Courting Oblivion

More insidious than Wagner’s hateful ideas are his passions, which reside in his music and stir answering passions in others.

Annette Dasch in a 2010 production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth. APN Photo/Eckehard Schulz.

Annette Dasch in a 2010 production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth. APN Photo/Eckehard Schulz.

Last Word
Jan. 26 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.

I thank Edward Rothstein, Terry Teachout, and James Loeffler for their sympathetic and illuminating responses to my essay. They have raised a number of issues, like the sordid history of Nazi-era Bayreuth, and the dramatic significance and purported “Jewishness” of certain Wagnerian villains, that I think any adequate account of Wagner must address, and I will try to do so in the bulk of my comments below.

About other things, like Terry Teachout’s thought-provoking meditation on the relevance of Wagner’s  anti-Judaism to the situation in Europe today, I feel less competent to pronounce, while James Loeffler’s fascinating discussion of how Jewish musicians and composers have grappled with “their” Wagner would require, if I were to do justice to it, a more extensive response than I can give it here. On these matters, I hope I may be forgiven for simply reiterating my gratitude. But I would like, in closing, to add a few further words on the nature of Wagner’s art itself, the way that it exerts its power over us, and its relation to both religion and politics.


The corruption of Bayreuth was as rapid as Edward Rothstein says, and began with Wagner himself: its house organ, the Bayreuther Blätter, was the vehicle for many of his pettiest screeds, as well as for important essays like Religion and Art. Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner’s son-in-law and one of the pre-eminent racist propagandists of the 20th century, closed out his life there. Bayreuth was at the forefront in the Nazification of German music, and this was quite predictable given its founder’s well-known nationalism and bigotry. All of this is well-established, but none of it implies what it is sometimes taken to imply: either that Bayreuth was a major source of Nazi ideology or that the capitulation of German high culture to Hitler would not have happened without it. In truth, this capitulation was depressingly complete across the board.

As I argued in my essay, if we are to concern ourselves with what Wagner’s anti-Judaism meansand not only what it has meant in the past—then we must look to his works. One way of doing so is by spotting “Jewish” figures among his villains. As James Loeffler and Edward Rothstein note, such a practice is by no means a modern innovation. Some of Wagner’s contemporaries and immediate successors, among them influential scholars like Ludwig Nohl and great musicians like Gustav Mahler, suspected something similar. Yet the question remains: what kind of interpretive significance can their suspicions bear?

The answer, I think, is not much. Consider the character of Mime in Siegfried. Loeffler cites Mahler’s convictions about Mime. They were the convictions of a great musical mind deeply versed in Wagner’s works, yet they were still private convictions, not a matter of general accord. And even if Mahler’s suspicions were correct, it is hard to say what they would demonstrate. Certainly there is much that is beastly about Wagner’s depiction of Mime. We are meant to find it humorous when his brutish foster-son Siegfried sics a bear on him, and later we are meant to justify both this and many other such cruelties when we find out that Mime has been plotting Siegfried’s demise.

Yet Mime is a fairly marginal figure in the Ring, and if his Jewishness is a feature so subtly encoded that it took a Mahler to decipher it, what can its historical consequences have been? It seems that one would have to be already sensitized to the message to receive it—either anti-Semitic oneself, like Ludwig Nohl, or a victim of anti-Semitism, like Mahler, or aware of anti-Semitism’s terrible consequences, as we are today. But if the presence of anti-Jewish sentiment in Wagner’s operas is a matter of such esoteric, “in-group”signaling, it cannot have done much to advance the cause of public Jew-hatred. And however disturbing or disgusting we may find these signals, they cannot bear anything like the weight of significance that some modern commentators have been inclined to assign them. Bernard Williams’ verdict on Robert Gutman’s biography of Wagner remains: “the works will have to be more thoroughly polluted than that.”

