The following was originally published at Grandi-Tenori.com, but it’s no longer available there. I wrote it 5 years ago. NK
No great composer induces passion the way Richard Wagner does. Knowledgeable opera goers seem to be divided into warring camps, vigorously campaigning for and against the art of the egomaniac of Bayreuth. In 50 years of opera going I have endured harangues beyond number intended to convince reluctant audiences that Wagner’s music is great and that they should surrender to its greatness. It’s the castor oil approach to art. It may taste bad, but it’s good for you. Or as Mark Twain said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Nobody finds it necessary to proselytize for Mozart or Verdi. This incredible bipolar reaction to Wagner is my subject.
No one can seriously dispute Wagner’s exalted place in the history of Western art or his genius. Here Verdi has the definitive word. When asked by a young composer how to deal with hostile critics, Verdi advised ignoring them. “Look to the box office,” he said. “The theater is meant to be full.” Verdi’s dictum holds true for all art. The box office, of course, has to be looked at in the long term. In the short haul it is often irrational, like the stock market, but eventually it sorts everything out. The box office has spoken about Wagner. There is a large audience that eagerly wants to hear his music and which values him as much, or even more, than any other composer of operas. But this large audience seems to include only about half of the serious lovers of opera.
The anecdote is deadly in science. In art it may be quite telling – so here are a few. I have a daughter who literally has been listening to opera since before she was born. She attended her first staged performance of an opera at the age of five. She holds degrees from two of America’s elite institutions of higher learning. She makes her living writing for one of the country’s major newspapers.
“Dad, c’mon and visit me next month. We’ll go to the opera – anything but Wagner.”
“I can’t get anybody in the family to go to Wagner with me,” lamented my first cousin as we were eating Chinese food across from Lincoln Center. In a family of opera lovers she’s the only Wagnerian.
“I hope you get the Wagner gene from your mother or that it’s a mutant,” was my response. She’s my father’s brother’s daughter. “I’d hate to think that it might be lurking in my DNA waiting to pounce on an unborn descendant.”
“First this guy gets up and carries on for half an hour. Then this other guy responds for another half an hour. Not a tune to be heard. The audience acts like they’re in church. I just don’t get it.”
This is the description given me by my former teacher of his first and only visit to Bayreuth. He was dragged there by a German colleague. He is both the only authentic genius and great man I have ever personally known. He is also a polymath and the most erudite man I know. He will travel thousands of miles to hear a good performance of one of the Da Ponte/Mozart operas, but he’s never going back to Wagner.
“I can only handle one Ring Cycle a year.”
This was the response of another of the great man’s former students. I had asked him how many Ring Cycles he was going to that year. He meant that the experience so moved him that he couldn’t work to full capacity if he allowed himself more than one a year. He is a great scientist who has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and whose friendship I severely test whenever I make a joke about Wagner.
“What racism? I know every word of the text and there’s no racism in it.”
This was the response of another scientist friend – also in the National Academy of Sciences – to my comment that Sachs final monologue in Die Meistersinger was a racist harangue. Well, make up you own mind. Here’s part of the English translation that accompanies Karajan’s recording of the opera, with Theo Adam as Sachs:
Beware! Evil tricks threaten us: –
if the German people and kingdom should
one day decay under a false, foreign rule
soon no prince will understand his people any more
and foreign mists with foreign vanities
they will plant in our German land;
what is German and true no one would know any more,
if it did not live in the honour of the German Masters.
This is what Denis Forman, a Wagner partisan to the point of madness, says about the passage in his commentary on the opera in his book The Good Opera Guide. “Even the racial propaganda mentioned in the notes above can be played down to zero effect except for the unavoidable and disagreeable final outburst about the ethnic cleansing of the arts.” The last scene of Die Meistersinger always reminds me of another Nuremberg Rally.
This brings us to a major problem. The composer was a monster. Of all the major figures associated with Nazism, no one did more to prepare the cultural soil of Germany for Hitler than did Wagner. Wagnerians of good will deal with this problem in two ways. They may simply deny it like my friend who knows the libretto of Die Meistersinger by heart, but who doesn’t seem to understand it. Or more commonly, they will say that the work must be separated from the man. An evil man who produced works of genius.
Let’s carry this line to its logical end. Suppose Hitler had been a painter of genius rather than a hack. After all, Churchill was a great writer – the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Would we be having Hitler retrospectives at the MOMA or the National Gallery? After all, you have to separate the work from the man. The question answers itself. You can’t completely separate the man from his work. So strike one is that your favorite (or least favorite) composer is a repulsive racist egomaniac (read any standard biography for the nauseating details) who was a musical genius but whose bad qualities as a human being could not always be separated from his work.
Strike two is the librettos. They were written by a writer who was as bad at writing as Wagner was good at composing. God, that eternal jokester, sent us Giuseppe Verdi the same year he produced Richard Wagner. The former determined to bend audiences to his will, the latter equally determined to please them. Thus, no Piave or Boito for Wagner. They might have imparted some good sense regarding stagecraft or timing to the self-obsessed German. A Wagner opera is a succession of highlights interspersed with long boring spells which could have been avoided if Wagner’s librettist had owned and used a scissors.
Die Meistersinger excepted (and it’s full of nastiness), there’s the odor of decay about Wagner’s operas. This feeling of decline and sickness culminates in Parsifal which makes even Tristan und Isolde an ad for mental health. Wagner’s self-conscious obsession with death, magic, and metaphor is doubtless what made him so distasteful to Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s great essay, “The ‘Naïveté’ of Verdi” (1968), succinctly outlines the objections to Wagner (though he hardly mentions him by name) while concentrating on what was right with Verdi. But it’s hard to ignore Sir Isaiah’s “the appalling elephantiasis of late German romanticism” (who was the biggest elephant of them all?) or “Verdi’s assured place in the high canon of musical art, which nobody now disputes, is a symptom of sanity in our time.” What is a symptom of insanity?
