Wagner and the Jews and the Books I’ve Read (with a little help from Wikipedia)


This is a very complicated subject.  Let’s take a couple of somewhat analogous situations.  Should you watch Woody Allen films?  Or Roman Polanski films?  Or go to a Ted Nugent concert?  You get the idea.

A little history.  Richard Wagner lived from 1813-1883.  He was, by all accounts, a talented and innovative theatrical and musical personality.  According to the Wikipedia bio, Wagner “revolutionised [sic] opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesise [sic] the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama.”  He is of course best known for his Ring Cycle, and the elaborate performances he staged in Bayreuth, at his Festspielhaus, where performances continue until today.  He also led a rather dissolute and financially reckless life.

In 1850, when he was 36, he wrote an essay, published in a Leipzig music newsletter, called “Das Judenthum in der Musik”, which claimed that Jews were destroying the future of German music.  He published the essay under a pseudonym, although the identity of its author was soon known.  He berated the recently deceased Felix Mendelssohn, as being a tinkerer.  He criticized strongly the music of his friend and supporter Meyerbeer, and damned the audiences who reacted so positively to it.

All of this was somewhat surprising, as his earlier years apparently gave no hint of anti-Jewish prejudice, and he had many Jewish friends and supporters.  But it set forth a position that Wagner maintained for the rest of his life.  And, in fact, in 1869, the article was republished under Wagner’s name, complete with a lengthy addendum repeating and augmenting his position.  In addition, Wagner wrote a number of additional articles and essays on the subject which were published and which drew attention to the composer as an emblem of increasing anti-Jewish feelings in German speaking European countries.

The first Bayreuth Festival was held in 1876.  After Wagner’s 1883 death, the festival was managed by his widow, Cosima, who was the daughter of Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt.  When Cosima Wagner retired in 1906, the Wagner’s son Siegfried took over management of the festival.

Siegfried was an unusual personality, undoubtedly homosexual.  His family kept after him to marry so that there would continue to be Wagner heirs, and finally at age 45, he married a 17 year old English woman, Winifred Klindworth.  They were married for about 15 years, and then Wagner died (only a few months after his mother Cosima passed away).  They had two sons and two daughters. Winifred took over managing the festival and remained manager, or the power behind the thrown until she died in 1980 (1980!!).

A few years ago, I came upon a fascinating (if at times densely written) book called simply “Winifred Wagner: a Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth”, written by Brigitte Hamann, an Austrian historian.  I knew that the Wagnerian operas became identified with the Nazi regime, but I did not realize how close Adolf Hitler was personally to Winifred Wagner, how much anti-Jewish feeling dominated Bayreuth in the 1930s and 1940s, how many times Hitler visited Winifred in Bayreuth, how Nazi officials and German army officers were treated to tickets at the annual festival, and how the festival was supported and protected throughout most of the war under Hitler’s personal instructions.  Hannah Arendt may have written about the banality of evil in her description of the Eichmann trial, but there was nothing banal about Winifred Wagner (nor about her brother-in-law, the English racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, married to Siegfried Wagner’s sister, Eva, and who spent much time hanging around the Wagners in Bayreuth).

I highly recommend Hamann’s book to anyone interested in the topic.  If you read German fluently, you may want to try “Der Sohn” by Zdenko von Kraft, a biography of Siegfried, which Wikipedia calls “sugarcoated” (“geschonte”).  von Kraft worked for years at the Wagner archives in Bayreuth.  (I have a special copy of that book, because it has been inscribed by Winifred to her friend “Elfi” on her birthday in 1969.)

Starting in 1951, the two sons of Winifred and Siegfried, Wieland and Wolfgang, became co-directors of the festival.  Because of their differences of opinion as to how the operas should be staged, and their overall sibling rivalries, this was not a good idea, and the tension was resolved only by Wieland’s death in 1966 at the age of 49.

Wolfgang lived until 2010, dying at the age of 90.  He ran the Bayreuth festival until 2008.  And he ran it with an iron hand.

Wolfgang had three children, a son and daughter by his first wife, whom he divorced, and a daughter by his second.  He was the focal point of a complex and never ending series of family disputes – he fought with his brother Wieland’s children, he fought with his son Gottfried (born in 1947), and he fought with his older daughter Eva (favoring his much younger daughter Katherina, even after working hand in hand with Eva for years at the festival).

