A review of some wonderful classic Wagner recordings on the radio yesterday started me thinking again about the obsession some people have with Wagner’s antisemitism. Last week, the Sunday Telegraph Review devoted an entire page to an anti-Wagner rant from Rupert Christiansen. Christiansen possesses a formidable CV; he has written extensively on opera but that does not prevent him from writing bollocks.
The ostensible subject of his piece was an obscure Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, someone entirely unknown to me, who married one of Wagner’s daughters. Apparently an opera has been written about him, almost no details of which were revealed in the piece, other than that the writer, an American-Israeli (Jewish) composer, Avner Dorman, will write an absurdist satire. Quite right too, because Chamberlain seems to have been a very unpleasant person, one of those ‘little’ Englishmen who were probably bullied at school, and flee abroad where their foreignness shields them from their failure in their own country. In Germany he wrote some very unpleasant anti-Semitic material and was admired by, among others, Hitler.
Chamberlain never met Wagner but wrote extensively about him, and the subsequent link with Hitler set Christiansen off on his rant. One thing, however, should be made abundantly clear: Wagner was an anti-Semite; there can be no question about that from the things that he wrote. But consider what Hermann Levi wrote to his father about Wagner; Levi, the Jewish son of a rabbi, conducted the first performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth, and Parsifal was Wagner’s great last opera, a sacred (highly-Christian) music drama:
…You said you would like to be able to feel kindly towards Wagner. That you can and that you shall! He is the best and noblest of men … As for his campaign against ‘Judaism’ – so he calls it – in music and in modern literature, his motives are entirely high-minded. He is not stupidly anti-Jewish, like the landed gentry or some protestant churls. You can tell by the way he treats me and by the way he treats Joseph Rubenstein …
Wagner was a complex man, but if he was simply an ignorantly bigoted anti-Semite, would he really have trusted his last great sacred work to the son of a rabbi to conduct? The last two performances of Wagner operas I attended were conducted by (Jewish) Daniel Barenboim; my old boss Michael Busse, a practising Jew and musician, who took charge of my musical re-education, said to me the last time we met, that there was no question that Richard Wagner was one of the greatest geniuses that had ever lived.
But, of course, Hitler and the Nazis loved Wagner and people like Christiansen seem incapable of seeing beyond that. In Christiansen’s eyes Wagner was ‘Violently racist…’, Wahnfried, the house in Bayreuth where Wagner and his wife Cosima lived (and are buried) is ‘Gloomy’. I have visited Wahnfried several times; it is no more gloomy than any other German house of the period. Cosima was ‘repellent’ and by implication, Hermann Levi was a ‘dysfunctional neurotic’.
I genuinely do not understand where all this poison comes from. If you don’t like Wagner’s music, fine. Criticise it on that basis, but don’t condemn him from association, long after his death, with people of whom he would very likely not have approved of. If you dislike his writings – which many people, including me, do – try to disassociate the musical artist from them.
Even the otherwise delightful Victoria Coren Mitchell falls victim to this nonsense. She said in a recent TV programme that she turned off the radio if any of Wagner’s music came on. I commented on her blog that T S Eliot wrote some rather unpleasant anti-Semitic lines in at least one of his poems – reissued after World War II. Are we not to read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a result? At school I studied The Merchant of Venice for ‘O’ level. The last time I saw this on stage I found the characterization of Shylock uncomfortable, and his treatment in the last scenes really quite upsetting. No-one, I’m sure, suggests that we should stop putting on Shakespeare because ‘Merchant’ is overtly anti-Semitic.
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