Monday, 21 March 2016


Wagner vs. Pop Culture:

Composer Richard Wagner
Many a composer and more than a handful of conductors, both German born and Jewish immigrants or nationals would flee the Third Reich during Nazi Germany’s tumultuous tirade across Europe. When it comes to the Nazi regime and the world of Western Classical music, its seems the only reference point for many a classical music layman is that of Richard Wagner and his alleged full-on hatred of the Jewish peoples. Few of whom who have heard his majestic works, and even fewer who realize Wagner was already 50 years in his grave by the time Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany - and remarkably fewer still - who have actually read Das Judenthum in der Musik, (or at least heard of it), take into consideration the culture and time in which artists native to Germany lived, suffered, and thrived. While it does nothing to excuse the tenure of his writings by present standards, it should be noted that at the height of 19th century Europe, Wagner was far from alone in his sentiments: In Russia, the composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky once referenced what he called “the crowd of dirty Jews” claiming their “accompanying odours” as having “spoilt my pleasure in returning to my beloved native land” in a letter to his patron; even in the century preceding him - to the west in France, the noted French philosopher Voltaire was making his mark not only as a pioneer of the French Enlightenment but also as an unabashed, very vocal anti-semite;[1] and likewise, as the so called “Age of Reason” drew to a close, entire kingdoms and empirical rulers alike shared such disdain for the Jewish peoples, not the least of whom was Friedrich II of Prussia (better known as Frederick the Great), all of whom, despite exhibiting a raging streak of ugly anti-semitism, have been hailed as heroes by posterity – so why is Wagner exclusively hand selected for such public dissection in contrast to such iconic figures?

The dictator & former Chancellor of Germany,
Adolf Hitler
The answer lies in the mid-twentieth century, when an ethically challenged and convoluted Ruler in Adolf Hitler drew on personal and exaggerated interpretations of all things Wagner – even down to the late composers famously self-authored libretti, which the stalwart pro-Aryan would employ as his casus belli to incite further hatred of the Jews, which, in the case of Wagner, he hoped to use as an underhanded psychological tactic against his German brethren - by creating for them a "pop culture ideology," one which would seem to suggest that even icons ‘shared’ his own twisted axioms.

It is a rather tired argument – I daresay – even a cliché to state that the perpetrator of such prejudicial sentiment in fact surrounded himself with the very peers he disdained – but in Wagner’s instance, the composers relationships with peoples of Jewish Origin had been well documented – almost as much as the composers megalomanic and opportunistic traits. 

In studying Das Judenthum in der Musik, one sentiment becomes quite conspicuously clear: the diatribe, although arguably anti-semitic in nature, when taken into context of the popular sentiment that existed across Europe at the time of his existence, in tandem with Wagner’s rather petty and narcissistic personality toward western classical music’s current status quo (one remembers his innovative induction of gesamtkunstwerk into western classical music that would completely overhaul orchestral (and operatic) music as our predecessors knew it) contextually, Das Judenthum…was more of an affront to the accomplishments and influence of Jewish composers; two of whom the contentious composer made the subject of focus for the article in question: Felix Mendelssohn[2] and Giacomo Meyerbeer– two men of high achievement and sentiment, who, conveniently, happened to be Jewish, and two composers in whom Wagner felt himself in intense competition, and in the case of Meyerbeer, in personal debt[✡] (and we all know how Wagner treated those in whom he was indebted!) Somehow through posterity, thanks in part to an admirer in Adolf Hitler, who often bastardized and misinterpreted his musical heroes' sentiments (and even his libretti!) Wagner’s sleaze piece would become known only as a full blown diatribe against an entire group of people. 

Of course, it is entirely up to interpretation how Wagner would have felt in twentieth century Germany. I’d like to think that if Wagner were alive in the days of Hitler’s reign of terror, that the enigmatic composer would be living somewhere, possibly at his villa in Lucerne, in a continued self imposed exile, hiding from his debtors. Wagner's incessant need to be formally ever present and his manipulative and opportunistic streak made the feisty German a master of persuasion. 19th century Europe knew Wagner as a con, a debtor and a pot-stirrer who would say, or do anything to make himself known and to line his royal-like coffers. Personally, it is in this vein that I view Herr Wagner. It hardly makes the anti-Jewish sentiment any less viscous, but the man that single handedly convinced a King to sink an entire nation into 14 million marks of debt, is a man whose opinion flickers like a candle in the wind. I can hardly see him as a militant. 

