Tag Archives: Chopin

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. Moreover, Mendelssohn, a “classicist,” adhered to conservative and essentially canon-affirming tastes. 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.

Believing the Best

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Wolli Kaelter (1914-2008) was a leading Reform rabbi of his generation. Born in the Prussian city of Danzig (now Gdansk in north-central Poland), Kaelter was the son of a respected rabbi and one of five students from the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary selected to study in America—a decision that saved him from the horrors of the Holocaust. He launched a camp for Jewish children in Saratoga, California, served as rabbi of Temple Israel in Long Beach, California (1955-1979), and taught at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles for thirty years. Above all, he was known as a musical rabbi.

A retrospective appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram shortly after Kaelter’s death in 2008. It describes him as a classical music aficionado, and notes (somewhat oddly) that he considered J. S. Bach to be the last great composer.

It seems strange for anyone, let alone a classical music fan, to identify an eighteenth–century composer as the “last great.” Millions of manuscript pages have been filled since that time, not a few of which have sprung from the fertile imaginations of celebrated geniuses. To suggest that none of these composers is great is to reject nearly three hundred years of music history. Indeed, it is more justifiable to claim, as some have, that Bach was the first great composer, not the last.

In fairness, the statement in the article may have been written in error. It is more likely that Kaelter viewed Bach as the greatest of all composers, rather than of the end of the line (a line that would include Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers and exclude everyone else). Either way, his esteem for Bach is illustrative of how most of us hold our musical opinions.

It is normal to have fixed favorites. For a variety of personal reasons—well informed and otherwise—we tend to gravitate toward certain composers and musicians, and identify them as the best. Our tastes become convictions. This stems in part from our need to simplify and categorize the information and stimuli we are exposed to. With our established list of definitive greats, we have firm ground on which to accept, reject and judge the things we hear. The length of the list varies depending on the extent of our musical interests, and is informed by a variety of subjective factors: personal history, cultural trends, education, exposure, peer group, etc. In the end, most of us arrive at quasi-dogmatic conclusions, wherein a musician (or musicians) is placed permanently above all others.

That we hold musical preferences as musical facts is not necessarily damaging. Because there is so much music in the world, our enjoyment can actually increase when we isolate a few artists and convince ourselves that they are the greatest. But, whatever musical ideologies we have—and however broad or narrow they might be—we run the risk of closing ourselves off to music that, under different circumstances, could have been our favorites as well.

The stream of cause and effect leading us to all thoughts, beliefs, relationships and situations is also responsible for our musical views. Once these views are cemented, it can be difficult to allow other sounds in. The belief that Bach or Chopin or John Adams or anyone else is the last great composer (or another hyperbolic designation) sets up a predetermined outcome: nothing can possibly be better.

Upholding a rigid position requires that one actively ignore (or put down) music not included on the arbitrary list. Even if one enjoys a previously unheard piece, it cannot, by definition, be more enjoyable than that which has already been labeled the most enjoyable. Only the best can be the best.

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