Wagner and the Jews

Two centuries after the great composer’s birth, his anti-Semitism remains a bitterly contested issue. Perhaps that’s because no one has yet come to grips with its, or his, true nature.

Elena Zhidkova as Kundry and Nikolai Schukoff as the title character in the Opera de Lyon’s 2012 production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Photo by Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty Images.

Elena Zhidkova as Kundry and Nikolai Schukoff as the title character in the Opera de Lyon’s 2012 production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Photo by Philippe Merle/AFP/Getty Images.

Jan. 5 2015
About the author

Nathan Shields, a composer whose works have been performed by various orchestras and chamber ensembles, is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He earned his doctorate at the Juilliard School in New York, and has received fellowships from Tanglewood and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In 2013, as the classical-music world lurched from crisis to crisis, with orchestras on strike and opera companies vanishing into thin air, the bicentennial of the birth of the towering German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) offered a brilliant exception to the prevailing gloom. Productions of his operas filled houses from Seattle to Buenos Aires, and the great companies of Europe and the United States vied to present ever grander stagings of the colossal 15-hour cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. At a time when so many preeminent musical institutions are collapsing into bankruptcy or labor disputes, Wagner is one institution that seems to endure.

Yet Wagner’s powerfully continuing appeal in terms of dollars spent and seats filled is only a part, and the less important part, of his enduring significance. Wagner has always been remarkable not only for the breadth but for the depth of his impact, a depth that can be measured both by the intensity of the devotion that his works inspire and by the fact that his devotees have included many of the intellectual and political elite of Western society. When his fame was at its zenith in the latter part of the 19th century, his most fervent admirers were as varied as the young Friedrich Nietzsche, the poet Charles Baudelaire, and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who helped to bankroll Wagner’s great festival in the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth.

Today the Bayreuth festival, dedicated exclusively to Wagner’s works, stands at the apex of German cultural life, counting Chancellor Angela Merkel among its regular guests, while the years surrounding the recent bicentennial witnessed an outpouring of reflections on and encomia to the composer from figures as divergent as the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Pope.

At the root of the fascination and devotion that Wagner commands is the immersive, captivating power of his works, a power that has no exact parallel in the history of the arts. His early admirers found themselves reaching, time and again, for language of a revealing erotic or religious intensity. Baudelaire spoke for many when he wrote to Wagner that “I owe you the greatest musical pleasure I have ever experienced,” a pleasure that he likened to being “ravished and flooded” as if “tossing in the sea.” Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, found in this music both an expression of “the true reality, the heart of the world,” and a force by which the listener might be “extinguished” in “a spasmodic unharnessing of all the wings of the soul.”

Ravished, flooded, extinguished: these are the keynotes of the Wagnerian experience. We encounter his operas not as spectacles that we contemplate from afar, but as a world into which we enter and which threatens at times to subsume us. Such encounters could carry the force of a conversion, as they did for Baudelaire, in whom Wagner inspired (in the words of the great German novelist Thomas Mann) an answering “ambition of making music with language, of emulating Wagner with language alone.” Similar claims could be made about art, philosophy, even politics; without Wagner, the face of the 19th century would look very different.

And not only the 19th century. Those enraptured by Wagner have not been limited to artistic luminaries like Baudelaire or Marcel Proust. They also include, notoriously, a frustrated painter from Linz, a man who would one day bend the full resources of a modern industrial nation toward effacing the Jews from the canvas of Europe. More troublingly, it is often claimed that Hitler found inspiration not only in Wagner’s music but in his ideas, among which were a nationalism and anti-Semitism whose virulence had shocked even the composer’s contemporaries.

The Wagner question lies at the intersection of the moral and the aesthetic spheres, with the hatefulness of the composer’s polemics set against the acknowledged majesty of his work.

For this reason, Wagner’s bicentennial has been greeted not only with new productions but with renewed acrimony, as the perennial, often bitterly contested debate over his anti-Semitism rises back into view, a dark lining surrounding the brilliance of the Bayreuth galas, sold-out performances, and glittering eulogies. This debate—what we might call the Wagner question—lies at the intersection of two spheres, the moral and the aesthetic, with the hatefulness of the composer’s polemics set against the acknowledged majesty of his work. What is at issue, fundamentally, is how we connect, if we can connect, these two sides of him.

To many of Wagner’s defenders, the two sides cannot be connected: art is art, and life is life, and never the twain shall meet. This position is neatly summed up in the dichotomous title of a book by M. Owen Lee, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. By contrast, most of Wagner’s critics contend that no such separation between the man and the art is possible.

Approached this way, the Wagner question would seem to be one instance, if the most extreme and dramatic instance, of a more fundamental question: the question of the morality of art, and more specifically the morality of music, the most abstract of the arts. Is music pure, inhabiting a realm of transcendent form beyond the corruption of politics? Or does the taint of guilt—the guilt of the everyday world, with its struggles for power, its cruelty and barbarism—fall on music as well?

But Wagner resists reduction to such generalities. It is not only the passions brought to the debate, but the very terms in which it is framed, that prevent his defenders and detractors alike from seeing him clearly. This is both because the moral question asked about him is unlike any other moral question, and because his art itself is unlike any other art.


I. Wagner and Hitler


The passions surrounding Wagner are nowhere more evident than in Israel, where his name is so inflammatory that, at least until recently, his music has been the subject of a de-facto ban. Last year, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra marked the anniversary of his birth with a compromise: it would present a symposium on the composer, discussing his music, his cultural influence, and his anti-Semitism, and—somewhat more daringly—asking whether the ban still made sense. “All the difficult questions,” the Symphony’s website advertised, “but none of the notes.”