Berlioz’s aesthetic objections to Wagner are discussed at length in David Cairn’s second volume of his magisterial biography of Berlioz (Chapter 26 Wagner). Wagner thought The Trojans a “nameless absurdity”. Berlioz, in turn, warned Pauline Viardot when he returned her vocal scores of The Flying Dutchman “to take care that the diminished sevenths didn’t escape and gnaw her furniture.” He vigorously objected to the frequency of dissonance in Wagner’s music.
“Berlioz believed in the future of music, not in the Music of the Future”, writes Cairns.
His (Berlioz) denigration of Wagner in a critical review in the Debats in 1860 likely contributed more than anything else to the Frenchman’s dismissal as a second rate composer, a status that lasted for a century after his death. He had gone from enfant terrible to old fart in an instant. Anyone who objected to Wagner could not be taken seriously by the intellectual elite of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was besotted by both the music and the lunatic prose of the German. This elite, of course, dismissed Verdi as a popularizer of no import. Verdi was still not completely intellectually respectable (Otello and Falstaff aside) when I first started going to the opera – at least by the vestiges of an elite which had accorded Wagner an extra-musical status in Western thought.
Stravinsky was harder to dismiss, so he was more or less ignored when he spoke of “the poison of music drama” or wrote about his one and only trip to Bayreuth: “The very atmosphere of the theater, its design and its setting, seemed lugubrious…The order to devote oneself to contemplation was given by a blast of trumpets. I sat humble and motionless, but at the end of a quarter of an hour I could not bear any more. My limbs were numb and I had to change my position. Crack! Now I had done it. My chair had made a noise which drew down on me the furious scowls of a hundred pairs of eyes…At last the ‘pause’ arrived and I was rewarded by two sausages and a glass of beer. But hardly had I time to light a cigarette when the trumpet blast sounded again, demanding another period of contemplation.” (Quoted in BBC Music Jan 2004).
Strike three is that much of the interest in Wagner is historical. He was, as mentioned above, the dominant figure in the intellectual life of the West in the second half of the 19th century. That’s ancient and unimportant information to someone who wants to see a good opera and doesn’t give a fig about hot house philosophy. Verdi again: There are only two kinds of music – good and bad. The most succinct and effective reduction of aesthetics I know of.
Wagner’s effect on fat heads 150 years ago accounts for the number of hits you get when you put his name into Google, about 2.2 million. That’s more than Abraham Lincoln gets. Verdi gets one third the number of citations as Wagner, but when you look at the number of performances each composer has had at the Met a very different relationship emerges.
By the middle of 2002 the Met had mounted 4915 performances of Verdi’s works. Wagner had been played 3468 times. Aida had been staged 1051 times, Lohengrin 612. Both Rigoletto and La Traviata have had more performances than Lohengrin. And the gap widens every season. This is the audience making the definitive critical judgment. I suspect the numbers would be similar at any major opera company, outside of Bayreuth. Wagner, who considered Verdi beneath notice, would doubtless be surprised to find the Italian described as opera’s Shakespeare by the music critic of the New Yorker (Alex Ross) during the centennial commemorations of Verdi’s death. In view of the critical reassessment of Puccini now underway (see Julian Budden’s Puccini – His Life and Work 2002), note that he too has passed Wagner in frequency of performance at the Met.
The Verdi year was the most impressive memorial year in my experience. More than 400 Verdi productions were presented around the world. No other musical anniversary in my memory brought out the display of affection that the Verdi commemoration evoked. The centennial of Wagner’s death in 1983 was muted in comparison. 2013 will be most interesting. The bicentennial of both the operatic titans of the 19th century will allow a critical assessment of both composers far enough removed from the rhetoric that clouded their positions in the musical world when their work was still connected to living memory.
It’s hard to write about Wagner without making fun of him and those devoted to him – so I won’t try. For God’s sake, his bust is in the bathrooms at Bayreuth – even Swift couldn’t top that. So I’ve decided to apply my experience as a scientist to the Wagner problem.
I propose that there is a gene for Wagnerism and that it is an autosomal dominant gene. Autosomal means it is not on an X or Y chromosome and thus is just as likely to affect either sex. Dominant means that only one copy of the gene is needed for it to express itself. This lets me off the hook concerning my unborn descendants. I can’t have the gene as it would have manifested itself by now. It also means argument is futile. If you lack the gene Wagner will seem like a lot of noise. If you have it you’ll seek leitmotifs like a moth to a flame. Your enthusiasm for diminished sevenths will verge on obsession.
Here’s where genetic counseling is crucial, both for those who are Wagner positive as well as negative. If you are negative and acquire a positive spouse your children have a 50% chance turning out Wagnerian. And if that isn’t bad enough your spouse will either drag you to Parsifal at the drop of a grace note or worse disappear for weeks on end in search of the perfect Ring Cycle. Things are not so rosy for someone Wagner positive either. Most people don’t realize that two copies of the Wagner gene are lethal. Thus, one Wagnerian should never marry another – 25% of their progeny would be doomed. Consult Gregor Mendel and his sweet peas if this is passing you by. Father Owen Lee, the noted lecturer and writer on opera and a devoted Wagnerian, has taken the safest path – celibacy.
This genetic explanation means there is no point in argument. You can’t argue a man into changing the color of his eyes. Similarly, you can’t reason an opera goer into or out of Wagner. It’s all in the genes. A warning label should be placed on Wagner, however – “Warning! Prolonged exposure can be dangerous to your health.” Denis Forman, mentioned above, has listened to a lot of Wagner. He openly admits to thinking Wagner the greatest of opera composers. All this listening to Wagner seems to have driven him a little daft. He has convinced himself that Wagner died heroically at Bayreuth. (It’s hard to believe that anyone writing a book on opera doesn’t know Wagner died in Venice.) He thinks Falstaff lacking both in heart and sex appeal. He also doesn’t seem to think much of Bach’s B minor Mass. So Wagnerians take care. You have been warned.
Finally, if you don’t like Wagner don’t be intimated by gene carrying Wagnerians into pretending you love leitmotifs. And if Wagner is your passion the rest of us realize you can’t help yourself.
Oh jeez! Apologies for my previous comment. For reasons entirely beyond me, I missed completely your introductory, “I wrote it 5 years ago” — or, rather, misread it as, “It was written 5 years ago.” A genuine Senior Moment, I’m afraid. No wonder you didn’t publish the comment.
