In the last update of this blog I posted the article “Richard Wagner Was Not an Anti-Semite.” I stand by my statements in that article; however, I should have entitled it “Richard Wagner Did Not Discriminate Against Individual Jews.”
It is an established fact that Wagner constantly spoke disparagingly against the Jewish race. There is no excuse for Wagner’s behavior, but the situation is not simple. Hopefully this article, “How Jews Saved The Ring,” will help set the record straight.
Bibliographic references in the following article refer to:
Brener, Milton E. Richard Wagner and the Jews. McFarland & Co., 2006.
Heise, Paul. The Wound that Will Never Heal. http://www.wagnerheim.com.
Richard Wagner had lofty goals in life – he set out to create a new art form, and produce operas that portray the evolution of human consciousness. These goals were too grand for any one person to accomplish, even without opposition, and Wagner did encounter opposition. Most of his life, the ‘establishment’ was either apathetic or actively against him. But he did have help from some.
Among Wagner’s key supporters were King Ludwig, Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, and Wagner’s second wife, Cosima. King Ludwig, Otto Wesendonck, and several others who were not Jewish, gave Wagner the financial support he needed to survive. He could not have gotten along without their help. But to fulfill his mission, Wagner also needed artistic support and production assistance. Ironically, these contributions came almost entirely from Jewish people. Wagner once told King Ludwig in a letter that, although he did not understand why, the only people who were devoted to him and his cause were Jewish (Brener 260).
A handful of Jewish musicians saw something in Wagner that others missed, and because of their assistance The Ring and Parsifal came to fruition.
Wagner’s Strongest Supporters
Kind Ludwig II
“Only Wagner could create the art; but the king could bring it to life” (Brener 187).
Bavaria’s King Ludwig had a personal mission that went beyond ruling his people; he wanted to leave an artistic and philosophic legacy. After seeing The Ring, Ludwig sent Wagner a letter of high praise, “You are the human god, the true artist who has brought the holy fire from heaven to earth …. Fortunate Century that saw this spirit arise in its midst!” (Brener 197). The young king wanted to play an active part in ushering in the new, transcendent, noble, and spiritual art form that Wagner was creating. In this sense, King Ludwig needed Wagner as much as Wagner needed him, and Wagner desperately needed King Ludwig’s financial support.
Shortly after Wagner’s death Ludwig correctly proclaimed, “It was I who rescued him for the world” (Brener 298). The king would pay dearly for this deed. He and Wagner were targets of a great deal of hostility, partly because Wagner was being supported in a lavish style on state funds.
Through the machinations of some of his enemies, the king became known as mad King Ludwig. He was later declared insane based on testimony from four psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met him (Brener 105). He died the day after being taken into custody, under very mysterious circumstances. King Ludwig II may have been quite eccentric, but Brener and many others believe he was anything but mad.
Another of Ludwig II’s goals had been to continue emancipating the Jews, something his father had begun, yet Wagner was generally considered an anti-Semite. Either Ludwig saw in Wagner something that eluded the general population, or else he was a true hypocrite.
Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck
Before King Ludwig, Wagner’s strongest supporters were Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, who gave Wagner and his wife, Minna, a wonderful place to live and work, plus a great deal of financial support.
Mathilde Wesendonck was an intelligent, young, attractive writer, poet and patron of the arts. She also gave Wagner a great deal of the companionship and intellectual stimulation he needed. “Soulmates” would be an appropriate description for their connection. Years after Wagner’s death Mathilde wrote “It is to him alone that I owe all that has been best in my life” (Brener 29).
Wagner probably was physically attracted to Mathilde, but she kept her distance in that respect and was up-front with her husband every step of the way. Fortunately for Wagner, and the rest of us who get to benefit from his operas, Mathilde’s husband, Otto, trusted her and understood and appreciated Wagner’s mission enough to tolerate Richard’s attentions toward his wife. Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde presents an allegory of his relationship with Mathilde.
Minna, Wagner’s wife, was not a partner in his work. She had little to no appreciation for his ideals, and after a passionate beginning their marriage became unhappy. Eventually, Minna intercepted one of the many letters Richard wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck. Although the letter really was not all that ‘hot,’ Minna did not think it possible that Richard and Mathilde could be having a sexless relationship, nor did she like the idea that another woman was supplying her husband with a form of intimate and intellectual companionship that she could not provide. The Wagners soon gave up the home the Wesendoncks had provided, and relocated.