If the organizers of the conference hoped by this expedient to avoid unpleasant confrontations, they were disappointed. According to a report in Haaretz,

As [conductor Frederic] Chaslin was delivering his opening speech, a young man climbed on stage, yelling at the audience “Dachau, Auschwitz, kapos” and threatening to fight anyone who might try to remove him.

Yair Stern, CEO of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, tried to calm the intruder, but was met with insults. “You defile the memory of your father, who was murdered so I could speak here today,” the intruder told Stern, according to witnesses.

In the spectrum of responses to the issue of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, this marks one extreme: simple and absolute rejection. The Israeli heckler’s intervention may not constitute an argument, but it possesses an undeniable power, derived from an array of images and motifs of compelling emotional force. One such image can be readily found on YouTube: Wilhelm Furtwängler, perhaps the greatest Wagnerian interpreter of his day, conducting the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the height of World War II, about him a rapt audience of blond youths, everyday Germans, and Wehrmacht officers, above him the swastika banner.

And there is another image, scantily attested yet tenaciously adhered to, of the same music serenading inmates on their way to the gas chambers. Supporting these images are various items of Wagner lore, like the well-known fact that he was Hitler’s favorite composer, or Hitler’s remark to a childhood friend, in reminiscing about their shared youthful encounter with Wagner’s Rienzi: “at that moment, it all began!”

The mythical dimension of much of this, however, becomes evident on closer inspection. First, the “well-known fact” may not be a fact at all: the position of “Hitler’s favorite composer” turns out to be hotly contested, with both Wagner’s follower Anton Bruckner and the cynical Viennese operetta composer Franz Léhar competing for the title. The source for Hitler’s remark about Rienzi, a hagiographic celebrity memoir titled The Young Hitler I Knew, is even less reliable than most celebrity memoirs. And though Wagner’s music was indeed played at Dachau as part of the “re-education” of political prisoners—horrible enough in itself—the evidence for its use in the death camps is, at best, equivocal. As Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, writes:

Two survivors recall hearing strains of Lohengrin at Auschwitz, but the vast majority of eyewitnesses make no mention of Wagner: instead, they agree that light music, such as Strauss waltzes, Suppé overtures, operetta arias, marches, and the like, prevailed at camp concerts and blared from loudspeakers.

And the problem runs deeper. For even if all of these stories were true, what conclusions could we draw from them? On logical grounds, it is hard to argue with Daniel Barenboim, one of Wagner’s greatest contemporary interpreters and most eloquent defenders, when he says that

as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his worldviews. The Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, for one, refused to accept Wagner as a possession of the Nazis: “The music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Die Meistersinger but rather [the Nazi-party anthem] Horst-Wessel-Lied; they have no more honor than that, further honor can and shall not be given them.”


And yet, is the use to which Wagner’s art and ideas have been put really what is at issue? The Strauss waltzes played in the camps have not been banned, nor have the Léhar operettas that Hitler so admired. Instead, the tales surrounding Wagner are externalizations of a more serious argument: not over how Hitler used, or abused, Wagner’s “music and his worldviews,” but over the nature of the music and worldviews themselves. This argument hinges on two questions. First, what role did Wagner’s views and writings play in the development of German anti-Semitism? And second, what does the answer signify for our understanding of his music?

The first question is a matter of historical record. The second, more intractable, turns in part on what we take to be the fundamental relationship between art and politics. They are best taken up one by one.


II. The Man and His Views


The outsized fascination that Wagner has held for so many is due in part to the fact that he was not only an artist but an intellectual, and one who reflected on the nature and goal of his work with a brilliance and a singleness of purpose that have few parallels in the history of the arts. Defying the conventional division of labor between librettist and composer, he wrote the texts for his own operas, which he endowed with a literary and philosophical seriousness that has few precedents in the genre. In these “music dramas” (as Wagner called them), he grappled with great metaphysical and moral dilemmas, exploring life’s ecstasies, terrors, and tragic ambiguities, and at times pronouncing upon their ultimate meaning with breathtaking self-assurance. His works themselves constitute not just an artistic world, but a worldview.

Wagner was also an extraordinarily prolific cultural critic, a fearless observer of his society’s sicknesses. To him, these sicknesses included bourgeois materialism, imperialist aggression, and ecclesiastical tyranny. They also included the malignant influence of the Jews, to whom he devoted a venomous 1850 screed entitled Das Judentum in Musik (translated variously as “Judaism in Music” or “Jewishness in Music”), and against whom he inveighed periodically throughout the rest of his life in letters, pamphlets, and aesthetic pronouncements.

The Jew, according to Wagner, is capable not of real music but only of the “travesty of a divine service of song.”

The pseudonymous Das Judentum in Musik, Wagner’s first and most famous foray into anti-Semitic pamphleteering, is at the same time a musical broadside, directed against Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, the two preeminent composers of Jewish descent of his day. It seeks to explain “the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews.” In answer, Wagner sounds many of the common tropes of anti-Jewish writing, describing Jews as foreign, legalistic, and usurious. What modern readers find even more disturbing is his suggestion that these traits are ineradicable. Mendelssohn’s music is sterile, Wagner suggests, because the Jew is separated by the very nature of his being from the organic community of the Volk, from which alone true art can spring:

A language, with its expression and its evolution, is not the work of scattered units, but of an historical community: only he who has unconsciously grown up within the bond of this community takes also any share in its creations. But the Jew has stood outside the pale of any such community, stood solitarily with his Jehova in a splintered, soilless stock, to which all self-sprung evolution must stay denied, just as even the peculiar (Hebraic) language of that stock has been preserved for him merely as a thing defunct.

