Richard Wagner inspires visceral reactions, with listeners tend to either love him or hate him. His well-known anti-semitism need not have anything to do with it either: his music itself–its vaulting ambition, its intensity, its ferocious sonic power–demands a reaction. But in Alex Ross‘ subtly provocate essay on Wagner’s magnum opus, the "Ring" cycle–which the Met Opera is half-way through overhauling, in the most expensive production in its history–argues that anti-semitism may end up saving the composer.
How so? Ross argues that for more than a century after the peak of Wagner’s career, in the mid-1800s, Wagner inspired a god-like awe among opera fans. Of course that was an affect that Wagner shrewdly cultivated hiimself. But it was not until after the Holocaust that musicologists started to highlight Wagner’s blatant anti-semitism–most ignominiously professed in his vile essay "Jewishness in Music," published in 1850. It did not help that Hitler worshipped at the composer’s alter either.
This emphasis over the last fifty years has made Wagner’s rank bigotry overshadow his music. But, as Ross writes, there is very little in his music, and virtually nothing in his mythic Norse legend-inspired "Ring" cycle, that suggests his hatred of Jews. Instead, listeners have retroactively tried to read into his inscrutable allegorical operas latent signs of hate.
Ross is not excusing Wagner’s anti-semtism, and for those who have read Ross’ magnificent history, "The Rest Is Noise," know he is outraged by past composers’ dalliances with anti-semitism and fascist powers. But what he suggests in his current New Yorker essay is that that awareness of Wagner’s ant-semitism has served to knock him off the mythic pedestal he built for himself. Because we know that Wagner is not perfect–in fact, leaps and bounds from it–we can approach his music with the critical attention that was denied him both when he was revered as a god, and subsequently reviled as a demagogue.
I found most moving in the piece Ross’ interview with Christoph von Dohnanyi, the legendary former Cleveland Orchestra conductor. Hitler put his father, a Christian German, into a concentration camp after it was discovered that he was part of the anti-Nazi German resistance movement led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After two years in a camp, he was executed alongside Bonhoeffer in 1945.
"I don’t blame any Jewish person, not any, who would say, ‘Wagner’s music might be great, but I don’t want it,’" he tells Ross. "My father was in a concentration camp, and they played Wagner when they put them in the gas chambers. And even before, many gebildete people–educated people–did not care for Wagner because he stood for something ugly. My family loved Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. When I first conducted Wagner, my mother said, ‘I only come because you do it!"
Then, Dohnanyi explains why he continues to love Wagner’s music anyway. "When I really think about Wagner I don’t discover anything that had to lead to Hitler. … Wagner abused power but hated the state. And that hatred is at the heart of this huge intellecutal conception of absolultely Shakespearean genius."