Wagner and the Music of the Jews

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among nineteenth-century composers. Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky and others are on record making derogatory comments about Jews and Judaism. Most of these musicians carry no stigma; their works are performed without hesitation. This is not so with Richard Wagner, whose vitriol was exacerbated by his affiliation with left wing revolutionaries. Two things make it difficult to separate Wagner’s work from his views: the Nazis espoused his music, and he wrote a polemical essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850, 1869). While he cannot be blamed for the Nazis’ use of his music—he died before Hitler was born—the anti-Jewish sentiment in his infamous essay is hard to dismiss.

Wagner makes two basic points in “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” The first is that “the Jew” is incapable of reaching the musical heights of European composers. He takes specific aim at Felix Mendelssohn, whom he considered more of a technician than an artist, and whom he thought lacked the passion and heart of a Beethoven (or of Wagner himself). He also mentions Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jacob Lieberman Beer), a once-popular opera composer whom Wagner felt was too practical, too calculated, and too concerned with popular tastes to be truly creative. Not incidentally, Wagner was convinced that Meyerbeer, a Frenchman, had deliberately sabotaged his early efforts to enter the Paris establishment. (Contrastingly, in 1841 Wagner wrote a glowing review of La Juive—The Jewess—a grand opera by another French Jewish composer, Fromenthal Halévy.)

If we remove the anti-Semitism and generalizations that fueled these observations, then Wagner’s views are not far off: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer are in some ways inferior composers of the Western canon. But there is good reason for this. Jews did not enter the world of European music until the nineteenth century, and even then had limited opportunities to develop their craft. They were late to the party and had a lot of catching up to do. Wagner died in 1883, so he missed out on the twentieth century and its slew of innovative Jewish composers: Copland, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Philip Glass, the pioneers of Hollywood film music, etc. In addition to being a venom-infused stereotype, Wagner’s image of Jews as musically uncreative is simply outdated.

His second point is that “The Jew flings together the various forms and styles of all composers and eras.” Wagner meant this as an insult: Jews have no musical language of their own, but instead appropriate their neighbors’ music and perform it as foreigners. If we take out the negative implication of “Jew as imitator,” then Wagner’s opinion was actually correct—and perhaps even ahead of its time.

Wagner lived when Jewish music was gradually becoming a topic of interest among Wissenschaft scholars, who amplified the cultural uniqueness of Jews and Judaism. As part of that agenda, Jewish scholars perpetuated a myth of musical continuity, wherein some elusive element of “authentic” Jewish music could be traced back to Jerusalem’s Second Temple. This element was never discovered, and was never really looked for in any serious way. Still, it was a powerful sentiment that basically went unchallenged until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars came to terms with the fact that Jewish music is always tied to its surrounding, as Wagner pointed out. Contemporary critics view the ability to adapt music of the surroundings as a strength, rather than a weakness, of Jewish culture.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s admirers tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, while his detractors emphasize it. As noted, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his comments on the music of the Jews in his time and place; but the hatred that saturates his words cannot be ignored.

It is sometimes remarked that Wagner was envious of the Jews, but this assertion is rarely elaborated upon. I’d like to add my own theory. Wagner’s greatest claim to fame as a composer is the leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical composition that is associated with a specific person, idea or situation. Given Wagner’s obsession with the Jew in music, he was almost certainly aware that leitmotifs were a staple of synagogue music in his native Germany, and had been since the Middle Ages. The High Holidays, for instance, were full of them (the so-called “Mi-Sinai tunes”). One might even argue that Wagner stole the concept from the Jews, or was appalled to hear Jews using a musical device he thought he had invented. This could explain at least some of his vehemence. It also suggests that maybe—just maybe—Jews weren’t so uncreative after all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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