There is a very funny episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Larry David whistles the beautiful melody of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for his wife as they wait outside a movie theater. A man within earshot, a fellow Jew, promptly berates him. Making a loud scene, the man castigates Larry for whistling the music of Wagner, a known virulent anti-Semite and German composer forever associated, regrettably, with Adolf Hitler. Larry David pushes back as only he can and the episode goes on to contain much hilarity.
Not so hilarious is the dark reality of Richard Wagner, the great and revered 19th century composer most famous for his “Ring Cycle” operas. WQXR radio just concluded “Wagner Week” to commemorate the bicentennial of the renowned composer’s birth. The celebration brought superb programming of music, which is unquestionably glorious, and also elicited the necessary, unavoidable discussions of Wagner’s repellant personal views.
The debate over separating artists’ work from their flawed characters, controversial opinions and, at times, immoral behaviors, is one that will surely go on for eternity. There is no right or wrong answer, of course. It is simply a matter of an individual’s ability and willingness (or inability and unwillingness) to overlook, excuse, perhaps even rationalize, an artist’s profound personal defects. Film director Roman Polanski has many defenders, for example. Picasso’s reputation as an egotistical sexist bastard is rarely held against him as far as his art is concerned. And I remember feeling nearly distraught when I learned that John Lennon, Mr. “peace and love” himself, had a history of physical abuse toward women. Took me a while to get over that one. But honestly, what are we supposed to do? The truth is that if we were to reject all creative output due to the faults and failings of the creators we would be left with very, very little. For those of us who cannot fathom life without great art, music, and literature, it’s simply not an option. So we’re kind of stuck with these guys, warts and all.
Having said that, the case of Richard Wagner reaches a level of controversy that far exceeds any other, making the notorious imperfections of other artists look miniscule in comparison. Giving a pass to a licentious, amoral film director is one thing. Trying to make peace with the composer who may have provided inspiration to Hitler is quite another. Understand that Wagner did not merely make stupid “casual” anti-Jewish remarks, of which many famous figures have been guilty. And it’s true that anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon in many parts of 19th century Europe. But Wagner was different. He was hardcore and fervent. His extensive writings about Jews and German nationalism can be interpreted as blueprints for the Nazi ideology that would rise 50 years after his death, and that is disturbing to say the least. I’m certainly no scholar, but some excerpts of Wagner’s essays could easily be mistaken for passages from Mein Kampf. And if it is true that Wagner’s music was piped through the loudspeakers at Dachau and other concentration camps while inmates were being led to the gas chambers . . . well then, good lord, there is nothing one can say or do, but cry . . . and pray.
To make matters worse, if that’s even possible, Wagner’s wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, shared her husband’s anti-Semitic position with the same rabid vehemence. How incredibly disappointing. Et tu, Cosima? Really?
N.C. Wyeth’s Tristram and Isolde, lovers in the medieval legend and subject of an opera by Richard Wagner:
A person can choose to listen to music or view art in accordance with their own tastes and, if they apply, moral and political principles. We have that freedom as individuals. Broad cultural boycotts, however, are more complicated and open up a larger can of worms. Live performances of Wagner are effectively, though not officially, banned in Israel. But some acclaimed conductors have brazenly attempted to flout the unwritten prohibition. In 1981, Zubin Mehta called for a Wagner piece as an encore after an evening’s performance. Daniel Barenboim, himself Jewish and a staunch defender of Wagner, attempted a “Wagner surprise” at the Jerusalem Festival in 2001. Both instances were met with mixed reactions, with some audience members rising to their feet for a standing ovation, and others storming out of the venue shouting their disapproval. Reportedly, even some musicians left the stage in protest. Yes, don’t forget the musicians, as they are roped into this mess as well and have a right to their own opinions and sensibilities. Could any of us in good conscience ask a cellist whose grandparents died during the Holocaust to perform Wagner free of conflict? I couldn’t. So it’s clear that the wounds are still raw, the emotions volatile, and the attitudes diverse.
Portrait of Wagner by Franz von Lenbach, 1871:
I am of the school of thought that in free societies nothing in the form of artistic or intellectual expression should be “banned” per se, regardless of how unpopular or offensive it may be. Places like the United States, western Europe, Israel, etc are not Saudi Arabia or North Korea. I personally detest “gangsta rap”, but I would never endorse a ban on it. I simply choose not to purchase it or listen to it. Nor would I allow my children to listen to it.
My rap analogy falls a little short in this situation because the subject at hand is not Snoop Dogg, but Richard Wagner. A true giant. Composers , conductors, and music historians frequently make the argument that because Wagner’s music is so seminal, so historic, so brimming with genius, sumptuous orchestration and complex harmonies, and that his place in the pantheon of great composers is so high, to deprive audiences of his music is a misguided, ill-considered effort. My brother Chris is a composer. Music is his whole life. I spoke to him about this topic and asked him straight up if when he listens to Wagner the experience is tainted by the composer’s abhorrent views. Chris said unequivocally that it is not. When great art is involved, many are able to put the unpleasantness aside. With Wagner, the challenge of reconciling the man with his music is simply not an issue for a lot of people, not because of insensitivity or apathy, but insofar as music is just music.
Ironically, Richard Wagner himself might have agreed. Well, somewhat. He had hired and worked with Jewish musicians and choirmasters throughout his life. One his closest colleagues was conductor Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi, who conducted the first performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882. This is not to say that Wagner spared Levi any harassment, as he tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Levi to be baptized as a Christian. But in the end, none of it mattered much, not for Wagner and certainly not for Levi. In fact, Levi so admired and respected Wagner that he served as a pallbearer at the composer’s funeral.
Parsifal by Odilon Redon:
My modest assessment of all this is that I think it’s the Hitler association which is most damaging. If he had not appropriated Wagner’s ideas, promoted his music so aggressively, and held him up as the paragon of German cultural superiority, the composer’s reputation might have been less tarnished. “Hitler’s favorite composer” is how Wagner is often referenced unfortunately, and therein lies the main problem. Permanent linkage to Adolf Hitler is something from which one can never recover, and once you’ve been turned into a symbol of the Third Reich, there’s no undoing that. It’s irreparable. It’s over. Just my two cents.
It’s time for me to provide some article links to conclude this Music Monday. Here are some of the interesting reads I found on the subject of Wagner:
From Tablet, check out “Muted” and it’s 195 reader comments.
Also “The Controversy Over Richard Wagner” from the Jewish Virtual Library.
More info at “The Hateful Side of Wagner’s Musical Genius”
From the WQXR blog, “Wagner Explainer: Can We Separate the Man from His Music?”