What makes Wagner even more controversial are the innuendoes, spread chiefly amongst those who know neither the history of the man or of his music - who allege there to be symbols, as “blatant” as the alleged Masonic “propaganda” some conspiracy theorists swear they can find in the libretto of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – this time in reference to what Wagner himself once called “Jewishness in Music.” I haven’t found any, in all of my years spent studying this genre with an open mind. Wagner’s behemoth works, if anything, are an homage to Viking and Teutonic legend – "all encompassing works of art" that doffs it’s cap at the school of thought shared by the iconic German’s philosophical hero, Arthur Schopenhauer. Even if Wagner had been alive by the time WWII commenced, and, had he remained in the "Fatherland," this too, would bring the composer’s motive under continued debate. 

[✡]Meyerbeer was instrumental from a financial standpoint (and as a dominating figure in classical music) in bringing Wagner’s early opera Rienzi to critical acclaim, assisting in staging the work at Dresden in 1841.

Dueling Maestri & the Third Reich:

Fast forward to over half a century later and the era that made Wagner a present day household name, and one would find factual ties amongst high ranking Nazi officials and living, breathing icons of Western Classical Music.

It was not uncommon during the Nazi regime for German national composers and conductors to remain on native soil, provided his oeuvre conformed to the repertoire set forth by the “Führer.” (It should also be noted, for posterity's sake, that whilst she doesn't speak for all victims of concentration camps, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, survivor of the notorious camp at Auschwitz, and avid detester of all things Wagner, declared once and for all to British producer Steven Fry that, while the hostages were forced to play music to “entertain” their German guards, the works of Wagner were never played. Her reasoning seems to make sense: 
“We certainly did not play Wagner…first of all you need to realize that this band…this a cappella as we used to call it - consisted of… you couldn’t play Wagner if you tried! [Wagner demands a big orchestra, and big] blowing instruments!”) Unravelingmusicalmyths has discussed such orchestrations and Wagner innovations at length in previous postings. They can be found within the Wagner Archives. 

Two icons of Western Classical Music, both of whom remained in Germany throughout the war, one of whom even shared Nazi membership would, like Wagner before them, become household names (yet, oddly, not for scandalous reasons, but chiefly based on talent, despite holding Nazi membership and profiting from the war): the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and ‘upstart’ Herbert von Karajan.

Conductors of the Third Reich:
Herbert von Karajan
Both conductors thrived on Germany, and remained on German soil throughout the Reich's rein of terror, neither of whom are suggested to have held in their hearts any hatred for the Jewish peoples (in fact, Furtwängler was very vocal against the "Führer's" position). This is rather peculiar from a semitical standpoint in that both musician's chief reasonings for continuing to perform, almost exclusively for high ranking Nazi Officials, and in the case of von Karajan, holding Nazi membership - was based on economic gains. Apparently (although one has to wonder if the proper term should be "allegedly" if we are being fair to Wagner’s legacy, who remember, was 50 years in the grave at this juncture) that venomous spot was instead reserved for eachother! Just one viewing of Karajan’s beautifully televised performance of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto no. 1 with pianist Alexis Weissenberg and the Berliner Philharmoniker is sufficient evidence enough of a megalomanic man, hyperaware of himself and his abilities, and his unabashed efforts, no matter how grand, to make his presence known (sound familiar?) At the commencement of WWII, however, Furtwängler was the man about town – the go-to conductor, and both the chocolate cake with the cherry on top.

It would be relatively early on in he war that Austria had been annexed to Germany, and with the monumental change brought the gift of the conductor Karajan (known about town as the “wonder”) from Salzburg who had captivated audiences during an especially dramatic orchestration of Wagner’s epic Tristan, which would aid the conductor in earning for himself a rather lucrative contract drafted by Deutsche Grammophon.

Whilst in Berlin, the Nazi party member and conductor would earn from his national and 'adopted national' peers an enthusiastic reception – this, in spite of the conductor working with a grievously small repertoire with which to choose from. There was Carl Orff, and Strauss..and other lesser known politically acceptable or neutral oevures at his disposal.

Conductors of the Third Reich: Wilhelm Furtwängler
The elder Furtwängler grew to despise the younger conductor, who had received heaps of praise by top officials of Rank, not the least of whom was Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda to Adolf Hitler, who much admired the young Karajan, and had him ‘shortlisted’ in his memoirs under the title of "Musicians blessed by God." 