Again, my apologies.
Anything published on my site was written by me unless expressly identified as by someone else. I frequently don’t put my name on stuff here because I assume, I guess incorrectly, that any reader would know that an unsigned piece here was by me.
It was your introductory, “The following was originally published at Grandi-Tenori.com, but it’s no longer available there,” that threw me off. It read like you were reprinting an article by an unnamed author that was published elsewhere originally, but couldn’t be linked to because it was no longer available at that original site.
In any case, now that I know the piece is yours, I’ve a response to it that I’ll publish on Sounds & Fury today or tomorrow, and provide you the link as soon as the piece goes up.
It did take me a while to figure that out.
The issue of authorship is solvable by clicking on the link at the beginning of the article which takes you to the Grandi-Tenori page which lists articles by me on that site. It’s the link to this particular piece that’s down. Maybe others are too. I haven’t checked them all.
“Anything But Wagner: A Response”
I knew there had to be a reason–I just don’t have that gene! Lately seem to have developed a case of Tchaikovskyitis, though. (Manfred, anyone?) Should probably get that seen to. 😉
There was a slight problem with the article, fixed now:
I’ve just spent the last two months devoting a fair amount of time trying to understand and enjoy Wagner. I’ve read 2 translations of the libretto, listened to 2.5 different cd ring versions, watched 1 dvd ring cycle from the met, read 4 books claiming to decode the symbols in the ring, and read two biographies. I’ve come to two conclusions.
First, The Ring (and maybe all his works) has no rational consistency and is riddled with internal contradictions. Therefore, trying to impose some systematic meaning on the work is a waste of time and there is no deeper meaning. Maybe this was caused by his starting to use opium when he began composing the ring?
Second, he is one of the most loathsome, mentally ill, blackmailing, wife-beating, lying, swindling, and violently racist narcissist I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading about. Good God, what must his parents have done to him…
His music doesn’t touch me either, in fact I find it emotionally draining. Listening to RW is too much like work. So I’ve given it the college try, but for me ‘anything but wagner’ please!
PS I really enjoyed your article.
I have the Wagner gene. I was hooked when I turned on BBC Radio 3 by chance just as the first chord of a relay of Das Rheingold from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London was sounding. That was it. I was mesmerized by the sound which was seamless and sinuous like life itself. I had to listen to the whole Ring.
The Internet Movie Database today lists 577 film soundtrack credits. That is more than any other composer and amazing for someone who died in 1883.
I believe Wagner was a loathsome human being at a personal level while also a genius. The most remarkable dramatist the world has ever known.
Other composers have amassed greater wealth in their own life times, for example Handel who was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. None I suggest has had such a lasting influence as Wagner. Many film score composers owe much to Wagner.
My guess is that the composer who most influenced movie music was Puccini
Very entertaining essay on this most controversial of composers, even though I disagree with a lot of it.
I have been a Wagner freak for over 40 years since I was a teenager.
I also admire Verdi, but Wagner’s music, though not as easy to grasp for the unfamiliar,is more compelling for me, and far more original.
The fact that Wagner was such a nasty fellow is no reason not to love his music. After all, many great composers were hardly saints,and he was by no means the only composer to be an anti-semite.
But his anti-semitism,as reprehesible as it was,never even came remotely close to the insane hatred of Hitler and the Nazis, and he never advocated genocide against Jews or any other group.
And as the old cliche goes,”some of his best friends were Jews”.
The final oration by Sachs in Die Meistersinger has absolutely nothing to do with German chauvinism or Nazi tendencies. All he is doing is saying that music and the arts are necessary for the German people to keep their identity and pride and that they could preserve it this way if under foreign domination.
But Hitler and the Nazis read their own insane chauvinistic ideas into this speech and much else of Wagner.
And the Ring, far from being a glorification of Naziism, is a dark tale showing the destructive power of lust for power and riches.
There are no Jewish characters in any of the Wagner operas, no discussions of Jews and Judaism let lone anti-semitic statements by any of the characters.
If you concentrate on the music and action, Wagner’s works are not boring at all, at least for me.
The librettos work on their own terms and I can’t imagine any one else writing them. Criticizing the operas for their great length is like criticizing great long novels like War and Peace and Moby Dick for not being short stories. And as Arnold Schoenberg astutely poined out, cutting them has the ironic effect of making them seem even longer.
But the music is simply sublime.
A very interesting debate. As a German I just have to put a few things right.
True, Wagner was an anti-semite, although there is strong evidence that he had a Jewish father, Ludwig Geyer, whose name he bore when teenaged.
But there is nothing racist in the quoted passage from the Meistersinger. The patriotic tone clearly refers to the French who had been harrassing Germany for over 300 years at Wagner´s time and wrenched large territories from Germany. In Wagner´s time the horrors of the Napoleonic wars had not been forgotten.
It was not Wagner who inspired Naziism.
Fascism was an Italian invention and inspired by the Futurists around Marinetti and Boccioni who, together with D´Annuncio, furnished Mussolini with the necessary ideology, who in turn inspired and financed Hitler.
Wagner was not Hitler´s favorite music. Whenever he travelled, he carried records of Lehar´s Merry Widow with him.
Whether there is a Wagner gene, I do not know. If there is one, I certainly carry it, but it was not switched on. I am the son of a leading Nazi (no, not as big as Himmler or Goebbels) and was showered with Wagner music already as an embryo (Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet ….) and consequently hate most of Wagner´s music as much as I hate Naziism (and war-mongers and chauvinists worldwide).
As my mother (not a Nazi, possibly with Jewish ancestors) was a music fan with a wide range of preferences I seem to have inherited an Offenbach gene from her. While my father in the town council saw to it that no Jewish composer´s or librettist´s work was performed in our local theater (except the Merry Widow, whose librettist was Jewish) I have become an ardent fan of Jacques Offenbach´s Tales of Hoffmann. Obviously a Wagner and a Nazi gene, which I undoubtedly carry, can be successfully switched off by an Offenbach gene. Jacques Offenbach, by the way, was a pacifist and anything but a Zionist, converted to Catholicism in order to be able to marry his beloved Herminia and didn´t give a damn about his new (and old) religion. As a child he had been showered with Jewish liturgic music as his father was a cantor in the Cologne synagogue. He composed one single work of Jewish sacral music.
