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Wagner the anti-Semite

Marie Todeskino / gsw
May 31, 2013

Famous German composer Richard Wagner was a vehement anti-Semite. But he also admired Jews like poet Heinrich Heine and had both Jewish patrons and fans. How does it all fit together, and where did his hatred come from?

A portrait of Richard Wagner (c) picture-alliance/akg-images
Richard WagnerImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Zurich in 1850: Richard Wagner writes of "the Jew" that he is "incapable ... of artistic expression, neither through his outer appearance, nor through his language and least of all through his singing." Instead, Wagner believed Jews could only "imitate art."

In his pamphlet "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Jewishness in Music"), he makes no secret of his anti-Semitism. When the composer published those lines in a music magazine under a pseudonym, he was still largely unknown to the world and living on limited funds in Switzerland. It was only later that he would come to be revered as a musical revolutionary and as the mastermind behind operas like "Lohengrin" or "The Ring of the Nibelung." His genius is still commemorated around the world today, and for his 200th birthday on May 22, 2013, Germany celebrated his artistry.

But there was clearly a hateful side to the composer, as well. His anti-Semitic views became increasingly aggressive as he got older. As such, understanding the dark side of his intellectual legacy is as important as ever in the Richard Wagner year of 2013.

Richard and Cosima Wagner
Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima

From beer halls to middle-class salons

After Wagner's death in 1883, the calamitous legacy of anti-Semitism would continue. His wife, Cosima, and several of his children turned the famed performances at Bayreuth, which Wagner founded during his lifetime, to a venue of oppression against Jewish artists. Racist ideas had currency there. And later, the Nazis appropriated Wagner as a composer. Adolf Hitler cherished his music and also esteemed him as an early herald of anti-Semitism in Germany. For the racist and nationalist opponents of German modernism, Wagner was - even during the composer's lifetime - an important figure.

As one of the most famous composers of his time, Wagner's name carried weight. He helped hoist anti-Semitism out of dirty bars or scarcely read pamphlets and into the comfortable milieu of the middle class, said theater and literary scholar Jens Malte Fischer.

"That was disastrous and has to be attributed to him," the Wagner expert said.

Fischer has researched the composer for years and has now published a further book about Richard Wagner. Although it's clear that Wagner did not invent anti-Semitism, he was a pioneer of such thinking in at least one respect, Fischer said, "He carried over the hatred of Jews of his era into the area of culture and - in particular - that of music."

In Germany, this is one way in which anti-Semitism found entry into middle-class salons.

Historian Hannes Heer Photo: Soeren Stache dpa/lbn
Historian Hannes HeerImage: picture alliance/dpa

What explains Wagner's hatred?

Historian Hannes Heer is curating an exhibition on the role of Jews in Bayreuth from 1876 to 1945, which can be seen in Bayreuth through the end of this year.

"In the first third of the 19th century, a certain anti-Judaism shaped by Christianity dissolved into anti-Semitism, which fixated more on contemporary society," Heer said.

Since then, the traditional Christian opposition to Jews was grounded less in religion and more in political and racist expressions. Nationalist authors and writers made Jews into the supposed enemy of the German state, while anti-Semitic organizations sprang up and anti-Jewish demonstrations took place. These political and intellectual movements shaped Wagner's views.

It was typical for authors of the time to couple anti-Semitism with criticism of modernism. In their caricature, Jews were the protagonists of a new, industrial-capitalist era, which the authors rejected.

But Wagner also had personal experiences that influenced his anti-Semitic beliefs. In the 1840s, he went to Paris, where the young and ambitious composer found no success. Jens Malte Fischer explained, "He had the feeling that the music business in which he couldn't succeed was in Jewish hands. But that's, of course, not true."

Wagner focused his frustration on critics, music journalists and publishers with Jewish roots and came to see them as behind his failure.

Jewish conductor Hermann Levi (c) picture-alliance/akg images
Jewish conductor Hermann Levi faced pressure from WagnerImage: picture-alliance/akg-images


In Paris, Wagner met the famous German poet Heinrich Heine, whom he initially admired. Heine was of Jewish heritage but had converted to Protestantism. And the opera conductor Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was also Jewish, was a supporter of Wagner's.

"In letters, Wagner expresses much appreciation for that," said Wagner expert Fischer.

Once back in Germany, Wagner later maintained contact with wealthy Germans who had Jewish roots, like the mathematician and art patron Alfred Pringsheim, with whom Wagner even regularly exchanged letters. Is this ambivalence an expression of mere opportunism?

Anti-Semitism researcher Matthias Küntzel said, "Wagner had an ambivalent relationship with Jews." Although he rejected them in many ways, he also allowed Jewish supporters to make the trip to Bayreuth. That apparently had pragmatic reasons - after all, they put money into his coffers. But that hardly means he wasn't an anti-Semite.

Matthias Küntzel (c) private
Anti-Semitism researcher Matthias KüntzelImage: Privat

When it came to Jewish colleagues, Wagner could be quite cruel, said historian Hannes Heer, who cited the example of "Parsifal" conductor Hermann Levi.

"Levi is unfortunately the most prominent example to show that Wagner tormented the Jews around him," Heer said.

Wagner repeatedly tried to get the conductor baptized, and Levi was not the only Jewish musician that Wagner put under psychological pressure.

After Wagner's death, the harassment became systematic under his wife and heir Cosima Wagner. She overwhelmingly cast the singers with non-Jewish performers, and her son and successor Siegfried continued the discriminatory practices from 1908 onward. Although there were occasional Jewish soloists and musicians in Bayreuth until the Nazis took power in 1933, such moves generally had political motivations. Siegfried Wagner wanted to ensure he had the support of the liberal press.

Even during Richard Wagner's lifetime, his home became a kind of summoning point for anti-Semites. "If you didn't know in the 1870s and 1880s that Wagner was a pretty staunch anti-Semite, then you must have been pretty much deaf and blind," said Jens Malte Fischer.

A drawing of the Festspielhaus or Festival House in Bayreuth, Bavaria, shortly before it was officially opened (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Bayreuth Festspielhaus in an 1876 representationImage: Getty Images

And for today's listeners?

Wagner's followers were anything but blind and deaf. They praised the composer for his fiery opera works. For many, it remains a question today whether Wagner's anti-Semitism can be blocked out when hearing his work. Does his hatred of Jews come through in his works for the stage?

Most Wagner researchers would say no. But those who disagree include Jens Malte Fischer. He said Wagner never wrote any anti-Semitic operas, but that his attitude toward Jews is reflected in some of his characters.

"There are allusions in some of his individual figures that subliminally point to Jewish stereotypes, particularly with Mime in 'The Ring of the Nibelung' and with Beckmesser in the 'Mastersingers of Nuremberg,'" the researcher said.

Both characters represent antagonists to heroic counterparts in Wagner's works, and Fischer said Wagner's contemporaries would have known how to interpret this "anti-Semitic code" in the roles.

"When people stage Wagner today, they're not works with anti-Semitic connotations. Instead, it's the work of a great composer and theater maker," Hannes Heer said.

Musical genius and anti-Semite - Richard Wagner is and will remain one of the most controversial titans of Germany's musical history.