Music to Vanquish Nations

Two hundred years after his birth, we continue to debate the cost of Wagner’s genius

The camera is focused on a tall, ornate opera house, and we hear the orchestra surge under a deep, soaring bass. It pans down to show two small people walking out.

The young woman – Diane Keaton – is protesting; they had a deal, she says in the famous scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, that if she sat through the game, he would come to the opera.

“I can’t listen to that much Wagner,” Allen replies. “I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”

It’s this urge – this grand ambition – that more than a century after his death in 1883, still gets  Richard Wagner into trouble. While we celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday, discussions still rage about the man responsible for the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art.

The Jewish Museum’s current exhibition Euphoria and Unease explores the tension between Wagner and Jewish Vienna.


Hermann Burghard design for the 1878 staging of  Das Rheingold | Photos: Jewish Museum Vienna

Hermann Burghard design for the 1878 staging of Das Rheingold | Photos: Jewish Museum Vienna

Gurgle, yodel and cackle

Wagner’s bold operas were revolutionary in their integration of the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic, and in the way they used leitmotif, which indicated  particular characters or themes.

Writing his own libretto as well as music, Wagner also instigated the darkening of the auditorium to maximise tension. If it weren’t for Wagner, we might still sit in concert halls under bright lights.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not disputed, and nor was it hidden from his contemporary public.

While his first essay about Judaism and music, Das Judenthum in der Musik, was initially published under a pseudonym, nearly twenty years later he published it under his own name.

In that essay, Wagner discussed the Jews’ apparent inability to create or understand art.

“Who has not been seized with a feeling of the greatest revulsion,” he wrote of synagogue music, “of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, yodel and cackle…?”

In 1881, when 384 people died in a fire at the old Viennese Ringtheater before an Offenbach operetta, Wagner stated the news “scarcely affect[ed]” him, because of the type of people who frequented that opera house.

In part, of course, he was a man of his time, a time when anti-Semitism stretched all across Europe.

The English actor Stephen Fry features in a video excerpt in the exhibition and also recently chaired a Verdi vs Wagner debate at the Royal Opera in London (an intriguing choice for an impartial debate chair, as he is so much a Wagnerian that he recently completed a documentary entitled Wagner and Me).

Fry, himself a Jew with relatives who died in the Holocaust, noted that if he were to go home that night and write an anti-American essay – about the “pernicious influence” of American culture – nobody would be all that surprised.

But, if fifty years after Fry’s death, millions of Americans were gassed, we may well look back and suggest he was complicit.

So, if there had been no Hitler, would we notice Wagner’s anti-Semitism? Schumann and Chopin also uttered anti-Semitic remarks, but these have slipped past without much comment.

Wagner died in 1883; Hitler was born six years later. In the exhibition, there is an excerpt from a film where Winifred Wagner, Richard’s daughter-in-law, talks about when Hitler came to Bayreuth in 1933, as the newly appointed Führer.

Despite the adulation shown him at that time, Hitler forbade anyone to honour him inside the opera house; the only honour would be bestowed on the master: Wagner. From Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, Hitler said he would make a religion.


Wagner’s fingerprints in Vienna

Vienna was an early centre of what the exhibition calls “the Wagner cult”.

Director of the Court Opera Gustav Mahler left Vienna in 1907 for New York, after suffering from considerable anti-Semitism at home. He conducted his first production at the Met on January 1, 1908: The opera was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Theodor Herzl actually used Wagner’s vision of the “German” community – where art and culture combine with land, myth and history to create national sentiment – to inform his own idea of a Jewish state.

And in the world of avant-garde art, Wagner’s comments on Beethoven had a significant influence on the 1902 exhibition in the Secession – including Klimt’s famous Beethoven frieze. The artists embraced Wagner’s own model of the artist as a misunderstood, dazzling visionary.

The silence of the museum

Those who come to the exhibition for the music may be disappointed. While there are several audio and video excerpts, there is little reflection on the music, or the operatic drama itself. Still, music and drama infuses every aspect of the exhibition; it is the entire reason for why it exists, and at no point is that forgotten.

There are videos from more recent echoes of Wagner: Star Wars, Excalibur, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones – which alongside clips from Das Rheingold and Parsifal, show parallels with Wagner’s grandeur, his reliance on mythology, and his determination to present the highest possible stakes – as well as the use of leitmotif.

Can there be a more famous contemporary leitmotif than that which accompanies Darth Vader?

There is also a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David whistles a tune to his wife – written for Wagner’s own wife Cosima – only to have a man accost him: “How can a Jewish man cheerfully whistle Wagner?”

What David’s clip does is what the entire exhibition manages to do: It makes suggestions, but it embraces ambivalence. It offers no angels.


Villain and psychologist

The novelist Philip Hensher talks compellingly of Wagner as a psychologist. He even suggests that the very fact that Wagner was “not a very nice person” meant that he could better understand a villain’s mind.

Like Tolstoy or George Eliot, Wagner was not afraid to inhabit the mind of every one of his characters.

Still, the reason we remember Wagner is not because he wasn’t a nice guy; we all know plenty of less than lovely humans.

It is because of the music, which is grand, brave, and complex, and which still leads people to do something that is becoming increasingly rare – to sit for many, many hours in the same room, in the same chair, and just listen.

For that, at the very least, Richard Wagner deserves our gratitude.


Euphoria and Unease

Jewish Museum Vienna

1. Dorotheergasse 11

Sept. 25, 2013 – Mar. 16, 2014

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