Thus the Jew, according to Wagner, is capable not of real music but only of the “travesty of a divine service of song,” the “gurgle, yodel, and cackle” of the synagogue.

In brief, the terms of Wagner’s rejection of the Jews are intrinsic to an evolving German nationalism—and particularly, it is often maintained, to the dark turn taken by that nationalism from (in the words of the musicologist Richard Taruskin), “a modernizing and liberalizing discourse into a belligerent and regressive one . . . obsessed not with culture but with nature, symbolized by Blut und Boden (blood and soil).” In Taruskin’s view, Wagner exemplifies a transition from an anti-Semitism centered in religion to one centered in race: “a religion may be changed or shed. . . . [A]n ethnicity, however, is essential, immutable, and (to use a favorite 19th-century word) ‘organic.’”

Other Wagner critics, like the biographer Robert W. Gutman in Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music, take the claim farther, arguing that Wagner not only was representative of this sinister turn in German nationalism but was one of its crucial links, and that later in life his anti-Semitism deepened into a philosophy of racial purity that directly influenced Hitler. Finally, passing out of scholarship into critical demonology, we encounter works like Joachim Köhler’s Wagner’s Hitler: the Prophet and His Disciple, whose thesis is precisely what the title suggests.

Köhler’s claim may be dismissed as a curiosity. But Gutman’s, too, runs afoul of certain obstacles, among them the fact that, as Alex Ross observes, “nowhere in the entire corpus of Hitler’s utterances . . . is there any reference to Wagner’s writings about the Jews.” Even Taruskin can support only the conclusion that Judaism in Music is “the most vivid symptom to be found in musical writings of a change in the nature of nationalism that all modern historians now recognize as a major crux in the history of modern Europe.” But if this is all—if Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings are only a symptom of a culture-wide anti-Semitism—then why give them the importance we do? Why the bans and protests, and why the mythology?

In part, the answer is that, as Wagner understood better than anyone, a myth is more than just a story. It is also a vehicle of deeper truths, illuminating the fears and needs that remain hidden from our ordinary consciousness. Ever since World War II, one of our own overriding needs has been to understand the Holocaust, that dark lens through which the anti-Semitism of any major cultural figure, above all a German one, must pass before it reaches us. That historical event, so complete in its horribleness and inscrutability, has seemed to demand an equally complete explanation, giving rise in some quarters to a deterministic reading of history inspired by the hope that, as W.H. Auden put it,

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad.

The result of this “unearthing” enterprise is a vision of German intellectual history as a teleological progression toward Auschwitz, in which each vital link bears responsibility for the whole. Wagner is seen as one of these vital links.

The trouble here, however, is that the vagaries of Holocaust historiography also fail by themselves to explain adequately why we consider Wagner’s anti-Semitism so important. If he is still of concern to us, it is presumably not merely as a historical link in the development of German anti-Semitism during the 19th century but as a real and living presence. This presence, to say it once again, is embodied in his art, that singular complex of drama, music, and philosophical speculation that we continue to find deeply compelling and affecting. It is because of Wagner’s art that we continue to argue over him long after other figures whose historical influence on the development of Nazism was at least as great—the anti-Semitic German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for one, or Austrian political figures like Karl Lueger and Georg Ritter von Schönerer—have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Are Wagner’s dead and buried anti-Semitic writings, then, of any relevance to his work—his operas and music, still very much alive? If so, there must exist some essential, morally significant relationship between the two. Without such a connection, we are left with two radically distinct Wagners, one belonging to the opera house and the other to the history of hatred, and we may safely enjoy the former while consigning the latter to deserved obscurity. We are, in other words, left with the same unbridgeable distinction between art and politics endorsed explicitly by M. Owen Lee and tacitly by Daniel Barenboim and Ernest Bloch.

Barenboim’s argument implies that it is not even possible for politics to corrupt art. To say, with Ernest Bloch, that no further honor than the Horst-Wessel-Lied can be given to the Nazis—that a debased political ideology can find expression only in a debased music—is tantamount to saying that the music of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is not only incidentally but necessarily innocent of the uses to which it was put. This in turn would mean that Wagner’s music, by virtue of its beauty, transcends all politics, even his own.

Such a line of defense, however, is closed to us. It is Wagner himself who has closed it.


III. Art and Revolution


The famous German catchphrase associated with Wagner’s operas—Gesamtkunstwerk, or“total work of art”—is not quite accurate as a technical description, in that it implies a synthesis of all the arts, rather than of the two that principally concerned him, music and drama. Yet in spirit, it captures him perfectly: nothing was more characteristic of Wagner than totality.

This could mean, in part, totality of form: where most opera before him was conceived, to a greater or lesser degree, as a series of discrete musical episodes linked together by passages of dramatic recitative, Wagner envisioned each of his works as a unified musical structure, built from an interlocking web of musical ideas or leitmotifs which, as they recur, collide, and become transformed, endow the entire work with a musical unity like that of a Beethoven symphony.

Unity of form and drama, drama and sound, sound and physiology: an unbroken chain connects Wagner’s dramatic designs to the functions of our bodies. If we give Wagner such power over us, it is fair to ask what ends he means to put it to.

