Richard Wagner, Love Him or Hate Him?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 - 10:00 AM

One of my daily pleasures comes with the arrival of an e-mail presenting the Word of the Day from the Oxford English Dictionary Online. The wonders and permutations of the English language are revealed each night as a new word is examined. Sometimes the words seem chosen at random while, with others, there can be little doubt as to why they were selected.

The word for May 22 is Nibelung, n. [‘ A member of a subterranean people who guarded the hoard of gold and treasures sought and eventually taken by Siegfried. Chiefly in pl.’]

I did not need to be reminded that this is the bicentennial of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), but I am certain that many subscribers to the OED were not as focused on this anniversary as I. Given the countless things that are distinct about Wagner, the OED could have chosen from dozens of words in German and English that would immediately call the composer to mind. His ideas (some brilliant, some repugnant) and innovations were central to the art and politics in the 19th century and have been the point of departure for contentious discussion ever since.

As you surely know, as a regular visitor to the Operavore pages and the Operavore stream of WQXR’s website along with the radio station’s 24/7 broadcast of all kinds of classical music and opera, this year is the bicentennial of the births of Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi and the centennial of Benjamin Britten. I wonder what word the OED will select on October 10 for Verdi? Will they select anything at all, or will the day go by unnoticed? On November 22, for Britten, I recommend the word “Fen.”

WQXR will pay attention to Wagner and Verdi with a program that premieres on May 22 at 7 pm and should return periodically throughout the year. It is called “Clash of the Titans,” produced by Aaron Cohen and hosted by Jeff Spurgeon (I provided some editorial input). In it, they contrast, with considerable erudition and originality, the ways Wagner and Verdi led parallel lives with similar challenges and ambitions but, because of who these men were, had very different outcomes. Following this program, WQXR presents an encore of its popular “The Ring and I,” a program I named and took part in that was produced by Aaron Cohen and presented by Jad Abumrad.

For today, I am going to address but one topic about Wagner, namely, the question that I am asked most often: “How/why can you like him, Fred?”

The way this question is typically phrased elicits an easy and direct answer: I don’t like Wagner, the man, though I am fascinated by the art he produced. I explore these works on their own terms, standing apart from their creator. If I were to tell you that Chopin and Renoir were anti-Semites or that Puccini and Picasso treated women horribly, would your feelings about their art change? Is it fair to those works to inject the biography of their creators when we hear or see them?

Do we revile Chaucer for the obvious anti-Semitism in The Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales? Should Shakespeare be despised for creating Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who seems to some people like a caricature even if he expresses his humanity and desire for fair treatment when he says, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Should it matter that Oscar Wilde (right) created the character of a Jewish moneylender in The Picture of Dorian Gray or that Dorian attends a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and explicitly identifies with the title character?

Our consideration of Wagner’s operas is inevitably connected to the notions we have of him as a man because this always has been the practice, even in his lifetime. The fact that Wagner’s music and writings (compelling on artistic subjects, revolting on issues such as his hatred of Jews and his often misogynistic behavior toward women) have inspired awful actions by people long after his death is not something he actually caused. 

Like it or not, Hitler and others who appropriated Wagner’s operas and some of his views to serve their despicable ideologies did this because their twisted minds saw in Wagner a justification for their actions. It is horrible that the Nazis played Wagner’s music in concentration camps, forever linking it with the evil that Hitler carried out, even though Wagner had died 60 years earlier. I fully understand why many survivors of the Holocaust would never want to hear a note of Wagner, and no one should ask them to do so. But there are millions of fair-minded people who find meaning in the music and can separate it from the Nazis, including Jewish conductors such as Georg Solti, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, who eloquently perform Wagner’s operas while in no way advocating for views of his that most of us regard as poisonous.

It's Complicated

I grew up in a secular Jewish environment, surrounded by people who fought Fascism in Spain and later in the Second World War. I knew many Holocaust survivors who chose not to hide the numbers the Nazis tattooed on their arms. Those who became Americans fervently embraced the Constitution’s values of freedom of speech and expression, understanding that it is possible, perhaps even healthy, to openly disagree without resorting to violence and hatred. To embrace these behaviors would mean to sink to the loathsome values the Nazis promoted. 

