Why we must keep talking about Wagner and antisemitism

Bicentenary celebrations have re-invigorated the ‘Wagner question’ around the world. Jeff Busby

As part of the wave of Wagnermania currently sweeping Melbourne — including Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle and a month-long Ring Festival — a symposium titled Wagner and Us will take place at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music on December 5-8.

It will explore the ongoing cultural, political and historical significance of the German composer, and the difficult questions surrounding his antisemitism will be on the agenda.

Richard Wagner is perhaps the most controversial composer in the history of Western art and his music and ideas have provided plenty of fodder for both public and scholarly debate. In 2013 – 200 years after his birth – he continues to be the subject of heated discussions and arguments.

Indeed, the bicentenary celebrations have re-invigorated the “Wagner question” around the world, and prompted dozens of new (and often controversial) interpretations of Wagner’s operas.

Wikimedia Commons

As always, the composer’s infamous antisemitism has been a frequent topic of discussion in the media and a number of new productions have made reference to it.

In May, a Düsseldorf production of the opera Tannhäuser was cancelled after audiences were deeply upset by scenes depicting people dying in gas chambers.

Wagner’s antisemitism is inescapable for anyone thinking about Wagner and his legacy in the 21st century – yet the issue remains surrounded by misconception and ambiguity, particularly in the public sphere.

Judaism and music

In 1850, Wagner pseudonymously published an essay called Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music, or Jews in Music) in a German music journal. The work was a lengthy antisemitic diatribe against Jewish composers who, according to Wagner, were inherently unable to produce true art.

The Melbourne Ring Cycle. Jeff Busby

Jews, Wagner argued, were incapable of authentic artistic expression because they lacked a nation and culture of their own. Although they could be clever and industrious imitators, they would never be capable of pure artistic inspiration.

Although many scholars have argued the essay was simply a product of Wagner’s jealousy over the success of Jewish opera composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer, the ideological framework supporting Wagner’s accusations was clearly well thought-out; it was not a spontaneously conceived argument that Wagner would come to regret.

In fact, it was later re-published under his name and translated into other languages.

Hitler and the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner’s writings on Jews in music are not particularly well known by the general public. Most people make the connection between Wagner and antisemitism because they know he was Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer and that there were strong ties between Hitler and the Bayreuth Festival, a Wagner festival run by the composer’s descendants that continues to this day.

Hitler in 1937. Wikimedia Commons

The Third Reich’s appropriation of Wagner’s music for political purposes has tainted the music for many potential listeners, and the furious debate that rages in Israel over an unofficial ban on live performances of Wagner’s music tends to obscure the facts.

We know Hitler was enamoured with Wagner’s music from a young age and that he maintained close ties with Winifred Wagner (Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law) and the Bayreuth Festival – but there’s no evidence to suggest Hitler was directly inspired by Wagner’s ultra-nationalist and antisemitic ideology.

Some scholars see Wagner’s ideas as a clear precursor to Nazism, whereas others warn against blaming Wagner for historical developments that took place after his death.

Such debates feed into another question that arises from discussions of Wagner and antisemitism, one which has been relegated mostly to academic circles: is there antisemitism in Wagner’s music?

Antisemitic music?

A number of musicologists have argued characters such as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, Alberich and Mime in The Ring, and Kundry in Parsifal are Jewish caricatures who are musically depicted in an antisemitic light.

Although this is a scholarly debate that involves close examination of the music, it effectively comes down to the question of whether we think it necessary to separate the man from his music, or whether we see his personal views and ideology as being embedded in his art.

The Melbourne Ring Cycle. Jeff Busby.

Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring Cycle does not grapple with questions related to antisemitism in any direct way – and that may be a relief for those who simply enjoy the music and are sick of the polemics that follow Wagner’s music around the globe.

Yet the very fact The Ring is being performed in a city with a significant Jewish community – and one that is largely made up of Holocaust survivors and their descendants – makes it imperative that we ask these questions, even if we cannot agree on answers.

The problem of Wagner and antisemitism goes to the heart of a much broader question about music and politics, and whether music has a role to play in the great moral dilemmas of our time.

And that is a question that should concern us all, Wagnerians or not.


A roundtable on Wagner and antisemitism will form part of the Wagner and Us symposium, jointly hosted by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Richard Wagner Society in Melbourne, December 5-8. For further information, visit http://wagnerandus.com.au


Further reading:
Explainer: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen
Wagner’s Ring Cycle works people up – but why?
The Melbourne Ring Cycle is a once in a century celebration
Should we fund Wagner operas or statues of Kyle Sandilands?