More centrally, to Wagner, the “total work of art” implied a total fusion of music and drama. The leitmotifs out of which he spun his symphonic structures are not only musical ideas but dramatic ones—sonic metaphors that embody, in a sensually immediate form, the essence of the characters or ideas with which they are associated. The central concepts and passions of the drama are transformed into sound and submerged into the orchestra, where they accumulate association after association, interacting with each other in a network of recollections, foreshadowings, and ironies. The symphonic form and the dramatic form are thus one and the same.

In such a context, the distinction between music and drama starts to seem academic. Nowhere is this clearer than in the famous opening of Das Rheingold (1869), the first of the four operas of the Ring cycle.

Those who have heard Das Rheingold in Wagner’s own theater at Bayreuth testify to the uncanny effect of the opening bass note, a vast E-flat, massively deep yet barely perceptible, that seems to come from inside their own heads. The entrancing major harmony that unfolds and expands from this bass note slowly fills Wagner’s massive orchestra, rising up around us until we feel, like Baudelaire, as if we are immersed in a sea of sound—as in a sense we are, for this passage is Wagner’s depiction of the rushing waters of the Rhine.

As Thomas Mann remarked, this is a literary idea—the idea, that is, of the creation of the world—expressed by musical means. And that captures the essence of Wagner’s dramatic genius, wherein the gap between the “meaning” of the literary idea and the physiological effect of the music becomes vanishingly small. It also exemplifies the immediacy that captivated and disturbed Wagner’s early listeners, the way the instruments of his orchestra can surround us, get inside us, and, as Nietzsche would later put it, “persuade even the intestines.”

Unity of form and drama, unity of drama and sound, and unity of sound and physiology: an unbroken chain connects Wagner’s large-scale dramatic designs to the functions of our bodies. If we give Wagner such power over us, it is fair to ask what ends he means to put it to.

The answer, it turns out, lies near at hand: from the very beginning, the “total work of art” was not only an artistic idea, but a sociological one. The object of Wagner’s works is not merely to entertain or move us, but to transform us, both as individuals and as a society. The uniqueness of this ambition is evident in the very terminology we employ in discussing him. Other artists have had passionate cults, but none has given his name to a cultural movement. And yet when talking about Wagner, we speak of “Wagnerism” as if we were talking about a religion. In a sense, we are.

In Art and Revolution (1849), the theoretical manifesto that laid the groundwork for the four Ring operas, Wagner describes the transcendent glory of Greek tragedy—and the cataclysm of its subsequent downfall—in words that are also, unmistakably, a description of his own towering artistic ambitions:

This [Greek] people, streaming in its thousands from the state-assembly, from the agora, from land, from sea, from camps, from distant parts, filled with its 30,000 heads the amphitheatre. To see the most pregnant of all tragedies, [Aeschylus’] Prometheus, came they; in this titanic masterpiece to see the image of themselves, to read the riddle of their own actions, to fuse their own being and their own communion with that of their god; and thus in noblest, stillest peace to live again the life which, a brief space of time before, they had lived in restless activity and accentuated individuality.

Hand-in-hand with the dissolution of the Athenian state marched the downfall of tragedy. As the spirit of community split itself along a thousand lines of egoistic cleavage, so was the great united work of tragedy disintegrated into its individual factors.

This is at the heart of what Wagner means by the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk: a vision of art as a union not merely of drama and music but of artistic creation, religious ritual, and redemptive politics. The united work of art both reflects, and helps to sustain, the unity of society. The artwork, in Wagner’s vision, is neither an entertainment nor an object of aesthetic contemplation. It is a drama of collective salvation. As such, it is inescapably political, and political questions can and must be asked of it.

One such question is the one posed by Wagner’s critics—the question of whether and how an artwork can reflect, or legitimate, its creator’s anti-Semitism.


IV. Missing the Point


This question proves more difficult to answer than we might expect.

Perhaps the most modest approach to it has been to say that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is relevant to his art only in the sense that, historically, the high esteem accorded to his artistic achievements lent an appearance of respectability to his views, and was thus instrumental in giving anti-Semitism a mainstream legitimacy it had not previously enjoyed. Whether true or not, this argument is generally (and rightly) seen to be insufficient, for it leaves us again with the problem of the two Wagners. Besides, the mere fact that his works may have lent this kind of spurious legitimacy to his anti-Semitism in the past need not mean that they would do so now. Not many people these days are rushing out after a performance of the Ring to buy copies of Das Judentum in Musik.

Thus, another and more substantial link is often proposed. A significant strain in Wagner criticism, going back at least to the German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s Wagner, Nietzsche, and Hitler (1947), approaches the operas as a series of coded messages that contain invidious anti-Semitic caricatures, or even invocations to racial violence. In the same vein, but more sweepingly, Robert Gutman writes that “a proto-Nazism, expressed mainly through an unextinguishable loathing of the Jews, was one of Wagner’s principal leitmotifs, the venomous tendrils of anti-Semitism twining through his life and work.”

The word “Jew” appears nowhere in any of Wagner’s operas, and no character—with one exception—is in any concrete way represented as Jewish.

The claim is a bold one—not so much about Wagner’s polemics, where the anti-Semitism is plainly abundant, but about his art. Alex Ross has called our attention to one awkward fact: Hitler, for all of his passionate admiration of Wagner, never referred to the composer’s thoughts or writings about the Jews. Another fact is even more awkward: the word “Jew” appears nowhere in any of Wagner’s operas, and no character—with one exception, to which we shall return—is in any concrete way represented as Jewish.

