Why Wagner Still Matters

One of the fallouts of WWII is that legitimate subjects, such as the concept of an ethnocentric character (e.g,. Germanness, Jewishness) is largely verboten as a subject… for gentile whites, that is. So, the notion of ‘Jewishness’ as reflected in music, a legitimate subject in aesthetics for 200 years (and still a legitimate subject today) cannot be discussed at all, except by Jews. So, in “Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters”, James Loeffler reviews Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, by Michael Haas. It is a characteristically liberal Jewish take on the whole subject, one that – despite caveats galore – still associates Wagner’s views on Jewish music as leading to the Holocaust. (From his other articles, Loeffler is obviously a Tribe member.)

What are we to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? The recent Wagner anniversary has brought a predictable amount of equivocation and hand-wringing about the German master’s role in the history of hate. We know by now not to read history backward. A nineteenth-century composer who died in 1883 cannot logically be accused of personal complicity in a twentieth-century genocide. Yet that does not mean that the broader question of his responsibility for the spread of modern anti-Semitism can be simply ignored. The issue cannot be brushed aside merely by reference to the fact that, as Daniel Barenboim and other commentators relish pointing out, Wagner loved a handful of Jews (albeit conditionally) and that many Jews (even Zionists) loved Wagner. The fact that there were and are Jewish Wagnerians is not a coherent answer to the question of Wagner’s prejudice against the Jews. Irony is no disclaimer. Nor, conversely, does the musicological obsession over whether Wagner secretly encoded anti-Jewish tropes into his compositions matter much beyond the precincts of academia. The real legacy of Wagner, one with which we are still living today, is nothing less than the sweeping imprint of racial ideology across the length and breadth of modern classical music.

Lots of “buts” and “yets” in this review. The contradiction in the following is not entirely lost on Loeffler, but it doesn’t vary much his solidarity with Haas:

Michael Haas makes this case powerfully in his important book. While the title misleadingly suggests a study devoted to the Holocaust era, Haas instead paints a group portrait of two generations of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Central European Jewish composers and critics locked in tortured relationships with their own racialized selves.

Sure, it’s a misleading title, but, hey, if it succeeds in painting the goyim as intrinsically anti-Semitic, so what?

Another example:

In the late eighteenth century, Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher and father of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, proposed a philosophy of Judaism that stressed its theological compatibility with European modernity. Against Kant’s less than enlightened view that Judaism was a religion of calcified legalism, Mendelssohn, an observant Jew, defended the rationality and the beauty of Jewish law. But at the same time he called on his fellow Jews to shed their odd folkways and their parochial cultural differences.

When philosophical giants like Hegel or Kant make empirical, and at a minimum eminently defensible, observations about Jews or Jewish behavior, they are invariably subjected to ad hominem attacks. So, a genius German philosopher like Immanuel Kant, by simply pointing out the sustained stereotype of Jews (having come from a long tradition of Talmudic hair-splitting) as being very legalistic, becomes “less than enlightened”.

But, in the same paragraph, Loeffler tacitly acknowledges another Jewish stereotype, noting how Mendelssohn “called on his fellow Jews to shed their odd folkways and their parochial cultural differences.” How would Loeffler have spun his paragraph if he had written “Wagner called on Jews to shed their odd folkways and their parochial cultural differences”? I can hazard to guess.

Yet another example. Loeffler quotes from Coningsby, the 1844 novel of Benjamin Disraeli, in a passage the Loeffler describes as “playfully” noting “the omnipresence of Jews in European musical life”:

Were I to enter into the history of the lords of melody, you would find it the annals of Hebrew genius. But at this moment even, musical Europe is ours. There is not a company of singers, not an orchestra in a single capital, that is not crowded with our children under the feigned names which they adopt to conciliate the dark aversion which your posterity will some day disclaim with shame and disgust. Almost every great composer, skilled musician, almost every voice that ravishes you with its transporting strains, springs from our tribes. The catalogue is too vast to enumerate; too illustrious to dwell for a moment on secondary names, however eminent. Enough for us that the three great creative minds to whose exquisite inventions all nations at this moment yield, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, are of Hebrew race; and little do your men of fashion, your muscadins of Paris, and your dandies of London, as they thrill into raptures at the notes of a Pasta or a Grisi, little do they suspect that they are offering their homage “to the sweet singers of Israel!”

