English. "Shut up," someone retorted.

One man did go forward, faced the audience and said: "I was against playing Wagner in the festival, but now I’ve heard the maestro, and I understand that he’s talking about playing outside the state event. Now I’m in favor." More applause.

A man sitting in front of me took out his mobile phone, and I heard him say, "You’d better send a crew straight away." I thought he was a television executive, but he turned out to be an off-duty police superintendent. "I told them to send reinforcements, in case hooligans attack him," he told me later. Happily, it wasn’t necessary.

Finally, Barenboim signaled the orchestra and waited, baton poised, for silence. As they began to play a love song from "Tristan und Isolde," fewer than a dozen objectors walked out, slamming doors and stamping feet.

The rest of us sat enthralled through 10 minutes of wrenching, lyrical tenderness, the antithesis of the Teutonic bombast that turns some Jews (and not only Jews) off Wagner. You could hardly hear anyone breathe, let alone cough.

At the end, the audience gave Barenboim and the Staatskapelle a standing ovation. A middle-aged woman in a long, pastel-pale dress plucked a rose from a window box at the edge of the stage and presented it to the conductor. Barenboim accepted it with tears in his eyes.

This wasn’t the first time Wagner has been played in Israel. A provincial orchestra in Rishon Letzion broke the 50-year barrier a few months ago. But this was Jerusalem, the Israel Festival (disclaimers notwithstanding). It was Daniel Barenboim, a Jewish Israeli cultural icon, and a German ensemble that was the court orchestra of Prussian emperors and East German commissars. Can "The Ring" be far behind?

Israel’s Wagner Taboo

Ideology seems to have won out over culture in Israel: The taboo on playing the music of pre-Nazi German composer Richard Wagner in concert has been upheld.

After strenuous protests by Holocaust survivor groups, backed by virtually the entire Israeli political spectrum, the decision was taken last week to look for an alternative to the Wagner concert that had been scheduled for this summer’s Israel Festival, the country’s annual international cultural showcase.

The traditional Israeli ban on Wagner’s operas has loosened of late; last October the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon Lezion gave the first public performance of a Wagner work, albeit a nonideological one. Yet the Israel Festival’s plan for this country’s second public performance of Wagner was incomparably more ambitious and conspicuous: Israel-bred superstar conductor Daniel Barenboim was to bring his Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra to Jerusalem’s Convention Center on July 7 to perform a piece from the opera "Die Walküre," which the concert’s opponents say is a horrifically anti-Semitic German tale. Placido Domingo was to sing the lead.

The concert has not been officially canceled; the festival’s board of directors said it did not want to act as a censor. Yet after having twice previously endorsed the concert, the board ordered the festival’s artistic team to meet with Barenboim and try to find an alternative to the Wagner piece in light of the protests that have arisen.

Beneath the official level, though, in the stratum where music, not ideology, reigns, Israel takes a very different view. Professional classical musicians here — players, conductors and composers — have long chafed under the Wagner ban. With few exceptions, they want his works to be performed openly in Israel, even while fully recognizing that he was an especially demonic Jew-hater and a Nazi favorite. Many play Wagner abroad, including in Germany.

They argue that musical notes and rests cannot be anti-Semitic, and that even Wagner’s lyrics aren’t explicitly so, either. And even if they are, said Israel Festival artistic director Micha Lewensohn, "Did you ever read the lyrics to Bach’s passions?"

And if anti-Semites are to be banned from Israeli concert halls, most classical musicians say, the list might well begin with Wagner, but would also have to take in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and many other local favorites.

As for the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors, who number some 300,000 in Israel, some leading advocates of Wagner in concert are themselves survivors or children of survivors, and they say they’ve received outspoken encouragement from a number of others.

The conductor of Wagner in Rishon Lezion last October was Mendi Rodan, a Holocaust survivor and former director of Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music, Israel’s leading training ground for classical musicians. Rodan conducts Wagner frequently in Europe. Though the Rishon Lezion performance was briefly disrupted by a Holocaust survivor in the audience who rattled a Purim noisemaker, Rodan said other survivors were among the audience of about 500 that applauded the performance of the "Siegfried Idyll."

The country’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), is officially against playing Wagner "as long as a single Holocaust survivor who objects is still alive," said Avi Shoshani, the IPO’s director-general. But among the 100 or more musicians in the orchestra, "more than 90 percent of them want to play Wagner," Shoshani said, noting that this was their view as far back as the 1970s, when the IPO first canvassed them on the issue.

Along with Barenboim, the other star conductor who has tried to wedge Wagner onto the Israeli stage is Zubin Mehta, the conductor most closely associated with the IPO. In 1981 Mehta conducted the IPO in an encore from the opera "Tristan und Isolde," but an usher went onstage and bared scars he’d received at a concentration camp, and Mehta halted the performance. Until about a decade ago, there was a ban on performing Richard Strauss, who was adopted by the Nazis in his old age — and soon renounced because he wasn’t sufficiently anti-Semitic — and on the works of Carl Orff, a lesser Jew-hater. Israel has since "rehabilitated" these composers enough to be played in public.

But Wagner? To use an Israeli saying, that’s a whole different opera.