That Wagner was anti-Semitic is indisputable. The extent to which his prejudice entered his operas is much less certain. Eric Nelson, the Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard, recently published Wagner and the Anti-Semitism of ‘the Ring’ in Commentary. Professor Nelson approaches this subject from an unusual position. He knows the Ring operas note for note and word for word. He is a passionate Wagnerian who would travel the world to hear a new Ring production – at least before the world went mad over a respiratory virus. He thinks they are anti-semitic which does not dampen his ardor for them despite being Jewish.
He presents the three views on this subject: “[F]irst, Wagner was not an anti-Semite at all, despite whatever unpleasant things he may have said or written about particular Jews. This claim is so absurd that no serious Wagner scholar has defended it for quite some time.” Second, “Yes, Wagner was an anti-Semite, but, then again, so was Chopin, so was Degas, so was Virginia Woolf. The important fact, on this view, is that Wagner’s anti-Semitism had nothing to do with his music dramas, which must be seen to have completely unrelated artistic and philosophical ambitions.” Finally, “Wagner’s undoubted anti-Semitism does in fact inflect his operas, insofar as certain characters within them are intended as sinister caricatures of Jews. Thus, Alberich and Mime, the two dwarf protagonists of the Ring, are meant to appear Jewish; ditto the pedant Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the seductress Kundry in Parsifal, and several others.”
Nelson rejects all three and then makes a more subtle argument for anti-Semitism in The Ring. He posits Wagner believed that certain characteristics of human behavior are crystalized in Judaism. These are, he thinks, borrowed from Marx. “They consist of a ‘bargain’ mentality with Judaism, …. an egoistic fetishism of needs that reduces both the self and other people to “means, rather than ends. Jews particularly adore money, on this account, because it is the efficient medium through which human beings (particularly their labor) can be commodified and exchanged. At the limit, Marx explains, the species-relation itself, the relation between man and woman, etc., becomes an object of trade! The woman is bought and sold.”
Nelson then cites several passages from the Ring that personify this type of disguised anti-Semitism. He writes “that much of the Ring is, in essence, On the Jewish Question (Marx’s infamous tract) set to music.” The casual or even devoted listener to the Ring operas is very likely to miss the prejudicial signs that in Nelson’s view contaminate the four operas. He loves the works with such vehemence that he is quite willing to overlook them. He consoles his predicament by observing “that my fellow sufferers have included the likes of Hermann Levi, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, and, Theodor Herzl.” All were Jewish. And then names those modern Jewish performers who share his passion.
He does allow that some Jewish musicians, Thomas Adès, for example, thinks the music dramas to be not very good. Applying his appeal to authority as grounds for accepting an overtly anti-Semitic (Nelson’s view) work as so sublime as to warrant overlooking a perverted view of life one could have added Stravinsky to the list of great musicians not impressed by the Ring. “I say that in the aria ‘La donna è mobile’, for example, which the elite thinks only brilliant and superficial, there is more substance and feeling than in the whole of Wagner’s Ring cycle.” Or one could cite the Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin who wrote of the “appalling elephantiasis of late German romanticism.” Who was the biggest elephant in that group?
My opinion, knowing Wagner’s operas including The Ring, pretty well – if not to the depth of Professor Nelson – is that almost everything he [Nelson] writes about will be lost on all but less than one in a thousand listeners. Wagner was a much better composer than he was a librettist. Most opera librettos do not merit serious discussion away from the music that is written to them. The 25 librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte not set to Mozart’s music are forgotten. The anti-Semitism which Nelson detects in Wagner’s Ring will likely be missed by all but the most analytical audience – analytical on the level of Sherlock Holmes. Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite, but you likely won’t notice it during a routine trip to a Ring opera.
Wagner was a great composer who wrote operas that are mostly too long and which both captivate and bore the non-addicted opera goers who listens to them. I have attended many performances of all of Wagner’s operas that are in the standard repertory. I have rarely made it through one without a brief, or even longer, snooze. Rossini’s observation, “That Wagner has his moments, but also his half hours, ” is still valid more than a century and a half after he made it.
Professor Nelson’s article is well written and informative. In placing it in perspective the reader must keep in mind that he is a self confessed possessor of the Wagner gene I’ve written about here. He can’t help himself in his passion for Wagner’s operas any more than the moth can resist the flame.