One way the works might be shown to be “more thoroughly polluted” would be if an anti-Jewish caricature were central to their symbolic structure. Rothstein proposes that this is precisely the case with the character of Beckmesser in Meistersinger. Some of Beckmesser’s features do indeed suggest a caricatured Jew: he is rule-obsessed, artistically sterile, and opportunistic. His antithesis, the knight Walther, is a natural genius, his artistic gift as untutored and sublime as birdsong. If Meistersinger as a whole were principally a conflict between these two pictures of music, in which Beckmesser’s “harsh and antique law” is superseded by Hans Sachs’s “new testament,” then the text of the opera could be read as a very familiar kind of Protestant anti-Jewish polemic: a translation into musical terms of the dichotomy between Law and Gospel, with Beckmesser cast as a pharisee and Walther’s natural genius as the secular analogue to Christian grace.

But such an interpretation cannot be sustained without doing considerable violence to both the dramatic structure of Meistersinger and, more significantly, its music. Consider Beckmesser himself. The obvious model for his music is not synagogue chant, as Ludwig Nohl believed, but the open strings of the lute, the instrument he walks onstage strumming in Act II. The lute, as it happens, is tuned similarly to a guitar, and the melody that introduces Beckmesser’s serenade will be excruciatingly familiar to anyone who has spent time listening to an amateur guitarist butcher his instrument: one has merely to strum the open strings from top to bottom, then slide a finger down the instrument’s two top strings while plucking them in alternation. In other words, Beckmesser’s first melody is one that a very stupid child could play upon picking up a musical instrument for the first time. As for the rest of his serenade, it is painstakingly designed to show that he is incapable of following the very rules he champions.

What Beckmesser’s music primarily suggests, in other words, is the portrait not of a Jew but of a well-known type of pedantic hack. There is no reason that he couldn’t be both, but the pointedness of the latter portrayal overwhelms any suggestions of the former. Such a portrait may have been grossly unfair to the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, against whom it was directed and who was of Jewish descent, but the type was perfectly real. And, as both Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg would discover, critics who condemned composers in the name of rules that they themselves could neither follow nor understand were quite as likely to be gentiles and the composers they assailed Jewish, as the other way around.

More important, however, is that Meistersinger’s own attitude toward Beckmesser’s Law forecloses the possibility of interpreting the opera as a straightforwardly anti-Jewish polemic. Beckmesser’s antagonist Walther is a genius, yes, but also an impetuous and petulant adolescent. Hans Sachs’s final monologue about “Holy German Art”is actually a rebuke to Walther for disdaining the community, and the artistic tradition, that has honored him. “Scorn not the Masters, I bid you, and honor their art!” The musical rules maintained by Nuremberg’s guild of master singers—the “harsh and antique law” Beckmesser upholds—are the very rules constituting that tradition and guaranteeing its survival. Because “our masters have cared for it rightly in their own way,” it remains “German and true.” Before Walther can become a Meister himself, he must learn from Sachs how to respect those rules—not by following them blindly but by understanding the inner necessity from which they spring. Perhaps the law is not so “harsh and antique” after all.

Musically, moreover, no opera is more law-bound, more obsessed with the antique and with tradition, than Meistersinger. The central section of its prelude is a fugue, that most rule-bound of musical forms, and it culminates in a dazzling display of learned counterpoint in which the prelude’s three principal themes are played simultaneously. The music that opens Act III is a polyphonic motet in the style of the Renaissance masters, repeated later in the act with a poetic text by the real, historical Hans Sachs. The various songs represented within the opera, including Walther’s final “prize song,” are set in the distinctive medieval Bar form, found in the songs of the historical Meistersingers. Most dazzlingly, the entirety of Meistersinger itself can be seen as one vast Bar form, reproducing on the largest scale the musical patterns that it portrays on the smallest.

Meistersinger, then, is one of the supreme examples of art about art. And the claims of art are those it elevates above all others. The relationship central to the opera is not a dichotomy between Law and Gospel, but rather a dialectic between the sacred and the secular, the demands of the divine and those of human flourishing. The former is embodied in the Lutheran chorale sung at the outset of the opera, and the latter in a stylized “operatic” aria heard midway through Act I.

The two kinds of music are finally fused by Hans Sachs himself, in a song that is at once aria and chorale, a synthesis of the sacred and the secular. Soon after this song, the dramatic action of the opera seems to cease as the setting expands from the private human passions with which Act III opens to the massed, majestic pageant with which it closes. By the time of Walther’s triumph and Beckmesser’s humiliation—the events toward which the earlier part of the opera has pointed—we have almost ceased to care about them, for we now recognize the characters as what they are: mere bit players in Wagner’s grand allegorical fable of the triumph of art.

