Why I Listen to Wagner

Many moons ago, when I was a member of the Children’s Chorus at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, I was given the opportunity to audition for a special part: the young shepherd in the opera Tannhauser. There was a lot of prestige associated with this role. If I landed it, I would sing a short solo aria onstage during the performance, as well as have my name featured in the program. Although my voice at the time was good, it wasn’t as strong as some of my colleagues’ pipes, and I had difficulty with the more strenuous scores. Nevertheless, I tried out, and like the actor in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967), who, while detailing his credentials, says he was up for the lead in an important show, I didn’t get it. My failure discouraged me, and kid that I was, I couldn’t just dismiss my lack of success in this arena…despite the fact that I enjoyed many triumphs in other fields — namely, academics. I was, in short, crushed.

It didn’t occur to me that had there was a kind of irony in this story: had I landed the role, I, a young Jewish warbler from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, would’ve been cast as a Teutonic shepherd boy in an opera composed by one of the world’s most famous anti-Semites, Richard Wagner — whose melodies were beloved by Adolf Hitler and had such a powerful association with the Nazi dictator that they’re still regarded by many as taboo in Israel. As a child, I was only concerned with myself and the fact that I didn’t get the part. I wasn’t thinking about my culture and the paradox of aligning with something whose maker would never have aligned with me.

Nowadays, I think about that often, but recently, I came to an understanding about the composer that informs my views of other artists and their political beliefs. This realization arrived after much critical thought, along with a good deal of speculation on the possibility that I could change my mind. Ultimately, I decided that I wouldn’t — that the path I’d travel on would be strict and forthright…and wouldn’t deviate from its course.

And the path is this: that no matter what an artist’s ideologies are — and no matter how vile and offensive they may be — I will not boycott his or her works if they’re good enough to admire.

Wagner’s works are certainly good enough. My parents, both musicians, brought me up on his and others’ compositions; as a child, I listened to The Flying Dutchman, watched Das Rheingold on TV, repeated the tunes in my head. Today, I have Gotterdammerung on my iPhone, listen to it often — the twilight of the gods, Siegfried’s death.

All music that Hitler enjoyed. All music that added the laments of the Holocaust to its bars, became inextricably linked to the plight of my people during the Third Reich. All music that I cannot give up — even as a Jew who has known Holocaust survivors, survivors of internment in Auschwitz. Even as a Jew.

I wondered, before making the decision to treat artists’ works objectively, without reference to their political beliefs, whether I was doing this for selfish reasons — like an addict who can’t give up his drugs. Wagner, to many music fans, is addictive; his orchestrations are sublime, his melodies are complex, often glorious. I find the ending of Gotterdammerung to be one of the greatest and most moving in all of opera…only comparable, perhaps, to that of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro or Wagner’s own Tristan und Isolde. He was a superb composer.

Yet he was also a raging anti-Semite, and Hitler adopted his music as the banner of the Third Reich. In some ways, this association has overshadowed Wagner’s importance as a composer. There’s even a character in one of his operas, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Beckmesser, whose negative mannerisms and behavior could be interpreted as Jewish stereotypes. So it’s possible that Wagner’s ideologies infiltrated his art. And that means such things cannot be separated. Art and belief can go hand in hand.

It’s a philosophical problem that concerns me, but I have to keep on my road of objectivity. If a work is great, it’s great no matter what its flaws are, no matter what the mindset was behind it. We can still read Nietzsche, right, without agreeing with his precepts? We can still enjoy the music of Richard Strauss, no, without subscribing to his opinions? We can even listen to Pink Floyd and Roger Waters, despite his reported use of anti-Semitic imagery during his shows?

I can. Because the creations are of value, despite the inherent problems of the artists themselves. Their creations last. Their creations can still make people happy.

I believe Wagner’s works have the capacity to do that. His greatest operas are masterpieces, benchmarks of the genre. Their connotations were harmful in the past, but they can be used now against themselves, against the evil they were employed for previously. They can be used for teaching, for music theory. They can be used for performance, for practice. And they can be used for general listening pleasure, for beauty.

There’s a shameful history associated with these compositions, but their presence and ultimate future can serve as a means to repair the world, a kind of tikkun olam that Wagner could never have conceived. I’m no utopian, but I believe great music can bring joy to people, and if given the chance, Wagner’s works may help in that regard. His wrongs were significant, but his gifts to the world were permanent. I have to keep listening to his operas, and I wish that others would, too.

I put away childish things when my voice changed and I could not be in the Children’s Chorus at the Met anymore. Yet I never put away the memories of my audition for the young shepherd’s part in Tannhauser. I’m sure many members of my faith feel similarly when it comes to the links of Wagner to anti-Semitism. I know they’re not wrong. But I also know there’s often healing in the things that previously hurt. Goodness can come from pain; life from death. We should be able to listen to Wagner’s music because of that. We should be able to hear the melodies without dismay, without anger.

If only to repair ourselves.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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