December 10, 2019

Why Wagner’s Music Deserves a Second Chance

Well all right, no Jew can love Richard Wagner the person. He was a raving, despicable anti-Semite. But is it possible to get beyond that and appreciate — even love — his music?

With the upcoming Los Angeles Opera performance of Wagner’s famous four-part “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” sponsored in large part by local Jewish patrons, it makes sense to ask the question.

Wagner’s anti-Semitic treatise, “Jewishness in Music,” published in 1850 and re-published in 1869, was principally an attack on his, at the time, more successful contemporaries, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn. Wagner’s thesis was that Jews were incapable of creating great art.

“Only those artists who abandoned their Jewish roots — were that possible — could at all express themselves artistically,” he wrote.

While praising two authors who had converted to Christianity — Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne — he urged Jews to reject and abandon their Judaism and all Jewish cultural traits. The article is as disgusting as any you could imagine, and there is no doubt that Wagner was a ridiculous anti-Semite, although, like so many anti-Semites, he had a number of close Jewish friends.

If anyone suffered from Wagner’s particular brand of anti-Semitism it was people like my grandfathers — Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl — two Jewish composers who grew up in Vienna while Wagner’s theory that Jews could not be creative artists held sway over the musical world.

Schoenberg, like his contemporary, Gustav Mahler, succumbed to assimilationist pressure and converted, only to re-enter the Jewish community in 1933 after fleeing Nazi persecution from Berlin. By that time, anti-Semitism had long forced him to re-discover his Jewish identity.

Five years later, my other grandfather escaped from Vienna on the day after Kristallnacht, leaving his parents behind. Zeisl’s father, Siegmund, an amateur singer and retired coffeehouse owner with a very Wagnerian name, was sent to Theresienstadt and later to Treblinka, where he perished in the Shoah, along with dozens of other relatives.

And yet, my grandfathers loved Wagner’s music, even while they hated the man and his terrible philosophy.

Schoenberg wrote that by the time he was just 25 years old, he had heard every Wagner opera 20 or 30 times. His early works are unmistakably Wagnerian, and he counted Wagner among his most important teachers.

Zeisl earned much-needed income by performing his own piano transcriptions of Wagner’s operas for a wealthy Jewish patron, who paid simply to sit next to him during the performance. He, too, turned to Wagner as a model for his unfinished opera, “Job” (based on a novel by Joseph Roth), composed after fleeing Austria. Even during and after the war, my grandfathers’ love and esteem for Wagner’s music did not diminish.

Following my grandfathers’ example, I believe it is wrong for Jews to reject Wagner’s music out of hand and to refuse to listen to it. Wagner’s music has undeniably been an inspiration to countless Jewish composers, conductors, musicians and music lovers.

No serious musician can afford to be ignorant of Wagner’s music or his essential place in music history. Those Jews who would ban or refuse to listen to Wagner are hurting only themselves and making it more difficult for them to understand and appreciate music after Wagner, much of it written by Jews.

When the issue of Wagner’s music is discussed among Jews, one often hears the explanation that the music should not be performed because it would offend Holocaust survivors. After all, the argument goes, wasn’t Wagner’s music played in the gas chambers?

Actually, no. This is a myth. Wagner’s music was not played in the gas chambers. The Nazis were not scoring a film; they were killing people.

They loved Wagner’s music (as many Jews did) and did not offer it to their victims. Wagner’s music is not a form of torture.

Yes, it is true that Hitler loved Wagner’s music and his anti-Semitic philosophy and was supported enthusiastically by Wagner’s legal and spiritual heirs.

Yes, it is true that there were orchestras of inmates (but they performed only for the officers and did not perform operas).

Yes, it is true that at Auschwitz the guards sometimes played light music (but no Wagner) as the trains arrived in order to calm down the passengers. But Wagner’s music was not a part of the Nazi’s killing enterprise.

Those Jews who support the ban on Wagner because they believe that they hear in his music the same German culture that produced the Shoah should take a look in the mirror. Anyone who thinks that German culture and Jewish culture can be separated is fooling himself.

Wagner himself was, of course, influenced by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. Should Jews also ban Herzl, Einstein, Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg, Kafka, Buber and Wittgenstein? How about Yiddish? Or do they think that this Jewish language came straight from the Middle East?

German culture is a part of Jewish culture and vice versa. Wagner’s influence can no more be extricated from Jewish music history than Mendelssohn’s, Mahler’s or Schoenberg’s could be from German music history. The two — German and Jewish — go hand in hand, for better or worse.

The argument that Wagner’s music is “too German” is simply not an argument. And besides, have you ever heard anyone complain that they cannot listen to Tchaikovsky or Glinka because the music is “too Russian” and reminds them of the pogroms?

The truth is that Jews have nothing to fear from Wagner. It is not as if anyone will be incited to violent anti-Semitism by seeing a production of “The Ring,” with its fantastic tale of Norse gods and giants and heroes. Whatever one thinks of Wagner the person, his accomplishment in “The Ring” ranks among the greatest artistic achievements in Western civilization. If you don’t believe me, go to the Los Angeles Opera and listen, and you will hear for yourself.

Attorney E. Randol Schoenberg is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and serves on the board of LA Opera.