Confronting Wagner

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?”

21 thoughts on “Confronting Wagner

  1. artmodelandrew says:

    A very well-reasoned analysis. We could apply the same logic to science. If someone discovers that Albert Einstein or Marie Curie had committed some moral atrocity would it invalidate their scientific discoveries?

    • artmodel says:


      As someone who likes to read biographies I’ve learned that they can be disconcerting when they contradict our idealized preconceptions. People of great achievement often possess great weaknesses as well. We should all just give up on the idea that gifted individuals are also morally and ethically honorable. Sometimes they are, I guess.

      Thanks for commenting!


  2. Bill says:

    There’s that line from Yeats, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” It’s a frequent and disturbing question — also raised by such varied lives as Ezra Pound and Bobby Fischer.

    But art isn’t just about the artist, is it? Is the work of art an entirely individual, personal statement? For example, does the artist have a muse, an inspiration — and doesn’t the audience help to create meaning though its perception of the artwork? Is there a shared responsibility here? Wasn’t Hitler a co-creator of Wagner’s music — at least in the sense of how we perceived that music? Of course, Wagner might have held certain beliefs himself but, without Hitler, those beliefs might not have had such an effect on our perception of his work.

    Just speaking for myself, if my drawings don’t work out, I just blame the model 🙂 Maybe a little tougher for Wagner . . .

    • artmodel says:


      I was just talking to someone recently about a documentary of Bobby Fischer. Good lord, what a vile, fulminating anti-Semite he turned into. Severe paranoia will do terrible things to people’s minds. Also, I’ve never liked Ezra Pound, so screw him! 😆

      You seem to back up my theory about Wagner and Hitler. Thanks. You stated it well that Hitler was, in a manner of speaking, a “co-creator” of Wagner’s music. Not literally of course, but certainly in popular consciousness. Negative associations between art and real life events can be forgotten or dismissed in many cases. Charles Manson claimed to be inspired by the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, and John Hinckley by Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver”. But we have brushed aside those associations. It is much more difficult to afford Wagner the same treatment, unfortunately.

      Thanks for your comments, Bill!


  3. Dave says:

    Very thought provoking article, Claudia. But, as a former physicist, I have to respectfully disagree with Andrew that if one shuns the music of Wagner because of his anti-Semitism, one should by the same logic shun scientific discoveries made by terrible people. The difference is that a scientific discovery, such as the properties of cathode rays discovered by vicious anti-Semite and Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard or the uncertainly principal developed by (likely) Nazi collaborator Werner Heisenberg, does not depend at all on the point of view of the discoverer. If I’m working with cathode rays, I use the formulas Lenard developed without having to adopt or even consider his point of view about cathode rays or anything else. If I need to calculate the flux from my cathode ray source, it just doesn’t matter that the guy who figured out the formula was an enthusiastic Nazi.

    Now, to take an easy counterexample, consider Picasso’s “Guernica.” Would we view the work the same way if we learned that Picasso had later somehow collaborated with Franco? Or would we view Norman Rockwell’s “Swimming Hole” the same way if we learned that he was a pedophile? Visual art, even the most representational visual art, has a point of view, and so the perspective of the artist affects how we regard the work. There’s no way I could bring myself to admire one of Hitler’s watercolors, even if he had been much more technically skilled than he was, knowing the point of view he brought to the easel.

    Wagner’s case is a hard one for many Jews, myself included, who love the music but detest the despicable views of the man who wrote the music. What makes it hard for me is that the point of view of a classical composer can seem much further from the surface than it is for a visual artist.

    There’s a similar debate going on right now about the forthcoming science fiction film, “Ender’s Game,” based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. The novel and the film have nothing to do with gay civil rights, but Card has been an extremely vehement opponent of LGBT equality. So should we science fiction fans who support LGBT equality boycott the film?

    • artmodel says:


      Yes, I heard about the Orson Scott Card controversy. I’m not a big science fiction fan but I can imagine the conflict you guys must be feeling. If the film’s content has nothing to do with gay rights issues then that should be of some comfort to the fans. Otherwise, an organized boycott would serve solely as a form of punishment for Card’s personal beliefs which, for what it’s worth, haven’t found their way into his work. I totally understand how you feel, as I have been torn many times about this kind of thing. Like I stated in the post, individuals can make their own choices according to their own consciences. That’s what personal freedom is. Maybe do the “separation” thing if you have to?