As the stronghold of the Reich slowly began to crumble - with both officials and laymen diving into dueling factions, so too had the already contentious relationship between Furtwängler and Karajan. Bickering would come to a hilt when, whilst conducting at a performance of Die Meistersinger by Hitler’s most beloved of all composers, Richard Wagner, Karajan found his performance was less to the dictator's satisfaction. The deeply insulted Führer was furious: this newfound rage was more than likely spurned on by the conductor Karajan exchanging nuptials with a woman by the surname of Gutermann - who the Führer took to be Jewish – which she was, by a grandfather). The devious and opportunistic Furtwängler, who had already become the source of some contention amongst the 'elite' members of the Third Reich due to his protestations against anti-semitism in music, must have felt himself on the way out, and soon to become crestfallen from Hitler's good graces, as he immediately seized upon his nemesis’ downtime away from the sun by using his own influence in Austria to get maestro Karajan effectively banned from the nation’s annual Salzburg Festival for a whopping period of nearly 14 years! As if riding a tsunami as if it were a three foot high wave, the scandalous Furtwängler wasn’t yet finished trashing his competitor, denouncing positive reviews of his nemesis thusly : "If they [the critics] overrate material qualities such as the technique of conducting from memory, they are prizing hard work instead of artistic practice. They are aligning themselves with the stupid people who never seem to be in short supply, and who feel nostalgic for the circus when they are in the concert hall."


View below an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, just one of a slew of lavishly produced 'films' created by the conductor Herbert von Karajan (the epic display of pretentiousness as frequently exhibited by this larger than life conductor is so piquant, it almost becomes delicious!):

[1]according to author Avner Falk, in his work “Anti-Semitism: A History and Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Hatred,” Voltaire’s intense hatred of the Jews may have been influenced by the Francophile King Frederick II of Prussia. Allegedly, Voltaire had fallen victim to the con in a Jewish jeweler by the name of Abraham Hirschl. He successfully sued and won judgement against the corrupt businessman, although Voltaire’s victory celebrations would be short lived: once Frederick (the Great) learned of the litigation, the enraged King expressed to Voltaire his disgust in what Avner references as “a Christian’s lawsuit with a lowly Jew." So disgusted was the King, he is alleged to have expelled the noted philosopher from court before having him placed under arrest!
  This in turn, prompted the humiliated and banished Voltaire to pen a series of scathing, robustly anti-semitical writings, referring to the Jewish peoples as a “stubborn,” “superstitious” race who practiced “hollowed usury.”

Avner references further quotes by Voltaire as originally re-published under the writer Chaim Potok: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts…I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race,” and “You have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny.” (Potok 1978, pp. 365-366, quoting Voltaire 1764).

*Title available for purchase at Amazon.

[2]So virulent a strain of anti-semitism across Europe existed at the time of Wagner, that even the patriarch Mendelssohn and his wife would denounce Judaism, forcing their son Felix into a (reformed) Christian Baptism at an early age and defiantly refusing to have their son circumcised (a tradition of the Jewish faith). So adamant was the father Mendelssohn that he and his wife would also seek baptism of the Christian faith in 1822, adopting the very gentile-sounding surname of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (which they had already used informally for nearly a decade prior). The patriarch Abraham would famously further drive such anti-Jewish sentiment home to his son when a penned the following proclamation in a letter to Felix: "There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius." Even his immediate and extended family would help to progenerate Abraham's cause with an uncle to Felix adopting his surname after the German quarter (former) of Berlin: Luisenstadt.

There is some cause to believe Felix took offense to the religious and personal demands of his mother and father: Felix would frequently sign his correspondence under the neutral surname(s) Mendelssohn Bartholdy, in direct opposition to his father's urging for his son to drop the patronymic "Mendelssohn" from his signature altogether. Further evidence to support Mendelssohn's possible allegiance to the Jewish faith lies in the writings of his sister, Fanny, who once declared in a written exchange to her brother that the " one we all detest."

Whatever his religious allegiance, it mattered not to Wagner, who saw Felix as first and foremost, a Jew.

Did you know?

Friedrich II of Prussia was himself an accomplished composer and flautist, composing some 100 flute sonatas, a variety of symphonies and even a military march. Not only was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) just one of many accomplished musicians employed at his royal court, the Prussian King even inspired the patriarch Bach to pen "The Musical Offering" (a collection of canons and fugues for keyboard) after meeting with the composer in Potsdam in 1747. The master of the baroque would dedicate his music to the King.

Listen below to a collection of Frederich’s “Der Große” (“The Great”) concertos for transverse flute:


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