Feature Stories Latest

On “Wagner’s Jews”

Renowned musicologist Dr. Leon Botstein discusses Richard Wagner – the man, the artist, the antisemite

By Cindy Mindell

The 19th century German opera composer Richard Wagner was notoriously antisemitic, and his writings on the Jews were later embraced by Hitler and the Nazis. But there is another, lesser-known side to this story. For years, many of Wagner’s closest associates were Jews — young musicians who became personally devoted to him and provided crucial help to his work and career. They included the teenaged piano prodigy Carl Tausig; Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal; Angelo Neumann, who produced Wagner’s works throughout Europe; and Joseph Rubinstein, a pianist who lived with the Wagner family for years and committed suicide when Wagner died. Even as Wagner called for the elimination of the Jews from German life, many of his most active supporters were Jewish — as Wagner himself noted with surprise.

leon botstein for page 3

Dr. Leon Botstein

Who were they? What brought them to Wagner, and what brought him to them? These questions are at the heart of Hilan Warshaw’s documentary, “Wagner’s Jews,” the first film to focus on the composer’s complex personal relationships with Jews. Filmed on location in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, “Wagner’s Jews” tells these remarkable stories through archival sources, visual re-enactments, interviews, and performances of original musical works by Wagner’s Jewish colleagues — the first such performances on film.

The film will be screened on Wednesday, March 11 at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Hilan Warshaw and musicologist Dr. Leon Botstein, who is interviewed in the film. The president of Bard College, music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, and conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Botstein has written extensively on music and culture, including 19th-century Vienna, Jewish European culture, and modernism.

Botstein spoke with the Ledger about Wagner the man, the artist, and the antisemite – and perhaps the most controversial and influential composer of the 19th century.


Q: In his essay, “Richard Wagner’s ‘Jewish Music’: Antisemitism and Aesthetics in Modern Jewish Culture,” published in Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, scholar James Loeffler uses the term “musical antisemitism” to describe Wagner’s particular brand of racism against Jews. How do you describe Wagner’s anti-Jewish worldview?

A: Wagner’s importance transcends musical antisemitism. Wagner was what we would call today an important “public intellectual” in a way that transcended music. He was a powerful cultural force; music was his primary métier but he considered himself a polemicist, a philosopher, and a poet.

His essay, Judaism in Music [also translated as “Jewishness in Music”], which he published first anonymously in 1850 – although everybody knew he had written it – and then again with his own name in 1869, was a very brilliant adaptation of ideas that had been floating around for decades, probably since the early 19th century, and had to do with the fact that many people asserted that Jews were a different race who could not be assimilated into German culture.

The Jews were emancipated in the late 18th century and moved out of ghettoes into German cities and towns and began to assimilate. There were a wide variety of responses: there were those who thought it would be natural for Jews to convert to Christianity – Protestantism, mostly – and disappear. There were those who believed that intermarriage was the route. Then there were those who thought you could modernize Jewish religion in a way that you could simply be a German Jew – that is, instead of going to church on Sunday, you went to synagogue on Friday night and Saturday. You could assimilate in every other way except in your religious beliefs. That required a certain modernization of religious practice in religious Jewish life.

And then there were the people who thought it was just impossible: these were an Oriental, foreign, rootless people who will never become German and will always be a foreign element.

What was innovative about Wagner’s antisemitism was that it took aim at the first generation of successful assimilation. His real object of hate was not a Chassid; was not an obviously different person in the street. It was part of a tradition of antisemitism as an invisible poison in society. The real objects of his hate were people like Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, who became central to non-Jewish culture – one was converted, one was not – and became indistinguishable from other artists and personalities. It was the assimilated Jew, the Jew who looked like everybody else, who was really dangerous because you couldn’t tell that he was poisoning the purity and health of the true German character.

Q: Given Wagner’s Judeophobic belief system, why were so many of his important patrons and supporters Jewish?

A: Wagner was brilliant in putting forth the idea – which was actually shared by many Zionists; that’s why Wagner was so influential to Zionism – that, to be a full human being, you must be an equal constituent citizen of a nation. You can’t be a pariah, you can’t be a second-class citizen, an outsider; you have to be an insider in your own political community.

So, even Herzl loved Wagner and the Jewish composer Ernest Bloch loved Wagner because he represented an ideology of the relationship of the artistic to the national. If Wagner said that Jews could never be truly creative in the European German style, they said, well, we can be creative as our own people, a Jewish national style, with a Jewish homeland.

Wagner was hypocritical about his Jewish supporters: he benefited from them and exploited them. He was a narcissist, he was interested in himself, so he had Jewish acolytes and Jewish patrons and they were made fun of; a lot of satirists made fun of these Jews because of his overt antisemitism.

Antisemitism was so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that for Jews to exclude Wagner’s works would be like an African-American deciding not to read Mark Twain because there is a portrayal of the African-American that is objectionable. We don’t not read Russian literature because of the depiction of the Jew, or the fact that Dostoyevsky and Gogol were antisemites.