Many of these Holocaust survivors and open-minded people of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations joined together to advance, with great suffering and extraordinary patience, the civil rights of those to whom they were denied. Foremost among these were African-Americans, whose most important leaders had the wisdom and courage to preach non-violence even in the face of the most extreme hatred. Later came the women’s movement and the rights of gays and lesbians. Each victory is slow and hard-won but, in the rear-view mirror of history, it is clear that a true egalitarian outlook—we are all equal and, for believers, we are all equal in the eyes of God—is the best refutation of small-minded hatred. This hatred, sad to say, is still with us, even if we are slowly moving toward a more just world.

I invite people who reflexively recoil from listening to Wagner’s music and studying his operas to find the transcendent and universal that touches all humans in some of his works. To hear Der fliegende Holländer is to have your imagination fired by the sheer color and drama in the music. Lohengrin is about many things, among them belief, whether in religion or in the goodness and truthfulness of another person. Tannhäuser, now much misunderstood, addresses the role of an individual in society and of holding to one’s views in the face of discrimination and incomprehension. These issues are timeless, appearing in Prometheus Bound, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and many operas, including Fidelio, Don Carlo and Andrea Chénier.

Tristan und Isolde, in addition to its revolutionary innovations in musical terms, is an eloquent expression of pure love and how death, for some, can feel redemptive or consoling. Among the many issues addressed in Der Ring des Nibelungen, his tetralogy of operas, is how the pursuit of love and power, and the rewards these might provide, culminates in the triumph of love. And Parsifal, his final work, is a riveting exploration of how suffering, awful though it is, can sometimes result in knowledge, solidarity and insight into the most fundamental elements of the human condition. This is art at its highest.

I confess that I can find very little to recommend in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg apart from glorious music, but I know many people who think it is Wagner’s greatest achievement. I have yet to discover that.

Another thing we must always keep in mind is that the operas Wagner wrote have been subjected to all manner of productions, some brilliant and transcendent, many horrible and offensive. Wagner once remarked, "I care absolutely nothing about my works being given; I am only anxious that they should be so given as I intended." Wieland Wagner, whose ingenious stagings in the 1950s and early 1960s scraped away the Deutschland-uber-alles barnacles that had attached themselves to many of the operas in the first half of the 20th century, understood the essence of his grandfather’s works even though he did not give them the visual representations Wagner might have known. Very few directors since then have matched his achievement.

I invite your comments and hope that you will respond with an open mind and an open heart. As evidence that we really can get along, here is my tribute to the Bicentennial Boys: First, German soprano Frieda Hempel performs “Sempre Libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata – in German:

Then, Maria Callas sings “Dolce e calmo” (the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) in Italian.


Photo: A scene from Wagner's 'Siegfried' at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Comments [17]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

News today by the general manager of LA SCALA, Stephane Lissner that the world-famous opera house that was VERDI's outreach to the musical world is suffering government subsidy cutbacks and diminished attendance records will cut back on its scheduling, its season length and the number of productions. Worldwide the excuse by governments for cutting back on support of their cultural institutions, the opera, the symphony, the music conservatories, the museums, the universities and television and radio public broadcasting is 'we can't afford it." What we can't afford is the ignorance of our respective cultures that provide the incentive for achieving, that entertain and inform In the USA we are not even paying attention to our intrastructure with thousands of bridges and roadways and hospitals and schools in dangerous conditions, falling bridges with vehicles plunging into the waterways below. Terrorists terror but simple-minded, ethically challenged politicians potentially are even more destructive of an enlightened civilized society. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and
director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute.

May. 27 2013 09:08 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the counts and Dons freakish womanizers.

May. 25 2013 11:36 PM
Fred Lasker, another friend of Fred Plotkin from Brooklyn, N. Y.

Listening to Callas sing Wagner's absolutely greatest testamony to love even in Italian is as good as it can get! Oh, Wagner...such a jerk but so wonderfully talented...And Fred, you are a gem! Thank you for this wonderful Wagner treat....Love you!

