Wagner Explainer: Can We Separate the Man from His Music?

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Major opera companies routinely stage the operas of Richard Wagner with hardly a mention of the composer's troublesome character traits: his virulent anti-Semitism, misogyny and narcissism. He was an undisputed musical genius and towering intellect, goes one theory, and his contemptible features have long been acknowledged and put to rest.

But in this, the composer's 200th anniversary year, discussions of Wagner's character – and his posthumous appropriation by the Nazis – have risen again to the forefront. Some believe these can lead to a fuller assessment of his legacy, and raise questions about whether one can separate the art from the artist.

We've asked several Wagner scholars, conductors and critics about how they approach these issues. Here are their responses.

Can we separate the man from the music?

James Conlon, music director, Los Angeles Opera: "I think you need to differentiate very clearly that artists are human beings and would like to think that because very often they create such beauty and such great works that they are just as beautiful human beings as their creations. But they’re not. In fact, if you look back throughout history it wouldn’t hold up that well, that if someone’s a great musician, they're a great human being. If they're a great human being, they’re a great musician. It actually isn’t so."


But wasn't Wagner's world view inextricably tied up with his music?

Gottfried Wagner, the great grandson of Richard Wagner, whose latest book, You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me, argues that anti-Semitism is to be found throughout his work: "Wagner's music is never abstract. I repeat: Wagner dominates all the details of the score. The more beautiful it sounds the more Wagner wants to also manipulate emotionally and intellectually his public. For me, his vision of a world without Jews is for us a very dangerous vision. It's not by chance that Hitler saw Wagner as his cultural and political idol. These topics are still a shadow for the discussion on Wagner. We cannot avoid them. We cannot educate students that the leitmotif has nothing to do with the content of the opera. It’s impossible. Wagner is always very powerfully manipulating the public." [from an interview with host Jeff Spurgeon]


What about the alleged Jewish caricatures in his operas - characters like Beckmesser and Alberich? Wouldn't Wagner have been more explicit about their intended associations?

Norman Lebrecht, cultural commentator, author, blogger on Artsjournal.com: "Let's look at the ways in which Wagner invested his own character and his own prejudices in the Ring. And one of those ways is with the dwarfs, which can easily be read as a quite loathsome caricature of Jews. Now Wagner was an avowed anti-Semite of a kind who knew how much he owed to certain Jews, and therefore had to remove any trace of it from his own outlook and from his own work. So he became the first cultural anti-Semite. In fact, he made anti-Semitism culturally respectable before the word anti-Semitism had already been coined. And some of that persists right the way through the Ring which makes the Ring a kind of epic of Arianism, which was very, very easy for Hitler to adopt." [from WNYC's Soundcheck]

Michael Beckerman, professor and chair of music at New York University and a specialist in 19th-century European music: "Wagner easily could have been explicit about Jewish characters if he meant them as such. What makes them so exciting to so many people is they can get beyond the anti-Semitism, which is front and center if you want to confront it, to the much broader picture that these characters represent. To say that Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic character is absolutely wrong. Now, music tends to be a matter of opinion." [from WQXR's Conducting Business]


Was Wagner so much worse than other cultural figures of Germany in the mid-19th century?

Anne Midgette, classical music critic, Washington Post: "Wagner was clearly an anti-Semite, yes, absolutely. I don’t, however, think that Wagner was the first and therefore the most culpable proponent of that kind of anti-Semitism. I think it is unfair or unfortunate that we tend to make Wagner the great scapegoat as somehow more abhorrent than other composers and more morally culpable because his statement was stronger. And that’s not to defend the anti-Semitism because – it’s not – but it’s not fair to give him the full blame for it, and there are plenty of other loathsome figures in music who we don’t scapegoat quite as gleefully." [from WNYC's Soundcheck]


How should Wagner be treated in Israel, which maintains an unwritten Wagner ban?

Daniel Barenboim, conductor – from My Life in Music: "In a democratic society like Israel there should be no room for taboos. The boycott on Wagner is very capricious – the Israel Philharmonic is not allowed to play Wagner, but you can buy Wagner records in Israel, you can hear Wagner on Israeli radio, you can see Wagner videos on Israeli television, you can go around Israel with cellular telphones that play 'The Ride of the Valkyries.' I do not believe that someone who sits at home in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem suffers because he knows that in another city someone is playing Wagner."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles: "Perception is always more important than reality. Even if there was not a modicum of truth to the idea that [Wagner created anti-Semitic caricatures] that is the way it’s perceived. I think it’s just a question of good neighborliness, of not rubbing the wrong images in people’s faces. When you live in a country like Israel and when the Holocaust is still as fresh in the minds of so many people...we're not ready yet to make that clear distinction yet between Wagner and his music. We will be someday but I don’t believe we will be yet." [from WQXR's Conducting Business]


Is it impossible then to enjoy Wagner's music in an abstract way and put aside his personal flaws?

Gottfried Wagner: "Coming to peace does not mean for me that we repress the dark sides. For me, in the case of Wagner, you can only come to the side that yes, he is a very important figure. He's one of the central figures for opera in the 19th century. But we always have to listen with the fact that he has very dark sides, which means for us to be very aware of that. Many of the opera houses are still avoiding a more profound discussion, especially with the young people of today, who we want to attract to the opera house. We have to confront them with this reality. We should never avoid discussing all the dark sides."

Will Berger, producer, Metropolitan Opera; author of Wagner without Fear: "I want to use Wagner as a departure point for this urgent, urgent conversation about politics in art – not as an end point. Not that we only talk about it in Wagner. Why didn't anybody, when we were talking about Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met, ask about the source material and who wrote it? You would find some distinct connections to movements like Action française, the French Fascist movement. It's never brought up. The lesson of Wagner should be we need to look at these issues in all art – not to say, 'as long as we know to put down Wagner, then we can get away with anything else.'"