Is the tide turning?

I had hoped when I started this blog that the year after the Wagner bi-centenary would bring some badly needed more sober views on Wagner. While the first half of the year was fairly quiet, as I expected it to be after the storm of the previous year, the begining of the second half is promising indeed.

First there was a statement by Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, as part of an interview he gave to Huffington Post concerning the controversy over the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” (I will not deal with this subject here since it is not the theme of the blog):

  • So why object to this opera, and not to performances of others in the canon, such as Richard Wager’s “Der Meistersinger,” which some say embraces common anti-Semitic stereotypes once prevalent in 19th Century Germany?

Wagner’s operas are undeniable masterpieces. He was a flawed genius whose anti-Semitism came through in his voluminous writings and may have been woven into the ideological framework of some of his operas. But Wagner’s opera are fictional and modern performances are contextualized with commentary, and his operas are no longer controversial or contentious.


Foxman clearly not only doesn’t accept claims of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s musical works as fact but also claims that in the modern era they are in no way “controversial or contentious”.


But the real bombshell of the summer came in the form of Joachim Kohler’s article for The Wagner Journal. For those not familiar with his work, Joachim Kohler wrote in the late 1990s a book called “Wagner’s Hitler”, in which he outlined a thesis that Hitler had in fact through his career only implemented a plan Wagner had layed out in his musical and prose works. This made him a hero of the anti-Wagner cottege industry but recognized authorities on both Hitler and Wagner often derided his book. Over the years, Kohler continued to write on the subject of Wagner and added to his opus “Wagner: The last of the Titans”, a biographical book. Though not without some highly questionable claims, the book was an improvement over the previous one and signaled that, perhaps, the author was changing his attitude. Last year, in an interview for Der Spiegel Kohler laconically acknowledged the error of his previous ways:

As he sits there, Köhler comes across as a non-believer, a critic who became a disciple, and he clearly rejects the thesis of his book, when he says: “I no longer see Hitler being directly influenced by Wagner. Hitler didn’t become Hitler because he listened to ‘Rienzi’.”

With the aforementioned article in “The Wagner Journal” titled  “Wagner’s Acquittal” Kohler’s Road to Damascus is complete. He now holds an opinion diametrically opposite of the one he held in the 1990s. Here are excerpts from the article (via The Wagnerian and Think Classical):

“The latter crime (Wagner’s influence upon the Third Reich) was alleged by me, amongst others, and since then by a large and constantly growing number of Wagner experts. When a ‘moral sledgehammer’ is being wielded,contradiction is difficult. I risk it nevertheless.  This charge was supported by the unquestionable fact that Bayreuth and the Wagner family encouraged Hitler’s rise and had virtually adopted him into the family. But – as I see it today – this elective affinity [Wahlverwandtschaft] occurred decades after Wagner’s death. It is historically incorrect to equate the Bayreuth clan, including the heavyweight propagandist of anti-Semitism, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, with Richard Wagner. Wagner was never a narrow-minded sectarian, unlike his wife Cosima.
I have to jump in with my own comment concerning the part in bold: Hermann Levi came to the exact same conclusion in the 1880s! Kohler goes on:
“Wagner always considered himself a spiritual revolutionary whose concern was the liberation of human beings, including the Jews, from their so-called ‘curse’.
This is as close to a concise, precise definition of Wagner as anything I have ever seen! It’s so ironic that Kohler, of all people, thought it up! And talking of Jews, Kohler also shows what is it that Wagner meant by “Judentum” – “Jewishness”:
Generally, the term ‘Jewry’ was not understood as referring to the sum total of Jewish persons, as is taken for granted today, but rather to the alleged ‘Jewish essence’—that is, egoism and greed—with which, of course, non-Jews could also be imbued. Vice versa, Jews infected by the Christian ideal of love could become free human beings—what Wagner believed to have discovered in the case of Ludwig Börne, for instance.
Another great misconception Kohler manages to debunk is the alleged obsession Wagner had with the Jews:
Anti-Semitism, allegedly Wagner’s most important concern, did not stand at the centre of his life. As deduced from his dramas and voluminous writings, his main interests were theatre and philosophy. In both his most significant literary works,Oper und Drama and Mein Leben, anti-Semitism plays practically no role. If at all, it is found in the philosophical works, and there, too, it is never pivotal. … No, anti-Semitism was not the theme of his life, as the prosecution claims. It was one theme among indescribably many, including an avowed liking for Jewish friends and associates.
And for those screaming “Cosima’s diaries”, Kohler gives those the treatment they long deserved, namely: sound scepticism over their content:
Cosima’s diaries also contain disparaging remarks – what share she herself had in these ‘Wagner quotations’ will never be resolved. That she worked with him on his late writings coloured by anti-Semitism, indeed intensified’ them, is well known. On 11 February 1881, she wrote in her diary that, at her instigation, Wagner had changed his infamous essay ‘Know Thyself’.
And finally, not only does Kohler debunk the misconceptions on Wagner he himself was also victim of, he gives the root cause of that:
The magic bullet always chosen by Wagner’s prosecutors is to quote relevant ‘passages’ from his books. Simply quoting is good enough for writing new books, but it is not sufficient to establish whether a defendant has actually committed the crime with which he has been charged. No phrase is intelligible by itself. It changes its meaning depending on the context in which it was spoken or written. In order to be able to understand Wagner, it is not enough to quote short extracts from his books or tendentious diary entries penned by his anti-Jewish wife. You must know Wagner’s context. But it should also be evident that one cannot speak about a single context. There is, to name just a few, the artistic, the philosophical, the political, the financial, also the private context.
Are these a watershed or merely blips of truth in a sea of distortions? It depends on whether all of us who know the real Wagner are ready to state our case forcefully and unapologetically. The case of Joachim Kohler is living proof that the truth is on our side.