May. 25 2013 05:52 PM
W. Westbrook from New York City

Regarding the music only - I did not choose Wagner. Wagner chose me.

May. 24 2013 06:05 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Bloggers you have every right to "stick to your guns." The two incredible mammoth size talents in opera are VERDI and WAGNER. They have been given short shift on Radioland including WKCR which has done better than one would need to expect given its potential rival. The average person might be mortified learning the names of many of their icons of art and politics and science and teaching that had major flaws in their psychological persona. The product of genius is what we should ourselves accommodate in adjusting our scheduling of time and our choices of seeing, reading or hearing. The 'taste test" should not require a Curriculum Vitae, a passport or a declaration from "on high," but rather our own internal gratification in the presence of masterworks.

May. 24 2013 09:08 AM
Nick Vega from Tampa

Forgetting about Wagner's personal life, I enjoy listening to his music; however; I find his stage productions (with few exceptions)totally boring. I have no desire to sit through 5 hours of sameness over and over again. In my experience, I see evening audience members falling asleep time and time again.I prefer to listen to recording and skip the visual.

May. 23 2013 02:26 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

We have to accept the art and disregard the man. He was a hateful man but the music is intoxicating. The finale of Tannhauser is so beautiful that I am still moved to tears after all these years. Again, fine article and many thanks.

May. 23 2013 12:34 PM
michel from westchester

I am Jewish but cannot help but be swept away by most of Wagner's music. That said, I am very aware of the aggression in a lot of Wagner's music especially in the Ring, and that makes me hate the man. But then, when I listen to the Liebestod I ask myself every time "is this the same man, the epitome of the narcissist, the Jew hater? I have no answers. I must attribute the contradiction to "genius" for lack of a better answer. I also disliked von Karajan and especially Furtwangler, and then when I listen to their recordings, I "excuse" them once again!!

May. 22 2013 11:19 PM
leslie from NEW YORK

Thank you for providing a forum for this interesting and complex issue.It might help to expand the issue, by posing a hypothetical question. Suppose Wagner were alive today, would it be ethical to purchase his sheet music or attend his performances,knowing full well that it would support his noxious attitudes? Secondly, providing a forum for his music posthumously creates an interest in his life with its positive and negative elements depending on whether one wishes to emulate him or denigrate him. History has granted the emulators more traction, with his denegrators being placed on the defensive.

May. 22 2013 10:33 PM
Peter Feldman from New York City

I do not enjoy works of art by people of dubious morality but I think that piano works interpreted by Walter Giesekin are great. Nevertheless, there is room for politics in art. art does not need to be isolated from politics because artists are human as other people. I admire Toscanini for his oposition to Fascism in Italy and despise von Karajan for his acceptance of Nazism in Germany, as result I enjoy more recordings conducted by Toscanini, his music makes me feel more comfortable. By the same way music by Verdi makes me feel more comfortable than the music of Wagner. I cannot forget what was in the mind of those composers when they composed music. Maybe it is in the sub conscience but there is something about it.

May. 22 2013 08:55 PM
Harold Braun

Brillant and thoughtful article,Mr.Plotkin.I too grew up in a jewish secular household where religion played only a very small role.Both my parents were devout music lovers and I became a professional musician.My mom,who had lost her mother and her grandparents because of the nazis(her mother died from typhotic fever in a french internment camp and her grandparents committed suicide because they were to be deported) had a lifelong love for opera,and Wagner in particular.During her last hours,she asked me to play the Furtwaengler/Flagstad recording of Tristan.It was to be the last music she heard in this world.

