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Germany celebrates bicentennial of Richard Wagner


Germany today celebrated the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner, the 19th-century composer whose music has been hailed as sublime art at the height of Western culture even as he remains tainted by his visceral anti-Semitic views, which later found favour with the Nazis.

Wagner's birthplace of Leipzig, the nearby city of Dresden — where he was appointed chief conductor at the Saxon royal court — and Bayreuth, which hosts an annual festival of the composer's work, are all staging events this week in honour of his bicentennial.

German tenor Jonas Kaufmann starred in a concert by Dresden's Staatskapelle last night, with Christian Thielemann conducting parts of "Der Fliegende Hollaender," "Lohengrin" and "Tannhaeuser" in front of an audience that included thousands gathered around the city's Semperoper opera house.

A monument to the composer — showing a young Wagner overshadowed by his older, famous self — is to be unveiled today in Leipzig. Some of his works will also be performed in Bayreuth, where the composer's descendants preside over a Wagner festival every year.

The glut of Wagner celebrations, which include performances at major concert houses throughout the year, has been accompanied by a fresh examination of the composer's racist views.

Adolf Hitler was counted among the ardent fans of the man who once wrote: "I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it."

Wagner's association with the Nazis, even though he died 50 years before Hitler came to power, means Wagner's music is rarely played in Israel.

Writing in the German daily Die Welt, the composer's great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner said she wished she could ask him "where you got your terrible anti-Semitism from, which still casts a shadow, maybe even blackens your work today."

Earlier this month, a modern version of "Tannhauser" was cancelled in Germany after the opening-night audience complained about new scenes showing Jews being executed and dying in Holocaust gas chambers. The Duesseldorf opera company insisted that it never aimed to hurt viewers' feelings.

"This is not about mocking the victims, but mourning them," the director, Christoph Meyer, said.

For many in Germany, and elsewhere, Wagner's ambivalence is summed up in the way works such as his opera cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen" — with its famous "Ride of the Valkyries" — can stir listeners into a frenzy.

"Wagner means total ecstasy," Maria Ossowski, a German art reporter and Wagner fan, told Berlin's rbb Inforadio. "Yes, he was a terrible person, but his music was grandiose."