Music of the Classic and Romantic Eras
Dr. Susan Hegberg
April 11, 2007
Triumph of Germanic Roots: Richard Wagner’s Journey from Reform to Annihilation
I. Scapegoats for a Disappointed Artist
Rocky German-Jewish relations during the mid-nineteenth century brought about a whirlwind of pamphlets, riots, and political debates. Arguments centered on whether Jews should be naturalized or annihilated in regards to German citizenship and culture. Throughout these intellectual battles, Germans of both Christian and Jewish faiths conducted business without undue hatred. Richard Wagner stands out as one such German who held many positive relationships with Jews both professionally and socially. His calls for German opera reform during the 1840s-50s then evolved into anti-Semitism during what was, for the rest of Germany, a time of relative peace between the two religions. Outwardly, Wagner’s ideas flowed so that the problems he saw in music (and opera especially) were caused by Jews, who therefore needed to be annihilated from Art, and from Germany altogether. Truthfully, Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism stemmed from a long-standing tension coupled with financial and egotistical issues on the part of the composer.
Wagner’s anti-Semitism cannot be considered the product solely of preexisting cultural tensions. He seems to have almost gone through levels of hatred, as his “attitude to Jews and Judaism was not a uniform phenomenon, but went through various phases in the course of time.” Notions of returning to pure Germanic blood addressed by Wagner in his ‘Regeneration’ writings of the 1860s-70s were not in any way new. Stimulated by German nationalism of the eighteenth century, Wagner’s ideas may have been directly influenced by the writings of Benjamin Disraeli, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, and Karl Marx. According to these popular theories, pure blood was achieved by abstaining from eating meat (as it often contained unclean blood) and copulating exclusively with members of one’s own ethnic background.
Such ideas were adopted by Wagner with only slight variation: in his eyes, true blood could be obtained through the blood of Christ, and miscegenation only occurred when producing offspring with Jews. The anti-Semitism insinuated by these ideas evolved over Wagner’s lifetime from what were at first Jewish sympathies. As an active participant in the Dresden revolution Wagner claimed to support emancipation of the Jews , and was surely aware of the many prominent Jews within the world of music. German-Jewish composers during Wagner’s lifetime include Jacques Offenbach, Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Johann Strauss.
Of these Richard Wagner developed positive relationships with Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, both of whom he considered to possess exceptional musical talent. The two were generally considered the most popular composers of their time, Meyerbeer almost exclusively in opera and Mendelssohn in oratorios and chamber music. Meyerbeer agreed, upon Wagner’s written request, to provide him with business and artistic advice. Indeed Wagner relied heavily on Meyerbeer, begging the older man to “to write letters of recommendation to Duponchel and Habeneck, respectively the director and the conductor of the Opéra, a promise that Meyerbeer kept.” The two men retained a professional relationship for several years, with Meyerbeer offering much more to Wagner than vice versa. The fall-out between the two opera composers (which will be examined later) rested almost solely on Wagner’s disappointment at “Meyerbeer’s failure to accomplish as much on his behalf as he had hoped for from him in Berlin in 1847.”
Wagner’s relationship with Mendelssohn was much more complicated, as the two met on only a few occasions and held relatively little correspondence. As a young man Wagner admired Mendelssohn, believing the Jew to have set “the keystone of a great artistic epoch.” The two held an ambivalent friendship until Wagner thought himself in compositional competition with Mendelssohn, a situation that Wagner only intensified after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 by explicitly insulting the Jew’s musical abilities in his treatises and pamphlets.
During his younger years, Wagner maintained friendships with Jews through the music and publishing industries, including composer Ferdinand Hiller, violinist Joseph Joachim, pianist Karl Tausig, conductor Hermann Levi, and editor Moritz Schlesinger. These relationships can be seen in retrospect as serving mainly to boost the composer’s career, as Wagner now has a reputation for acting skillfully manipulating those around him. By 1854 Wagner is documented to have been in debt over 10,000 francs to Meyerbeer, Schlesinger, and other Jews, collectively . These debts seem a suspicious impetus for Wagner’s sudden burst of anti-Semitism in 1850 with the publication of his pamphlet Judaism in Music.
II. The Artist’s Unique Visions of Reform
While exiled in Zurich from 1848-1860 Richard Wagner turned the bulk of his creative attention from music to essays. During the five-year span between 1848 and 1853 the opera composer wrote “nothing, except for a Polka and a Piano Sonata both written for Mathilde Wesendonck.” Out of this period came (in order) Art and Revolution, The Work of Art of the Future, Opera and Drama, and Judaism in Music.
