The Magazine

Ring's Inner Circle

Refurbishing the house that Richard Wagner built.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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So Wagner elevates his heroes and heroines still higher than his noble artistic predecessors did, to the plane of the superhuman. Lohengrin in the 1850 opera of that name is an ideal knight who appears from nowhere in a boat pulled by a swan to save a damsel in distress, and his chivalric prowess proves to be the work of the Holy Grail's sacred magic--music of what Thomas Mann called a silver-blue hue evokes shining manly virtue and fateful love.

In Tristan und Isolde (1865) the nonpareil knight and the Irish princess drink a love potion that launches them into transports exceeding by far not only the hottest operatic passions of other composers but, indeed, the known bounds of human longing. Death alone can rightfully consummate such desire, and Isolde's climactic Liebestod, as she joins her slain lover in night's kingdom, is music of incomparable, harrowing rapture.

In the Ring (1869-1876), Siegfried, the human grandson of the supreme god Wotan, literally does not know what fear is, slays the dragon Fafner guarding the hoard of gold that represents the moral tribulation of gods and men and dwarfish Nibelungs, wins the love of Wotan's disowned daughter Brünnhilde by plunging through the wall of magic fire with which her father surrounded her, and is murdered by a treacherous spear thrust in the back, earning a funeral march as majestic in its keening as that in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

The eponymous hero of Parsifal (1882), "a pure fool, knowing through compassion," resists the seduction of the immemorial temptress Kundry, who has woefully roamed the earth in various incarnations since mocking Christ on the via dolorosa, and foils the evil wizardry of Klingsor, a renegade knight of the Grail, catching in mid-air the spear that Klingsor hurls at him and that had once pierced Christ's side, and making the sign of the cross with it. Parsifal's rule revives the moribund Order of the Grail, and the opera--which Wagner declared was not an opera at all but a "stage-consecrating festival play"--ends with the elevation of the Grail, the chalice that was used at the Last Supper and into which Christ's blood flowed when He was on the cross, to music that answers the human cry for the numinous with a heart-wringing imperious warmth.

That so illustrious an artist as
Wagner should be a moral imbecile is not a unique turn of events, but it is a profoundly disheartening one. Wagner was a very public Jew-hater, and his anti-Semitism was so intense and pervasive that it appears to have leached into his best operas. His most defensive defenders squirm every which way to deny it, but it is pretty well undeniable that villains such as Kundry, Alberich, and Mime in the Ring, and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, are Jewish caricatures.

The origins of Wagner's hatred bubble in the usual darkness. Poverty early in his career did not prevent him from indulging expensive tastes, and the need to borrow money led him to "Jewish scum" when "our people" failed to extend him credit. His resentment of the moneylenders and pawnbrokers was outdone, however, by his hatred for Giacomo Meyerbeer, the titanically successful operatic composer whom he imitated in the 1847 Rienzi, whose support he importuned and received, and whom he repudiated in a letter to Robert Schumann as "a source whose very smell I find repulsive."

In his 1850 pamphlet Jewishness in Music, written to settle Meyerbeer's hash, Wagner derided the "gurgle, yodel, and cackle" of Hebrew sacred song, compared the effect of "Judaic works of music" to that of a Goethe poem rendered in Yiddish, and adjudged Jewish attempts to make art as issuing in "coldness and indifference, even to the point of triviality and absurdity." His own success did not mellow him; the swamp fever only got worse with age. The so-called "regeneration" essays he wrote late in life, Carr declares,

railed against Jewish influence in the press, scorned state moves to bring about full Jewish emancipation, and even called Jews "the plastic demon of the decline of mankind." It is hard to be sure just what he meant by "plastic demon," but it sounds pretty dreadful and that, no doubt, was the main thing.

In private he was even more malignant: His wife Cosima (1837-1930) records in her notorious diary that, in 1881 at a performance of Lessing's rather preachy play advocating tolerance toward the Jews, Nathan the Wise, Wagner said jocularly that such a performance would be just the occasion to round the Jews up and burn them all.