Despite my awe of Wagner’s music it was hard to see his face in The Jewish Week (“Before Wagner Was Taboo,” Aug. 2). His genius transformed music. Nike Wagner, his great-granddaughter, aptly said, “How could such a sleazy character, a trickster and a racist, write such wonderful and enduring music?”
As an anti-Semite he was first among equals, decrying the influence of Jews on German culture at a time of nationalistic self-determination, yet employing them to his own benefit. Critical of the success of Meyerbeer in opera and Mendelssohn in symphony and concert music, Wagner absorbed their contributions. His mistreatment of conductor Hermann Levi was typical treatment of Jews at that time, often pressuring them successfully to accept baptism in exchange for professional advancement.
Richard Strauss, on the other hand, was an opportunist. His significant contribution changed nothing. While he was president of the Reich music chamber 1933-‘35, his situation was complicated: his daughter-in-law was classified as a Jew, making his grandsons Jews. He needed to protect them.
Strauss collaborated with Stefan Zweig and attempted to do so even after the Jewish author had fled Europe for his life.