The first three works concern the role of art in a changing society, with an underpinning of “the creation of a new society of free men and women and the bloody struggle to achieve it.” Outwardly, the works address the misuse of music in Wagner’s society, lamenting that it is doomed to be “a sheer organ of expression…desiring to plainly outline the thing to be expressed.” Ideally, composers should gain their inspiration from text and ultimately strive for broad and sincere emotional expression that invokes the German spirit. In this manner music served as a unifying factor between literature, humanity, and spirituality. As the most ideal of art forms, Wagner mainly championed ancient Greek drama due to its flawless harmonization of “the elements of dance, music and poetry.” The ideal of unifying all aspects of art pervaded Wagner’s life as he wrote both libretti and music for his operas.
Writing with obvious bias, Wagner continued his arguments to contend that after Greek Drama, Germanic Saga held most perfect in reference to his idea of true art, and German composers and performers the most perfect currently alive. He critiqued all other forms of opera in stating that “the error in the art-genre of Opera consists herein: that a Means of expression (Music) has been made the end, while the End of expression (the Drama) has been made a means.” Indeed this evaluation extended to German operas as well, if the person writing libretto or music was not a native German speaker.
Wagner provided his old mentor Meyerbeer as a prime example of one who, as a German-Jew, possessed “no mother tongue” and was therefore unable to write text or to set music well (or, up to Wagner’s standards). This concept of the Jewish composer as inherently incompetent comprises the whole of Wagner’s argument in Judaism in Music.
Published under the pseudonym K. Freigedank in 1850, Judaism in Music was the composer’s first total “anti-Jewish utterance.” Wagner began his pamphlet respectfully and tastefully, assuring his reader that his anti-Semitic feelings applied only in regards to art, and not to religion or politics. He then almost immediately alluded to his outstanding debts to Jews by accusing the race of turning music and art “into a mere article of exchange,” much akin to their common business of usury.
From here Wagner explained the impossibility of writing “genuine poetry in a foreign tongue,” which he likened to composing music in another tongue, asserting that because German Jews did not speak the same literal language as true Germans, they did not speak the same musical language either. He continued for the remainder of the original pamphlet to condemn the Jews for their uniqueness and refusal to completely immerse themselves into German society.
As an example of the wholly failed Jewish composer Wagner offers Mendelssohn to the reader, stating:
“By him we have been shown that a Jew may be gifted with the ripest specific talent, he may have acquitted the finest and most varied education, he may possess the highest and most finely-tempered sense of honour—and yet, notwithstanding all these advantages, he may remain unable, even in so much as one solitary instance, to bring forth that deep effect upon our hearts and soul which we expect from Art because we know its capability in that direction…”
In effect, Mendelssohn’s work conveyed no true emotion to his audience as (readers learned from Opera and Drama) music was designed to do. Wagner followed by admitting to Meyerbeer’s genius in achieving a semblance of drama in his works, although Wagner failed to connect the two composers’ shortcomings to their religion.
To strengthen his argument of Jews as incompetent composers Wagner called upon the fact that “right down to the time of Mozart and Beethoven, we find no trace of any Jewish composer,” concluding that Jews’ inability to reach the emotional level of others (presumably Germans) caused them to fail at the task of writing effective music. Society’s acceptance of German-Jews’ operas proved their complete infiltration of popular culture; a phenomena which, to Wagner’s taste, needed to be stopped.
The sentiments expressed by Richard Wagner towards the end of Judaism in Music were taken up more fully in his ‘Regeneration’ writings, most notably in his publication The Bayreuther Blätter, which ran for several decades after his death. As a new wave of anti-Semitism swept Germany (aided in part by the composer himself), Wagner’s attentions expanded to address “the decline of the human race and the need for the establishment of a system of ethics.” These ethics, as already examined, included a strong insistence upon regaining pure Germanic blood.
While obtaining blood purity was a multi-faceted process, the aspect most paid attention to by Wagner and his contemporaries (supporters and opponents alike) was that of annihilating Jews from German culture. Thus in tracing Wagner’s thoughts through his Zurich and regeneration writings, the path between reform and annihilation becomes clear. Various aspects of Wagner’s life led him to disrespect Jewish artists and ultimately breed a hatred that manifested in a desire to expel Jews from his Germany altogether.
III. Reception of the Artist’s Works
Despite the anonymous publication of Judaism in Music, few in the German professional world doubted Richard Wagner’s authorship of the pamphlet. When he republished the work in 1869 under his own name, the added supplement complained mostly of the negative reception of Wagner’s operas after the original publication of the pamphlet. Insinuating that overall horrible reception of him and his music only occurs in Germany, Wagner explains how “even though my earlier operas had carved out for themselves a road to the German stage, where a uniform success had attended their representation, the very same theatres exhibit a cold and even unfriendly demeanour towards my recent works.” The surprising unfriendliness he encountered was perceived as not only engendered by Jews but those Christians under Jewish influence, as he complains of “this strange and covertly-designed persecution of me by the Jews.”
