Richard Wagner, Love Him or Hate Him?

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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.