So the Jews paid no attention to Wagner’s antisemitism. In 1913, in New York, there was a Yiddish production of [Wagner’s opera] Parsifal in the Yiddish language, by Boris Tomashefsky on the Lower East Side. This was a serious, shortened, distilled, simplified version of Parsifal, but not as a parody. They thought he was a great artist, that this was a great opera and with a fabulously compelling story, and they paid no attention to his theological claim and had a ball putting on their own production.

Q: Why was there acceptance of Wagner’s music among Jews in the first decades of the 20th century, but a present-day ban on performing Wagner’s music in Israel?

A: 1913 is before the Holocaust and before the Nazis. So, what complicated the situation was the enormous and successful appropriation of Wagner by the Nazis. It was tailor-made, and Hitler’s enthusiasm for it, and the enthusiasm of the whole Wagner family for the Nazis. Now, after the Second World War and in the wake of the concentration camps, and you have a Jewish state in 1948, the question becomes very awkward. The ban is voluntary, not legal; there are Wagner scholars in Israel, people buy Wagner recordings. I’ve argued against the ban because it falsifies history. Six million Jews didn’t die in Germany because of Wagner; Wagner had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing. He was one of many, many polemical antisemites. So, the fact is, the ethical and moral responsibility for the extermination of European Jewry does not rest at the feet of Richard Wagner. It rests at other people’s feet; it doesn’t exonerate him but he was dead before Hitler was born.

Does he bear some indirect responsibility for a mode of thinking about race and about Jews? Absolutely. But he shares that distinction with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of intellectuals and artists in Europe.

We don’t turn around the pictures of Degas, but he believed that Dreyfus was guilty and he was an antisemite. The reason I object to the ban is that it gives the wrong message to the Israeli public that in fact one can hold this individual responsible. It short-circuits a real investigation of how such an atrocity was possible.

The other reason the ban was put in place is because Wagnerian music became symbolic of the Holocaust and you wanted to respect survivors. During my tenure as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which was almost eight years, I did not conduct any Wagner and the reason I didn’t was out of respect.

I am not an Israeli citizen. As a foreigner, although a Jew, I am not in the business of giving advice to the Israeli government and it’s not my country. That, I leave to Daniel Barenboim; he’s a citizen of Israel.

Second, out of respect, Wagner doesn’t need any help; he’s very well-represented in the repertory and I didn’t actually think that, given the huge symbolic weight put on it, there was any reason to offend anybody while there are still survivors who are entitled to have a negative reaction and since there’s no constructive agenda to doing the music – the music is not unknown – there was no reason to provoke a controversy for publicity’s sake.

That doesn’t make the ban right. I think this is hypocritical. The Israelis have no difficulty reading and teaching books by antisemites of Wagner’s generation; they have no difficulty doing Carmena Burana – that’s my best example – by Carl Orff, who was really a Nazi sympathizer and wrote offical art for the Nazis. But they don’t have problems doing Carmena Burana; it’s really hypocritical.

Q: You have written that Wagner brought a transformative musical experience to “the ordinary literate middle-class listener as well as members of privileged ruling elites.” Do you think that this “democratization” of music was part of Wagner’s appeal to Jews?

A: In the 1840s, before Wagner really became popular, and certainly before The Ring was written, the Jews were already a very important part of the audience infrastructure in Germany. That goes back to the fact that music was the one gentile cultural form that Jews could embrace without real sacrifice to their religious and cultural tradition.

During the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, the Levite tribe was second to the priestly tribe and those members who were not Cohanim played music in the Temple. Temple music is viewed in Old Testament terms in ways that are parallel with the glory of God, whether it’s the Song of Miriam or music which had a much more troubled history in Christian theology as being related to sexuality, temptation, to sin. None of this is in the Old Testament.

So, for an emancipated Jew to become a musician, to enter the gentile cultural infrastructure through music, was the fastest route to establishing a presence. So, for example, late in the 19th century, the greatest music theorist and a tremendous German cultural chauvinist was a man named Heinrich Schenker, who was an Orthodox Jew and a member of the Jewish community of Vienna, an observant Jew and a towering figure in music theory.

So the tradition of Western music or art music and being Jewish were compatible in a way that becoming a painter or an architect or a writer, even, much less theater, was a little harder. Music was the domestic culture of choice for aspiring middle-class Jews.

Q: Wagner’s 1850 essay, Judaism in Music, attacks the acclaimed German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, one of Wagner’s supporters and mentors. How do you explain this hypocrisy?

A: Giacomo Meyerbeer was a very generous man and helped Wagner. Wagner was one of the worst human beings to ever have entered the public consciousness. He was a liar, a cheat; he was disloyal, he had every possible fault a human could acquire. He was dishonest. There’s nothing admirable about Richard Wagner as a person. He was also insanely competitive and he stole a lot of ideas from Meyerbeer and from Mendelssohn. So, he was like many great artists who want to show themselves to be more original than they were, so they cover their tracks. He covered his tracks with the dirt of antisemitism. He was just a bad guy and it had nothing to do with Jews. Meyerbeer was a great and successful composer who helped him and he envied Meyerbeer.