The effort to get around this difficulty often elicits from commentators a good deal of hermeneutic ingenuity or, less charitably, invention. Thus, the hunched back and wheedling vocal mannerisms of a character like Mime in the Ring are supposed to represent coded portraits of a conniving Jew, and a monologue about German art in Die Meistersinger is taken to be a racist screed in disguise. Such examples are meant to support Gutman’s sweeping conclusion that Adolf Hitler “carried to their logical and appalling conclusions many of the ideas implicit in the composer’s essays and dramas.” The word “implicit” does a lot of work here.

The problem with Gutman’s argument is not just that it is a tenuous reading of history but that it exonerates Wagner while seeming to damn him. For on the subject that overwhelmingly concerns us in the first place—Wagner’s music—Gutman sounds remarkably like Barenboim when he writes: “Yet Wagner survives, and primarily because he was a great musician. . . . [A] music of almost unparalleled eloquence and intimacy keeps his works on the stage.” As the philosopher Bernard Williams observes of this passage, “Having refused to separate the man and the work, Gutman tries to separate the work and its music, an aim which can be seen to be failing already in the use of words such as ‘eloquence’ and ‘intimacy.’” The effect is to reinstate, using different terms, the division between the two Wagners.

The very nature of Wagner’s work, as we have seen, prohibits any such uncoupling of the music from the drama surrounding it. So deeply are the two entangled that, as Wagner’s career progressed, it became increasingly difficult to say whether the music was a setting of the text or the text emerged from the substance and the effect of the music. In his theoretical writings surrounding the Ring, he espoused something like the traditional position that music must be “the handmaid of drama”; by the time of Tristan und Isolde (1865), however, he was speaking of his operas as “deeds of music made visible,” as if the tangible world of the stage were merely an emanation of the deep reality unfolding beneath it in the depths of the orchestra. But always, music and drama were inextricably entwined. This means, as Williams writes, that “the presence of some anti-Semitic signatures is not in itself enough . . . to show that anti-Semitism is ‘one of the principal leitmotifs’ of Wagner’s work. The works will have to be more thoroughly polluted than that.”

In his mammoth Oxford History of Western Music, Richard Taruskin makes a closely argued attempt to locate that pollution in the interaction of Wagner’s views with both the texts of the operas and the music itself. To this end he develops a virtuosic analysis of the musical means by which Wagner channels, thwarts, and stokes the listener’s desires, and of the ecstatic states into which he thereby leads them. To Taruskin, the Wagnerian ecstasy is, above all, a condition of dangerous vulnerability: “As Plato himself was the first (at least in the European tradition) to recognize and warn, if music is the great persuader, then we have to ask what it is that music persuades us of, and we have to be wary of it.”

Where then is Wagner leading us, once his musical means have reduced us to irrational passivity? Taruskin finds the clearest expression of his true destination in the grand monologue on German art from Die Meistersinger that I mentioned earlier:

Beware! Evil threatens us:
if the German land and folk should one day decay
under a false foreign rule
soon no prince will understand his people anymore; and foreign mists with foreign conceits
they will plant in our German land;
what is German and pure no one will know
if it does not live in our esteem for our German masters. Therefore I say to you:

Honor your German masters!
Then you will have protection of the good spirits; and if you remain true to their endeavors,
even if mists should dissolve
the Holy Roman Empire,
there would still endure
our holy German art!

Ugly stuff: the vague, threatening intimations of decay and “foreign rule,” the nationalistic appeals to the purity of the Volk—but still a far cry from Das Judentum in Musik. This is not exactly a call to burn down synagogues or annex the Sudetenland. As it happens, there is nothing in the text of the Meistersinger half so obviously and directly defamatory of the Jews as the opening pages of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome or, for that matter, substantial portions of Bach’s St. John Passion. Furthermore, and quite inconveniently for Taruskin’s argument, the monologue in Meistersinger closes with a call not to action but to political quietism (“even if mists should dissolve the Holy Roman Empire”) and with the sanctification of art itself as the one eternal, holy, and indestructible absolute.

This is the same vision—the vision of politics redeemed by art—that Wagner set forth in Art and Revolution. But now, twenty years later, it has been decisively tilted in the direction of resignation. Modern commentators, however, faced with the phrase holy German art, have by and large heard only the second word and been deaf to the full significance of the third.

Nor is the comparative mildness of the Meistersinger monologue the chief problem with Taruskin’s argument. While considerably more sophisticated than Gutman, Taruskin ultimately presents us with a similar picture of Wagner’s music as at worst a kind of delivery system, which bears aloft the noxious elements of the text while remaining itself innocent at core. If this is the best that Wagner’s critics can manage, then the ground between them and his defenders becomes perilously small.

As Bernard Williams insists, to seek anti-Semitic traces in Wagner’s libretti, or to treat his music like the soundtrack in a propaganda film, is to “externalize the problem, moving it from where it truly belongs.” If we wish to come to a fuller understanding of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, it is to the music itself that we must look, and to the sentiments that it inspires.


V. The Music


The experiences described by Baudelaire and Nietzsche, of being “ravished,” “flooded,” or “extinguished,” typify what I have called the “Wagnerian ecstasy,” the intense infatuation that Wagner’s music excites in his enthusiasts. But many of Wagner’s listeners report a different kind of experience, equally intense and equally typical. This is the sensation that there is something fundamentally “off” about the music—that its effect upon us, morally or even physiologically, is somehow wrong.