May. 22 2013 07:54 PM
Bernard from Forest Hills, NY

I agree with Woody Allen: "Every I hear Wagner I get the urge to invade Poland"

May. 22 2013 06:23 PM
Erica Miner from CA

I was a post-war Baby Boomer brought up by Russian-Jewish emigre parents. My mother devotedly listened to the Met Opera broadcasts every Saturday - except for Wagner. She indoctrinated me as to the reasons for this, and I grew up with her bias ingrained in my being. When I became a member of the violin section of the Met, the irony of this was not lost on me, and I have been struggling with the dichotomy of a love/hate relationship with Wagner and his music ever since. However, what I have discovered in my research for my opera lectures (if indeed my sources are accurate) is that despite Wagner's supposed hatred toward Jews, he still had Jewish friends, many of them musicians, and acknowledged their talents. Not a few of those, Hermann Levi, for example, who was the son of a rabbi, idolized Wagner. Notwithstanding Wagner's unpleasant personality traits, I still find it unfortunate that Hitler was such a fanatic admirer of Wagner's music and that his music became such a powerful symbol in the nazi era. But after a lifetime of ambivalence I have no choice but to admire the composer's genius. Those who are passionate about Wagner's music listen with their hearts rather than their minds. And the debate rages on.

May. 22 2013 12:56 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

I could not agree with Fred more, though it took a long time for me to come around to Wagner. However, the subject of this blog is one I have considered for a long time. Is T.S. Eliot's poetry any less marvelous because he was an anti-Semite? Or are the paintings of Degas any less splendid because he, too, was one? Unquestionably not. Though I believe I read in grad school that the great, if naive, Ruskin argued the opposite, I, myself, don't for a moment think that only a good man or woman can make great art.

May. 22 2013 12:13 PM
Michael Hurshell

As a Jewish conductor, as the curator of the new Wagner exhibit in the recently opened Wagner museum outside Dresden, and as the member of a family that lost members in the Shoah, I'd like to make 2 remarks. 1. As far as anyone has been able to tell me - and I have looked into this - Wagner was not played in concentration camps. While this has no bearing on his often repugnant personality, his anti-Semitism and mysogeny, or on the fact that his music was used by the Nazi regime for various propaganda purposes - news reels, radio broadcasts etc. - it is unfortunate that, as it seems, the identification of Wagner with Nazism caused some survivors to believe this. While there was a brief attempt to use recordings of his music in Dachau (for indoctrination of political prisoners)in 1934, his music was not used in any other camps, certainly none of the death camps, where music had an entirely different purpose. But the persistence of the idea that Wagner was played there shows that the trauma of survivors included the memory of how Wagner was used by the regime in every day life. 2. The Nazis did not need toappropriate Wagner's ideas for their agenda, those ideas had been current in germany since the early 19th century; Wagner was a sort of poster boy for them, but the hatred towards the Jews - originating with figures like Martin Luther, or various Popes even earlier - was not a product of the popularization of Wagner. It was Wagner's widow and descendants who got more and more involved with proto fascism (Cosima, Winifred, Chamberlain, et al) - after Wagner died in 1883. Yes, he was an anti-Semite - but the Shoah would certainly have taken place without his having lived; their sources were people like Lueger, von Schönerer and others. It might help, in disentangling some of the widespread antipathy towards Wagner, to avoid conflating the 19th century with the 20th. Wagner was anti-Semitic in an anti-Semitic environment; and, just as an example, most of the contents of "Das Judenthum in der Musik" were plagiarized from previous publications dating back 10, 20 or 30 years prior to the publication date of that disgusting pamphlet (1850).

May. 22 2013 11:44 AM
Harvey Steiman from San Francisco

On our recent trip to Catalunya, Carol and I visited the castle Salvador Dalì renovated in Pubòl. In the gardens a fountain/shrine to Wagner contains this quote by Dalì: "Wagner is not only a mountain of geological melodies, but also and particularly a real mountain of mythological images and hallucinations."

May. 22 2013 11:22 AM
Fern Berman from CT

Thank you for the clarity you have brought me. There have been many artists over the years whose work I am pulled toward, Wagner being one of them whom I have pushed away because of their political or personal views. Picasso also, for his misogyny; Wagner for his anti-semitism, Nolde for his antisemitism, etc. Your column today has made me realize that pleasure can be brought into ones life even though the creator has objectionable/hateful views.

May. 22 2013 11:09 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

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