However, many Germans believed in the ideas put forth in Wagner’s writings; indeed Judaism in Music spurred a new wave of anti-Semitic thinking in Germany. Several authors sent their manuscripts to the composer, and one went to him with the ‘Mass Petition against the Rampancy of Judaism,’ which Wagner refused to sign “partly out of self-interest and partly out of a preference for addressing the issue in a more theoretical manner.” Yet for all the like-minded people who banded together after Wagner’s pamphlet, the text had little far-reaching impact until after the composer’s death. It may be argued that Judaism in Music did not reach its utmost importance until read by Adolph Hitler almost a century later.
However, an equally large part of the German population (both Jewish and Christian) seems to have disagreed with Wagner’s views, especially those expressed in Judaism in Music. Many, including Wagner’s publisher Franz Brendel, felt the need to apologize for Wagner or explain away his views when in public. Still others remained silent until Wagner’s death in 1883, and only then felt free to disseminate their true views on the man.
Friedrich Nietzsche, an acquaintance but not close friend of Richard Wagner’s, wrote two treatises on Wagner. Although both were written in 1888, five years after Wagner’s death, Nietzsche claims to have lost his admiration of respect for Wagner around 1876 when the composer’s anti-Semitism seemed out of control.
The first text, The Case of Wagner: A Musician’s Problem, repeatedly refers to Wagner’s work as ‘morbid,’ asking “Is Wagner a man at all? Is he not rather a disease? Everything he touches he makes morbid – he has made music morbid.” Towards the closing of the essay, Nietzsche repeats “the adherence to Wagner costs dear” several times, perhaps as a warning to those who followed the composer’s radical ideas without thought of greater societal consequences. Indeed he questions Wagner’s use of logic, questioning the ability of a man without “hard logic” to compose drama or theoretical arguments.
Most harshly, Nietzsche insults the Germans who chose to follow Wagner’s beliefs by insisting that they “have created for themselves a Wagner whom they can worship; they were never psychologists, they are grateful by misunderstanding.” In belittling a large portion of the German population, Nietzsche calls to mind other important points.
To begin with, Richard Wagner’s views of Jews in society was mostly limited to those in music, and even more considerably to those close enough to lend him money. In fact the two most frequently attacked Jews of Wagner’s writing, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, are documented to have held respectable relationships with Wagner until he asked more of them than was reasonable, at which point he became disenchanted and angry.
As Jacob Katz asserts, Wagner’s “negative image of both Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer were formed independently of their Jewish origin and was not at first connected with it. The composition of the anti-Jewish essay [Judaism in Music], therefore, marked the establishment of a quasi-factual foundation for his subjective judgment.”
Through the vast majority of his anti-Semitic writing, Wagner failed to connect the incompetence of Jewish composers to their religion and instead attributed their failure to Jewish culture as separate from true German culture. Mostly, Wagner traced Jew’s musical failure to their language, although the Yiddish spoken by nineteenth-century German-Jews, was “actually a German dialect in its own right, as much as the Saxon dialect spoken by Wagner.” Thus the crux of his argument proves to be less compelling than it originally seemed.
While Wagner’s cries at the poor state of German opera were followed by cries of the invasion of German music by Jews, the two matters cannot be seen as linear thoughts. His focus on the state of German art should be viewed as a chief concern for Germans, of which he believed the “best of the German tribes had left central Europe long ago and had dispersed themselves to the west,” leaving only the “Germans of Germany,” who did not excel in any area of life.
In a concern for the downfall of the German art he felt himself most connected with, opera, Richard Wagner lashed out at two individuals who chanced to share a common heritage. Attacking an older man whose operas were in direct competition with his own and a younger man whose success confused him allowed Wagner to channel societal anxieties into his realm. From there he and his contemporaries did not need to look far in order to find further examples of Jews infiltrating other aspects of their lives. The reforms designed by Wagner to purify his art evolved into a need to exterminate those who were unwilling or unable to conform to his elite German standards. Most importantly, Wagner’s call for annihilation of the Jewish race, for the purity of German blood, meant only completely absorbing them into German life and religion or physically removing them from the country to practice their arts among their own people and leaving the Germans in isolation.
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Kaufman, Tom. “Wagner vs. Meyerbeer.” The Opera Quarterly 19.4 2003 pp. 644-669. Accessed 24 Feb 2007
Köhler, Joachim. Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple. Ed. Ronald Taylor. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2000.
Millington, Barry. “After the Revolution: The Ring in the Light of Wagner’s Dresden and Zurich Projects.” University of Toronto Quarterly 74.2 2005 pp. 677-692. Accessed 24 Feb 2007
Millington, Barry, Elizabeth Forbes, Peter P. Pachl, and Paul Sheren: ‘(1) Richard Wagner’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy 22 Jan 1999, (Accessed 22 Jan 2007),
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. XI. Ed. Alexander Tille. New York: Macmillan and Co, 1896.
Rather, L. J. Reading Wagner: A Study in the History of Ideas. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 1990.
Wagner, Richard. Judaism in Music. Ed. Edwin Evans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
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