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Rethinking Wagner and the Holocaust

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admired Wagner’s anti-Semitic ranting and the theme of Germanic exceptionalism in his operas.

It is difficult to reconcile the exquisite beauty of Richard Wagner's music with his vile anti-Semitism, however he can't be blamed for the rise of the Nazis, writes Greg Barns.

Today is the finale of the 2014 Bayreuth Festival in Germany — the annual homage to the music of Richard Wagner that draws crowds from across the globe, highlights the quirkiness (to be polite) of Wagner’s descendants who run the gig and generates the never ending controversy over whether one can separate the anti-Semitic polemicist from the musical genius so obvious in Wagner’s revolutionary operatic scores.

The question of Wagner’s politics and the supposed link to the rise of the Nazi Party in desolate and decaying 1930s Germany looms over this Bayreuth Festival as it has done over all of those held since World War Two.

It is difficult to reconcile the exquisite beauty, the universality and pathos of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin (the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with  that arch intellectual Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting is still unsurpassed in my view) with the man who wrote these vile words:

“If we hear a Jew speak, we are unconsciously offended by the entire want of purely-human expression in his discourse: the cold indifference of its peculiar 'blubber' [German: 'gelabber'] never by any chance rises to the ardour of a higher, heartfelt passion.”

That Hitler fell under the spell of Wagnerian opera from a young age is an historic given.  That Hitler’s henchmen, such as Propaganda Minister Goebbels, admired Wagner’s anti-Semitic ranting and the theme of Germanic exceptionalism in his operas, is also something which we cannot cavil with today.

But where does the constant tension between Wagner the man and inveterate scribbler of some altogether preposterous and offensive pamphlets and essays on the one hand, and the composer who took opera from its traditional setting epitomised by Mozart and his successors such as Rossini, Bellini and the like and turned it into a colossal undertaking which melded philosophical traditions, elaborate historical themes and mythologies into the Ring Cycle?

The Wagnerian paradox for Jewish musicians and those who back classical music in Israel and elsewhere is not something that ought to be dismissed lightly.  The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, himself Jewish, once said he hated Wagner but he hated him on bended knee. Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor, conducted Wagner in Israel in the late 1990s which prompted walkouts and cat calls from some in the audience.

That Wagner’s music is heavily thematic makes it harder to disaassociate the man from the music. But have we reached the end point of this intractable debate?

Could we not accept what the brave Barenboim has said:

“Nevertheless, as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his world views.”

Can we not acknowledge that Wagner’s hostility towards Jews was as much a product of the crass and virulent anti-Semitism that infected Germany for centuries before he came along and Wagner’s own insecurities about that other great 19th century legend Felix Mendelssohn, who was the outstanding composer of the first half of the 19th century?

We ought to acknowledge the abuse to which Wagner’s music was put by the Nazis, appreciate that for some Jewish people and particularly those who witnessed directly or indirectly the hell that was the Holocaust, and that Wagner himself was responsible for abusing his position as an influential cultural figure by further alienating the Jewish people of Germany.

It is, however, a stretch too far to sheet home Hitler’s insanity to Wagner directly.

When we do that we must also open ourselves to the artist that is Wagner of whom music critic Alex Ross wrote:

“No artist is more fanatically loved or more fanatically hated; few people think that Wagner is merely pretty good. Ultimately, the bond that he forms with his listeners is one of pure, wordless emotion, and his gift for capturing the nuances of human feeling constantly complicates our response.”

Wagner is not going away — Australia has celebrated a number of fine Ring Cycle productions in recent years in Melbourne and Adelaide. This is a composer who bestrides the stage as he would have wanted — a man of contradictions, of folly, of seething hatred, of lacerating tongue and thought, but who casts a spell over us in such a way that we are trapped in it forever.

A new dialogue needs to emerge that seeks to reconcile Wagner the man and his music.

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