After Minna’s death, Cosima Liszt, Franz Liszt’s daughter, became Wagner’s mistress, and later his wife, mother of his three children, secretary, and hostess. Cosima was totally devoted to Wagner, and gave up both her first husband and her religion (Catholicism) to serve him. But, although she had a certain degree of culture and was knowledgeable about music, she wasn’t in his league. Nevertheless, she played indispensable roles in his life.
Jewish Artists and Philosophers who Provided Wagner Support
Wagner considered himself a philosopher first and a composer second. The man who sparked his interest in philosophy was Samuel Lehrs, an indigent Jewish philosopher whose life and early death are reminiscent of a Puccini character out of La Boheme. Lehrs was instrumental in helping Wagner find inspiration for his operas Tannhauser and Lohengrin. Years later, upon learning of Lehrs’ death Wagner was so devastated that he could not speak for over a week. He said his relationship with Lehrs was one of the most beautiful of his life.
Some critics accuse Wagner of saying this so that he wouldn’t appear to be anti-Semitic, but the facts speak otherwise. Wagner had an important, meaningful connection with Lehrs, as he did with many other Jewish artists who helped him when Wagner was putting together The Ring and Parsifal.
Karl Tausig, a Jewish, 16-year-old boy, was introduced to Wagner by Franzt Liszt, Tausig’s piano teacher. Tausig and Wagner became immediate friends and Wagner, then in a childless marriage with Minna, took a paternal interest in him. As Tausig grew older their close friendship grew into a mature adult relationship. Tausig married and went on to become a successful concert pianist. Despite of Wagner’s ranting and raving about the Jews, their friendship never wavered. When Wagner was having trouble financing his opera festival at Bayreuth it was Tausig who voluntarily took charge of the fund raising. Tausig died at age twenty-nine. Wagner was so distraught he said if it was not for his children and his Bayreuth theater project his life would have lost all meaning.
Josef Rubinstein was a very talented but despondent Jewish, 25-year-old pianist who sought out Wagner, hoping to assist in the production of The Ring. Rubinstein told Wagner that the day he discovered The Ring had been the happiest day in his life, but that since then he had become despondent and had even attempted suicide. Wagner accepted Rubenstein’s offer of assistance. In spite of occasional friction, they became very close friends. Josef helped out not only with such tasks as copying musical scores but also by frequently entertaining Wagner and Cosima with piano performances.
Rubinstein’s father was concerned that by serving Wagner his son was losing out on the opportunity to establish a position for himself in life. Wagner wrote a nice letter to the father reminding him that this approach had not worked in the past and likely would not in the future. Wagner continued, “In him the recognition of the essence and the value of true art has grown to a truly religious belief, rooted in his soul where it has engendered a sensitivity that amounts to a passion.” And with that he suggested that the father let his son continue “in the service of a noble cause” (Brener 254). The father ceased attempts to change his son’s mind. Author Brener believes Wagner was afraid Rubinstein might commit suicide if he had to give up his work on The Ring. Two years later Wagner died. A year and a half later Rubinstein ended his own life with a bullet.
Heinrich Porges was a 26-year-old Jewish man who was interested in philosophy and music, but whose real talent was editing and writing on the subject of music. He did a favor for Wagner by having him direct benefit concerts in Prague. Through some creative, but up and up, financing, Wagner made some money on the deal and never forgot Porges’ favor. More of these concerts followed in other cities. Several of these were before largely Jewish audiences. Friedrich Nietzsche made the remark, “The Semitic races show greater understanding of Wagner’s art than the Aryan ones” (Brener 90).
After King Ludwig became Wagner’s benefactor and money was no longer an issue, or not the major problem it had been, Wagner asked Porges to be his secretary. Porges declined the formal offer but continued on as a freelancer. He was kept busy working on the copying of the original score of The Valkyrie; writing an introduction to Tristan and Isolde, which involved its psychology and ethics; being the arts editor of a newspaper which was set up to give voice to Wagner’s ideas; writing Wagner Rehearsing the Ring, Wagner’s way of leaving detailed instructions for future conductors to properly conduct The Ring; and the training of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal, which contradicted Wagner’s rants about “the inability of the Jews to understand acting, singing, or art in general” (Brener 246). For over nineteen years, until Wagner’s death, he and Porges were very close, artistically, business wise, and personally.
Long after Wagner’s death Porges wrote in a letter “Such demoniac personalities (as Wagner) cannot be judged by ordinary standards. They are egoists of the first order, and must be so, or they could never fulfill their mission” (Brener 147).
