By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University
Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on German composer Richard Wagner and his music.
Judging Richard Wagner’s character should not be merely based on his anti-Semitic essay, “Judaism in Music.” Throughout Wagner’s life, he wrote many, many letters.
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So what did Wagner’s letters say about him and his character? In a New York Times article about Wagner’s letters, the author notes Wagner’s unsavory character reveals itself: “This volume of Wagner letters should convince anyone that an attempt to make of this genius an admirable human being is a quixotic endeavor.”
One of the most telling aspects of these letters shows that Wagner used people throughout his life. The New York Times further notes “that for Wagner no human relationship had any lasting value; as soon as there was the smallest slip in total subservience, love turned to hate or contempt.”
Wagner Had Unattractive Personality Traits, Including How He Treated Other People
Wagner was notoriously unfaithful. He eventually married Cosima von Bülow (Liszt), who was still married to the famous conductor Hans von Bülow. It was only after Cosima and Wagner had their third child did von Bülow agree to divorce and the two got married.
Later, it was also noted that Cosima would get frustrated with Wagner because he had affairs throughout his life. As screenwriter Allan Leicht stated, “Wagner was a totally amoral individual. He truly loved her [Cosima], but he loved everyone else too.”
Another interesting story of Wagner’s character is how he treated Hermann Levi, the conductor of Parsifal, Wager’s last opera. During the lead-up to the performance, Levi was not treated well.
For instance, there was a dubious anonymous letter that accused Levi of having an affair with Cosima and that Wagner attempted to convert Levi to Christianity. Trying to convert someone to a different religion is not a terribly nice or ethical thing to do, especially for Levi, who came from a strongly religious family.
There was also the issue of Levi conducting “Parsifal,” Wagner’s most personally religious work (similar to a passion play). Wagner did not like that a Jewish conductor was going to lead an opera that meant a great deal to him as a Christian, so he objected to Levi.
Nevertheless, Levi conducted “Parsifal” because he was the conductor of the royal orchestra of Ludwig II and the King was paying the bills. In response, Wagner wrote a letter to the King. Wagner stated that he had many Jewish friends, but also said, “I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble about it. They will be the ruination of us Germans.”
That letter is difficult to read for anyone who loves Wagner’s music. Much like his essay “Judaism in Music,” that letter puts Wagner squarely in the anti-Semitic camp.
To add to this odd situation, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a friend of both Levi and Wagner, hated “Parsifal” because of its religious overtones. Nietzsche had started objecting to Wagner’s music before the debut of “Parsifal” and even wrote about it after Wagner’s death in his essay, “Nietzsche contra Wagner” in 1889.
Richard Wagner, His Art and the Nazi Connection
Wagner is also connected with Hitler and Nazis for several reasons. A New York Times article from 1988 states, “If anti-Semitism had not had such tragic consequences in 20th-century Germany, Wagner’s anti-Semitism would not seem as important as it does.”
Part of Wagner’s association with the Nazis come from his family and from Hitler’s love of Wagner’s music, as well as how Nazis used Wagner’s music. For example, Wagner’s family helped solidify his legacy after he died, and Bayreuth permanently became a place of pilgrimage for opera lovers to visit. This situation allowed Wagner to become the most famous German opera composer of the day.
When Hitler was only 12, he was enamored with Richard Wagner because of the opera “Lohengrin.” Hitler later is said to have realized his destiny “to strengthen and unite the German Reich” by listening to Wagner’s “Rienzi.”
Smithsonian Magazine notes that when Hitler was struggling to be a political figure in the 1920s, “the Wagner family embraced him publicly. When Hitler was imprisoned following the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923, Winifred Wagner, Richard’s daughter-in-law, brought him the paper on which he wrote Mein Kampf.” Later, when Hitler became Chancellor, “Nazi Party events prominently featured Wagner’s music.”
An interesting aspect of Wagner’s music and Nazis is that Wagner was often held in high regard as an example of high German art and nationalism. But Wagner himself was not portrayed as a “Nazi” by the Nazis.
By the end of World War II, the connection between Wagner and the Nazis was solidified and is still strong today. You cannot read an article about Wagner today without his connection of Nazis being part of the dialogue. This Nazi connection is so strong that in Israel, there is still an informal ban on performing Wagnerian music.
The Ultimate Question: Can We Separate Great Art from Its Creator?
Ultimately, can we separate Wagner’s art from the man? For some people, the answer will be “yes.” Others will say “no.”
It is never easy to talk about racism or anti-Semitism. This discussion is especially difficult when a person who dedicated his or her life to great art turns out to be a bad person.
For most, Wagner wrote some of the most amazing operas the world has ever heard. He wrote the longest coherent opera cycle that is still performed and was a true titan of artistic achievement.
Richard Wagner still influences movie music today including the use of leitmotif, which gives the music of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” such depth. It is easy for some music lovers and scholars to separate the man from the art; the art rises above the weakness of the man.
For others, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is unforgivable. Nathan Shields of Mosaic Magazine says, “To many of Wagner’s defenders, the two sides cannot be connected: art is art, and life is life…most of Wagner’s critics contend that no such separation between the man and the art is possible.” Because of his anti-Semitic writings and behaviors during his life and his connection to Nazis after his death, his legacy and his music will forever be tainted.
In an interesting contrast, Anton Bruckner, whose music was also appropriated by the Nazis and was a good man by all accounts, has a mostly positive reputation. However, Richard Wagner has only one person to blame for the tarnished legacy that distracts from the genius of his music…himself.
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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