By Dirk Kurbjuweit
Der Spiegel, April 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

Germany's most controversial composer, Richard Wagner, was born in May 1813. Adolf Hitler was a boy of 12 when he saw a production of Lohengrin in 1901. He later said: "I was captivated immediately."

Germany was the land of composers, poets and philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Wagner, and the Romantics. Later the Germans elected Hitler and unleashed an inferno. In only a few years, a nation of culture was reduced to ashes. Those who study Wagner are pulled between the lightness of music and the darkness of tyranny.

In his 1997 book, Joachim Köhler describes the dark side of Wagner and portrays Hitler as Wagner's creation. When Hitler heard the opera Rienzi, Köhler writes, it occurred to him for the first time that he too could become a politician. Wagner's essay "Judaism in Music" invoked the downfall of the Jews and gave Hitler an idea. Köhler sees characters in Wagner's operas as evil caricatures of Jews. Joseph Goebbels: "Richard Wagner taught us what the Jew is."

After the Great War, while Hitler was working up the fury he vented in Mein Kampf, Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred invited him to attend the Bayreuth Festival on the Green Hill in Bayreuth. According to Köhler, the Green Hill was a fortress of evil and Wagner the forefather of the Holocaust.

Jonathan Livny, 65, loves the music of Wagner and founded the Israeli Wagner Society: "Wagner was a hideous man, but he made heavenly music." Livny falls under the spell every time he visits Bayreuth. His father had emigrated from Germany to Palestine, but the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust. Livny: "God died in Auschwitz."

Markus Käbisch, 45, studied music and lives in Leipzig, Wagner's birthplace. He established an association to give the city a monument of its famous son, but donors were few and he raised the money elsewhere. Käbisch loves Wagner's music but says he "couldn't handle it every day." He finds it overpowering: "That's what's so dangerous about it, and it's why this music was so well suited to politics in the Third Reich."

Wagner conceived his music as political. He wanted to build a new society of people who seek love instead of money and power. His music was propaganda for this idea. This was convenient for the Nazis, because they too used intoxication, ecstasy, and overpowering images in their propaganda. Germans were susceptible to emotional turmoil and pathos. An essentially German longing permeates Wagner's music. This pathos became impossible in German politics after Hitler.

Wagner used women, deceived friends, and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle. He had an affair with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of a director who often worked for Wagner. She had a child fathered by Wagner, which she foisted on her husband. Wagner later married her. Richard and Cosima had a son named Siegfried, who married Winifred. They in turn had two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, who were the joint directors of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1966.

Nike Wagner is Wieland's daughter. She lived in the Villa Wahnfried, which Richard had built in Bayreuth, and she practically grew up in the Festspielhaus: "In private, we were more likely to listen to Bach and Beethoven, while the teenagers were wild about Elvis Presley." On Richard: "Yes, the composer of Tristan was an anti-Semite and probably would have liked to burn down Paris. Wagner remains a moral problem."

Nike says her father never entered Winifred's house. He accused her of letting him become Hitler's pet in Bayreuth. Hitler gave Wieland a Mercedes for his 18th birthday, and he was favored as the heir apparent on the Green Hill. He joined the Nazi party and was granted the privilege of selling photographs of Hitler. Later, as festival director, Wieland recast himself as the good Wagner. He made Bayreuth socially acceptable again among intellectuals.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier is Wolfgang's daughter from his first marriage, and Katharina Wagner is his daughter from his second marriage. Katharina says the family has tacitly agreed that Winifred will carry the Nazi burden, so as to draw attention away from the others. But in her 2005 book, Brigitte Hamann writes that Winifred helped Jews during the Nazi period.

Nike Wagner became a sharp critic of her uncle Wolfgang, who ran the Bayreuth Festival until 2008. She wanted to take over the job with her cousin Eva. But Eva teamed up with Katharina to run the festival. Now Katharina runs it and Nike goes there every summer.

In 1986, political scientist Udo Bermbach, now 75, watched the Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He became obsessed with Wagner and wrote Mythos Wagner, published in January 2013. He sees the composer as a revolutionary in 1848/49, when half of Germany was fighting for democracy and freedom. When his revolutionary cause was lost, Wagner fled to Zürich, where he lived in exile until 1858. In Zürich he had a wild time, partying and indulging a romance with a married woman. He wrote to Franz Liszt: "I must be going mad here. It's the only solution!"

