Home Original Richard Wagner: Separating Art from Its Artist (Part I)
Richard Wagner: Separating Art from Its Artist (Part I)

Richard Wagner: Separating Art from Its Artist (Part I)

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on German composer Richard Wagner and his music.

Not everyone is a good person. This statement might sound naive and somewhat childish, but it is the truth. As we navigate the realities of life, we realize that rarely (or never) are there purely good and purely bad people. Most people reside in the huge gray area in between good and evil, an area in which most people lean towards good.

Start an Arts and Humanities degree at American Public University.

An interesting article at Psychology Today, provides these definitions of good and evil:

  • ‘Good’ means a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own.
  • ‘Evil’ people are those who are unable to empathize with others…They are selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. In fact, other people only have value for them to the extent that they can help them satisfy their own desires or be exploited.

Richard Wagner: Should We Judge the Composer by His Character or His Music?

Some great musicians of the past have demonstrated many bad traits. But it is possible to separate great art from the person who created it. German opera composer Richard Wagner is a noteworthy case study.

Richard Wagner, along with Giuseppe Verdi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, was one of the greatest opera composers in Western musical history. His operas included the mammoth “The Ring of the Nibelung,” a four-opera cycle about a ring and Norse gods. It lasts around 15 hours.

This collection of operas is comparable to the three movies in “The Lord of the Rings” series, which last around 11 hours in total. These movies draw from similar source material (although that is debated by Tolkien).

Just listen to the opening of “Die Walkure” to hear how Wagner and The Lord of the Rings are connected. His other famous operas include “The Flying Dutchman,” “Tristan and Isolde,” and “Parsifal.”

Richard Wagner was a truly one-of-a-kind character. During his life and for a full generation afterwards (and today), Wagner influenced all of Western classical music because of his use of chromaticism, leitmotifs and the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art music).

Composers throughout Europe and in the Americas fell into two camps: composers that followed Wagner’s musical ideas and those who did not. He was a man whose life was dominated by his music and his single-minded pursuit of his genius and success.

Judging Richard Wagner Is More Complex Than It Initially Appears

As a person who has studied classical music for all of his adult life, I thought Richard Wagner was a musical genius who was a terrible person and a horrific anti-Semite. But as I researched Wagner, I discovered that the truth about this man is complex, confusing and more nuanced than it appears at first.

To start, I agree with Milton E. Brener in his book, “Richard Wagner and the Jews.” Brener says of Richard Wagner, “That he was anti-Semitic is undeniable. One cannot read what he wrote or accounts of what he said and refuse anyone the use of that opprobrious term.”

What put Wagner firmly in the anti-Semitic category was his essay “Judaism in Music,” written in 1850. In this essay, Wagner attacked Jewish practices, composers, and poets, and he disparaged general Jewish culture throughout Europe. In my opinion, this essay is confusing, poorly written and just bad, besides being anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism Has Been Called ‘Typical’ of Richard Wagner’s Era

When you look at the political climate of Germany in 1871, openly anti-Semitic politicians won a few seats and got around five percent of the vote. Although this percentage seems small, it is a sign that if openly anti-Semitic politicians can win seats, then the overall culture has elements of anti-Semitism within it.

In many articles, Wagner’s anti-Semitism has been called “typical” of the time. The New York Jewish Week states, “The Jews of the 19th century thought his music was terrific and, OK, Wagner was anti-Semitic but who in Europe wasn’t?”

Of course, the main problem with Wagner’s “Judaism in Music” and the fact that Wagner then republished it in 1869 was that Wagner put his thoughts and personal prejudices to ink. By publishing an essay that Wagner thought would be a hit, this publication caused more embarrassment than good. It significantly harmed his reputation, even though by that time, Wagner was the most famous opera composer of his day besides Verdi.

In an interesting article from “The Guardian,” writer Adrian Mourby notes, “Had Wagner not written Judaism in Music, his views on Europe’s Jews might have gone with him to the grave.”

In the same article, Alexander Knapp, lecturer in Jewish Music at London University scholar, says, “Wagner was not the only composer to show antagonism towards Jews. Chopin, Liszt and Mussorgsky are also on record as having made comments that could be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

In Part II of this series about separating art from its artist, we will go over Wagner’s (bad) personality, his Nazi connection and meditate on the ultimate question of “Can we separate great art from its creator?” To complete the article, we will decide whose fault it is for his tarnished, racist reputation.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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