With respect to Jewish domination of European classical music, it’s hard to imagine a more stridently ethnocentric passage as the above, complete with its defense and rationale of crypsis. And yet Loeffler, like many of his kind, equates the triumph of hidden Jewish ethnocentrism (at the expense of gentile ethnocentrism) as the triumph of universalism:

Disraeli’s proud Romantic tribute to Jewish genius contained more than a hint of hyperbole… But for all of its sentimental talk of a “Hebrew race,” its cultural logic belonged firmly to the same Enlightenment ethos that inspired the Mendelssohn clan’s devotion to music. In the eyes of Disraeli, the Jewish musical triumph was a humorous rebuff to lingering Christian religious prejudices. The spectacle of Jewish musical talent testified to civilization’s progress.

A ‘humorous rebuff’? To even notice this dynamic, qua Wagner, is to automatically be characterized as an ‘irrational’ anti-Semite:

This humane achievement is precisely what Wagner took aim at, six years later, in his commentary on the oversized Jewish presence in European music…

Wagner did not invent the language of musical anti-Judaism. As Ruth HaCohen has recently shown in her groundbreaking book The Music Libel Against the Jews, Christian Europe long obsessed over the sounds of Jewish difference. Out of the depths of the medieval Christian imagination came an aural dichotomy between the polluting noise of the synagogue and the harmony of the Church. In the nineteenth century, Romanticism introduced a new secular context. Now the artist’s nationality became the reference point for the art’s meaning. The successful composer tapped his national language to express his people’s cultural Volksgeist. Wagner combined these newer ideas of art and nationhood with the older “music libel.” The result was a potent new anti-Semitic myth.

What we are talking about here is, within the cultural movement of German Romanticism, the observation of a relative dissonance & atonality of Jewish music vs. the relative harmonies and tonality of German-Christian music, which is an empirical question. And the equally plausible thesis that the diasporic Jew might develop and different musical sensibility to the landed, mythopoetic German people:

“The Jew speaks the language of every country in which he has lived from generation to generation, but he always speaks it as a foreigner,” writes Wagner. Jews are a pariah nation with no land or language of their own. Hebrew has become a linguistic fossil; Yiddish is no more than a mangled dialect of German. But as a separate race, Jews by definition cannot integrate into other national cultures. Instead every individual Jew is indelibly marked by a “Semitic” accent, manifested in the “peculiarities of Jewish speech and singing.” This aural difference can be detected even among “assimilated” Jewish composers and poets. Conversion makes no difference. Consequently, Jews may achieve artistic renown, but they can never transcend their parasitic essence. They are destined to be aliens, imitators, and commercializers of other people’s cultures. In Wagner’s estimation, “Jewish music” (or better “Judaized music”) consists only of a negative image of the music of others. Rather than becoming good Jewish Germans, they turned Germans into Jews. Or, in the words of Haas, “Jews had masterminded an insidious deceit of racial camouflage that would eventually undermine German identity and its innate moral character.”

Woe! That dastardly Wagner! With the art, literature, and philosophy of German Romanticism seeking to define the contours of ‘Germanness’ and, ultimately incubating a German nationalism, unify disparate German peoples:

… Jewishness became an ideological litmus test to be applied to all performers, composers, and even critics. This binary division of the world into Judaizers and non-Judaizers seized German musical aesthetics as a whole. For Wagner’s ideas coincided with the mid-nineteenth-century split of German music into two factions. The Old School (defined stylistically, not chronologically) centered on Brahms and his followers. Though by no means artistic conservatives, they favored a Mendelssohnian ideal of music as an autonomous realm of beauty. Their rivals in the New German School of Wagner and Liszt (who also authored an anti-Semitic tract of his own) argued for the ideal of nationalism. Music’s fate was to serve as a vessel for political ideas, cultural forms, and social functions.

Wow. Even Liszt wrote an anti-Semitic tract. What a disease it must have been that caused (independently, and across the centuries, in countries as disparate as Germany, France, England, and Spain) such ‘irrational’, foam-at-the-mouth theses about Jews.

From roughly the 1880s through World War II, Wagnernian anti-Semitism seeped into every corner of European music, both popular and classical. It could be found just as commonly in Paris or Moscow as in Vienna.

Loeffler’s conclusion goes into full solidarity mode:

Haas’s title suggests a specific moment when the Holocaust stripped classical music of its Jewish voices, but his evidence proves that the purge had been happening all along. The Nazis invented a new kind of political terror, but the racial script that the public followed had been written long before.

Since the anti-Jewish musical myth well preceded the Holocaust, it easily withstood the destruction of the Nazi Reich. In many ways, it remains with us today. This is not simply a matter of Wagner’s hate literature resurfacing on the streets of Europe. It is also a question of the appalling ignorance of Jewish musical history in European and American conservatories and universities. (The same, unfortunately, might be said for the one place where an acute awareness of Wagner’s legacy lives on: Israel.) More disturbingly, the myth lingers in how we actually listen to our own collective musical past.

This entry was posted in History, Jewish, Music. Bookmark the permalink.