      Your point about scientific discoveries was fascinating. You’re so right about the absence of a point of view in those formulas for cathode rays, for example. We could go even further and wonder how we would react if the scientist who discovers the cure for cancer ends up being a huge racist or anti-Semite. Will we deny ourselves the cure that will save our lives purely on principle? I think not. As you said, science is different. Art not only presents a point of view, but it is also elective. If our feelings are that strong then we can, painful as it may be, reject specific art. But important science not so much.

      Getting back to Wagner and your conflicted feelings as a Jewish person, I’d like to share that I am Armenian and the granddaughter of Armenian Genocide survivors. I freely admit that I would never hang artwork of the Ottoman Empire on my walls. That’s why I offered the scenario of the cellist and Wagner. I gave the matter a great deal of thought and came to this conclusion: if we converted Wagner into an Ottoman Turk composer who sympathized with Talaat Pasha, and I were a musician in the orchestra, I would most likely walk off the stage too. Not for certain, but most likely.

      I really enjoyed your great comments, Dave. Thanks so much for weighing in!


  4. I also used to have in Wagner’s case, if not difficulties with separating artwork from the artist, then at least some discomfort about Wagner’s beliefs and the abuse of his art on the part of the nazis. Then I read Wagner in his own words, delved into other primary sources, connected the dots and determine what is fact and what is not and guess what? I learned that “Wagner the man” is not what he is cracked up to be and that you need not separate him and his personal beliefs from his art any more then you need to do with other artists.

    • artmodel says:


      Given all the spectacular Wagner festivals and devoted fans of the Ring Cycle, it’s clear that many, many people are fully at peace with the man and his music. And you touched on something significant – that Wagner’s reputation suffered a lot due to things that occurred well after his death, and over which he had no control.

      Thanks very much for your comments!


  5. JohnC says:

    The “notorious imperfections of other artists look miniscule in comparison…the composer who provided inspiration to Hitler”. This is absurd.

    A “amoral film director” is personally amoral and defective. Wagner is not being attacked for his personal character at all, but merely because one particular man allegedly liked his music. Actually there is little evidence that Hitler liked his music. But what if he did?

    Hitler liked art too, he was a talented watercolourist. Do we advocate the burning of all landscape paintings, just because Herr Hitler liked the genre?

    This hatred of Wagner is political and ridiculous. All it does is show how absurd the critics of Nazism have become, so many decades after Nazism ceased to have any relevance whatsoever.

    • artmodel says:


      If it’s your takeaway from this blog post that it was my intention to gin up “hatred” for Wagner then I’m simply flabbergasted. Wagner is revered and celebrated with festivals, opera galas, and Wagner societies all over the world. So if there’s some vast political conspiracy to shun the man and his music then they’re doing a terrible job of it!

      I’m pretty sure that there is more than just “little evidence” that Hitler was a Wagner fan. You can choose to minimize it or you can do your own research. Information is just a mouse click away.

      But I’m a little bewildered by your assertion that it’s the “critics of Nazism” who are to blame. Is that the main problem in your view? You think people are just too sensitive about the whole thing? I personally find Nazi apologists to be the more disturbing voices in the world rather than the Nazi critics. But that’s just me.

      Thanks for your comments.


    • There is an abundance of evidence that Hitler loved Wagner. I do agree with you that the answer to that should be:”So what?” The problem that has posed itself is the perception that Hitler was politically inspired by Wagner, which is simply false…As are many other canards commonly understood as true. He was not a vile person, he did not make friends on basis of how he could use them, he did not treat people around him horribly, he was not a pan-German nationalist(at least on it a political sense, especially in his later period)…And you know what else? He was not even as anti-Semitic as it is believed!

      It’s these misconceptions about Wagner that should be discussed, not anyone’s accident of artistic taste.

      PS There is also another side to the story of Hitler liking Wagner…

      • artmodel says:


        Indeed, Hitler was a huge Wagner fan. But isn’t it true that his “favorite” composer of all was actually Bruckner? Thought I read that somewhere.


  6. caseyklahn says:

    Really thoughtful and wonderful post, Claudia. I especially liked the comment of Dave and your response. Regarding Dave’s mention of Guernica, I have a very difficult time accepting Picasso’s message in this painting because he followed it in the early fifties with one supporting the North Koreans in our conflict with them. It may be one thing to be an Anarco-Communist at dinner parties, and quite another to establish anti-war art that supports mass murder at the hand of dictatorships.