Joachim Köhler says Wagner not only wrote "Judaism in Music" but also had Jewish friends throughout his life: "Wagner was often one thing and its opposite at the same time. He was a passionate vegetarian, but he couldn't do without his daily steak. He had a tendency to stretch a point."

Wagner was both a prophet and a clown. He subscribed to Paris fashion magazines and secretly wore silk negligees of his own design. He was difficult to paint, because he was constantly making faces, kidding around, doing somersaults and headstands. He died in Venice in February 1883, after arguing with Cosima and while writing his last words: "The process of emancipation of the female only takes place amid ecstatic convulsions. Love — Tragedy."

In July 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a group of top politicians from Berlin were in the audience at Green Hill, Bayreuth, for the premier of The Flying Dutchman. The Bayreuth Festival is still Germany's grandest social event.

Wagners Hitler. Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker
Joachim Köhler, 1997

Wagner's Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple
Joachim Kohler, translated

Mythos Wagner
Udo Bermbach, 2013

Die Familie Wagner
Brigitte Hamann, 2005


By Ed Smith
New Statesman, April 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813. He is an unusually interesting composer:

1 There is the unavoidable if wildly overstated issue of his influence on Hitler and his misappropriation by the Nazis.

2 He did much to reposition and advance the status of the artist in the 19th century. His triumph was the building of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth to make sure his Ring was staged in an appropriate environment. After decades of poverty, debt and exile, he craved, and ultimately achieved, complete control.

3 The collected edition of his writing, excluding letters, runs to 16 volumes. His thought the status of art had reached a pinnacle in ancient Greece but collapsed into vulgarity and silliness in his day. The artist of the future would fuse the genius of Beethoven and Shakespeare into the new form of musical drama.

Friedrich Nietzsche had once been an ardent fan and friend of Wagner. Nietzsche:

Everything Wagner cannot do is reprehensible ... Everything Wagner can do, nobody will be able to do after him, nobody has done before him, nobody shall do after him — Wagner is divine.

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that that Wagner's music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily — that one will not find it difficult enough to understand?

Wagner required literature to persuade the world to take his music seriously, to take it as profound.

Nietzsche said Wagner was a trickster, a conjurer of false emotions. Thomas Mann said Wagner's gift for satisfying noble needs while simultaneously gratifying base ones was dishonest artistry.

Wagner's Birthday

By Kate Connolly
The Guardian, May 22, 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago today. Regarded as one of the greatest Germans of all time, he divides Germans as much as he delights them. Die Welt cultural commentator Manuel Brug: "Only Jesus, Napoleon, and Hitler have had more written about them."

Wagner's musicologist great-grandson Gottfried Wagner, 66, has been accused of "fouling his own nest" after condemning his forefather in his book Du sollst keine anderen Götter haben neben mir. Gottfried: "He has been idealized and whitewashed for too long, but has been considered untouchable, which is a mistake."

Gottfried has called on his estranged family to end their control of the Bayreuth festival, currently run by Wagner's great-granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. He says it is contaminated by the family's connection to the Nazi party. He urges the family to make public the private correspondence between Hitler and the Wagner clan, as well as the private film footage.

Wagner died in 1883, just 50 years before Hitler became German chancellor. Hitler loved the music and had plans to turn Bayreuth into a huge temple to the Wagner cult. He took inspiration for his obsession with Jews from Wagner, who wrote a hate-filled tract called Das Judentum in der Musik.

Wagner enthusiasts say we can and should separate the man and the music. Leading conductor Christian Thielemann: "Wagner's music is like a drug, which moves people in a fundamental way."

Like many prominent Germans, chancellor Angela Merkel and her Wagner-fan husband Joachim Sauer make the pilgrimage to the Bayreuth festival every year.

Wagner was born in Leipzig. There officials will unveil a statue and host an international discussion of his legacy.

