Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 –1883) was a German composer, theater director, writer, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionized opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk “total work of art”. His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements.
His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centers, greatly influenced the development of classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.
Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations; these include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience.
He was also an extremely prolific writer, authoring numerous books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including autobiography, politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses of his own operas.
Wagner wrote a number of articles in his later years, often on political topics, and often controversial in tone. These include “Religion and Art” (1880) and “Heroism and Christianity” (1881). Wagner’s sudden interest in Christianity at this period, which infuses Parsifal, was contemporary with his increasing alignment with German nationalism. Many of these later articles, including “What is German?” (1878, but based on a draft written in the 1860s), repeated Wagner’s anti-Semitic preoccupations.
In the 20th century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived”, while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. He is also discussed in some of the works of James Joyce. Wagnerian themes inhabit T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which contains lines from Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung and Verlaine’s poem on Parsifal.
Although Richard Wagner lived decades before the birth of Nazism, his influence on the National Socialist movement and especially on its leader, Adolf Hitler, was enormous.
In an essay entitled, Das Judenthum in der Musik, first published in 1850 under a pseudonym, Wagner wrote that Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense. The Jew, he claimed, has no true passion to impel him to artistic creation. The Jewish composer, according to Wagner, makes a confused heap of the forms and styles of all ages and masters. To admit a Jew into the world of art results in pernicious consequences. In Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik, Wagner spoke of the “harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation,” adding that the subversive power of Jewry stands in contrast to the German psyche.
All these ideas, together with the ultra nationalistic character of his operas, provided a fertile feeding ground for Nazi ideology and cultural conception.
Wagner’s music had been unofficially banned in public in Israel ever since Kristallnacht in 1938. Since then, the debate has raged. It is a debate carried on passionately not only among music-lovers, but also by citizens, young and old, who bring forceful arguments to support their stand. The clash is marked, on the one hand, by vehement emotion, on the other, by an attempt at a rational approach. Those advocating the rational approach say one must separate art from politics and that emotion should not stand in the way of art.
But music, after all, is a matter of the emotions. Music in all its forms appeals to people’s feelings – they react to music with their hearts, rather than with their minds. What is undisputed by adherents and objectors alike is the conviction that Wagner’s music is superb. Equally undisputed is the perception that Richard Wagner was the spiritual father of much of Nazi ideology, especially its anti-Semitic character.
Wagner coined the expressions “Jewish problem” and “Final Solution” – by which he meant the disappearance of Jews and Judaism. Thousands of Israelis, both of European origin and native Israelis, perceive Wagner, a loudly-proclaimed favorite of Hitler, as a symbol of the Nazi era.
Motti Schmidt, leader of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, states: “Wagner was a genius. His was a complicated personality – but he was not a good man. If his music still hurts the feelings of people in this country, we should respect the rights of the minority and not play Wagner.” Moshe Landau, a retired Supreme Court judge and presiding judge at the Eichmann trial, says: “I have the same opinions today that I held in the 1940’s. It was enough for me to have read Judenthum in der Musik. No, I don’t think Wagner’s music should be played here.”
Did Richard Wagner incite Adolf Hitler to commit the Holocaust? Is there such a thing as Nazi Music? In his book Richard and Adolf, Christopher Nicholson explores the anti-Semitic elements of Wagner’s polemical works and his music, and the immense influence this had on the man who was to become Germany’s Fuhrer. Reference is also made to the texts of the major operas, reckoned by many to be the greatest works of art of all time.
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