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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Wisely, the exhibit does not attempt to divine the origins of Wagner’s vociferous anti-Semitism. That said, the composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn do get a well-merited mention as the two main targets of Wagner’s racist tract, “Judaism in Music.” There’s also information about the innovations in synagogue music instigated by cantors Salomon Sulzer in Vienna and Louis Lewandowski in Berlin, well-known figures who Wagner would have had in mind when writing the essay. Additionally, ample space is given to two Viennese journalists who inspired Wagner’s ire. The first, and better known of these is the music critic Eduard Hanslick, who objected to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk aspiration, which he considered fundamentally opposed to music’s pure form. Wagner returned the favor by using the Jewish critic as his model for the buffoonish character of Sixtus Beckmesser in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” his only comedy. The second was Daniel Spitzer, a satirist and feature writer who humiliated the composer by publishing letters to his seamstress that contained absurdly precise instructions about luxurious fabrics, colors and textures. The letters were so popular that Spitzer continued running them even after Wagner was forced to flee Vienna (incidentally, disguised as a woman) because of his mounting debts.

The exhibit shows how Jewish Wagnerism existed in Vienna up until the Third Reich. We learn about many of the Jewish singers and conductors active in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known of these are Bruno Walter and bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr, the Wotan of choice at Bayreuth between 1925 and 1931. Also featured are Wagner enthusiasts like the theater director Emil Geyer (who was shot in 1942 at Mauthausen), modern architect Josef Frank and the musicologist Guido Adler. Stella Junker-Weissenberg’s flapper-era sketches for Wagner costumes are the most fascinating artifacts of this era. And there’s a telling postcard by avant-garde photographer Dora Horovitz, writing to Vienna in 1940 to lament how she misses Bayreuth from her exile in San Jose.

In the final section of the exhibit, video monitors play excerpts from opera productions, movies and TV shows (including the aforementioned “Curb” one), and documentaries, including Stephen Fry’s “Wagner & Me” and Hilan Warshaw’s recent “Wagner’s Jews.” Adorning the walls are well-chosen quotes from various figures weighing in on the debate. Alongside the famous Woody Allen quip, “I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland,” there is a serious reflection by Max Brod, who refused to read Wagner’s racist tracts so as not to “tarnish my pure impression of an exemplary artistic revelation.”

Ultimately, “Euphoria and Unease” establishes that the discussion of how to deal with Wagner’s anti-Semitism — and its consequences — is by no means over. Alongside recent critical scholarship and unorthodox methods of staging Wagner’s operas, “Euphoria and Unease” furthers this iconoclastic approach to Wagner, by examining those Jews who put their belief in a great artist and sworn enemy, and by revealing the contractions and, at times, self-denial that this entailed. There is as little to be gained by turning Wagner into a bogeyman as by holding him up as the be-all-and-end-all of high culture. “We didn’t want to make a tribute to Wagner. If the exhibit is at all a tribute,” said Winklbauer, “then it’s a tribute to all those who used Wagner to help create their own culture.”

A.J. Goldmann is a freelance writer based in Berlin. He is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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