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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

On Wagner

by Norman Lebrecht / July 26, 2000

An orchestral veteran was telling me in the Garrick the other day how Sir Thomas Beecham sent him to Bayreuth in 1934 to buy some heavy-metal instruments for a Ring at Covent Garden. The young visitor was adopted by Bayreuth's principal hornist, who was so taken with his 'kleiner Englander' that, between acts, he rushed over to Winifred Wagner, the English-born festival director, and formally introduced him. Frau Wagner, in return, presented her companion for the evening - and that's how my friend John became one the few English musicians to shake the hand of Adolf Hitler.

No assessment of the Wagner problem - we don't call it the Jewish problem any more - can ignore the intimacy that prevailed between his family and the Führer, or the influence his music exerted over the regime. Winifred became an ardent supporter from the day Hitler paid homage at Bayreuth in October 1923; she may even have supplied the materials on which he wrote Mein Kampf during his spell in prison after the Munich beer-hall putsch that year.

Her son, Wolfgang, the present master of Bayreuth, maintains that their friendship was 'private' rather than ideological, and that his mother exploited it during the Third Reich 'to augment the independence of the festival and of herself as its director.' This is a shameless lie. Nowhere was Nazism more joyously embraced than at the Wagner shrine. 'Bayreuth this year resembles a Hitler festival,' reported the Manchester Guardian in August 1933. As for any notion of artistic independence, Winifred Wagner herself told Richard Strauss that 'nothing happens in Bayreuth that does not originate with the Führer, or has not been confirmed by him.'

Wolfgang, still clinging to his post at 80 years old against attacks from his estranged children, is the last relic of the axis between Hitler and the Wagners. Although he has employed Jewish conductors and Marxist directors at Bayreuth, Wolfgang has persistently whitewashed the role his family and its festival played in Nazi polity and mythology. The Green Hill at Bayreuth is a slippery slope that cannot be climbed with a clear conscience until the stonewalling Wolfgang is relieved of his sceptre.

But that is peripheral to the main issue, which is whether Wagner's music should still be perceived through the prism of a brief association. The importance of Richard Wagner and his music to Hitler and his methods cannot be denied. The composer's dream of a German 'national art', along with his outspoken hatred of Jews, provided a form of cultural-spiritual legitimisation for Nazi xenophobia, and implicitly for genocide. Hitler revered Wagner. He regarded not the Ring but Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the acme of German art, both as a model for state-art relations and as a template for his own demagoguery. According to the historian Michael Kater in his book The Twisted Muse (Oxford, 1997), Hitler structured his speeches on the dynamics of Die Meistersinger in order to achieve maximum impact. It was to Wagner's rhythms that Hitler rose to power and with his rhetoric that Jews were purged from Germany.

Yet, in common with most men of genius, there was more than one face to Wagner. The arch-reactionary adored by Hitler was also a luminary of progress, both politically and artistically. In the 1848 revolutions, the supposedly autocratic Wagner sided with the anarchists and befriended their leader, Bakunin. His views on Jews, while unpleasant, were not untinged by respect. His Ring epic can be construed not as a glorification of power but as a warning against its abuse.

Musically, Wagner was the forerunner of all that is modern. Tristan is a five hour tutorial in the disintegration of tonality. Parsifal points to the possibility of redemption through art. To musicians living at the end of the romantic era, Wagner was the counterweight to sickly suffocation. On learning of his death in February 1883, the young Gustav Mahler ran weeping through the streets of Olmütz.

Both as polemicist and composer, Wagner is too interesting and too elusive to be hitched exclusively to a right-wing agenda and a long-dead regime - and each time the Jewish debate on Wagner gets reheated (as it does in the Jewish Chronicle every few months), the linkage grows weaker. Half a year into a new millennium, it seems ridiculous to worry whether Wagner was good or bad for the Jews. The sustained ban on his music in Israel ensures only that the pews at Bayreuth are packed each summer by wealthy Israelis, who pretend they are doing something extra-naughty, like eating pork on the ninth of Av fast, which some of them may also be doing. Israel, which sends gender-benders to Eurovision and welcomes paedophile pop-stars, cannot surely pretend that Wagner is a greater contaminant.

More than half a century after the Nazi aberration, Wagner is just another composer. His anti-semitism is no more relevant to art than Michelangelo's. If I have to witness one more Ring clad with Belsen barbed-wire I shall either scream or throw up. Enough, already.

Whatever it was that inspired Hitler, Wagner will never inflame another agitator, nor will he affect the German future. It was Beethoven they played, not Wagner, when the country was reunified. Jews, too, need feel no cause for discomfort. It is time for them to give Wagner a break and find another composer to fight over.


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999