My conclusion therefore is that there must be genes of all kinds, otherwise we would not be here. But some of these genes can be switched off or turn into opposites. That makes me optimistic for the future of mankind considering the violent history of the human race.
Whether Geyer was Wagner’s biological or stepfather has been debated for who knows how long, but Geyer was not a Jew according to all Wagner authorities I know of.
Chances are we’ll never know the truth about who Wagner’s real father was.
A gene for Wagner? Not at all. Of course the ability to listen to and appreciate classical music is biological – we are nothing but biochemical creatures – but since you can lose that ability and also get it, it has less to do with genes and more with complicated biochemical and neurophysiological reactions in your brain. Also hormonal – a healthy thyroid gland is essential. Today you will meet very few ppl that love classical music only, as late as 1980 there were many, many more. That has nothing to do with ‘less snobbery’, simply the fact that much fewer humans in the western world can appreciate classical music, Wagner included, nowadays, despite more exposure to it.
That goes also for the ones who were passionately listening to classical music around 1980, a very big percentageof those has today become quite indifferent to it, regardless of their age in 1980. Of course many of those still listen to Wagner, Mozart, Bach etc. But fewer, and fewer less is enamored of that music. A tragedy that one could see coming at that time, and it came…
If you PASSIONATELY listen to classical music, why then hating Wagner, why not Mahler, Berloz, Bizet, whatever, I detect predjudices here. Calling Wagner a monster is a bit thick, how was he supposed to know that his views was to be used in the Nazi creed? His antisemitism was regrettable, but was a part of the cultural struggle in Germany in that time, the whole setting in which the then not-yet-united Germany was placed. As a human being Wagner was obsessed with his mission, and he most certainly was selfish, whining,overly critical etc. But that you cannot separate a man from his work, is rubbish, how can great music be ‘noice’ if you’re really musical. The answer is that you aren’t really musical. Who then is the composer that I cannot stand? Noone of course, none of the great masters, as they compoed great music, it’s much believable that I’d say ‘this one of Mozarts isn’t quite as good as his usual stuff’ and the same of Wagner, Verdi, Bach etc. Everything Wagner, even the best, is then less than Mozart K19?
And Churchill was not much better, his greatness in the 1940s is overshadowing the fact that he as a human being was quite like Wagner when it comes to unpleasant characteristics. He most certainly isn’t worth any literature prize, and his writings from the early 20th century is filled with colonialism at it’s worst, glorification of war, and racism to say the least. Although not directed at jews, but rather at Africans. ‘But these were the times’. Yes, and in Wagner’s times it was the jews.
See Richard Wagner Wunderkind or Monster?. Here’s an excerpt. Wagner’s pathological hatred of the French and the Jews is a matter of record, and made him the idol of Adolf Hitler. Wagner had incredibly bad taste; most nineteenth century anti-Semites would have been horrified by Auschwitz, but one has the uncomfortable suspicion that Wagner would have wholeheartedly approved. There’s no escaping the reality that Wagner is different from every other musical genius and that his personal repulsiveness inescapably contaminates his art, no matter how great it is. No other musical genius’s music bores or repels so many serious listeners. hence my invention of the Wagner gene. It is not surprising that his music is not played in Israel.
“simply the fact that much fewer humans in the western world can appreciate classical music”
Au Contraire!! At least in my provincial area. The opera company has grown to 4 world class productions yearly. And our tiny town’s music society puts on 6 concerts a year, from concertos with full orchestra, chamber music, various soloists, and a wonderful concert on the green of American music with the local symphony for even greater appeal. I love not being scrunched into a seat for 3 hours. Stretch out on the grass like a picnic. And very picturesque, with swans on the lake. And there is a similar music society only 30 miles away. These events are always sold out well in advance. There is a hunger for something pop music can’t satisfy.
And maybe Wagner had to be full of hate in order to produce that fantastic forging song!! The wonderful gardens and groves I produce from rotting compost……….
“less to do with genes and more with complicated biochemical and neurophysiological reactions in your brain……”
Non so??? However, there is also a visual component that seems to be necessary for many. Pop promoters use visuals ad naseum. Perhaps the “music” is secondary, or maybe tertiary, after drugs. I dragged my mother to Faust and she loved it. But she couldn’t get it from the recording even with much superior voices. Did nothing for her. Opera, being so visual has quite an advantage over classical music. My super musician flutist friend only knew operas from the pit. I took her to Nabucco and she was astonished at the blend of music and drama. Declared Verdi a genius. This from someone who knows music academically, but never really got into opera.
Maybe the gifted or more passionate people don’t need the visual aspect. Perhaps they have more imagination that fills in a picture.
It is interesting to observe how controversial Wagner still is well over a hundred years after his death. As I mentioned above, I am anything but a Wagner fan, but cannot help admiring his genius as a composer and innovator of music in the 19th century. As – Jewish – composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said: I hate him, but I hate him on my knees.
I also like Woody Allen´s remark: Whenever I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland.
What Neil meant by a “Wagner gene” is to be understood metaphorically, of course. But clearly there is a tendency among Wagner fans to be politically right wing. At the annual Bayreuth festival one can see all sorts of German right wing politicians and other conservatice characters, but hardly ever a social democrat or even communist. (I wonder what kind of music Tea Party followers listen to – if they listen to classical music at all)
Remains the question whether Hitler was all that much of a Wagner fan as is commonly believed. As I mentioned above, his favorite music was the Merry Widow.. Clearly Wagner´s legends about Germanic heroes fitted well into Hitler´s ideology. But I doubt if young Hitler ever saw an opera house from inside. He was such an uneducated person that one cannot imagine him as an opera fan. Also, he never attended a Wagner opera after he had started the War in 1939. But he had contacts to the Wagner family and to Siegfried Wagner´s English wife Winifred, one of the early Hitler fans, from 1923.
Whenever the Reichsrundfunk spread news from the War, it was not a Wagner motive that sounded, but Liszt´s Les Préludes.
