The nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner was one of the key figures in the romantic era of European Symphonic Music. During his lifetime, he produced works of operas through which he invented, employed, or imported many musical ideas and concepts, which, as a result, revolutionized the musical theatre.
However, he didn’t limit his ideas only to music or art while articulating in subjects like philosophy and politics. Wagner brought ideas that led him to be famous as a very controversial figure as an anti-semite and a racist. The use of his music, almost half a century after his death, in the Nazi Germany as a tool of political propaganda added further controversies to debates surrounding Wagner’s persona. It also created further questions regarding his legacy. If we want to understand the effects of his ideas and art on the historical hatred that emerged for Jewish people, and his role and relation with regards to the Nazism; we should trace the course of events which caused Wagner to reach his anti-semitic views, and the period after his death when his music and Hitler coincided in history.
The Historical Conjuncture: Rise of Anti-semitism in Europe
The roots of anti-semitic views can be traced for centuries back in history. However, a particular wing of it emerged and rose to power in the early 19th century. The German defenders of these views began philosophizing and politicizing their anti-semitic ideas around this time. Historian Hannes Heer who made researches about the relations of the Jewish people, between 1876 and 1945, to Wagner’s famous opera house, Bayreuth; said that this group of people with their newly forming racist ideologies, “fixated more on contemporary society”.
After this period, the conventional animosity, that is shaped to a certain extent by Christianity, against the Jewish people found itself space more in the political discourse and agenda than in the discussions of religion. There emerged also certain authors who published their views about how the Jews were responsible for the degradation of society, and that they were the enemies of the German state. During this time, anti-semitic groups and public meetings expanded immensely. Richard Wagner was born and raised in this atmosphere. He was not the only figure from this epoch who was accused of making anti-semitic remarks. Liszt, Chopin, and Mussorgsky were among those who articulated similar racist opinions. However, there were historical reasons that caused Wagner’s dark side to distinguish itself from others and to be more unforgettable.
The Development of Wagner’s Antisemitism, and Its Articulation in His Art and Philosophy
During the times when accusations to the Jewish people by the anti-semitic critics were prevailing in Europe, Wagner visited Paris as a young composer, only to find rejection by art critics. He did not become successful in Paris, and, around this time he started to accuse the producers and owners of the music industry which he thought to be dominated by the Jews.
This failing period of his life affected Wagner psychologically, and led him to grow even more adversarial towards Jewish people and Judaism. A decade after his first visit to Paris in 1840, Richard Wagner, still a less-known composer and writer, wrote a pamphlet named “Judaism in Music”, in 1850. In this pamphlet, which he published in a music magazine with a pseudonym, he argued that Jewish people were incapable of producing artistic expression of high quality. He made racist remarks about the appearance, language, and the singing of the Jewish people; concluding that they could only “imitate art”.
An interesting aspect of this period of Wagner’s life was that he had various relations with people from Jewish origins. However, these people were either converted to Protestantism, or forced by Wagner to convert to Christianity; or they were simply people with whom Wagner had financial relations. Therefore, there is no reasonable proof that these relations can make a case against the fact that Wagner was an anti-semite. Furthermore, Wagner’s aggression and psychological abuse towards his Jewish colleagues such as Hermann Levi (who conducted some operas in Wagner’s operahouse Bayreuth, during Wagner’s lifetime) is well-known.
The Influences of Wagner’s Art and Ideas After His Death: The Nazist Interpretations
Even during his lifetime, Wagner became one of the leading figures of the anti-semitic community, and his house became the meeting place of such groups. Several musicologists argued that many characters from his operas were Jewish stereotypes who were musically and theatrically mocked in an antisemitic point of view. He helped spreading the anti-semitic ideas in higher classes, and gave examples of such opinions within the field of art.
However, after his death, he did not stop being subject to discussions due to the fact that Hitler, who admired Wagner’s art and idolized him in several aspects; rose to power in Germany in the 1930’s, had relations with the descendants of Richard Wagner who operated Bayreuth, and was a frequent visitor of Bayreuth. In the Third Reich, music of Wagner was the perfect artistic ground for the Nazis to propagate their ideas; and with the help of Wagner’s descendants, they quickly turned Bayreuth Festival into a political meeting for racist ideologies and oppression of Jewish artists until the end of second World War.
Furthermore, Wagner’s son-in-law H. S. Chamberlain was a mentor of Adolf Hitler, and his views included the idea that Germans should prevail in politics as they do in art, in particular, in music. This historian and German nationalist helped the Nazis use Wagner’s music and ideas as a political propaganda which disseminated the idea of supremacy of the German art.
Understanding Wagner’s Controversial Legacy in 21st Century
In the end, we are left with the question of how to approach Wagner’s works. Some believe that it is unethical to perform some of his operas; while others think we can separate Wagner’s ideas from his art and still appreciate the aesthetics. Perhaps, the answer to this question is a personal one. However, in 2017 a Jewish stage director named Barrie Kosky agreed to stage “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” in the Richard Wagner Festival, upon the request of Bayreuth. Maybe it can be an answer helping us consider the subject in a different perspective. Maybe, the 21st century admirers of Wagner’s music who are not a big fan of his racist ideas can look for answers in examples like this reinterpretation.
Fulker, R., 2017. How Much Hitler Is There In Wagner?. [online] dw.com. Available at: <dw.com/en> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
Mourby, A., 2000. theguardian.com. [Blog] The Guardian Friday Review, Available at: <www.theguardian.com> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
Orzech, R., 2013. Why we must keep talking about Wagner and antisemitism. [Blog] The Conversation, Available at: <theconversation.com> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
Todeskino, M., 2013. The Hateful Side Of Wagner’s Musical Genius. [online] dw.com. Available at: <dw.com/en> [Accessed 21 November 2020].
1: Richard Wagner by Lenbach 1895, retrieved from commons.wikimedia.org
2: Wahnfried, 1937, accesed at thetimes.co.uk
3: Bayreuth, 16.07.2005, accesed at commons.wikimedia.org