Wagner's Antisemitism

Simon Callow
From review by Nick Clark, The Independent, July 29, 2013

Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism is repulsive to a degree that is almost toxic to deal with. He was a visionary, but a ruthless one, and a pretty unsavory human in many ways. That was what made him who he was, and what drove him. It's partly why we listen to Wagner. It takes the audience into dark, murky, unsettling places.

In 1881, Wagner wrote to King Ludwig II of Bavaria: "I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it." His argument was disgusting. Yet many of his closest colleagues and friends were Jews.

AR This is a topic I could happily research more deeply.


Royal Opera House, 2013-12-18

Unauthorized introduction

A personal review

Parsifal Without Passion

Michael Tanner

In the new production of Parsifal at the Royal Opera, the music proceeded on its nervelessly lovely way without a hint of anxiety or disquiet, let alone rage and near-madness. If the musical account is so inadequate, nothing can redeem the work from seeming pretentious and largely unintelligible.

One performer makes a deep impression: Gerald Finley as Amfortas. Never abandoning his beautiful tone, he presents as vivid a portrayal of this figure as any I have seen, though it is largely wasted in the context. René Pape is Gurnemanz, pouring out a stream of luscious though surprisingly quiet tone.

The Kundry of Angela Denoke would in the right setting be a fine portrayal, but she has to contend with Simon O’Neill's Parsifal. He is an undependable artist, and for most of the time his voice seemed indifferent to the text. Surely the director could have tried to get the artists to look as if they cared.

AR Yes, the music was precise rather than passionate, but that didn't bother me.

Wagner and the Jews

Nathan Shields
Mosaic Magazine, January 2015

Richard Wagner has always been remarkable. Today the Bayreuth festival, dedicated exclusively to Wagner's works, stands at the apex of German cultural life, counting Angela Merkel among its regular guests.

The Wagner question concerns the morality of art and of music. Wilhelm Furtwängler, perhaps the greatest Wagnerian interpreter of his day, conducted the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the height of World War II, about him a rapt audience of blond youths, everyday Germans, and Wehrmacht officers, above him the swastika banner.

Wagner was not only an artist but an intellectual with a brilliance and a singleness of purpose that have few parallels. His works constitute not just an artistic world but a worldview. He was also a fearless observer of his society's sicknesses, including bourgeois materialism, imperialist aggression, ecclesiastical tyranny, and the influence of the Jews. His pamphlet Das Judentum in Musik seeks to explain the "repulsive" nature and personality of the Jews.

Wagner understood that a myth is also a vehicle of deeper truths. To Wagner, the "total work of art" implied a total fusion of music and drama. The symphonic form and the dramatic form are one and the same. Unity of form and drama, unity of drama and sound, and unity of sound and physiology: The object of Wagner's works is to transform us, both as individuals and as a society. The Gesamtkunstwerk is a drama of collective salvation.

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer was a transformative experience for Wagner. Suffering and the world were the nagging questions to which Schopenhauer provided an answer with the Will: a blind, suffering, omnipotent force that in its eternal turmoil generates us and the world we know. We and everything around us are thrown up like foam on the sea. Our very existence as separate selves is an evil, and the only salvation lies in escaping from it. Such a vision of life is deeply implicated in the early debates between Christianity and Judaism.

Wagner's anti-Judaism is not merely a compulsive racial prejudice but a crucial intellectual and moral tool. Through the adversary symbol of the Jew, Wagner sought to make sense of the world and of mankind's place in it. Kundry, the wandering Jewess of Parsifal, is both character and symbol, descended from a long line of symbolic figures into whom Wagner put the most of himself. Each wanders restlessly; each finds peace only in death.

The God of the Jews, Wagner wrote in Religion and Art, is doomed by art. Art is the true creation, before which His false one pales. The end of salvation is to become music, to dissolve into pure sound, all life's dissonances resolving into the absolute. As Tristan and Isolde wonderingly exclaim: "I myself am the world."

Edward Rothstein

Anti-Judaism played a fundamental role in Wagnerian musical cosmology. Parsifal is a ceremonial drama enacting the story of a ritual that has gone awry for lack of vigilance. At the end, when religion's power is restored, the restoration has about it a sense of the archaic, hallowed by nostalgia.

Wagner: "Where religion is becoming artificial, it is for art to salvage the nucleus of religion."