If Hitler had known Wagner that well he would also have understood the message of the Götterdämmerung and the Ring, that in the end none of the heroes survive with only Alberich, the cursed dwarf, remaining on the scene.
Hitler never quoted from Wagner´s antisemitic writings. Thomas Mann said: There is much Hitler in Wagner. The question remains: How much Wagner is there in Hitler.
My contention is that there would certainly not have been a Hitler with only Wagner as an inspirational source. Much more important for Hitler´s rise to power were Houston Stewart Chamberlain´s writings, the US entry into world War I in 1917, the humiliating Versailles Treaty, the 1929 crisis, Mussolini´s example and money, and of course the German right wing establishment who wanted revenge for World War I.
Hitler also hated horses according to the commentator on a video clip I have of Hitler viewing the Lipizzans performing at the Spanish Riding School in Austria.
As for politicos and music…….uh……pretty hopeless. Altho Truman’s daughter “sang” opera (I have a clip somewhere) and Nixon played piano. And Eisenhower didn’t know who Elvis was.
Well, there are exceptions like Helmut Schmidt (born 1918) and West German chancellor from 1974 until 1982 when he was overthrown by the provincial and corrupt Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl. Both were never seen at Bayreuth. Kohl, because he is uninterested in art and music generally, Schmidt because he prefers Bach and Mozart. Schmidt even recorded a Mozart piano piece ( http://www.omm.de/cds/klassik/helmut-schmidt-spielt-klavier.html and http://www.amazon.com/Mozart-Concertos-Three-Pianos-K242/dp/B000026D0X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1318491218&sr=8-1 ), even if it was only the part written for a child. Schmidt is 93 now, a chain smoker with a mind as brilliant as ever, and still analyses the world political situation like few other politicians.
“he prefers Bach and Mozart.” If there were only those 2 and Wagner I’d be thumbing my way to Bayreuth.
An opera friend drew my attention to a book by Marc A. Weiner “Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination” ( http://www.amazon.com/Richard-Wagner-Anti-Semitic-Imagination-Contexts/dp/0803297920/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319526556&sr=1-4 ) in which a similar attitude to Wagner as mentioned by Leonard Bernstein is expressed. (“I hate him, but I hate him on my knees”)
Weiner rejects Wagner´s ideology and claims to have found many anti-semitic traces in Wagner´s libretti, but personally loves the music, adding that he even met his wife during a Meistersinger performance.
I have not read the book yet since I am currently busy with a number of Hoffmann productions in Germany, but would be interested to hear opinions about it.
Here some notes on Weiner: http://www.indiana.edu/~germanic/faculty/WeinerCVF10.pdf
Whatever Wagner`s personal views were,I don`t think this has any relevance to his Music ,to his great vision.It`s also said that Beethoven was not the nicest of chaps,but it`s totally irrelevant.
I also don`t see that Hitler`s lack of education is any reason to believe he was incapable of appreciating fine art(I am from a working class background and I love opera).
I totally agree with the comments on Sir Winston Churchill,from what I know about him,although he was a great leader and speaker,he was a warmonger,a racist and had very unpleasant views regarding the poorest members of the very Countries he led.
[…] they rise in fact. Contempt becomes more acute with the rise in knowledge and experience. https://medicine-opera.com/2009/10/anything-but-wagner/ http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsa…-response.html All this shows that music is less universal […]
In a Frankfurt newspaper I found the following remark by Israeli lawyer and founder of the Israel Wagner Society Jonathan Livny, who said about Wagner:
A horrible man who wrote heavenly music, which is not anti-semitic.
His attempt to perform Wagner music in a Tel Aviv concert hall failed when the owner of the hall, Tel Aviv University, withdrew its original consent after public protests. Tel Aviv is the Israeli town with many citizens of German origin.
Have just watched a documentary on Italien dictator Mussolini and his disciple Hitler. There was one passage which supports the thesis that Wagner did indeed inspire Hitler. As a youth Hitler watched Wagner operas together with his friend August Kubizek. About 30 years later both met again, and they remembered a visit to Wagner´s early opera Rienzi which had greatly impressed Hitler who was almost ecstatic after the opera. Hitler is supposed to have remarked: “In dieser Stunde begann es.” (Everything began at that moment)
Of course Wagner´s opera and music cannot be held responsible for bringing Hitler to power, this was a consequence of the historical and political constellation in Europe after World War I and the Versailles Treaty, followed by the Great Depression in 1929, but Wagner´s music may well have inspired young Hitler to become a politician. The ouverture to Rienzi was played at all openings of the Nazi party rallies.
See also http://www.stanford.edu/group/wais/Germany/germany_WagnerRienziHitler%28082603%29.html
As Wagner´s 200th birthday is approaching there are many programs on TV and in radios here in Germany. The French-German channel Arte (www.arte.tv) known for its critical documentaries – yesterday broadcast a film on Wagner and Jews. They claimed that without the numerous Jewish friends and supporters Wagner might never have become what he was. In contemporary cartoons he was himself portrayed as a Jew since he surrounded himself with so many of them. In Paris the established Giacomo Meyerbeer supported Wagner financially and with jobs. Obviously Wagner could not tolerate being second to someone else. Even after his hateful essay on Jewry In Music (1850 and 1869) he continued to employ Jewish conductors for his opera productions.
I read this essay which is also available in an English translation. It is so stupid and full of meaningless generalisations that it is hardly worth debating. An analyst remarked that this essay was the first publication in the German language in which antisemitism was mentioned in a non-religious context. Wagner´s English son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote even more hateful invectives against Jews, and Arthur de Gobineau in France established the theory of the nordic Aryan master race.
The aforementioned analyst Marcus Dick http://marcusdick.net/wagner.htm thinks that Wagner may have become an anti-semite for several reasons. He felt second to the gifted composer Felix Mendelssohn (who converted to Protestantism and added Bartholdy to his name) and to Meyerbeer who dominated Paris where Wagner had failed.
Wagner criticised the enslavement of people by Jewish capital and mentions the Rothschilds. Psychologically he was not sure who his father was. It might have been Ludwig Geyer, whose name he bore until he was fourteen. Ludwig Geyer may have been Jewish, but this is debated.