This apprehension that a danger lurks in Wagner’s music itself is one of the most basic and widely shared intuitions among his listeners, and it stands in stark contrast to the picture painted by even his most cogent contemporary critics. These critics have left us with a Wagner whose music remains ultimately innocent. Yet one need only attend carefully to the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, or the funeral march from Götterdämmerung (1876), the final opera in the Ring cycle—before a word has been sung, before the whole apparatus of Teutonic and Arthurian myth has swung into operation—to conclude that (as Walt Kelly’s Pogo would have it) “he ain’t innocent of nothin.’”

“Is Wagner a man at all?” asks Nietzsche. “Is he not rather a disease? Everything he touches he makes sick. He has made music sick.”

A classic expression of this response is Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Case of Wagner (1888). In his younger days, Nietzsche had fallen deeply under the spell of both Wagner’s music and his person, and predicted nothing less than the resurrection of ancient Greek tragedy through his art. But as Nietzsche came into his own as a philosopher, he turned against Wagner with a ferocity as profound as his earlier adoration. The Case of Wagner, his final work, diagnoses his former friend as a “neurosis,” a “decadent,” a toxin for sick nerves. “Is Wagner a man at all?” asks Nietzsche. “Is he not rather a disease? Everything he touches he makes sick. He has made music sick.” Like opium addicts, “we raise to our lips that which plunges us still faster into the abyss.”

As the terms of Nietzsche’s repudiation illustrate, love of Wagner and hatred for him are separated by only a hair’s breadth. The younger Nietzsche’s plunge into the “heart of the world” and the older Nietzsche’s plunge into the abyss are not two different experiences. They are different evaluations of the same experience. Thomas Mann, who was deeply shaped both by Wagner’s music and by Nietzsche’s assault on it, described that assault as “a panegyric in reverse, another form of eulogy,” simply the other face of Nietzsche’s earlier paean to Wagner. Speaking of his own attitude to the music, however, Mann felt constrained to add in the same breath that his love of it was “a love without belief.”

Is Wagner bad for us? In a perceptive essay under that very title, Nicholas Spice notes “a common denominator” to the attacks on Wagner’s work—namely, that his music “causes a loss of self-control or volition in the listener.” But this, as Spice acknowledges, is too general, suggesting a genteel swoon in the face of the sublime. Rather, the music breaks through the boundaries of the self. We are, as Baudelaire said, flooded and ravished, a loss of identity that we experience either as boundlessness and ecstasy or as sickness and dissolution—or as both.

The revulsion Wagner’s music occasions in some may be the obverse of the pleasure it affords others, but perhaps most characteristic of all is to feel pleasure and revulsion, adoration and despair, at once. As the conductor Otto Klemperer put it, “when I like Wagner, I do not like myself.” And such experiences, it is important to add, are not incidental or pathological exceptions to the rule. They are the essential Wagnerian experience, the Wagnerian experience par excellence.

The small-scale musical means by which Wagner invokes this sense of dissolution or boundlessness in the listener are various: a masterful control of harmonic expectation, or a strategic dilation of our sense of time through the suspension of rhythmic pulse. But full understanding of how his music has its effect on us requires an understanding of the ends toward which it aims. And, as we shall see, even this way of putting it is inadequate; the ends toward which Wagner’s music points us are inherent in, even identical with, the music itself.


VI. Salvation


The drama of collective salvation Wagner described in Art and Revolution has its echo in the final words of Parsifal, carved on his tombstone: “redemption to the redeemer.” Nothing, Nietzsche remarks, preoccupied Wagner more than this question of redemption. It unites all of his work, linking his first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman, to his last, Parsifal, and his first major essays, including both Art and Revolution and Judaism in Music, to his last, Religion and Art (1880). The question that naturally arises is what we need to be redeemed from.

One of the transformative experiences of Wagner’s own life was his discovery of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), which he described as nothing less than a self-discovery. Schopenhauer’s philosophy alone, Wagner said, “was consonant with my deeply suffering conception of the nature of the world.”

Wagner’s unmistakable message is that our earthly existence is one of suffering and exile, that our proper place is elsewhere, and that, as the Rhinemaidens sing, “only in the depths lies what is tender and true.”

Suffering, and the world: these were the nagging questions to which Schopenhauer provided an answer. What is the relationship between the world we experience, in which all is change and mutability, and the eternal reality that lies behind it—if indeed there is any such reality? In the great monotheistic faiths, that eternal reality is God, and the changing world of appearances is His creation. But faced with the brute facts of suffering and death, many have found this explanation unconvincing, asking how a good and omnipotent God could possibly have created a world like ours. To some heretical Christian sects, like the Gnostics, the answer was simple: He didn’t. The God of creation must be a false god.

Schopenhauer’s absolute reality was something different. He called it the Will: a blind, suffering, omnipotent force that in its eternal turmoil generates us and the world we know. We and everything around us are momentary nothings, thrown up like foam on the sea. Our very existence as individuals is a kind of tragic mistake. Until we comprehend this, our life will be nothing but endless strife and pain, without purpose or relief. But—there is an escape open to us. It is the path of renunciation, asceticism, and quiescence. We can deny the Will within us, and through this denial release ourselves from the pain and frustration of our separate existence.

