Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) was a German composer, conductor and librettist, best known for his operas or “Music Dramas”. His most famous works are those completed during the mid to late nineteenth century and include “The Flying Dutchman” (Der fliegende Holländer), “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin”, collectively known as his Romantic Operas.
His later works included “Tristan und Isolde” (Tristan and Isolde), the comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), Parsifal, and his masterwork “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung), a four-piece operatic cycle, played over four evenings, running to some fifteen hours and composed over a period of around twenty six years. Wagner has also become known for his extensive use of the Leitmotif technique where a musical phrase is associated with a character in the performance and is played when that character is active on stage.
Much of Wagner’s work is concerned with Germanic and Norse mythology and has become associated with nationalism to a degree that perhaps no other composer has matched.
This association with nationalism has come about due to a concatenation of factors including those from Wagner himself; the pomp and boldness of his music, his essays and books and his published opinions. A by-product of these opinions (of which more later) was that right-wing nationalist factions in Wagner’s homeland of Germany appropriated the composer’s output for their own means until the two were inseparable to the wider world. The primary faction in question was, of course, the Nazi movement in 20th Century Europe, led by Adolf Hitler.
Wagner famously held outspoken anti-Semitic views and even went as far as publishing an essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Judaism in Music (see link below)) which made broad attacks on Jewish musical output and, perhaps more controversially, Wagner’s erstwhile companion and fellow composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer, along with Felix Mendelssohn.
The essay comments on, among other topics, Wagner’s opinion regarding the inability of Jewish composers to write music of any depth, of Jewish singers to pronounce elegantly and therefore perform with grace, and even his dislike of the physical appearance of the Jewish peoples. The comments are broad, sweeping and harsh, and are now generally believed to have been lifted from works of previous authors and collated in this piece.
Adolf Hitler was an ardent aficionado of Wagner. Having been exposed to the opera “Lohengrin” in his early teens, the man that would become Chancellor of Germany during the years of depression following the First World War soon became entranced by the dramatic output of the composer and it could only have been a matter of time before Hitler became aware of Wagner’s socio-political leanings. As Hitler progressed within German politics his influence spread in strength and breadth, and the Wagnerian soundtrack grew with it. The dictator frequently attended the Bayreuth Festival, staying in Villa Wahnfried, Wagner’s home in the town, and maintaining close contact with Wagner’s descendants.
Little wonder then that, over time, the work of Wagner has become associated with the rise of the Nazi regime and, as a consequence, anti-Semitism although an important consideration should be that Wagner was by no means unique in exhibiting overtly racist politics. Many left-wing thinkers held the Jews to be responsible for helping to fund bourgeois society during the failed nineteenth-century socialist revolutions including composers such as Mussorsky, Chopin and, to a lesser extent, Liszt. It might be seen that although Wagner had clear anti-Semitic politics, they were amplified by Hitler until we can’t think of one without the other.
As an interesting aside, when West Indian migrant workers came to the UK in the 1950s they bought with them a heavily rhythmic music (Ska) that was adopted by the nascent Skinhead movement in London. Early Skinheads weren’t racist (many being black) and were only interested in their youth culture and music as can be seen in such bands as The Specials and The Selecter. It wasn’t until the late 70s that violent racist groups in UK cities adopted the Skinhead look, ultimately sealing the fate of Skinheads to be known as racist themselves, and taking areas of Punk and Oi! music with it. Skinheads and Two Tone are making a positive effort to take it back.
When listening to Wagner’s music we must recall that the politics, opinions and broad educational awareness were a lot different to our own more enlightened times. When referring to the Black population in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the “N-word” was commonly and openly used, prejudices against ethnic or cultural minorities weren’t as vilified as they are today, and universal education and access to literature was still somewhat limited to the wealthy few that had the time and money for such lofty pursuits. This doesn’t excuse Wagner’s writings but maybe it might help us to understand the world in which he lived.