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?
August 26, 2009

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).

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