Wagner was an unpleasant person and was driven out from several German places, like Stuttgart and Munich, by the population. Often he left large debts behind himself after leading a luxurious life on borrowed money which he never paid back. In Munich he was protected by romantic King Ludwig II, but the local people protested against Wagner´s presence and he had to go. King Ludwig continued to support Wagner although he disapproved of Wagner´s antisemitism. Ludwig was friendly towards Bavarian Jews and allowed them to build synagogues in various town centers.
Nietzsche, originally a close friend of Wagner´s ,turned away from him after Wagner´s continuing anti-semitism and wrote a number of essays in which he explained his early admiration for Wagner, and how he later was able to free himself from Wagner´s spell (Wie ich von Wagner loskam).
I discussed Wagner´s antisemitism with various Wagnerians who usually argue that Wagner´s music and opera librettos were not antisemitic. But doubtless his essay on Jewry in Music became a milestone in the development of anti-semitismn in Europe since Wagner was such a prominent person and could be referred to and quoted.
Unfortunately mankind has not learned from the aberrations and tragedies of the 20th century, and racism against various ethnic and cultural groups is still rife. Aggressive nationalism is as vibrant as ever.
If you enter “hate German” in Google you get dozens of hits which are similar in tone to Wagner´s essay like http://amplicate.com/hate/germany , http://compendium.travelvice.com/reasons-to-hate-germany/ http://www.topix.com/forum/world/germany/TJQ0S8H4LLA23G34E
and many others.
Quote: Why do I hate the Germans? Because every single one is a racist alcoholic sausage muncher.
One finds similar anti-semitic and anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian pages. What a world.
Dear Gerhard, Have you heard Patriotic Prejudice by Flanders & Swann?
Had a look at it, thank you. Having lived in Scotland for two years I know about this antagonism. During an English-Scottish football match injuries are normal.
The enmity between the Irish and the English is more serious. Thosands of deaths in the past decades.
The Wagners and I
The 22nd of May 2013 was the 200th anniversary of Wagner´s birthday. Time to recapitulate my personal relationship to the Titan and his family when all radio and TV channels here in Germany are filled with anti- and pro Wagner features.
I was confronted with Wagner from the very beginning of my life in 1940. My father was a devout Wagner fan and a leading Nazi on a regional level, i.e. not a Himmler or Goebbels, but rather a local hero. He was a musical person and played several instruments. Whenever he was frustrated about something he sat down at my mother´s piano, and after a few thundering chords began to roar triumphantly: “Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet, der durchschreite das Feuer nicht.” To increase the effect he pronounced these words like: “Wör moines Spööres Spühütze fürchtet, dör druchschroite das Feuer nicht.”
So I had, from early childhood, the choice of either becoming a Wagnerian or an anti-Wagnerian.
As the war went on, the bombings increased. I particularly disliked the British since they came at night and bombed the living quarters of towns. I will never forget the screeching sirens that frightened me out of my infant sleep. One incendiary bomb hit our home which burnt out, and we moved to my maternal grandfather´s house in a suburb. This was not a good idea since a branch of the Messerschmitt aircraft works was only half a mile away. Then came the US air force with its daylight raids who flew very high to avoid being hit by flak fire. Thus a bomb hit a garage ten yards away from my grandfather´s house and catapulted the car into our garden. Then my parents decided that my mother, my sister and I should move to my paternal grandfather´s spacious house in a small rural village which was deemed safe from air raids. Unfortunately for allied fighters the German air force had virtually ceased to exist and the pilots obviously felt bored when they flew over Germany and did not find any Messerschmitts to shoot down. So they hunted people working in the fields to have some fun. I had to learn to throw myself into the furrows of e.g. a potato field to save myself from the strafings. Such attacks on civilians working int he fields have been declared untrue by US and British officials until today, but I and a couple of other surviving targets can testify to the opposite.
The end of the war came, and when the US army advanced towards the village a local Nazi decided to declare the village of 600 souls a strategic fortress and refused to hoist the white flag, and the only weapons the locals had were some hunting rifles. Frightened locals complied since they knew the viciousness of Nazi officials. Anyone exhibiting cowardice was executed immediately by a local Nazi, like around 30,000 other deserters or “cowards”. So the US army made this village an artillery target. Soon all houses in the village center were on fire, and I clearly remember the flames. An artillery shell exploded on a meadow about fifty yards from the house, and I the curious child just happened to look out of a window into this direction. Again I remained unhurt, only the window was broken by the shock wave.
After the war I was spared musical pleasures from my father´s mouth since the Americans arrested him and put him into a re-opened concentration camp where he remained for four years. My father was not a rocket engineer which would have spared him the imprisonment and given him a well-paid job in the USA.
Why am I telling all this in a thread on Wagner? Well, if Wagner had not composed Rienzi, and if Hitler had not seen this opera as a youth he might not have become a politician. And since most Germans in 1939 were still suffering from the consequences of the 1918/19 defeat, few would have wanted to start another war. But Hitler and his henchmen did. So the unpleasant and chaotic first years of my life were partly due to Wagner´s heroic opera libretti. Well, I must admit that others who lived during that time suffered a lot more, especially when they were Jews and Gypsies, or had to flee from the Russian army in the east. It has always been an advantage to be conquered by American soldiers as long as you were not an inhabitant of Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, since they were friendly towards children and gave us chewing gum. The first English word I learnt as a four-year-old. So we forgave them for stealing the eggs form my grandfather´s chicken house. Once we were all crouched shivering behind a window when we saw an American soldier walking into the courtyard. But he only went into the chickenhouse, filled his helmet with eggs and walked out again.
When my father was released from the concentration camp I became familiar with all the Wagner operas in my teenage years. There was only one radio in the house and only one radio program and no TV yet. When the Bayreuth festival took place all performances were broadcast, and we all had to sit and listen. No play outside. But I had developed devilish ambushes. At that time a house had only one electrical circuit and only one fuse. So I casually pretended to have to go to the toilet, went to the nearest socket and short circuited it with a piece of wire, thus blackening the whole house. Since fuses were expensive at that time and hard to get, this often resulted in a lengthy interruption of my father´s Wagner High Mass. Choleric otbursts were the consequence, and often I got my bottom walloped when he had found out that no one else had had an electrical appliance on and I was the only possible culprit. Sometimes he had to go go to a neighbor to aks for an electrical fuse since none was available in the house.