Wagner was an imitator. The interesting thing about him is that he got a slow start to his career. He was not a child prodigy, which is why he envied Mendelssohn. He was not a child genius, which I admire about him and so it would be hard to look at the symphony which I’ve done several times, and which he reconstructed, and the early operas, which I don’t know very well, but he was a good composer. So, when you look at Rienzi, you see this is a guy who, in his maturity, was pathbreaking, unspeakably original and brilliant in his adaptation of the classical romantic tradition of composition. This is a towering figure of unparalleled influence in the history of music.

Q: Do you believe that Wagner’s music is antisemitic?

A: I have never believed that the music of Wagner is inherently antisemitic. I have never bought that argument. Most people who say that his music is antisemitic end up pointing to characterizations that are antisemitic in The Ring, mostly, and in Die Meistersinger but the argument makes no sense to me. Beckmesser was a parody of academicism. Is it Judaicized academicism? Wagner thought [German composer and Wagner critic Eduard] Hanslick was Jewish [and named an early draft of the opera Hanslich]. Hanslick wasn’t really Jewish; he was maybe from some point of view halachicly Jewish because his mother was born Jewish but she converted to Catholicism before she was married and he was brought up as a Catholic. Is he Jewish? Well, remotely Jewish. Is Beckmesser Jewish? I don’t think so; I think Beckmesser is simply a pedant, an academic pedant. In The Ring, are Alberich and Mime caricatures of East European Jews? Well, the depiction of Jews in Salome by Strauss equally works on a caricature of the Eastern European Jew.

Q: James Loeffler also writes that it is difficult to look at the work of Jewish composers who perished during the Holocaust as anything other than music written by victims. In doing so, we neglect a serious study of the history of Jewish music in Europe. What is your take on this idea of Jewish music history?

A: We always think about the Jewish emigres who survived, like Arnold Schoenberg or Kurt Weil, and we think about the refugees – Lucas Foss, Andre Previn, all of the prominent Jews who survived the war. We forget all the Jews, and the larger number of Jewish musicians, who perished, and not only composers, but players and teachers.

If you take the Holocaust out of the defining way of reading the history, one discovers that, first of all, it’s a very questionable issue whether there is such a thing as “Jewish music” in the European tradition. I’m skeptical. So there are composers who used Jewish material, and that includes Bloch, it includes the St. Petersburg School of Jewish composers. If you look at Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Jewish composers like Schoenberg and Weil, what you discover is that Jews were prominent protagonists of the European musical tradition, indistinguishable from their non-Jewish contemporaries.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Ernest Bloch wrote the Israel Symphony and he wrote Schelomo. European composers and the St. Petersburg School use European musical forms in which to express their national heritage, the same way Bartók did, or Dvorák did, or the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. So there’s nothing exceptional about the Jews turning to what they thought their folk or liturgical heritage was. It’s the same question about, is there a Jewish cuisine. That’s a dubious question. Borsht is an Eastern European food. The difference between the Jewish food and the non-Jewish food is kashrut. But even Chassidism owes a lot to mystical religious revivals in the non-Jewish world. So I’m dubious about finding a thread of Jewishness just because the composers happened to be Jews. First of all, there’s not one way of being Jewish.

Q: Who are some of the composers now being rediscovered and brought back into the classical repertoire?

A: Take Erwin Schullhoff, a Czech composer. Primarily, his true identity as a composer was as a composer with a commitment to communism, to a political ideology. Some of them were very fine composers; there are some very fine composers whose names we don’t know. The Hungarians are a good case: László Weiner, Mihaly Nador – these are composers who were Jews whose names have disappeared. The question is, which of these composers were really terrific composers apart from their having been killed or in some cases persecuted as Jews?

One of the best examples is the German composer Walter Braunfels, who survived, and whose music has been revived now – I’ve done some of his music and James Conlon did his opera, The Birds. These are fine composers, so I think it’s a mistake to segregate them simply into a class of victims. Their place belongs in a continuum of the history of music in Europe. People are always looking for a new repertoire, so I’m doing, for example, in Europe next year a violin concerto by a man by the name of Ignatz Waghalter that is now coming back into prominence. There’s some effort to bring back into the repertoire the better work of these victims.

Q: How did you become involved with Wagner’s Jews and how does the film help us understand Wagner’s time?

A: Hilan Warshaw approached me simply because I’ve written about the question and I’m a scholar of 19th- century and early 20th-century music and because I was active in Israel’s musical life during my tenure as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

The film shows how deep-seated the Jewish question was as a defining aspect of European politics in the 19th century, the enormous duration and significance of antisemitism as a factor in European history, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. That’s the importance of the film – it highlights the significance of Jews and the Jewish question as a factor in European politics and culture.

Wagner’s Jews film screening and panel discussion with filmmaker Hilan Warshaw, musicologist Dr. Leon Botstein and Steven Glassman, executive director of ACLU of CT, led by Cantor Joseph Ness; Wednesday, March 11, 7 p.m., Beth El Temple, 2626 Albany Ave., West Hartford. For more information: (860) 233-9696, bethelwesthartford.org.

Making aliyah, in spite of everything
Stamford’s Rabbi Eugene Borowitz was leading Reform thinker
Billy Crystal on why he loves being Jewish

Leave Your Reply