Angelo Neumann was a Jewish tenor who decided to give up singing for opera management and directing. He thought so highly of Wagner’s operas that he wanted to promote them all over Europe, such a huge undertaking at that time that many considered the mere thought of it to be ridiculous. Nevertheless, Neuman succeeded, bringing fame and money to Wagner. Although they did have a brief falling out, they got over it and their relationship lasted until Wagner’s death.
Hermann Levi, a leading conductor in Germany, was Wagner’s choice to conduct Parsifal, although at the beginning there was controversy over a Jew conducting a Christian opera (Brener 281). Wagner grew to respect Levi, both the man and the conductor, so much that he called him his alter ego for the performances of Parsifal. Whatever decisions he made concerning the opera, were fine with Wagner. For Wagner, who was so obsessed on keeping control of all the details, this was the ultimate compliment.
Levi’s father was a rabbi and did not have a very good opinion of Wagner due to his many anti-Semitic remarks. In response to his father’s feelings Levi wrote the following letter:
“You certainly can and you should (like Wagner). He is the best and noblest of men. Of course our contemporaries misunderstand and slander him. It is the duty of the world to darken those who shine. Goethe did not fare any better. But posterity will one day recognize that he was just as great a man as an artist, which those close to him know already. Even his fight against what he calls ‘Jewishness’ in music and in modern literature springs from the noblest motives. That he harbors no petty anti-Semitism like some country squire or Protestant bigot, is shown by his behavior toward me, toward Joseph Rubinstein, and by his former relationship with Tausig, whom he loved dearly. The most beautiful thing I have experienced in my life is that I was permitted to be close to such a man, and I thank God for it every day.” (Brener 274)
Levi and the others who dedicated their lives to serving Wagner and his cause, with the possible exception of Rubinstein, where not groupies or insecure people; they were highly talented artists who recognized what others failed to see. That these artists were all Jewish only adds to the paradox.
Wagner constantly bad-mouthed the Jewish race. But a clear distinction has to be made between his treatment of individual Jews and his comments about the race itself. There’s no evidence that Wagner ever looked down on a person, or refused to help a person because they were Jewish. (I have been accused of nitpicking when I have brought up this distinction, but it’s a valid one, and rooted in my own experience. It reminds me of my experiences as a young man, a Catholic with adult friends who fervently bad-mouthed my religion. They did not dislike me because of my religion, and I did not dislike them because of their bigotry … although I did think it was strange that they had nothing better to dwell on.) Wagner treated individual Jews with the greatest respect. I do not say this to justify his attitude toward them collectively, as there is no excuse for the derogatory remarks with which Wagner assailed the Jewish race. Wagner may have been an artistic genius, but he had his share of human faults. His task was so immense that the pressures it brought had to make him more susceptible to his weaknesses – but that does not excuse him.
In his book Richard Wagner and the Jews, Milton E. Brener gives us insights into Wagner, the man, and looks at information that is usually overlooked by musicologists, scholars, and critics. Many, if not most, of Wagner’s close friends were Jewish, and they truly respected him as a person and believed in his ideals. It is difficult to understand or explain this dichotomy of Wagner’s, but Franz Liszt, an avid anti-Semite, perhaps expressed it best. He said, “What Wagner means when he says ‘Jew’ is actually a cultural philistine” (Heiss 143). This certainly does not excuse Wagner for his crudeness but if it is an accurate portrayal it indicates Wagner included non-Jews in this category: that he was referring to people of all walks who did not take, as he saw it, a higher purpose in life seriously. My opinion is that Liszt was partially right. Wagner’s belief that genetics had an influence on the Jewish mentality also entered the picture. Wagner was not always consistent in his remarks.
Brener does an excellent job of bringing these relationships with Wagner to life. It is clear that without the assistance of these Jewish artists The Ring would never have been created. Throughout his book Brener, like Heinrich Porges (mentioned above) asks the question, could Wagner have completed his mission without all the negativity? I take this to mean that Brener, considering Wagner’s genius, feels Wagner’s behavior was inevitable, perhaps even excusable. But is it a case of having to take the bad with the good? Today, the common way of tolerating Wagner’s crudeness is to try to separate the music from the man. But if we really get to know and understand Wagner, is this necessary?
The one thing, besides his verbal ranting and raving about the Jews, that caused Wagner the most trouble, was the article he wrote entitled “Judaism in Music.” Brener agrees with most other critics that it is an obvious and obnoxious example of anti-Semitism, which, in light of Wagner’s respect for, his friendship with, and the admiration of his Jewish colleagues, seems contradictory. However, when we take an in depth look at “Judiasm in Music,” there is another side to the story. In the next posting on this blog I will delve into this article in order to try to understand Wagner better.