Loving Wagner anyway


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At the Hollywood Bowl recently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave a rare performance of Percy Grainger’s imaginary ballet, “The Warriors.” There were, as far as I could tell, no protests from the audience about performing this rambunctious and wonderfully odd score, despite the fact that John Henken’s program notes alluded to the fact that the Australian-born composer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1914 was a racist.

He was quite the anti-Semite as well. Grainger even went so far as to clumsily purge the English language of words that might have a foreign or ethnic tinge. Yet such bigotry often is excused as a kind of endearing eccentricity.


The late Albert Goldberg, who was music critic of this newspaper for many years and was Jewish, studied piano with Grainger in the ’20s, and I once asked him whether his teacher’s anti-Semitism was an issue. He reminded me that Grainger, for all his prejudices, had many Jewish and African American friends and thought the names of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington belonged next to Bach’s.

So how did Albert explain this?

“People,” he said, “are funny.”

Richard Wagner’s dislike of the Jews, however, has never been so easy to dismiss. His article “Judaism in Music” is the most repulsive screed penned by a great artist that I’ve ever come across. Wagner’s operas proved an inspiration for Hitler and perhaps the creation of the Third Reich. “Siegfried,” the third in the “The Ring of Nibelung” cycle, presents a spectacle of the pure Aryan hero ridding himself of a sniveling, scheming cultural interloper. That opera reaches Los Angeles Opera the afternoon of Sept. 26, during the Jewish high holidays and just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Wagner was not all bad. He was kind to animals. He took an interest in Buddhism and was a pacifist with anarchist leanings, all of which would have made it exceedingly difficult for him to become a brownshirt had the German composer, who was born in 1813, lived on to be around when Hitler took power 120 years later. Still, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was no small quirk, and it left him plenty to atone for.
“Judaism in Music” was originally published anonymously in a small music journal in 1850 by a young composer jealous of the success of the Jewish French grand opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The Jew’s art, Wagner came to believe, was imitative and as such could never be an authentic vessel for holy German culture. Wagner deemed that deception dangerous and the Jew repugnant.

In 1869, at a time of German unification and the granting of full civil rights to Jews, Wagner republished the essay under his own name. Now a highly celebrated composer and cult figure, he added an appendix to the essay with petty attacks against a so-called Jewish press and with puerile insults heaped on Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn (who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism).

Given that Wagner was perhaps history’s most influential musician, this anti-Semitism is all the more pernicious. Protests about L.A. Opera mounting a $32-million, high-profile “Ring” Cycle this year have come from Jews and Gentiles alike, and organized demonstrations or vigils at performances are a possibility. Last month, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich proposed that the company change the focus of the related citywide “Ring” festival — which has just begun and will continue through the spring, when the full cycle is performed — to something less Wagner-specific. In response, many Times readers pointed out that it’s possible to love the art but not the artist. Michael Jackson’s name came up repeatedly.

Taking on an easier subject than either Wagner or Jackson, New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen wrote in a recent column about his quandary concerning the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had just died. Cohen admires the film “On the Waterfront” but disapproves of Schulberg having named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It is hard to make great art and it is hard to be a good person, Cohen concluded, so asking for both may not be humanly possible. It is the art that lives on.


Even so, I believe we lose much in separating the artist from the art. Wagner the man is all over his operas, and that is what makes his operas universal.

Let’s forget Wagner’s anti-Semitism for a second and look at some of his other awful character traits. He is excoriated for having been a lech and a leech, for his adulterous affairs and for continually finagling his financiers. In 1857, Otto Wesendonck, a silk merchant and Wagner devotee, gave the composer use of a house beside his villa outside of Zurich. Wagner figured that Wesendonck’s beautiful young wife Mathilde went along with the lodging.

Consumed by his mystical love for Mathilde, Wagner broke off the composition of “Siegfried” and wrote “Tristan und Isolde,” an epically erotic depiction of intimacy unlike anything that had been presented on the lyric stage. Wagner might be seen justifying his illicit attraction (we don’t have evidence one way or the other of consummation) by showing that he was capable of love that transcends earthly laws or bounds. But “Tristan” also enters into the darkest recesses of love’s fixations and loss of self.
“Tristan” may be the greatest opera ever written; its harmonic innovations alone make it the most important. So here’s a nice little ethical dilemma: Was the cuckolding of a businessman whose name would never otherwise be remembered worth the creation of a work that changed the course of music and Western thought?

Wagner’s vision of idealized love arrived from his pre-Mathilde frustration with writing “Siegfried,” which begins with the domesticated dwarf Mime conniving to trick the big dumb oaf Siegfried into doing the dirty business of killing a dragon to acquire a hoard of gold and a magic ring that Mime plans to keep for himself. The German theorist Theodore Adorno called Mime the “ghetto Jew” and accused Wagner of making all his rejects caricatures of Jews. It follows, then, that Siegfried would be the Nietzschean Superman as he is portrayed in many productions of the opera.

At the Bard College Wagner Festival last month, the school’s president and festival director, Leon Botstein, noted that this stereotype didn’t represent the urban German Jew but the Eastern European émigré, of whom the successful Jews of Wagner’s time were, themselves, dismissive. In an essay in the “Cambridge Companion to Wagner,” Thomas S. Grey notes that there isn’t a single comment in all of Wagner’s voluminous writings and correspondence on a Jewish connection to any of his characters.
I would go further. I see bits of Wagner, himself, all over “Siegfried,” including in Mime. Grey quotes a letter Wagner sent to Meyerbeer 10 years before “Judaism in Music.” “I must become your slave, body and soul,” Wagner wrote in his then-craven admiration of the Jewish composer. This could almost be Mime talking.

The “Ring” characters were, in fact, devices for Wagner to work out his own deep issues. Wagner clearly saw himself as a Siegfried (the heroic savior of German art); he saw himself as a Wotan, the king of the gods, and as an Erde, the all-knowing Earth mother. On a subconscious level, aspects of the composer even found their way into the thieving Alberich and redeeming Brünnhilde.

Ultimately, Wagner was more than enough egotist and megalomaniac to consider his crises and insecurities the world’s crises and insecurities. From whence comes lasting, universal art.
And from whence come some of the peculiarities of bigotry. Prejudice isn’t rational.

In a brilliant essay on Wagner and German Jews in the Bard festival companion book, “Richard Wagner and His World,” Botstein points out some of the ironies of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. In 1895, a Jewish journalist covering the Dreyfus affair, about a notorious French anti-Semitic incident, spent his evenings at the Paris Opera listening to Wagner. And it was Wagner’s ideas of community and the role of the outsider that led this young Wagnerian, Theodore Herzl, to found the Zionist movement, with its call for the creation of the Jewish state.

Botstein also credits Wagner’s anti-Semitism and sense of community, as well as his music’s ability to express human solidarity, as leading the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (famed for his “Schelomo”) to reinvent himself from an abstract Modernist to the voice of the modern Jewish people.

Albert Goldberg was right. People really are funny.

Wagner and the “Jewish question” must be posed anew for each generation. And it serves best to use it as a mirror with which to reflect the prejudices of our own time. Wagner’s repugnant writing, for instance, practically pales in comparison to much anonymous ranting and raving on the Web. Our problems right now are larger than what Wagner stood for, but maybe he can help with the discussion.

-- Mark Swed

‘’Siegfried.’ Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; 1 p.m. Sept. 26; 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 11; 5:30 p.m. Oct. 7 and 17; $20-$260; (213) 972-8001; running time: 4 hours, 48 minutes.

File photo of Wagner.