Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), easily one of the greatest composers ever to have picked up a pen. There appears to be no middle ground with Wagner; he is either despised or adored by serious music aficionados. I am in the adoration camp and believe that he was in fact the greatest composer ever, certainly of opera – or music drama as he calls it. I consider Der Ring des Nibelungen to be the supreme achievement of western music; for me the sweetest, most moving moment in all opera comes in Die Walküre, when Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is carrying in her womb the greatest hero of all time, Siegfried, and his theme is heard for the first time. Chuck Berry is very cool, of course, but Wagner provides the aesthetic shiver.
While many of his theoretical writings on music, especially his ideas on Zukunftsmusik (“music of the future”), are a bit strange (Did he really believe sculptors and painters would be satisfied just producing props, sets and backdrops for opera?), there is no question that his operas do indeed mark a towering advance in music. Contrary to general practice, his carefully crafted librettos were written by himself, and there is consequently in the Ring and his mature operas an unprecedented intimacy between the words and the music surrounding them. What the characters are singing is for the first time – at least to this degree – utterly important, which is probably why the increasing use of supertitles in opera houses has stirred renewed interest in the composer.
Wagner also broke ground in the music of his later operas, pushing the traditional tonal systems to their limits and dramatically influencing the next generation of composers, such as Gustav Mahler. Ultimately, his work led to the often blatantly atonal “music” of twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. His use of leitmotivs or musical themes certainly points the way to cinematic music.
Behind this incredibly beautiful music, however, is a miserable human being. Wagner was domineering, and his opinions (on just about everything) were rarely affected by counterarguments and were expressed whether desired or not. He shamelessly used his friends, constantly borrowing money that would never be repaid and squandering it on luxuries. One might say that after music debt was the second constant in his life. He essentially deserted his first wife, Minna Planer, and had a conspicuous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his greatest benefactors. He produced three children with Franz Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, while she was still married to his loyal conductor Hans von Bülow, who finally allowed a divorce so that Cosima might became Wagner’s bride. In short, he seemed to think the world owed him a living, and given the music he created, I think it did.
What Wagner is best known for, certainly among those who have no familiarity with his music, is his anti-Semitism, something that might have been forgotten amidst all the other anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century but for the fact that he actually wrote about it and especially because Adolf Hitler loved his music. A great deal of energy has been spent looking for the traces of anti-Semitism in his works, focusing on figures like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and the Mime and his colleagues in the Ring. There is no evidence whatsoever for this, and Wagner was so wrapped up in the dramas and characters he was presenting that it seems unlikely he would consciously model them after Jews. And if there is anti-Semitism lurking behind figures and ideas in his operas, it is so subtle and subjective that it certainly does not matter to those who love the music.
Though it is hardly a justification, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was very common among enlightened Europeans in the nineteenth century, and it lacked the crude characteristics of the grass roots hatred found in the rural areas. Wagner certainly did not advocate pogroms or separation and lived in the part of Europe where Jewish assimilation was most advanced. Since many of his friends were in fact Jewish, he could hardly support violence or other extreme measures against them. His campaign against the music of the Paris composer Giacomo Meyerbeer has more to do with Wagner’s initial envy of Meyerbeer’s success and what he perceived as unjust treatment by the popular composer than it did with Meyerbeer’s Jewishness. Wagner was plainly annoyed and frustrated by the popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas, which he considered inferior to his own vision and works. And there were many Jews in music, such as Gustav Mahler, who could easily ignore Wagner’s various shortcomings and see only the musical genius.
Wagner as the über-anti-Semite chiefly derives from two developments after his death. The first was the emergence of Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner residence in Bayreuth, as a notorious center of anti-Semitism, presided over by his widow, Cosima, until her death in 1930. She herself may not have been seriously anti-Semitic, but her establishment certainly attracted a number of unsavory characters, like the racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married one of the Wagner daughters and took up residence in Bayreuth.
The second and far more important development was the association of Wagner with the Third Reich. Hitler was surely aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but the attraction was the music, which would have held him spellbound even if the composer had never uttered an anti-Semitic word. Wagner’s obvious German nationalism and connection with Teutonic myth would have appealed to Hitler more than the anti-Semitism. The fact that there was virtually no one else in the Nazi hierarchy that had any desire to sit through a Wagnerian opera suggests a lack of identity between National Socialism and the music of the future.
Abetting Hitler’s love of Wagner was the composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred’s love of Adolf Hitler. Her husband, Siegfried, died the same year as his mother, and Winifred became the pro-Nazi mistress of Wahnfried, where Hitler would be a regular visitor. She would only go so far when it came to the master’s music – she refused to put swastikas on the shields of the Gibichungen in Die Götterdämmerung – but Hitler’s frequent presence at Bayreuth and the clear affection between him and the family – he was “Wolfie” – forever bound Wagner to the Reich.
And Wagner’s attitude to Hitler? He certainly would have applauded the ultra-nationalism and the final unification of all Germans, and one might guess he would find the pomp and incredible showmanship of the Nazi state very attractive. Humiliating the French would likely also appeal to him. But Wagner was a revolutionary, not just in his music but also in politics, at least in his youth, and he participated in the anti-monarchy revolts of 1848 and was forced into exile in Switzerland. Once successful he seems to have retreated to some degree from these sentiments, especially when a monarch, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, showered him with money, and the creation of the German Empire pleased him. Yet, it is hard to see Wagner enthusiastic about the absolute and particularly vulgar dictatorship established by Hitler, and for all his anti-Semitism I find it impossible to believe that the soul manifested in his music could abide the Final Solution.
But in the end – who cares? Were Wagner himself a mass murderer, the music would still be the music and that is all the matters. Modern Israel has had an unofficial ban on performing Wagner, which is simply silly. The messenger is not the message. And in any case Wagner is unwittingly performed: the traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from Lohengrin.
Finally, a little known connection between Wagner and America. The American Centennial Commission in 1876 commissioned Wagner to write a piece of music for the occasion, resulting in the obscure American Centennial March, clearly not one of the master’s great compositions. He himself said the best thing about the piece was the $5000 he was paid for it.