Monday, 11 June 2018


Israeli auction house Kedem, headquartered in Jerusalem, has sold a rare private correspondence from infamous 19th century composer and noted anti-Semite Richard Wagner to French confidante, philosopher and musicologist Édouard Schuré for $41, 820 on the 24th of April – some $29,820 above it’s top estimated selling price.

The double-sided, 2 page, handwritten letter to Schuré, a one-time Wagner aficionado and zealot-turned-biographer (and later dissenter), reads like a confessional from the Romantic giant to analyst, in which Wagner vehemently defends his 1850 diatribe Das Judenthum in der Musik, his famous pamphlet which became notorious for the composers' unapologetic polemic against what he viewed as a "Jewish influence" in contemporary classical music (with extra vitriol reserved for composers Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer). The character-defining diatribe was deemed so scandalous upon it’s publication that Wagner, sensing a potential backlash, opted to first introduce it into the public sphere under the pseudonym K. Freigedank ("K. Freethought") before republishing it under his own moniker nearly 2 decades later.

Wagner's letter to Schuré, assigned Lot. 112, is dated "25 April 1869", from "Luzern". It's starting bid was $5000, and was estimated to for somewhere between $8000 - $12,000. The auction house far exceeded it's goal.

In the Schuré exchange, penned from the Swiss medieval city of Lucerne in 1869, the egocentric composer compares himself to German literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, himself an "Aryan," and lambasts an uncultured and ‘Jewish-infiltrated’ Parisian society[1] – along with the “Jewish-controlled” German press - for “confusing” the abilities of the public at large from discerning the difference between a “true” German and those of Jewish descent, protesting

"To lump together Heine, Goethe, Meyerbeer, and perhaps myself, that ends in the kind of confusion suffered by the French conception of the German character…"[2]

The letter goes on to further echo his famous essay of 1850, referring to the “Jewish spirit" as a “corroding influence…on modern culture.”

The timing of Wagner’s letter to Schuré is significant – the formerly anonymous essay Das Judenthum.. would be republished, for reasons known only to Wagner himself, under his full name during this year. It is possible this exchange in particular, and the eponymous re-release of the composer’s famous essay were timed in direct response to the growing furore surrounding the ever-expanding movement to withdraw the civic rights extended to Jews during the present century -  with brazen spirits fully ignited by the dawn of the Unification of Germany (which would soon present itself in 1870).

Edouard Schuré, the recipient of Wagner's letter,
alongside fellow philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche,
both venerated and fancied themselves experts on
all things Wagner. The brainy duo were known to
correspond with some frequency, both with each
other and with Herr Wagner, expressing their
steadfast support and idolization of their 'meister.'
Eventually, the same Wagnerian fanaticism that
drew both men to Richard would become the catalyst
for their desertion from their former idol. Schulé's
essay on his one-time hero Le drame musical
et l'oeuvre de M. Richard Wagner
was published just
two weeks before he received this exchange.
Wagner was known to have been approached during this period for assistance in the bi-partisan battle - rallyists perhaps spurned on by the bold composer's famous ex-fugitive status: at the time Wagner penned the letter in question, he was residing at his sojourn at Tribschen in Switzerland, the country famous for having played former host to the composer during his lengthy self-imposed exile after officials issued a warrant for his arrest following his alleged involvement in the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849.  By now, word had spread back in the Wagner’s home state that the composer had recently been cleared of a lengthy political ban formerly imposed on him by his own government, a result of having been accused of being an active participant in the riots.

Also significant – and well worth the private buyer’s (said to be an Israeli) bid – is the historical component represented by the letter as it pertains to Jewish/European relations of days past. Wagner’s perspective on what he called the “corruption” of Jewish influence in the arts - while reprehensible to us today - was not an uncommon belief of many who lived and thrived during the era in which the letter was written. Vast and varied are the men in the upper echelon of both art and politics of the 18th and 19th century who were unabashedly, defiantly, vocally anti-Semitic. 

According to author and Israeli scholar Avner Falk, in his work “Anti-Semitism: A History and Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Hatred,” King Frederick II of Prussia is said to have expelled Voltaire from his court, only to later have the famous philospher arrested for "a Christian's lawsuit with a lowly jew" after Voltaire had fallen victim to the con in a Jewish jeweler by the name of Adam Hirschl. 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, 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,”
 “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).

Even the world famous “Aryan” author and literarist of which Wagner holds himself in comparison, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was not immune to criticism. His 1773 play Das Jahrmarktsfest zu Plundersweilern (Lumberville Fair) famously contains the line

"Und dieses schlaue Volk sieht einen Weg nur offen:
Solang die Ordnung steht, so lang hat's nichts zu hoffen.
Es nährt drum insgeheim den fast getüschten Brand,
Und eh wir's uns versehn, so flammt das ganze Land"

which, loosely translated, reads,

 "and this clever race only knows one truth: As long as there is order, there is nothing to gain. It secretly nourishes the kindling fire, and before we know it, the whole country is set ablaze."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Although conceived as a Schönbartspiel (a farcical play), many critics of Lumberville Fair would later cite such dialogue as evidence of an anti-Semitic streak in the celebrated author. 

