BOOK REVIEW / The ring of true contempt: Tim Jackson on a searching inquiry into Wagner's anti-Semitism : Wagner: Race and revolution - Paul Lawrence Rose: Faber, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
IN SEPTEMBER 1881, Richard Wagner had a slight run-in with King Ludwig II of Bavaria over the question of who should conduct the first performance of the composer's new opera. The king thought that his own conductor, Hermann Levi, should do it. Wagner disagreed. He had nothing against Jews personally, he said, but 'many astonished complaints have reached me,' he wrote to the monarch, 'that Parsifal, this completely Christian work, should be directed by a Jewish conductor'.

Unfortunately, the king did not get the point. Taking at face value Wagner's protests that he was not an anti-Semite, he wrote back warmly a month later: 'That you, dearest friend, should make no division between Christian and Jew in the performance of your sacred work, is good indeed. There is nothing so repellent, so unpleasant, as such animosities. Men are fundamentally all brothers, despite their difference of religion.'

Wagner exploded when he received this letter. Since he depended on the king's patronage for the financial success of his venture, the composer had not felt able to express very firmly what he felt. In private with his wife Cosima, however, he felt no need to restrain himself. He denounced 'the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and all that is noble in man', and raged that the king tolerated Jews only because 'these people never impinge upon the royal circle . . . whereas for us they are a practical fact'.

Angrily, however, he acceded to the king's request and came to terms with the idea that Levi should conduct the opera at Bayreuth. But Wagner got his way in the end. At the last performance of Parsifal in 1882, he took the baton away from the Jewish conductor and led the last act himself.

In this startling and original book, exploding beyond doubt all protestations to the contrary, Professor Paul Lawrence Rose shows that Wagner was a virulent racist. He maps out the composer's conversion to systematic anti-Semitism in 1847 or 1848, and explains how it was partly the result of disappointments of his early career - disappointments which the young Wagner blamed, quite wrongly, on the influence of prominent musical Jews such as Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn. Whatever its cause, in 1850 Wagner published an embittered essay, Judaism in Music, attaching to the Jews all the musical faults the Germany in which he lived.

Some Wagnerians have argued that his essay was to be read metaphorically: the destruction with which he threatened the Jews in the essay was not physical, but a spiritual death that would precede rebirth through Christian baptism. But Rose shows that there was more to it than that. Like Hitler, Wagner was tortured by a secret fear that he himself had some Jewish blood.

His own writings, and the records of his table-talk in his wife's diaries, are peppered with comments that show his racism to have been worryingly practical. When reports reached Wagner of the Russian pogroms of the early 1880s, in which thousands of Jews were killed, his response was brisk: 'That is the only way it can be done, by throwing these fellows out and giving them a good thrashing.'

He wanted Jews to be forbidden to observe their own religious holidays, and deplored the fact that they were allowed to build their 'boastful synagogues'. He disapproved of the fact that Jews had been granted civil rights in Germany, and believed that Bismarck's Reich had been infected with Jewishness. With a chilling clairvoyance of the gas chambers, he even referred to some medicine that contained chlorine as 'Jew-caustic'.

But Wagner was no ordinary anti-Semite. 'Far from being some crassly rabid nationalist,' argues Rose, he was actually 'a revolutionary who preached that the Jews were the emblem of inhumanity and the greatest obstacle to human liberation.'

In concocting his theory of the Jews, Wagner leaned heavily on his reading of contemporary sources - Schopenhauer, Darwin and the racist thinkers Gleizes and Gobineau - but also borrowed from the 'blood libel' of medieval Christians, who accused the Jews of drinking the blood of Catholic children on the festival of Passover. He ended up with a mysticism that at first sight seemed Christian, but in fact rejected all of Christianity's Jewish elements. His wife quoted him as getting 'heated about the assumption that Jesus was a Jew'.

Wagner's Christianity dispensed with the tiresome details of the Ten Commandments (particularly the one about other people's wives, which had proved irksome in Wagner's case), and replaced the King of the Jews with a blond redeemer whose message was less about rules of conduct in daily life than about a sweeping vision of the triumph of the German people. His, in short, was an Aryan Christ.

With 41 pages of notes and an exhaustive index, Rose provides enough evidence to win his point that Wagner was indeed a determined racist. He then goes on to ask the natural question: should that stop us from wanting to see his operas? On its own, clearly, Wagner's racism cannot be sufficient to condemn his work. There have been plenty of great leaders and artists whom you would not want to invite to dinner.

Campaigners against Wagner's music - notably those in Israel, which still maintains a nominal ban on the performance of his work - have done so mainly because of its associations with the Nazis. Hitler not merely adored the music, but recognised its composer as the only political precursor of National Socialism. It was Wagner's music that played as prisoners were marched off the trains and into the death camps. And Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred, was the friend who brought to Hitler's prison in the 1920s the paper on which he wrote Mein Kampf.

In 1936, touring in his private train through the Rhineland, 'seeing the red glow of the Ruhr furnaces at night, Hitler was overcome by euphoria and called for a gramophone. Listening to the prelude of Parsifal, he meditated: 'I have built up my religion out of Parsifal . . . One can serve God only in the garb of the hero.' '

This makes it easy to see why the victims of the Nazis and their families should want nothing to do with Wagner - just as they shun the Volkswagen, designed by Dr Porsche as Hitler's People's Car, and Daimler-Benz, the maker of the Gestapo's black limousines. But on its own the association is not enough to condemn Wagner for everyone else.

Rose's analysis, though, has another twist. With admirable documentation, he goes through the operas and uncovers a musical and dramatic expression of the composer's racism. There are no overtly Jewish characters, he admits, though Wagner did identify Kundry in Parsifal as a kind of Wandering Jew, and gave Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger a wailing theme that was a cruel parody of Jewish liturgical music. But Rose goes further, and identifies in Alberich a symbol of a Jewish lust for power; in Beckmesser, the inability of Jews to embrace true German art; and in Klingsor, a Jew who aspires 'to membership of the Grail brotherhood', but is then turned away 'because he is incapable of genuine love and so cannot understand the Grail's meaning'.

Rose concludes that 'Wagner's revolutionary anti-Semitism is not something incidental that can easily be regretted and put aside . . . Hatred of Jewishness is the hidden agenda of virtually all the operas.' He asks us to listen, for example, to the 'ferocity' of Siegfried's funeral music, 'breathtaking in its violence as well as its grandeur. One might claim that it is worth paying the price of emotional shame to hear such music. But then compare it with its model, Beethoven's Eroica funeral march. Here one has the same magnificence, but without the shameful cruelty and hatred which permeate Wagner's work'.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this book. First, it helps to explain the extraordinary power of Wagner's music: its emotional appeal, Rose suggests, is to violence and paganism. The excitement you experience during the second half of Parsifal is not a true religious excitement; it is a variation, albeit an infinitely more beautiful and sophisticated one, of the excitement of Hitler's rallies at Nuremberg. Wagnerian grandeur is like an Egyptian temple: the result of decades of work by thousands of slaves, shockingly magnificent in its contempt for common humanity.

The second conclusion is a paradox. Rose admits that the 'hidden agenda' he detects in Wagner has to be 'elicited' from the operas, and can only be understood with a proper grasp of the political background of the composer's lifetime. For those who have read this book, Wagner's operas will never be the same again. But to those who have not read it, the politics will remain hidden. They may continue to hear the Ring, ignorant and in bliss.

(Photograph omitted)