My first visit to the Bayreuth Wagner festival was in 1954. I had now become a radical pacifist, conscientious objector to military service and also a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Wagnerian. Once I visited relatives in Bayreuth during festival time. I was fourteen and began to feel rebellious. So I put on my blue jeans (at that time a symbol of the emerging rock generation) and a striped T-shirt. Thus clad I walked up to the Green Hill and mingled with the opera guests who were walking around the festival house park during the interval. I must have been a strange sight among all those valkyrie-like ladies in their ankle-long gowns and the gentlemen in black swallow-tailed coats. I clearly remember how I enjoyed their disapproving looks and remarks which were uttered quietly enough not to sound official, and loud enough to be noticed. I would have been disappointed if I had not become the target of these remarks. I was sure that there were many high-ranking former Nazis among the audience.
The only live Wagner opera I ever saw at a theater was The Flying Dutchman at my parents´ insistence. Since I was bored after the first act I left and went to a dance that took place nearby.
The years went by, my grandparents died, and finally my parents. My paternal grandfather´s spacious house in the small village of Königstein had long stood empty and was decaying. The roof was leaking, and substantial repairs were required. Neither my sister nor I wanted to live there and did not have the million deutschmarks or so which a reconstruction would have cost. Incidentally the village needed a town hall, and so we sold the house to the municipality for a trifle.
The house was beautifully refurbished, and my sister and I were invited to the opening ceremony, which was also attended by the commander of the nearby US army training base of Grafenwöhr. When my sister and I browsed though the house in which we had spent much of our childhood, we looked into all the rooms which we knew so well and which now were all modernised and offices. When I opened the door to my grandfather´s former living room, now the mayor´s office, and wanted to step inside, a lady rushed towards me and shouted: “You cannot come in here now”, and banged the door against my nose. My sister, who had been walking behind me, stood in shock and screamed at me: “That´s Wolfgang Wagner in there.” I said to her: “Don´t be foolish, how should Wolfgang Wagner come to the opening ceremony of a rural town hall.” But she insisted that she had seen Wolfgang Wagner HIMSELF.
Well, the speeches in the assembly hall began, and indeed it was Wolfgang Wagner who had been invited as THE guest of honour. My sister and I were also guests of honour since we had been the last owners of the house. The lady who had shouted at me now apologised. She was the mayor´s wife and a schoolmate of Wolfgang Wagner´s second wife. Then at the dinner table I was placed opposite Wolfgang Wagner with my sister sitting beside me. Soon a lively conversation between HIMSELF and me began. I had just edited and written a book on Bavaria in the 19th century and knew something about the epoch in which Richard Wagner ruled. Wolfgang Wagner turned out to be a knowledgeable and friendly person. At one time I asked him if he remembered his grandfather Richard. A sharp pain flooded my shinbone. My sister, the secretary of a local Wagner Society, who knows a lot more about Wagner than I do, had kicked my leg more violently than necessary. Wolfgang Wagner took this offence lightly and only reminded me smilingly that he had unfortunately never met his famous grandfather since fatherhoods in the Wagner family were often realised at an advanced age, both by Richard and also by his son Siegfried, Wolfgang´s father. He also invited me to come to Bayreuth and use his library and the archive if I wanted, but I never did.
Well, the dinner ended, and Wolfgang and his wife Gudrun left. I remarked to my sister that as much as I had always hated my father, I would have been happy to generously grant him the honour and pleasure to know that the grandson of his musical idol Richard Wagner had been a guest at his father´s house in which he had grown up.
The götterdämmerung of Bayreuth
Today the Wagenr festival opened with a Holländer. Rumor has it that tickets for this year´s Bayreuth festival are still available. On ebay a gallery ticket (reduced visibility, though) is offered for currently 9.50 euros for next week´s opening performance.
Up to now tickets had to be ordered half a decade in advance, and only a lucky few got one. Is this the beginning of the end? Or does no one want to share an opera with conservative chancellor Angela Merkel who was linked in mutual admiration with George W.?
As the world wide Wagner and Verdi wave is waning away, it is interesting to observe the reactions here in Wagner´s homeland. Countless internet fora have devoted much space and energy to Wagner. Considering Wagner´s antisemitism, there are three factions. The ones condemn it and his music altogether, the second condemn his antisemitism, but praise his music, and the third extol his music and ignore his antisemitism. In the SPIEGEL forum I had a fight with one of the latter. He played down the antisemitic remarks as negligible. But it turned out that he had not read the essay on Jewry in Music at all. When I wrote a number of evil quotes into the forum he did not reply.
Others said that Wagner´s antisemitic remarks were only theoretical, and that he employed the services of Jewish conductors like Hermann Levi nevertheless. This is true. But also this has to be put in doubt. I read that Levi was met with hostility by the Wagner family and repeated demands to have his original sin washed off (Christian baptism). It was King Ludwig II of Bavaria, by many termed Mad King Ludwig, Wagner´s sponsor, who insisted that Levi should conduct the premiere of Parsifal.
I read this in a brochure edited by the Wagner foundation in Bayreuth. Obviously the present Wagner generation have learnt from history.
I also read that Wagner´s essay on Jewry in Music was the first antisemitic publication by a prominent person. There were, of course, other antisemites as practically everwhere in Europe at that time, but none of them was as well-known as Wagner. Some commented that it was Wagner who thus made antisemitism socially acceptable.
King Ludwig II, a faithful Catholic, practiced tolerance towards his Jewish subjects and allowed synagogues to be built within Bavaria´s major cities.
Unfortunately I seem to have been the only contributor to this thread since April this year. As the so called Wagner year is drawing to a close, a look back is useful. A lot of new Wagner productions and revivals were the result of the anniversary of Wagner´s birth. His anti-semitic essay has gained wide attention, while the number of fans of his music does not seem to have changed.
