Jewish Political Studies Review
Productions of his operas filled houses from Seattle to Buenos Aires, and the great companies of Europe and the United States vied to present ever grander stagings of the colossal hour cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.
At a time when so many preeminent musical institutions are collapsing into bankruptcy or labor disputes, Wagner is one institution that seems to endure. Wagner has always been remarkable not only for the breadth but for the depth of his impact, a depth that can be measured both by the intensity of the devotion that his works inspire and by the fact that his devotees have included many of the intellectual and political elite of Western society.
At the root of the fascination and devotion that Wagner commands is the immersive, captivating power of his works, a power that has no exact parallel in the history of the arts. His early admirers found themselves reaching, time and again, for language of a revealing erotic or religious intensity.
We encounter his operas not as spectacles that we contemplate from afar, but as a world into which we enter and which threatens at times to subsume us.
And not only the 19th century. Those enraptured by Wagner have not been limited to artistic luminaries like Baudelaire or Marcel Proust. They also include, notoriously, a frustrated painter from Linz, a man who would one day bend the full resources of a modern industrial nation toward effacing the Jews from the canvas of Europe.
What is at issue, fundamentally, is how we connect, if we can connect, these two sides of him. This position is neatly summed up in the dichotomous title of a book by M. Approached this way, the Wagner question would seem to be one instance, if the most extreme and dramatic instance, of a more fundamental question: Is music pure, inhabiting a realm of transcendent form beyond the corruption of politics?
Or does the taint of guilt—the guilt of the everyday world, with its struggles for power, its cruelty and barbarism—fall on music as well? But Wagner resists reduction to such generalities. It is not only the passions brought to the debate, but the very terms in which it is framed, that prevent his defenders and detractors alike from seeing him clearly.
This is both because the moral question asked about him is unlike any other moral question, and because his art itself is unlike any other art. Wagner and Hitler The passions surrounding Wagner are nowhere more evident than in Israel, where his name is so inflammatory that, at least until recently, his music has been the subject of a de-facto ban.
Last year, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra marked the anniversary of his birth with a compromise: One such image can be readily found on YouTube: And there is another image, scantily attested yet tenaciously adhered to, of the same music serenading inmates on their way to the gas chambers.
And the problem runs deeper. For even if all of these stories were true, what conclusions could we draw from them? Instead, the tales surrounding Wagner are externalizations of a more serious argument: This argument hinges on two questions.
And second, what does the answer signify for our understanding of his music? The first question is a matter of historical record.
The second, more intractable, turns in part on what we take to be the fundamental relationship between art and politics. They are best taken up one by one. The Man and His Views The outsized fascination that Wagner has held for so many is due in part to the fact that he was not only an artist but an intellectual, and one who reflected on the nature and goal of his work with a brilliance and a singleness of purpose that have few parallels in the history of the arts.
Defying the conventional division of labor between librettist and composer, he wrote the texts for his own operas, which he endowed with a literary and philosophical seriousness that has few precedents in the genre.
His works themselves constitute not just an artistic world, but a worldview.Approached this way, the Wagner question would seem to be one instance, if the most extreme and dramatic instance, of a more fundamental question: the question of the morality of art, and more specifically the morality of music, the most abstract of the arts.
Richard Wagner, the most repugnant of musical nationalists, has become an unlikely poster child for culturally progressive Israelis. Perhaps a question behind the one you asked is “why does Wagner’s anti-semitism get talked about so much?” And to this I say: m This page may be out of date.
Israel’s embassy in Warsaw on Friday denounced what it said was a “wave of anti-Semitic statements” sweeping across Poland, many of them directed at the Israeli ambassador, in the midst of a diplomatic row over Polish complicity in Holocaust atrocities and the freedom to debate the issue.
Third, Nietzsche’s publishers were known for their anti- Semitic pr oclivities; both Wilhelm Fritzsch, who was originally Wagner’s publisher, and Ernst Schmeitzner, with whom Nietzsche worked from the third Untimely Medi-tation until the third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (– 85), were involved with anti-Semitic agitation.
Cambridge Opera Journal 3, no.
3 (Nov. ): –60; Leon Botstein,  “Wagner and Our Century,” Nineteenth-Century Music 11 (): 92–; and Jacob Katz, The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Jewish (Hanover, N.H., ).