Richard Wagner's Anti-Semitism

The question of what constitutes music has been a contentious point among musicologists throughout history. Today’s discussions tend to question if pieces like John Cage’s “4’33”, a whopping four and half minutes of silence, can be considered music. Discourse did not always revolve around harmless debates such as this, however. Richard Wagner considered one of the most influential composers thus far, once decreed that music created by Jews was in fact “not music”, as all music must be supported by a composer’s culture, which he asserted Jews did not have. This assertion was likely an innocuous façade for his belief that Jews were responsible for inhibiting Europe’s development. Wagner failed to reject the label and manipulation purported of the Jews at the time and fell victim to a stupefying hatred.

Wagner may have disguised his anti-Semitism with a pseudo-intellectual musical dogma, but a deeper look reveals the fact that he was simply extremely racist. In his 1850 essay Jewishness And Music, he attempts to deal with the “involuntary repellence” Germans held for the “nature and personality” of Jews. Involuntary repellence suggests something of genetic nature, which is a common anti-Semitic trope; many believed that Jews were genetically inferior and must be purged. This idea is significantly different from the one proposed earlier about Jewish culture. Wagner continues to reveal his true reasons for his musical assertion: Mosaic Magazine writes that Wagner described Jews as “foreign, legalistic, and usurious”. These are again typical stereotypes propagated by anti-Semites. Wagner accepted the xenophobic slander and recited it in his essay. A deeper look at Wagner’s Jewishness And Music essay exposes the specific propaganda that led him to his virulent conclusion.

While Israel never officially banned Wagner’s music, they have understandably rejected and protested most prospective performances of it; his operas have never been performed in the state. It is worth noting, however, that this unofficial ban was not always commonly supported and was exacerbated by the events of World War II. Hitler used Wagner’s music extensively, furthering the music’s relationship with anti-Semitism. From then on, the performance of Wagner’s work has been of great controversy, though there is a fair split in opinion. The opposition to Wagner’s music has been the historically stronger side, evident in the shutdowns of prospective Wagner performances due to protests. The last significant performance attempt was at Tel Aviv in 2012, but as expected could not fare through the protest. On the other hand, there are many who are active proponents of Wagner’s music in Israel. An Israeli orchestra performed one of Wagner’s works in Germany, acknowledging that the composer’s views were intolerable but that it was important to separate art from the creator. This view reflects that of aestheticism, suggesting that art is not inextricable to its creator and must be viewed without prejudice. There is no objective way of asserting this view over any more political view and vice-versa, however. It is simply a matter of preference, and communities must come to their own conclusion.

Wagner acquired his anti-Semitic tendencies through the grapevine, moving on to imbue them into his music and writings. His essay criticizing Jews and Jewish music are rife with stereotypes and unsubstantiated claims. While Hitler’s reign escalated the Jewish opposition of Wagner’s music, it is still the product of a protest against those who instigated World War II and wrought its destruction. The current Israeli response to the debate on whether Wagner’s music is that of rejection, but as time heals the wounds of the past, forgiveness may allow the Wagnerian song to sound once more.

07 July 2022
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