If Wagner found Schopenhauer’s picture of the world both entrancing and familiar, it was in part because, long before he ever heard of the philosopher, he had painted a very similar picture in the person of the titular hero of The Flying Dutchman. Having cursed God, this sea captain is doomed to wander the seas forever until he is redeemed by the pure love of the heroine, a love that, he believes, is impossible: “My torment is eternal! The grace I seek on land I shall never find.” He can imagine no release from this torment other than a release from being itself:

When all the dead rise up,
then shall I fade into the void.
Worlds, end your course!
Eternal destruction, take me!

Wagner’s Dutchman has his own musical antecedents in a long line of Romantic wanderers reaching back to the narrator of Franz Schubert’s magnificent song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, who, cast out by his beloved, finds peace only at the bottom of the brook in which he drowns. What Wagner’s Dutchman and Schubert’s nameless narrator long for is the same thing longed for by Tristan and the god Wotan. Into the latter, Wagner poured more of his own passions and cares than into any other character. As Wotan cries at one of the principal climaxes of Die Walküre (1870), the second opera of the Ring cycle:

Only one thing I want now:
the end!

The phrase is repeated twice, once with agonizing force—“THE END!”—and then quietly, with hushed resignation: “the end.” This end is encapsulated in two closely linked symbols. The first is the realm of night, which the hero Tristan describes in act III of Tristan und Isolde:

I had been before I was
and where I am destined to go,
in the wide realm
of the night of the world.

The second symbol is water—the ocean into which the Dutchman plunges at the close of The Flying Dutchman, or the Rhine that overflows its banks and drowns the world at the end of Götterdämmerung. Represented by both of these symbols, night and water, is the world of undifferentiated unity, the primal oneness of being from which we came and to which we are destined to return, a redemptive world irrevocably opposed to the world of appearances in which we exist.

Wagner described this opposition in different ways at different times in his life. In his earlier, Romantic writings, unity is conceived as nature, while from the time of Tristan onward it is the primal realm of the universal Will. At still other times, he referred to the visible world of appearances as the Hindu realm of Maya, illusion. Through all of these changes of terminology, the unmistakable message is that our phenomenal existence is one of suffering and exile, that our proper place is elsewhere, and that, as the Rhinemaidens sing in Das Rheingold, “only in the depths lies what is tender and true.”

Nor, crucially, is this picture a poetic imposition upon the musical material. Rather, it grows naturally out of the music—a relationship captured in Wagner’s own description of his works as “deeds of music made visible.” The process is enacted most demonstratively in Tristan and in the Ring cycle. In the latter, primordial nature is represented by pure musical harmony, which has been condensed and isolated into a thing-in-itself: the all-encompassing E-flat of the Rhine, from which all things originate and to which all must return.

At the beginning of all things in Das Rheingold, theme and motif do not yet exist; they emerge only gradually from the swirling, ever-more-elaborate movement of the Rhine harmony. But as the progress and unfolding of the Ring demonstrate, the phenomenal world of musical themes is itself but a transient superstructure, full of suffering and evil, erected atop the eternal harmony of reality—the depths of the Rhine, in which alone, to repeat the Rhinemaidens’ lament, can be found the “tender and true.” As the Rhine finally floods its banks at the end of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in the cycle, harmony returns to claim its own, dissolving the individuated world of themes back into itself.

The Ring, at one level, is a musical myth, a cosmogony and apocalypse in sound. What it tells us, wordlessly, is that the world of appearances is consummated only in its dissolution. The secret power of Wagner’s art is that it enacts the very boundlessness and dissolution that we experience while immersed in it.


VII. Becoming Music, Ceasing to Be Jew


Our very existence as separate selves is an evil, and the only salvation lies in escaping from it. Such a vision of life is not unique to Wagner and Schopenhauer, or indeed to the 19th century, though it stands behind much of the décadence that Nietzsche diagnosed in the Europe of his day. It has its antecedents not only in the Hindu texts that Schopenhauer studied, but in Gnostic and dualistic strains of early Christianity. And it is deeply implicated in the early debates between Christianity and Judaism.

To Christians of the Gnostic persuasion, Judaism’s affirmation of this world, the world of appearances and of the senses, was its greatest sin, a sin far more significant than its rejection of the messiah. It therefore feels not only logical but inevitable that, in his late essay Religion and Art (1880), Wagner should echo the strenuous attempt of the early Christian heretic Marcion to separate the true God—the dying, world-denying God of love revealed in Christ—from the false Jewish God who brought this world of suffering into being. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Wagner writes,

The very shape of the divine had presented itself in anthropomorphic guise; it was the body of the quintessence of all pitying love, stretched out upon the cross of pain and suffering. . . . But what was bound to prove [the Church’s] ruin, and lead at last to the ever louder “atheism” of our day, was the tyrant-prompted thought of tracing back this godliness upon the cross to the Jewish “Creator of heaven and earth,” a wrathful God of punishment who seemed to promise greater power than the self-offering, all-loving Savior of the Poor.

Thus Wagner’s Parsifal, a reworking of the medieval legend of the holy grail that is often described as a Christian opera, is so only in a deeply qualified sense. It arises from the Gnostic fringe of Christianity, denying the very God that the Christian church professes, and standing opposed both to that God and to the people to whom He first revealed Himself.

In perceiving Judaism to stand ineradicably opposed to his own redemptive project, Wagner in fact perceived rightly.

