Wagner Didn't Hate All Jews, Just 'Bad' Ones, Argues Israeli Scholar

The legendary German composer wasn't quite the anti-Semite people think, says Irad Atir, whose PhD paper was praised by Yad Vashem.

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Richard Wagner wasn't an anti-Semite who hated every Jew because he was Jewish, says Irad Atir, who recently completed his doctorate on the controversial German composer. At worst, Wagner was a special kind of anti-Semite.

“His opposition to Jewishness was part of his opposition to the sociopolitical and cultural reality of the period in general, including the non-Jewish German reality," Atir says. "He criticized certain aspects of Germanism; for example, the conservatism, religiosity, pride in aristocratic origins, and militarism. He also criticized Jewish separatism and lust for money. For him, there were good Germans and bad Germans, good Jews and bad Jews.”

According to Atir, the only way to understand Wagner’s art, which expresses political, sociological and musicological ideology, is to approach it neutrally. The usual link between Wagner, racism, anti-Semitism and Hitlerism should be ignored.

What's the main new element in your theory?

“All the research done so far – and it's plenty – has viewed dealing with Judaism in Wagner's operas as something marginal. But research paid more attention to this after the war, after 1945, because the Jewish issue was very sensitive. I argue that [Wagner’s] dealing with Judaism as the other – complementary – side of his dealing with Germanism is prominent in all his important operas. A possible explanation for this is that Wagner, a non-Jewish composer, knew and worked with more Jews than any other significant composer. He also suspected he was half Jewish. The detailed research I’ve done on this obsessive preoccupation shows that Wagner's attitude toward Jews and Judaism was complex and changing. It certainly wasn't just hatred.”

As a musician, you base your theory on Wagner’s complex attitude toward Germanism and Judaism on Wagner’s operas as musical dramas. Can this theory be arrived at by scrutinizing Wagner’s writings and libretti without the music?

“This can be concluded, and I show that the musical research underscores and clarifies this thesis. Even Wagner's much-maligned essay 'Das Judenthum in der Musik’ ends by calling for a unification of German and Jewish culture, not destruction or conversion. To my mind, Wagner’s call succeeded that by Beethoven for universal brotherhood in his Ninth Symphony, setting to music the words of [German poet Friedrich] Schiller that ‘all men will be brothers.’”

According to your research, Wagner even expresses a positive attitude toward Judaism in his operas.

"He points out and alludes to Jewish characters; for example, through text that contains sibilant consonants in the case of Alberich and his brother Mime in 'The Ring.' The most important example of a positive attitude, or at least a complex one, is taken from 'The Ring.' The character who must be understood as Jewish – I explain why it must be so through musical analysis as well – is the character Loge, the god of fire. He is cunning but also acts in a positive way, helping good people; a Jew who has undergone change. The music associates him with the German world and the Jewish world. Sometimes it's gratingly chromatic compared to the accepted mid-19th century taste, and sometimes it's different, expressing purity.

"It's important to stress that if Wagner had wanted to express a one-dimensional attitude of hatred of Jews, he would obviously have created a single Jewish character as a caricature. The fact that he attached Jewishness to a number of different characters in his operas shows that his approach to Jews was not one-dimensional.

“Another example: the Rhinemaidens mock Alberich, an ugly ‘Jewish’ character, although he committed no crime against them. The 'dark' world within Alberich turns to evil only after the ‘good’ world has hurt him without cause. That means the ‘good’ world also contains elements of evil.

"Wagner sometimes expresses in music his criticism of the German reality by linking tonal, banal music – sometimes with a sense of violence and power, a kind of whipping of the emptiness – to unjustified arrogance. By the way, Wagner twice refused to sign an anti-Semitic petition demanding restrictions on Jewish rights, which was presented to Chancellor Bismarck. And from 1942 the Nazis themselves banned the performance of some of his operas.”

Wagner’s attitude toward Felix Mendelssohn figures centrally in your work.

“True. I show that despite Wagner’s criticism of Mendelssohn in his essay ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik,’ he wrote that Mendelssohn’s works expressed great talent, but they couldn't touch the depths of the soul because of his Judaism, because Jews don't have the ability to create real art.

"But Wagner was an admirer of Mendelssohn. In his youth he wrote with enthusiasm about Mendelssohn’s oratorio ‘St. Paul,’ and Wagner in his operas quoted famous Mendelssohnian motifs and used Mendelssohnian themes that the audiences of his day knew. And he used them not necessarily to identify Jewish characters.”

Are the quotations of the Mendelssohnian motifs significant?

“Of course. Wagner didn't lack innovation; he didn't lack melodies.”

Is Mendelssohn’s presence in Wagner’s work prominent in other studies?

“Hardly at all. A scholar named Larry Todd mentions it in a marginal way.”

What are the most outstanding quotations of Mendelssohn’s music in Wagner’s operas?

“Before I respond, it’s important to stress that Mendelssohn penetrated Wagner’s operas both in quotations of motifs and in technique, an influence that only professional musicians can uncover. His influence was deeper than just the mention of some melody. As for the melodies, the most important examples are the overture of ‘Das Rheingold’ in a quotation from Mendelssohn’s ‘The Fair Melusine’ – and after all, there is no greater symbol of Germanism than the Rhine.

"In addition, the motif of ‘the announcement of the death”’ in ‘The Valkyrie’ is taken from the opening theme of Mendelssohn’s 'Scottish Symphony,' and in the famed ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ there's a similarity to Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal's Cave’ written in the exact same scale. In ‘Parsifal,’ the motif of the Holy Grail quotes the first part of the 'Reformation Symphony' and the motif of the goddess of love, Freia, in ‘The Ring’ is the theme of the 'Wedding March' from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”

Atir, 30, studied piano at the Tel Aviv Conservatory of Music; he has also conducted and composed. He holds an MA in musicology from Tel Aviv University and in June his PhD paper won an award from Yad Vashem's International Institute for Holocaust Studies.

He has admired Wagner’s operas since he was a teenager. As part of his research, he attended the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, were he saw six different productions of operas by Wagner, including “The Ring,” “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg” and “Parsifal.”

Answering the expected question about the possibility of performing Wagner’s operas in Israel, Atir says he doesn't approve of an event that hurts the feelings of Holocaust survivors. Still, these feelings are affected by misinformation.

“It's reasonable that Israelis, when asked what 'Wagner’ says to them, will say he’s a Nazi – even though he died six years before Hitler was born," Atir says. "I hope my research will provide new information that will change feelings.”

"The Ring of the Nibelung" being performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Credit: AP
Irad Atir. "I hope my research will provide new information that will change feelings.”Credit: David Bachar

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