What to do about Wagner? - Macleans.ca

What to do about Wagner?

Germany is divided over how to honour the controversial composer’s bicentenary

Hold your applause, please

Hans Joerg Michel

The story goes that Adolf Hitler first heard Richard Wagner’s music when he was 12. The year was 1901—and the setting was Linz, Austria, where the young boy had gone with his friend Gustl to see a production of the opera Lohengrin. “In one instant I was addicted,” Hitler would write of his first encounter with Wagner. Decades later, Hitler—by then a budding führer—was said to hum Lohengrin tunes while pacing a room.

May 22 marked the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. The occasion was feted worldwide, with commemorative performances in London, New York and Milan. In Germany, however, the mood was tempered by more sombre appraisals of the man behind the music. Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite, and his posthumous association with Hitler has made it hard for Germans to consume his music without apology. In Berlin, the bicentenary was as much an opportunity for post-Third Reich hand-wringing as it was an artistic celebration.

Early in May, an adaptation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser opened in Düsseldorf; set in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust, its traditionally erotic overture was replaced by a gas chamber murder scene. The production was expected to be one of the highlights of the bicentenary, but the controversial staging was quickly pulled—after an outpouring of complaints and reports that some audience members were so traumatized they required medical attention. In 2012, a production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in northern Bavaria was nearly cancelled after news leaked that its star, Evgeny Nikitin, had a large swastika tattooed on his chest.

The bicentenary has dredged up old debates about the true nature of the Wagner-Hitler connection. Did Wagner’s anti-Semitism inspire Hitler directly? If so, is there something inherently anti-Semitic in Wagner’s melodies? Or was Wagner, who died before Hitler was born, merely an anticipation of what was to come? On the other hand, is it possible that Wagner’s legacy was simply exploited by Nazi leaders? Perhaps the composer’s fondness for epic sagas and Teutonic heroes made his music amenable to Fascist fetishization.

Wagner’s legacy endures in Germany. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus—the operahouse Wagner built in northern Bavaria—remains a shrine. Wagnerites wait up to 10 years for tickets to the annual Bayreuth Festival (run by Wagner’s descendants), where aficionados like German Chancellor Angela Merkel imbibe Wagner’s stormy harmonies, and the festival’s famed lobster bratwurst. The most slavish admirers (or “Wagnerheads”) chase Wagner performances across the globe.

But in public discussions, Wagner’s music is invariably entangled with his politics. Of course, it’s not all about Nazis. The bicentenary has also offered a chance for Wagner haters to air their distaste. The less-than-enthused deride Wagner’s pomp and pageantry, his inaccessibility and indulgence. “Wagnerian,” notes the London Review of Books’ Nicholas Spice, “has passed into our language as a byword for the exorbitant, the over-scaled and the interminable.”

This antipathy is nothing new. Eighteenth-century doctors worried that Wagner’s music caused ailments ranging from melancholy to infertility—and that it provoked hysteria in women. In the 20th century, two conductors collapsed and died while conducting Tristan und Isolde. In 1865, the singer Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died in delirium shortly after his debut as Tristan. Wagner believed that his music drove the singer “to the abyss.”

Earlier this month, Wagner’s great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner announced that she would, at last, turn over her family’s private archives to historians—so that they might better assess the family’s Nazi links. But for now, Germans continue to enjoy Wagner’s bicentenary with the requisite vestiges of Holocaust guilt. Taking note of this sentiment, Der Spiegel recently bemoaned: “Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?”


What to do about Wagner?

  1. If people want to examine Wagner’s music as Wagner’s music, it des not help to portray the players-singers with swastika armbands. Hitler did not borrow that Indian symbol until long after the composer’s death.

  2. 18th century doctors? How clairvoyant! Perhaps you meant 19th century.

    By the way, Wagner himself derided other Anti-Semites, and used many Jewish musicians. As I recall he had a Jewish step-father, who some think was his biological father.

    A complex man worth studying.

  3. German have to stop to feel guilty for everything that happened. Those responsible are long gone.

  4. Larry David did it better.

  5. Their Nazis were bad and they should feel bad.

  6. I think it’s important to be completely honest about Wagner. Let’s not downplay his bigotry as we discuss his music, or his fallout with Nietzsche. Let’s talk about his accomplishments, the beauty and wonder of the Ring Cycle, even as we mention the horrible things he said. A holistic portrayal of the man is the only way to not appear as if you’re whitewashing something.

    Germany won’t ever get away from it’s past, nor should it try to.

  7. To read that at 12 Hitler had his first encounter with Wagner and Lohengrin brings to mind Charlie Chaplin’s use of that music for The Great Dictator, the scene with the globe. Chaplin in his 1964 biography wrote that had he known about the gas chambers he would not have made The Great Dictator. That would have been a pity.

    Extreme beauty can hide horrible things – in Wagner’s music that certainly is the case. No doubt Wagner was antisemitic but what I keep in mind is Wagner’s obsession with the achievement of perfection – in his music, and his search for the ‘superior’ race, the master race. I don’t mean to minimize the danger of antisemitism but it’s those who search for the master race that scare me the most. Human beings are flawed, and Wagner had big flaws, but some of his music is as close to perfection as I can think. Maybe the search for perfection should be left to the world of the arts. Again, at the risk of offending many, maybe Hitler could have been a great artist – he did make paintings and drawings. The world would certainly have been better off with Hitler as an artist. And the world is better with Wagner as a composer.

  8. If I accidentally cough or sneeze close to someone considered Jew does it make me an anti semite? Isnt it time to stop with all this.