As Sachs’s song demonstrates musically, and his closing monologue affirms in words, it is in “holy German art”—and in art alone—that the sacred and the profane can be reconciled, and the contradictory impulses that tear our mortal lives be brought into harmony. But as for those lives themselves, Sach’s verdict on them, set to some of the most despairing music Wagner ever wrote, is that of Ecclesiastes: Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn! Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. At its heart, and despite its triumphant finale, Meistersinger is one of the saddest of all comedies.

It is also one of the most unsettling. But I hope I have shown why my reasons for finding it unsettling are different from Edward Rothstein’s. If the dramatic scheme of the opera tells us something important about the meaning or the consequences of Wagner’s anti-Judaism, it cannot be because of his attitude toward the Law, which is far saner and more humane than Luther’s, or because of any secret caricature suggested by the figure of Beckmesser. The key must lie in the very thing that the opera declares most openly: its own supremacy. Law is not superseded by Gospel; both are fulfilled in Art. This is the “even newer testament” to which Rothstein refers. But Meistersingers doctrine of art’s supremacy would not be of such significance if it were not of a piece with Wagner’s other works, his musical poetics, and—most importantly—the fundamental nature and effect of his music itself. The power exerted by the music is the heart of the issue, and whatever external signs we find in the operas, they cannot mean much if they fail to accord with it.


These considerations lead to the central question of how Wagner’s works are political. One of the unspoken assumptions governing the debates over Wagner, an assumption shared by most of his friends and foes alike, has been that either his works transcend politics, or Wagner’s own politics are somehow contained within them, as if we could reconstruct the polemics of Das Judentum in Musik from an attentive enough study of the operas. But this antithesis is false.

As Terry Teachout says, the argument of my essay militates against any neat division between Wagner’s music and his ideas, including his political ideas. But this does not mean that the two are one and the same; the connection between them is more complicated, and more ambiguous. Nor will we grasp the nature of the connection if we understand Wagner’s hatred of Jews primarily in racial terms: this was the mistake made by Robert Gutman, who eagerly hunted down every hooked nose and Yiddishism he could find in Wagner’s operas, yet dismissed his polemics against the Jewish God as unintelligible “twaddle.”

The racist aspects of Wagner’s anti-Judaism are undeniable. But if we want to find a connection between this anti-Judaism and his music we must look elsewhere, to aspects of it that are both older and (as Rothstein says) “more profound.” Rothstein’s evocation of “the metaphysics of anti-Semitism as heard in Wagner’s music” comes closer to the heart of the matter, though it, too, requires an important qualification. Such a phrase might be taken to imply that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is the primary thing, and that it somehow infects his metaphysics, which in turn cast their shadow over his music. Yet I believe that the case is precisely the reverse.

In a famous essay on Shakespeare, Victor Hugo wrote that “music expresses that of which we cannot speak, and on which it is impossible to remain silent.” This is, of course, a shamelessly Romantic view of music. But it is also a true one, for the Romantics saw some things clearly that we have since forgotten. And what is true of all music is doubly true of Wagner: the place in him from which his music speaks, and the place in us to which it speaks, is the place that houses our most inchoate and inarticulable passions. Such passions are prior to ideology, prior to metaphysics, prior to language itself: one needs no words in order to suffer, to feel the pain of separation, or to long for release.

What Wagner’s music embodies, then, is not an attitude toward any particular thing in the world: it embodies an attitude toward the world as a whole, and toward the strange, dumb fact of our existence within it. But from our attitude toward the whole may follow, ineluctably, our attitude toward particulars—toward people, ideas, and rival visions of life. Wagner’s art thus has its profoundest political consequences at precisely that point where it seems most to transcend politics. We seek vainly in Wagner’s art for an ideology or doctrine that can bear the weight of the misgivings he inspires in us. But passions, no less than ideas, can distort the will: we will not court oblivion, whether our own or others’, unless we have first come to thirst for it.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Music, Richard Wagner