Why Jews Stood Up for Richard Wagner

Anti-Semitic Composer Inspired Both Hitler and Herzl

Austria or Bust: The exhibit shows how Jewish Wagnerism existed in Vienna until the Third Reich.
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Austria or Bust: The exhibit shows how Jewish Wagnerism existed in Vienna until the Third Reich.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published February 27, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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There’s an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David is caught whistling Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” to his wife in front of a movie theater. A hysterical and unhinged nudnik accosts him, spouting the common litany of charges against Wagner (“history’s biggest anti-Semite,” “millions of Jews marched to the gas chambers with Wagner’s music playing”). While clearly satirical in intent, the “Curb” moment does illustrate the polarizing effect of Wagner’s music on Jewish listeners (and non-listeners).

Perhaps the best-known example of this is in Israel, where musicians uphold a boycott on performances of the composer’s music despite some recent attempts to break it. (It will be interesting to see how Israel marks Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday later this year. Although a less public anti-Semite than Wagner, Strauss had uncomfortably close relations to the Third Reich, both lending his cultural prestige to the Third Reich and profiting from its patronage.)

While it is well known that there are many Jewish Wagnerians — including two of today’s leading Wagner interpreters, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim — one might not be aware of just how far back the Jewish fascination with Wagner’s music and, at times, even his ideology, goes. The role played by Jews in the establishment and furthering of the Wagner cult in late 19th and early 20th century Vienna is the topic of a “Euphoria and Unease: Jewish Vienna and Richard Wagner,” on view at the Vienna Jewish Museum until March 16.

As curated by Andrea Winklber, the exhibit deals with many of Wagner’s well-known Jewish enthusiasts, including Gustav Mahler and Theodor Herzl (both avid Wagnerians) as well as figures less remembered today, like Victor Adler, founder of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. While Wagner was being harnessed by right-wing ideologues, Adler read socialist messages into Wagner’s operas, in which he found an outpouring of sympathy for the proletariat.

As one of the most musically important German-speaking cities in Europe, Vienna quickly became one of the foremost centers of Wagner adulation. The Wagner Societies that sprung up in the city as early as 1871 (in other words, during the composer’s own lifetime) had numerous Jewish members and patrons.

Figures like composer Karl Goldmark, poet Siegfried Lipiner, and industrialist Friedrich Eckstein would meet at a vegetarian restaurant (in deference to the composer’s dietary preferences) to discuss the Master. Eckstein even made a pilgrimage on foot to Bayreuth for the 1882 premiere of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final and arguably most ideologically suspect opera.


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