Is Wagner’s “music” antisemitic?

“Philosopher”, my intellectual but not ideological opponent over the years, introduced an otherwise unrelated issue, Art and Wagner, into my discussion of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Dr. Robert Eisenman’s description of Paul of Tarsus as Herodian. I will not include “Philosopher” Comment inspiring my response as quotes embedded in my response clearly represent our differences, and agreements.

My response, edited and expanded: Fully agree with your point, “Philosopher”. And particularly identify with your closing words, “Well, I am incontestably a Jew.”

Over the years you and I have wrestled over terms and definitions, perhaps unavoidable considering our personal (not ideological) starting points. And present instance no different.

As an artist I fully agree with your opening paragraph, at least up to, “Engaged music” the meaning of which you imply but do not define.

“Art in general and especially music has its object in itself.”

Of course. But then you introduce “ideology” which I accept as a “universal” shared by all, or almost all human activity. My own collage is an outgrowth of my life and experience and entirely non-narrative. It is nonetheless an expression of my despair the result of my same bleak realization of “Jew-in-the-world” inspiring my writing. I even refer to my works over the past decade as Shoah Series. But the question is to what extent does my collage express that which I write? Certainly imagistically there is no direct connection between the two activities: each is, as you write, “object [activity] in itself.”

Not that art, and particularly the plastic arts, can be ideologically driven, intentionally propogandistic. Soviet, German and American art is clearly narrative and intentionally propagandistic during, as example, the period of the Great Depression. (Still, even “propagandistic art” occasionally rises above its banal message as Art)

Wagner was clearly a nationalist and antisemite both obvious in his writings. And certainly his nationalism thematically inspires many or most of his operas. Antisemitism also, as in Parsifal. But, (and I may be once again misreading you) I find it a leap for you to conclude that,

“Wagner’s is such no-music which he denigrated himself by considering it subsidiary to the drama of sublime Germany clashing with corrupted Subhumans.”

Yes the Ring cycle describes gods and their sup-species, humans. And it may be that Wagner had “the Jews” in mind as a subtext to his libretto which would reduce his story line to propaganda. But the music must itself be accepted on its own terms and for all his personal shortcomings Wagner is deservedly considered a “great” composer whose music was revolutionary, continuing to impact generations of composers and conductors. The pulsating rhythms of the opening of Die Walküre , minus associations from the later period of the Third Reich, is certainly “militant” (the theme of the opera) but the music, its powerful rhythms, have intrinsic “beauty” and represent music as great art once we set the propogandistic purpose it would later serve the Third Reich. Whatever Wagner’s antisemitism his music preceded Hitler by decades.

This is not a defense of Wagner the man. It is simply an observation that sometimes our own stereotypes quietly and unawares color our judgment. You and I have argued this in the past but again I see this an example of the process by which religious anti-Judaism passed into Western secularism beginning the “Age of Reason.”

And an aside, “Philosopher”: for years Wagner had no Aryan-German audience because his music was “too difficult.” His original audience was German-Jewry who recognized, supported and promoted the young composer who might otherwise have died unrecognized and in poverty!


About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.