The Problem with Wagner


As you will recall, Robert Schumann founded and edited the influential music magazine Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. 

Nzm.jpgIn 1850, the Neue Zeitschrift published an essay by a pseudonymous author called “Das Judentum in der Music” (Jewishness in Music), which alleged that Jews, being not only culturally and religiously different, but also biologically — that is, racially — different from gentile Germans, could not contribute to German musical traditions, but only corrupt and dilute them. Furthermore, the author stated, Jews could never fully participate in German society, no matter how many generations their ancestors had been Germans, because of this difference (the full text in English translation can be found here.)

It should be noted that by 1850, Robert Schumann was no longer editing the Neue Zeitschrift.

Ten years later, the author of this vicious essay was revealed to be Richard Wagner.

Some fifty years after Wagner’s death, Hitler supposedly said, “There is only one legitimate predecessor to National Socialism [Nazism]: Wagner.” Hitler frequently used Wagner’s music at Nazi rallies. In the movie The Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda documentary about Hitler’s notorious 1934 Nüremberg Rally, the opening credits are set to a military band playing the “Nibelungen March,” an arrangement of several themes from the Ring Cycle.

Hitler at Bayreuth:

Because of Hitler’s appropriation of Wagner’s music — and Wagner’s own virulent anti-Semitism — there has long been an unofficial ban on performances of his music in Israel. Nevertheless, in recent years, some Israeli musicians have tried to circumvent and defy this ban.

Read: “Barenboim Stirs Up Israeli Storm by playing Wagner.”

Read: “Divorcing Music from Anti-Semitism, Israeli Soprano Takes on Taboo at Wagner Fest.”

Read: “The Case for Wagner in Israel.”

Larry David, in a 2001 episode of his hilarious show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is reprimanded by a stranger for being a “self-loathing Jew” when he’s overheard whistling Wagner.

A Nazi propaganda film of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler conducing the Berlin Philharmonic in the overture to Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for an audience of factory workers in 1942.

Furtwängler, incidentally, was a complicated and controversial figure. While many German musicians, artists, and intellectuals went into exile as a protest against the Nazis, Furtwängler remained. After the war, he was accused of being a Nazi himself, though he never joined the Nazi party, and in fact he had helped many Jewish musicians to escape from Germany. He was tried by the Allies after the war, and defended himself at his trial by saying:

I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does [German novelist] Thomas Mann [who was critical of Furtwängler’s actions] really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.

In our own time, the mass shooter Dylann Roof, who massacred 9 Black churchgoers in an attempt to instigate a “race war” in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently on death row, is said to have gone to his car to listen to Wagner on the radio while he waited to be arrested.


What do you think? Can we separate the art from the man? Should we? Once the music has been written and released into the world, to whom does it belong?




One response to “The Problem with Wagner”

  1. […] Regardless of the relative merits of Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem, can we — should we — regard art as being separate from the artist, as having its own life and mission? (Incidentally, this is a topic we discuss in Music 101 and Music 111: see here, here and here.) […]


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