Several weeks ago, I came across a copy of Gottfried Wagner’s memoir, “Twilight of the Wagners”. Published in 1997, it shows a defiant young Gottfried, aghast at what he learned about his family’s relationship (and the festival’s relationship) with Hitler and the Nazis, and about his great grandfather Richard Wagner’s writings son the Jews, and what appeared to be the continuing intention of his grandmother (Winifred) and father (Wolfgang) to keep as much of this as possible (including extensive material in the Wagner archives and elsewhere) hidden.

This was a bad choice of a life mission if you wanted to stay in the good graces of the Wagners.  His relationship with his father deteriorated beyond belief and he was finally banned from Bayreuth and from the family.  He also found that his career as a musicologist and opera director was thwarted by familial interference and threats that anyone who worked with Gottfried could not work at Bayreuth.  It took Gottfried a long time to build a career, but he was able to fill in the blank months by researching his family history deeper and deeper, by making contacts all over the world, and by speaking about the unfortunate Wagner legacy.  While speaking engagements in Europe were often cancelled at the last minute, he found that engagements in America were more likely to be kept, and that this was even more true in Israel.  Of course, his son’s trips to Israel drove Wolfgang out of his mind.

Now, Gottfried does not come out of his book as a perfect man.  As nasty and authoritarian as his father was, he seemed out to provoke him whenever he had the chance.  As to his relationships generally, he seems to have the knack for turning friends against him, for burning bridges.  His heart may be in the right place, but his personality appears wanting.  Strange, you say, since this is a memoir and he is writing about himself.  And it’s not that he says “and here is another place I screwed up”; he just thinks that everything that has happened is inevitable and, because he is not only a Wagner, but a dissident Wagner, he is never surprised when things turn out badly.  But he keeps to his mission.

Now, back to the opening questions.

It turns out that there are a lot of Jews who love Wagner’s music.  In Europe, here, and in Israel.  And they clearly separate the music from the man, and the music from its Nazi adulators. And there are others in Israel who think the opposite, that not only should Jews not listen to Wagner, but that his music should not be played in Israel.

Daniel Barenboim, Jewish music conductor, Israeli citizen.  Barenboim is one of the world’s most respected operatic conductors – currently he is music director of La Scala and the Berlin State Opera.  He is also a Wagnerian – from 1981 through 1999, he conducted at Bayreuth.  In 2008, he conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera.

By general agreement, no Wagner was performed in Israel publicly.  In July 2001, however, Barenboim conducted a concert of the Berlin Staatskapelle in Jerusalem.  As the concert ended, Barenboim announced that he was going to play the prelude from Tristan as an encore, inviting those who were offended to leave.  He then said (again from Wikipedia) “Despite what the Israel Festival believes, there are people sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations.  I respect those for whom these associations are oppressive.  It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it.  I am turning to you now and asking whether I can play Wagner.”  There was then a lengthy and emotional conversation with the audience, a few people left but most stayed, and the encore was well received.

This led to a lot of controversy, demands for Barenboim to be not allowed in the country, and more.  It did not help that Barenboim is also a strong supporter of the rights of Palestinians.

Nevertheless, in 2004, Barenboim was awarded the Wolf Prize by Israel, a very special honor, although this too was controversial, and some boycotted the ceremony.  In accepting the award, Barenboim said:  “I am asking today with deep sorry.  Can we, despite all our achievements, ignore the intolerable gap between what the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence promise and what was fulfilled, the gap between the idea and the realities of Israel?  Does the condition of occupation and domination over another people fit the Declaration of Independence?…..”

Barenboim makes no bones about his support for Palestinian rights, performing in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Is there a connection between Barenboim’s political positions and his positions on Wagner?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know (and I think Barenboim agrees) that Wagner was just one awful person and that there is no question that his music was used to support Nazi policies.  But is this a reason that it should not be listened to, or performed?  That I am not sure.  It is clear, however, that there are others who are certain as to the appropriate answer to this question. And some of them will accept no limits in pressing their point.




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