Point/Counterpoint: Wagner and his Anti-Semitism

PRO: History’s artistic canon is rife with many names revered for their artistic accomplishments, despite glaring shortcomings of personality. Be that as it may, to blindly accept an artist’s work with no regard for their personal philosophy requires a forced ignorance of an inescapable aspect of the art.

Richard Wagner is a perfect example of one such name. Wagner is commonly considered one of the greatest operatic composers of all time, perhaps second only to Mozart; however, unlike Mozart, Wagner was a well documented anti-Semite. He is responsible for influential and beloved operas such as “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (the Ring Cycle) and “Tristan und Isolde,” but he is also responsible for writings such as the infamous “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Jewishness in Music), in which he asserts that Jewish musicians are not capable of producing true, meaningful art due to lacking the genuine German spirit. In this same essay, he suggests that Jews can only be redeemed by “going under,” most likely meaning total social assimilation into German culture.

To laud Wagner’s music is not bad per se, but to do so without at least some acknowledgement of its roots is ignorant. To this day, attempts to stage Wagner’s operas in Israel have provoked protests and uproar. Art is irrevocably connected to the views and emotions of its creator, as it stems directly from the creator’s mind. Art cannot be viewed in a vacuum, as much as people may wish to discuss art within a hypothetical space. It is not possible to set up “The Ring Cycle” as an isolated system as one might for a physics problem, because that runs counter to the very nature of the art itself. Artistic expression is messy and human, and to attempt to view Wagner’s works completely independently of Wagner’s beliefs is to sterilize and strip away parts of the works.

Art is informed and influenced by the views and emotions of the artist, whether it be by conscious effort or subconscious stimulation. For someone like Wagner, whose works directly addressed issues of German nationalism and who wrote prolifically on his philosophical and political views, the crossovers between the realms of the artist and his art are numerous. One might argue that Wagner’s work is beautiful despite the man, and that a listener could appreciate it without worrying about his anti-Semitism. While it may be possible to enjoy Wagner’s music with blinders on, can it still be called Wagner’s music when one removes Wagner from the equation?

—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at tang@college.harvard.edu.

CON: Richard Wagner’s influence on Western music has always been tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism. His essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” attacks Jewish musicians in the spirit of German nationalism, even going as far to claim that it is impossible for Jews to produce music that isn’t shallow or artificial.

Should Wagner’s legacy and place in the musical canon be compromised by his political views? Although it may be difficult to isolate a composer’s work from his person when evaluating his legacy, it is ultimately incredibly important to do so out of fairness to the artist.

Wagner’s work was extremely influential in the development of classical music in the 20th century. He was known for his operas of unprecedented scale, and he revolutionized Western tonality; many musicologists cite the “Tristan” chord in the opening of his opera “Tristan und Isolde” as the point at which music begins to move towards atonality, a trend that continues today.

The shadow of Anti-Semitism continues to haunt Wagner’s image despite his musical achievement. It is difficult, if not impossible, to divorce an artist from his or her personality. However, when assessing a composer’s place in the musical canon or a legacy, this is an important step to take, since it makes little sense to analyze a composer on both the musical and political spectra, just as one would not value a politician on his compositional merit. Although some of Wagner’s operas are influenced by politics, it would be illogical to equate his music and his views.

Today, Wagner’s music has developed a life of its own separate of his personal life allowing us to judge him on his musical merit alone. We hear his influence on tonality in impressionism, surrealism, and even film scores, whereas “Jewishness in Music” has simply become an example of his narrow-mindedness. As much as we should condemn him for harboring and spreading his prejudiced views, Wagner’s influence as a composer has far outlived his influence as an anti-Semite. Historically, Wagner’s incredibly vast influence on music transcends his shortcomings and cannot be discredited.

—Staff writer Se-Ho Kim can be reached at sehokim@college.harvard.edu.

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