Richard Wagner: The Man, the Myth, and the anti-Semitic Music

200 years after his birth, the composer's family and fans remain split on his legacy.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

He was a brilliant composer, a confirmed anti-Semite and an undeniably significant influence on the history of music. And today, he would have been 200 years old.

That man, of course, was Richard Wagner.

“Only Jesus, Napoleon and Hitler had more written about them,” said the German newspaper Die Welt’s culture affairs critic Manuel Brug recently.

Wagner is considered one of the more revered and most vilified composers in the annals of the classical music. He was not only an anti-Semite; his compositions were practically the theme music for the Third Reich. In Israel, he is boycotted.

As the 200th anniversary of his birth approached, a number of books were published on Wagner, one of the more critical volumes being written by his own great-grandson. Gottfried Wagner is a 66-year-old musicologist now living in Italy. In "You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me," he claims that one can discern in Wagner's compositions a deep-rooted anti-Semitism as well as misogyny.

"His works contain a wide diversity of racist and sexist writings," Wagner recently told the AFP. "He developed his own racist theories. Given what we know today, one can no longer ignore the facts and state that ‘this is only beautiful music.’"
Wagner the great-grandson has drawn up a forceful charge sheet against the composer, claiming that the time has come to strip away the idealism that has cloaked the composer for so long.

“I have no interest in besmirching him, but there is nothing to be gained by hiding the truth and by idealizing the man," he said. "People like Wagner should not be immune. I represent a moral stance. I refuse to participate in a soap opera."

Taking his campaign several steps further, Gottfried Wagner is now at odds with other members of the composer's family who manage a prestigious and very popular summer music festival in Bayreuth.

The festival is run by two of Richard Wagner's great-granddaughters, Katharina and Eva. In recent years, they have found themselves embroiled in several scandals, both within their family and in the media. Speaking recently with Die Welle, Germany's international broadcaster, Katharina said that Wagner’s music “embodies the basic elements of human existence – envy, power, love and hate. These are things that will remain forever, as long as humans exist.”

Their cousin living in Italy was less than happy with the lofty words. Gottfried called on Katharina to break the conspiracy of silence and own up to the family's ties with both the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler.

He wants the family to publish the extensive correspondence that took place between Hitler and the Wagner family during the war years, writings that have been long been kept from the public.

Another book by the biographer Joachim Kohler, who has written several volumes about the composer, shows some lesser-known aspects of the composer’s personality: his fondness for headstands and somersaults, his inclination to wear women’s clothing, including silk underwear, purchased in Paris and stashed in a secret room in his house. “There are still many unknown things about Wagner,” Kohler says.

Wagner’s admirers, as expected, are furious at the revelations. The composer died in 1883, 50 years before Hitler came to power, say some of them. Others say that a line needs to be drawn between Wagner's music and his behaviour as a man. The music, they insist, should stand on its own.

“Wagner’s music is like a drug that moves people in fundamental ways,” says German conductor Christian Thieleman. In his book “My Life with Wagner,” the conductor, who also manages the Bayreuth festival, says that Wagner’s music is not political in itself. “A C-major chord is just a C-major chord,” he writes.

But Wagner the great-grandson says that also in music, one must read between the lines. “Wagner used tonality in a very specific manner, not haphazardly," he says. "There is always a message there.”

One of Wagner’s adulators is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, who never misses the Bayreuth festival. The 200-year anniversary celebrations in Germany are not affected by the composer's links to the Nazis, nor those of his family.

A new and elegant collection of discs with Wagner’s music is being marketed these days, along with books, stamps, coins and statuettes. Shops across the country have them on display. In Leipzig, Wagner's birthplace, an ugly statue of the composer has been erected and has received all sorts of criticism for being a terrible likeness.

Leipzig is proud of many talented musicians that are associated with the city, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Robert Schumann. But on a special website created for the 200-year anniversary, it boasts that Wagner is the only great composer to have been born there.

“Richard was a Leipziger," the website announces on its home page. Visitors to the site can follow an interactive map of the composer's footsteps in the city, as well as access information on dozens of local events including concerts, exhibitions and lectures.

A surprising participant in the Wagner celebrations is the Israeli branch of the Goethe Institute

Joining the Wagner celebrations is the Israeli branch of the Goethe Institut. The cultural institution's Hebrew-language website carries interviews with several Israelis who admire the composer. Some, like journalist Noah Kliger, point out Wagner's anti-Semitism, with Kliger writing, " If Wagner had been alive at the time, he would not have opposed Hitler or the murder of millions of people.”

Others, like Professor Gad Kaynar, chair of the theater arts department at Tel Aviv University, simply hail the man's music. Kaynar defines Wagner as “the spiritual father of modern theater,” adding that he “is not responsible for what the Nazis and his own descendants made of him.”

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