    I have written much about the artist’s ideas, and the artist’s ethos. Webster’s Dictionary, in the late thirties, described the artist’s ethos as the moral, ideal, or universal aspects of a work of art, etc. Moral means right and wrong – it is the simple definition. American philosopher John Dewey said that “art is more moral than moralities.” I feel he said this because art is indifferent to criticism; art is morally powerful because it is indifferent to moral praise and blame.

    Not answers, but more questions, I’m afraid. I avoid politics like the plague in my art, since I want to look over the horizon; I want to innovate. Picasso teaches me much, but what a personality! Most would deny it, but I am willing to bet money that most would have crossed the street rather than pass Vincent by on the street in Arles. He was a repugnant man, but a loving and immensely talented genius.

    So glad you brought us this post! Take care,

    • artmodel says:


      I’ve always felt that I learn more from my readers than they do from me. Your comments are a wonderful example of that. I had completely forgotten about, or never paid sufficient attention to, Picasso’s work “Massacre in Korea” to which I believe you are referring:

      What a great point you raise about the issues with Picasso’s politics. I like him best during his Blue Period when the work was inspired by personal pain, loss, and imagination. Honestly, I have never been fully comfortable with art that is driven by political agenda.

      Thanks for sharing yours and Dewey’s ideas about art and morality. Fascinating. It’s a complicated subject. And when we consider, like you said, the “personalities” who have brought us our art over centuries, we are in messy territory for sure.

      Really appreciate your thoughtful comments and kind words about this post. It was an effort to write and quite mentally exhausting, but it was surely worth it for the marvelous discussion it engendered. Thanks so much Casey!


  7. caseyklahn says:

    Uh, I meant to say that van Gogh was not the average man’s cup of tea, but we admire his art. We separate the art from the artist.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Excellent well-balanced and thought-provoking piece. And finished off with an Odilon Redon painting 🙂

    Interesting to read the Orson Scott Card controversy in the comments as my son is currently reading the book, to the annoyance of my husband who acknowledges it’s a seminal SF work but feels the author’s views mean it shouldn’t have room space in the house.

    As you say, no easy answers and it’s a debate that will go on and on, perhaps because creative people often hold strong views that may or may not be in line with our own – though as you’ve pointed out very eloquently, Wagner’s views unfortunately had unpredictable and tragic ramifications.

    • artmodel says:


      Huge, sincere thanks for your kind words about this post. It means a lot! The “Ender’s Game” movie is coming out in November I believe, It will be interesting to see how things play out.

      Great to hear from you as always!


  9. Kelly Borsheim says:

    Dear Claudia, Thank you for this discussion, very intriguing. I find that as much as I enjoy a variety of music, I rarely know it well enough to be able to tell whose it is. I like what I have heard of Wagner’s music, but I tend to like dark and drama and his work is highly emotionally charged. I found it interesting that people who are abhorred by the person know his work well enough to be offended to walk out of a performance once it starts being played! I would have assumed that those same people would not have played or listened to his music enough to recognize it.

    I also found your last point interesting as well. Wagner was horrible with his views, and yet, he worked closely with Jews and tried to convert them? Not kill them? Perhaps his sentiments were not as anti-Jew and they were passionately Christian?? I do not know… I just have a believe that everyone is prejudiced against something. How we express that is what really matters. I am not sure from your writings (and I know so little about the composer’s life or beliefs) whether he advocated the killing of other human beings.

    Oh, I did not know about John Lennon’s violence towards women… did he turn over a new leaf, as in a born-again? or was he preaching peace (haha, I accidentally typed “peach”) WHILE he was living a life of violence? Oh, yin and yang, we are complicated creatures!

    Still, an interesting point: is great art made by humans who live on the edge?

    Thank you… I am only asking questions… I have little answers. Sincerely, Kelly Borsheim

    • artmodel says:


      Questions are good! And answers are often elusive, so not to worry.

      Wagner most certainly did not advocate the killing of anybody, and one can assume (or hope) that his views were challenged through his friendships and professional relationships. As for John Lennon, he did turn over a new leaf as you mentioned. I believe he credited Yoko Ono with his enlightenment and evolved attitude toward women. So that’s a relief!

      I think you hit on an important point about people who create great art. They are frequently, though not always, intense, conflicted, and deeply flawed individuals. Whether all that serves as a fertile source of their creativity is a subject of discussion in itself. Maybe I’ll get to it someday!

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. Great to hear from you 🙂


  10. Kelly Borsheim says:

    Hello again, You may enjoy this blog from my Italian-Venezuelan friend and life model, Anna Rosa….

    Thanks for the great work, Kelly

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