2013 was not only a Wagner year, but also a Henry Ford year. The automobile pioneer was born 150 years ago in 1863. This anniversary passed widely unnoticed. Also Henry Ford´s activity as publisher of anti-semitic writings. Although he did not compose any essays himself, he commissioned the edition of 80 anti-semitic essays in the early twenties in four volumes, titled The International Jew. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_International_Jew
Henry Ford also contributed financially to the rise of Hitler before the latter had become an important political figure in Germany. Hitler and other leading Nazis always worshipped Henry Ford as one of their prophets.
While Wagner´s music is still boycotted in Israel for understandable reasons, Ford cars seem to enjoy wide popularity there. See http://www.ford.co.il/ and http://www.focus2move.com/item/460-israel-car-market-2012-ford-doubled-sales-being-second
In the year leading up to Henry Ford´s 150th birthday, Ford sales in Israel almost doubled.
There’s a big difference between Ford and Wagner. Ford, obviously, was American. A country where his views got no traction. In fact, he was successfully sued for libel and forced to close his anti-semitic newspaper. No need to review what happened in Wagner’s Germany.
So I gather Wagner’s is morally repugnant thanks to what happened in later generations with the Nazis, but Henry Ford gets off scott free for potentially harboring identical feelings to Wagner because he happened to live in America instead. Makes sense!
I don’t have the gene, and nearly all of Wagner’s music is nails on a chalkboard for me. There are pieces here and there that I find tolerable enough, but it’s a very few pieces. None of the ones I can tolerate have singing in them.
It’s the singing that I find most intolerable about Wagner. Everybody is shrieking-men, women, animals, instruments. They shriek in the loud parts. They shriek in the soft ones. They shriek when it’s exciting. They shriek when it’s dull–which is 9/10ths of every Wagner opera.
As I explained it to a friend who was upset that I turned down his invitation to see Tristan und Isolde, “The only good thing about a Wagner opera is when the house lights are on.”
I love the forging song and probably appreciate it more than most as I studied metallurgy. However, I would leave after he kills the dragon. It would take a marvelous tenor to get me to Sigfried. I can do Wagner only in small doses, once in a while, where I control the volume.
Debates like this may go on for ever and never reach anywhere. Yes, RW was a nasty person, loved to cuchold his friends by bedding their wives, had an absolute indisposition towards paying his debts and probably was no more an antisemite than the person next to him in a 19th Century Europe where antisemitism was practically de rigueur. As for his music, yes it requires endurance, does not have the listenability of say Donizetti’s, his libretti are full of inconsistencies and contradictions, are usually overly and unnecessary long and could have used pruning, but most of the music is capable of exerting an unusual spell on audiences the world over. No matter what, you keep on getting back to it, at least from time to time. Perhaps the problem does not lie on whether you are a wangerian or not but rather on whether you become a wagnerite; that’s when you get in trouble because you leave the realm of sanity and become an extremist. The french like to say that after listening to Berlioz’s music for 30 minutes or so you have before you all that Wagner would have to say afterwards and no doubt there’s some truth in it though in a way filtered through Liszt. RW took a lot, and learnt a lot, from both but rather in the same fashion Schönberg would take (and learn) from RW himself and develop further what RW only hinted at. I have witnessed in our local Wagner Society such infantile and utterly useless discussions on the purported superiority of Wagner’s music over Verdi’s that I left the Society, telling them precisely that to me they had ceased being Wagnerians to become Wagnerites and thereby beyond rescue, and never returned. There are no absolutes in music, Wagner did not write anything close to Traviata’s 2nd act exchanges between Violetta and Germont père, humanness-wise (although the end of Walküre comes dangerously close!), as well as Verdi seems to have eschewed Wagner’s intricate music scoring because after all in opera the singers are meant to be heard. The finger poiting that he finally succumbed in Otello are daft, we cannot forget the times he lived in and he was no museum-iser of Opera. Indeed, Falstaff foreshadows much of the way towards opera would turn to in the years that came immediately thereafter whilst never forgetting which country its author came from. That he could handle a contemporary orchestra is apparent in the Réquiem and other religious works that came later, not just because we have Otello. Both musicians are men of the theatre and are not only products of their time but also of their respective countries of origin and culture. As simple as that.
I love your blog! Came upon it by chance and ended up reading the Wagnerian responses to your “Anything but Wagner” piece. Unlike most opera fanatics, you seem to have a true critical (honest) temper and the needed wit to review, which is almost always missing nowadays.
I have never understood the dislike of Wagner by some in certain circles. For me, Art and Man are two separate entities. I may truly possess the “Wagner gene” as you so charmingly phrases it.
2013 was a glorious year for me as I love both Wagner and Verdi and soaked up and listened to a saw as much as I possibly could. Although, I will say that Verdi is my favorite opera composer ever: I could not live without Wagner’s glorious music! Yes his works are long, but fine pleasures should last an eternity! I hate “quickies.”
Both composer’s works have been close to my heart since my initial exposure to opera as a teenager and I have spent far too much of my life listening with great enjoyment.
I look forward to reading more of your charming articles.
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After thoroughly enjoying this article, and the lengthy and worthwhile comments, I reached the comment by “Leonie Girdlestone,” and literally LOL-ed! Here is this well written, informed and intelligent article going into its 17th year of relevance to an interested audience, and this person had the impudence to suggest creating click-bait instead. I appreciate the humour to allow the comment!
As a native bilingual, I have to say, the worst about Wagner’s operas are by far the libretti. Some of the lyrics are so terrible, I can not help but feel “fremdscham,” a very German thing to do, I assume. (It can best be explained as to be ashamed about something someone else has done.) The worst about the person Richard Wagner is his antisemitism. To me, Beckmesser is a cruel and very intentional caricature of Jewish stereotypes.
I was fortunate enough to stumble on this web site. The “Wagner” discussion is very interesting and informative, especially Gerhart Wiesend’s comments. My closest friend grew up in Germany after WW2. Her father had been a spy for the US and married her mother just after the war. He became an abusive drunk, my friend thought, because of what he’d seen and done during the war. My friend struggled with lifelong depression. I cannot imagine what it must have been like growing up in post WW2 Germany.