Goethe was also a vocal supporter of the Heidelberg Professor appointed at Jena, Herr Jacob Friedrich Fries, an anti-emancipation advocate who penned a series of vitriolic essays himself, referring to Jews as both “ruinous for our people” and “petty thieves,” and warned his fellow countrymen that extending full civil rights to them would force Christian families into the yoke of serfdom.

Although publicly denouncing any previous anti-Semitic rhetoric in his autobiography Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, private exchanges between Goethe and the German art historian Boisserée reveal on the part of the literary icon a devout admiration for the stance held by Fries, as he remarks on the current climate in Thuringia surrounding the professor's imminent arrival:

“All of Jewry is trembling because their vicious opponent...of who I have made acquaintance...[Fries] is coming to Thuringia. According to ancient laws, Jews are not allowed to spend the night in Jena. This praiseworthy ordinance will probably be enforced better in the future than it has now." (Briefwechsel [of J. S. M. D. Boisserée] mit Goethe, 1862, pg. 119)

The famed writer further made his stance on Jewish emancipation clear when he wrote to confidante and Austrian actress Marianne von Willemer and her husband in Frankfurt:

"I am refraining from taking the side of any Jews or their friends."

Noted Hungarian composer and pianist, and father-in-law to Wagner, Franz Liszt came under fire  when anti-Semitic commentary on "the Israelites" appeared in his 19th century treatise "Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie." Although the offending material was later attributed to Liszt's longtime romantic partner, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, the damage to Franz' reputation had already begun to gain foothold, prompting the apologetic musician to later declare himself "no anti-Semite." 

Franz Liszt
For many, this apology was enough - but others could only find themselves in a quandary as to why Franz would surround himself with such vocal opponents of Jews. His favorite student, conductor Hans von Bülow, and even his daughter (and future wife of Wagner) Cosima were both famously unapologetic in their beliefs. Further compounding crtics' theory of a shared ideology was the reality that it was in fact Franz himself who aided in smuggling Wagner across the Western border into France from Weimar (where the fugitive composer escaped into Zurich) following the latter's alleged involvement with radicals at Dresden and the issuing of the Steckbrief.[3]

Thus, the document recently sold at Kedem is ripe with spectacle. 

However, owning such a piece of history, controversial though it may be - ironic, even, for said piece of history to be sold in Israel and purchased by an Israeli - remains quite the coup. The Schuré letter is a treasure to behold: a single, curated leaf that in sentiment reads like a tome on the socio-political and racial adversities (and triumphs) in the West from the not-so glorious past to the present day.

Indeed, the greatest indication of the zeitgeist of present theocratic / racial issues we all face today lay in yet another of the many ironies offered by the presence of this letter at Kedem: speaking with German news organization Deutsche Welle, a museum spokeswoman delivered what is arguably the most surprising aspect of the lot, when she informed the reporter that

“We have not been confronted by controversy regarding this item.”

Considering the un-official ban on Wagner’s oeuvre in Israel that persists to this day, perhaps - from a purely progressive perspective - that is the greatest gift of all.

Listen below to a modern revival of Wagner’s Tannhauser – 1861 French edition. It is widely believed the disastrous reception by the Parisian public to this particular version is what instilled in Wagner a life-long hatred of all things French – particularly the taste, or perceived lack thereof – of it’s high society (see footnotes). Nathalie Stutzmann conducts:

[1]Another possible guiding force behind Wagner re-publishing Das 1869, in addition to penning the letter to Schulé, may lay in the composer’s failure to make a success of himself in Paris. Just 10 years prior, Richard had relocated, not for the first time, to the French capital in order to oversee a new staging of Tannhäuser. He had fully expected to be received with much fanfare, having been in the professional and private circle of the of Princess Pauline von Metternich, whose husband was the Austrian Ambassador in Paris. However, such a destiny was not so for Wagner: the opera was a resounding critical and political flop – one which garnered a not insignificant amount of jeering from the audience in attendance at the 1961 performance with the Paris Opéra. Wagner never forgot this, and an intense hatred for all things French lit up like a raging bonfire in the composer’s breast – one which would burn for a lifetime.

[2]Heine was of Jewish descent. Although later baptized into the Protestant faith in hopes of obtaining greater employment potential, he refused to be known as a Protestant convert, declaring he was "merely baptized, not converted,” and, furthermore, that "from my way of thinking you can well imagine that baptism is an indifferent affair. I do not regard it as important even symbolically, and I shall devote myself all the more to the emancipation of the unhappy members of our race. Still I hold it as a disgrace and a stain upon my honor that in order to obtain an office in Prussia—in beloved Prussia—I should allow myself to be baptized."

Goethe was a German “Aryan,” as detailed above, and Meyerbeer - one of the targets in Wagner’s 1850 polemic, was Jewish.

[3]Public Notice, re: warrant of arrest for Richard Wagner. Learn more about the Steckbrief here on Unraveling Musical Myths.

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