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.

Essay
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.

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