By Alfred S. Posamentier
On May 22, the music world celebrated the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner. Whenever Wagner comes into the limelight, the general population typically besmirches his reputation by calling him a virulent anti-Semite, ignoring his genius, which changed musical composition more than any other composer.
To better understand what this man was all about, one has to consider him in the context of his time. The definition of anti-Semitism took on a totally different aspect after the Holocaust.
A second consideration about Wagner’s strange personal behavior is one involving icons of the arts and sciences. Wagner does not escape this syndrome. His social behavior and inconsistencies were tolerated simply because of his extraordinary musical genius.
In 1848, Wagner’s inconsistencies emerged when he was exiled from Germany for political reasons, and supported by composer Giacomo Meyerbeer in Paris. Inexplicably, Wagner was unkind to Meyerbeer, who was Jewish, years later, leading to his now-infamous pamphlet “Judaism in Music,” in which he claimed Jews were not capable of writing good music.
It is this publication that most likely prompted Adolf Hitler – who was born after Wagner died – to embrace Wagner’s music to enhance his nationalism. This embrace by the evil Hitler, coupled with the playing of Wagner’s music in concentration camps, gave Wagner this despicable reputation in today’s society. This excoriation of Wagner’s music was dramatized in Israel, where the performance of his music was banned.
To demonstrate the awkwardness of Wagner’s personality, consider his behavior with Jews of his time. Karl Taussig, a brilliant musician who was Jewish, was embraced as a protégé and supported for years during Wagner’s exile from Germany. Such musical luminaries as Josef Rubinstein and Heinrich Porges, both Jewish, were also embraced by him. Porges was selected by Wagner to write up Wagner’s instructions during the rehearsals of the first Ring cycle performances. This book “Rehearsing the Ring,” is still available today.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of Wagner’s inconsistency is his insistence that the only person to conduct his last opera, “Parsifal” – that delves into Christian themes – was Hermann Levi, whose father was a rabbi!
At the 200th anniversary of this musical genius’s birth, we should put aside the controversial aspects of his asocial behavior and inconsistent and disturbed personality and appreciate his music, which, probably more so than any other composer, changed the direction of musical composition to what we have today. By the way, Theodore Herzl, a Wagner fan, indicated that he conceived of the State of Israel as a homeland for Jews during a performance of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”
Alfred S. Posamentier is dean of the School of Education at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry.