Richard Wagner's Bicentennial Sparks Effort to Split Music and Anti-Semitism

Hitler's Favorite Composer Gave Himself Black Eye With Bias

Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.
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Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.

By Reuters

Published January 27, 2013.
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“It’s never been a Wagner city,” he said in a telephone interview. “And I’m sure it won’t be better after this year is over.”

Music critic Barry Millington, whose book “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth” adds to a bibliography some say makes Wagner the third most written-about person in history, after Jesus and Napoleon, says there is no extricating him from his anti-Semitism.

“I’m attacked by the Wagnerians who think I am dragging him through the mud…They want the Wagner experience to be in this idea-free zone, they want to erect a firewall between the music and the ideology and you can’t. Wagner’s music is rooted in the ideology. That for me is what makes it fascinating,” the British author said.

Wagner’s infamous 1850 essay “Judaism in Music”, published at first under a pen name and some 20 years later under his own, took vile swipes at contemporary Jewish opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and the converted Mendelssohn, depicting them and other Jews as “a swarming colony of maggots” feasting on the carcass of German culture. The rants continued unabated right up to Wagner’s death in a Venice palazzo in 1883.

“Anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of the music of Wagner,” Millington said.

Another view comes from Hamburg-based author Joachim Kohler, one of whose books, called “Wagner’s Hitler, The Prophet and His Disciple” in English, struck a raw nerve with Wagnerians. Kohler, in an interview in his flat, said he had changed his opinion and now saw Wagner’s anti-Semitism as an adjunct of his artistic mind, not as a scenario for which Hitler and the Holocaust were the inevitable last act.

“Yes, I made a mistake…so I revised and I came to the conclusion that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not political, it was theatrical,” Kohler said.

“And the proof that he had not deep-rooted anti-Semitism against people, it was just an idea against people, is that he had so many Jewish friends.” One of them, Kohler said, was the impresario Angelo Neumann whom Wagner, sick with the expense and trouble of the place, wished would buy Bayreuth.

Kohler’s latest book, entitled “The Laughing Wagner” in German, paints an altogether different picture of Wagner from the grim anti-Semite. Wagner, who stood just over 168 cm, or 5-1/2 feet tall, enjoyed cracking jokes and stood on his head when welcoming the visiting Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil to Bayreuth for the festival’s opening in 1876.


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