In the concluding scene of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” which will be performed at the Metropolitan Opera this month, the opera’s hero delivers a powerful monologue extolling the virtues of “Holy German Art” in the face of foreign influences. At the 1924 Bayreuth Festival — the first since the outbreak of World War I — the audience leaped to its feet and chanted the first three verses of “Deutschland über Alles.” In response to this interruption, Karl Singer, a conductor who attended the performance, wrote that “a hidden hand has ensured that the aura of the Festival shifts from the artistic to the political.”
That anecdote, which highlights the artistic and political tensions in Wagner’s most popular opera, is related in Brigitte Hamann’s “Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth,” a new biography of Wagner’s British-born daughter-in-law who was in charge of the Bayreuth Festival from 1930 to 1945. Winifred was known as “The First Lady of the Reich,” because of her close friendship with the Fuhrer, who brought the festival to the center of German cultural life during the war. A look at scholarly debates surrounding “Die Meistersinger” reveals how difficult it is to parse out a discussion of the opera from the broad vilification of Wagner as Hitler’s composer.
Perhaps more than any of Wagner’s operas, “Die Meistersinger” is burdened by the legacy of the Third Reich. The sole comedy of Wagner’s mature operas, it tells of a young knight who challenges the musical establishment (represented here by the Mastersingers) and wins himself a bride. Wagner wrote “Die Meistersinger” as a “popular” opera, yet weaved into it arguments about art and politics. In the postwar period, much of the attention paid to “Die Meistersinger” has been motivated by the esteem in which the Nazis held the opera. Goebbels called the work “the incarnation of our Germanness,” and the overture was often performed at Nazi Party congress meetings. Hitler claimed to have seen the work more than 100 times, and demanded that it be performed as a morale booster toward the end of the war.
In the opera, Wagner dramatized his personal struggle with the musical establishment for recognition. By universal consent, the buffoonish character of Sixtus Beckmesser represents the strict traditionalism against which Wagner saw his musically daring aesthetic working. What is less evident is the extent to which Beckmesser is a stand-in for the stereotypical Jew. Indeed, while some have gone back to the libretto in search of clues about Wagner’s antisemitism, others say that the link between the two has been blown out of proportion.
Beckmesser actually has a real-life counterpart: Eduard Hanslick, a conservative Viennese music critic. Hanslick was only nominally Jewish (his mother had converted to Catholicism before he was born), but represented for Wagner everything that was wrong with music criticism — a field dominated mostly by Jews — in the mid-19th century.
In “Music Criticisms: 1846-99,” a selection of his critical writings (edited and translated by Henry Pleasants), he implies that Wagner’s attitude toward the Jews was hardly ideological: “Wagner couldn’t stand a Jew and consequently he developed the habit of regarding as a Jew anyone he didn’t like.”
Less ambiguously, Wagner scholar Barry Millington is convinced that “Anti-Semitism is woven into the [opera’s] ideological framework.” In a 1991 article, “Nuremberg Trial: Is There Anti-Semitism in ‘Die Meistersinger’?” Millington argues that Beckmesser inhabits the “scheming, pedantic and aggressively argumentative” qualities of a stereotypical Jew, and calls Beckmesser’s vocal style “a parody of the Jewish cantorial style.” This line was developed by Marc Weiner, who, in his book “Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination,” argued that in the character of Beckmesser, Wagner dramatizes “the Jew’s inability to understand and to appropriate German art” — part of the composer’s overall argument that Jews can only be second-hand purveyors of culture.
Lydia Goehr, professor of aesthetics at Columbia University and author of “The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy,” said in an interview with the Forward that she finds it unlikely that “Die Meistersinger” — or any Wagner opera — is merely an antisemitic allegory: “If Wagner had really wanted to be antisemitic in his operas, why didn’t he make it more obvious?” she asked. Rather than read antisemitism into the conclusion, she sees it as directed toward the French, from whom the Germans borrowed much culture (with unease). In Wagner’s works generally, she contends, “the Jew less stands for the racial Jew than for the modern, or cosmopolitan.”
Both these elements inform the political argument of “Die Meistersinger,” and even Goehr acknowledged that it is difficult to divorce politics from the work’s aesthetic argument. “Wagner is arguing via aesthetic means for political principles,” Goehr continued. “It’s political in the sense that it’s arguing for notions of freedom, and for the role of art in the culture and for the importance of the revisability of rules.”
She had an answer, as well, for how to deal with the less savory characteristics of the libretto, including the final chorus: “Art is not meant to be there just to make you happy. Go enjoy the music, and realize that sometimes the beauty of the music conflicts with the awfulness of the text.”
A.J. Goldmann is a writer living in New York