Fittingly, it is also in Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, that we encounter Kundry, the one character in all of his operas who is explicitly Jewish. Kundry is the archetypal Jew of medieval legend, the wandering Jew Ahasuerus, cursed to roam the world eternally for mocking Christ on the cross. To music of an inexpressible weariness, she confesses: “I saw Him—Him—and laughed!” For this sin of laughter she is damned to wander “from world to world,” seeking a redemption that always eludes her. Like the Jews of Das Judentum in Musik, she longs for community but remains forever outside it. Desperate for salvation, she is cursed by her sensuality, her worldliness, to be nothing but a source of corruption. When her salvation does at last arrive, in the grand reconciliation of Parsifal’s third act, it is followed immediately by, or is consummated in, her death. As the holy grail casts its healing light over the assembled congregation, Kundry falls to the ground, thus seeming to fulfill perfectly Wagner’s chilling interdiction at the end of Das Judentum in Musik: “one thing only can redeem you [Jews] from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus—Going under!”

With this, something striking about Wagner’s anti-Semitism comes into focus—it is not “anti-Semitism” at all, at least not in the way we normally understand the term. It is much closer to what the historian David Nirenberg calls “anti-Judaism”: not merely a compulsive racial prejudice but a crucial intellectual and moral tool. Through the adversary symbol of the Jew, Wagner sought to make sense of the world and of mankind’s place in it: this much he has in common with such anti-Jewish predecessors as Martin Luther. But what is frightful about Wagner, what separates him entirely from Luther, is that in perceiving Judaism to stand ineradicably opposed to his own redemptive project, he perceived rightly. The Wagnerian redemption, as he wrote in Das Judentum in Musik, “means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be Jew.”

Kundry, the wandering Jewess of Parsifal, is both character and symbol, descended from a long line of symbolic figures: not the conniving, hunchbacked villains whom scholars invariably stamp as Jewish, but the Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Wotan—the very figures into whom Wagner put the most of himself. Each wanders restlessly; each finds peace only in death. And the redemption Wagner has in mind for Kundry is the same redemption he has in mind for each of his heroes, and for us. The images are various, but their meaning remains the same, whether we plunge into the sea like the Dutchman, or dissolve into the night like Tristan, or sink beneath the rising Rhine like the whole of creation at the end of Götterdämmerung. Only one thing can redeem us from the burden of our curse: going under.

The Jews were thus, for Wagner, the living symbol of our unhousedness in the world, and Kundry, doomed to wander endlessly in search of the savior she once mocked, is the image of all his heroes. But she is their negative image; in her, uniquely, the sin and its punishment are revealed to be one and the same. Time and again, the end of her long pilgrimage seems to be at hand: “I feel His eyes turn on me and His gaze rest upon me.” But then “the accursed laughter assails me once again. . . . I laugh—laugh—I cannot weep,” but only laugh. The crime of the Jews was that, faced with this world of suffering and banishment, they dared to affirm it, to greet its imperfection not with pity or horror but with joy. Immortality is Kundry’s exile, but her sin, and her curse, is her laughter.

Much more than the passing bigotry of a famous artist, Wagner’s anti-Judaism was tied to his vision of himself and of the world. But more than this: it sprang from the very substance of his genius. Wagner’s music—and this is crucial—is not placed at the service of his anti-Judaism. The music is not placed at the service of religious and philosophical ideas at all, any more than it is placed at the service of political and racial ones. Quite the reverse is the case: the music embodies, at the level of immediate experience, the same sense of homelessness, the same longing to transcend and to go under, that the words strain vainly to articulate.

The God of the Jews, Wagner wrote in Religion and Art, is “doomed by art.” Art is the true creation, before which His false one pales. And the total work of art—which is nothing less than the whole of the redeemed world—is itself a “deed of music made visible.” Home, then, lies where words at last have fallen silent and action ceased: in the boundless depths of the orchestra, the end of all our wanderings. The effusion of pure harmony at the opening of the Ring,the cadences of transfiguring beauty that close each of the operas—these moments are the Wagnerian Eden and the Wagnerian paradise, toward which his entire art leads. The end of salvation is to become music, to dissolve into pure sound, all life’s dissonances resolving into the absolute. As Tristan and Isolde wonderingly exclaim: “I myself am the world.”

The drama, the philosophy, the hatred—all are no more than deeds of music made visible. In this counter-creation, what place is there for the Jews or their God? Wagner’s conclusion in Das Judentum in Musik seems inescapable: the paradise of music, his music, is indeed one from which the Jews are barred. To accept his proffered redemption means “as much as ceasing to be Jew”; to refuse means to be cast adrift, like Kundry, across eternity.


Here we confront a rift between art and politics that no amount of ingenuity may bridge. In the century after Wagner, there would arise other programs of salvation, equally total and equally consuming. They, too, would proffer a cult of beauty and a dream of unity, and would set forth on the path to a transfigured world; they, too, would find in the Jews their great obstacle and enemy. But unlike the cataclysm that engulfs Valhalla at the close of the Ring, Europe’s totalitarian immolations held, on their other side, no hope of restored innocence or transfiguring exaltation.

The categories of music are not those of the world: history has no final cadences, no ultimate resolution into eternal and perfect harmony. Is Wagner’s most troubling legacy, then, the longing he instills in us for a completion and finality that music alone can provide? Failing to receive such resolutions from the world, one might attempt to force them upon it. Perhaps Wagner’s music is, itself, the abyss toward which that music points us—not only the purest of the arts, but also the most guilty.

More about: Adolf Hitler, Anti-Semitism, Music, Nazism, Richard Wagner