The Valkyries, the Apocalypse and the Original Sin when it comes to reading Wagner

„Ride of the Valkyries“ is without a doubt the most instantly recognizeable Wagner tune. Even those with the most superficial knowledge of classical music know it’s name and it’s composer. But if the composer could have had his way it would never have happened…


Ever since it first saw the light of day in Munich 1870, the Prelude to Act 3 of „Die Walkure“ as the tune is „officially“ known has been hotly sought after as a standalone piece. Very few people know that Wagner, sensing that the piece could be abused if taken out of context of the drama itself, fought tooth and nail against this. In the entry for Christmas day 1872 we find these words from Cosima’s diaries: “Unsavoury letters arrive for R. – requests for the „Ride of the Valkyries“ and I don’t know what else.” After the financially disastrous first Bayreuth festival of 1876, Wagner relented because he needed the money…


As it turns out, Wagner’s fears were in fact, prophetic. Over the decades, „Ride of the Valkyries“ has been (ab)used as a musical background in more ways then can be sufficiently recounted. Today it stands in the mind of the general public as a quintessential war-like piece. Much of it is a consequence of various WWII German newsreels which had been using it as soundtrack for battle scenes, and in modern times such perception has been reinforced with Francis Ford-Coppola’s „Apocalypse now“ and the classic scene depicting the helicopter attack on the Vietnamese village. More often then not, „Ride of the Valkyries“ was given a sinister conotation when used as musical background.Thus Wagner’s worst fears were realized and the use of the „Ride of the Valkyries“ has become somewhat of a microcosmic symbol of the (mis)use of Wagner’s works.


The main characteristic of Wagner’s works, whether musical or prose, is that one can not take out a soundbite, a tune, a sentence or even an excerpt and present it as the whole message of the work itself. The work as a whole needs to be understood first and only in the context of the work as a whole can it’s parts be used properly. The Original Sin of Wagner interpretationsis precisely that kind of reverse analysis, a generalization of a part to the work as a whole. It is from here that all the myths and legends about Wagner and his works come from, some of which have long since taken a life of their own. Thus we have a situation that the composer who had despised war and militarism like nothing else, is seen as the prime composer of militaristic music.


There are various reasons why such misinterpretations exist. Most are benign, others not so. In the case of „Ride of the Valkyries“ it is, I believe, due to the emotional effect it has on people. It is this sort of emotional effect that Francis Ford-Coppolla attempted to convey to the viewers of his film, and he did it with considerable success. In principle, however, the use of „Ride of the Valkyries“ in „Apocalypse now“ is the prime example of how Wagner’s works should not be used!


Or do I take Wagner a bit too seriously?

In honour of The Master’s 201st birthday



Here is a text from one Deems Taylor, written in 1938 but still relevant:


 He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body — a sickly little man. His nerves were     bad. He had skin trouble. It was agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And he had delusions of grandeur.

He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people, except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself; in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to set him off on a harangue that might last for hours, in which he proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, would agree with him, for the sake of peace.

It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun, including vegetarianism, the drama, politics, and music; and in support of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books  — thousands upon thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote these things, and published them — usually at somebody else’s expense — but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and his family.


He wrote operas, and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story, but he would invite — or rather summon — a crowed of his friends to his house, and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music, needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite eminent vocalists to his house and sing them his operas, taking all the parts.


He had the emotional stability of a six-year-old child. When he felt out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and talk darkly of going to the East to end his days as a Buddhist monk. Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or stand on his head. He could be grief-stricken over the death of a pet dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have made a Roman emperor shudder.


He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him that he was under any obligation to do so. He was convinced that the world owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from everybody who was good for a loan — men, women, friends, or strangers. He wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame, at other loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the recipient declined the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying or repaying money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon it.


What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah. The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his prospective royalties. No one will ever know — certainly he never knew — how much money he owed. We do know that his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000 to pay the most pressing of his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him $16,000 to enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for debt.


He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of women marched through his life. His first wife spent twenty years enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted friend and admirer, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was writing to a friend to inquire whether he could suggest some wealthy woman — any wealthy woman — whom he could marry for her money.


He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His liking for his friends was measured solely by the completeness of their devotion to him, or by their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute they failed him — even by so much as refusing dinner invitation — or began to lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known even in middle age.

The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have said about him you can find on record — in newspapers, in police reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters, between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.


Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s greatest dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living.

When you consider what he wrote — thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably worth ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces — when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Think of the luxury with which for a time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand dollars’ worth of debts were not too heavy a price to pay for the Ring cycle.


What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been conceived by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor brain and body didn’t burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy that lived inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius. Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?

Bashing Wagner is obligatory, telling the truth is optional

The clip above is a documentary about Richard Wagner made by the American network PBS. It has some worthwhile facts about Wagner presented by (half)legitimate scholars and in a fairly agreeable and colourful manner too. Sadly, the film suffers from the usual moralistic waxing about Wagner the man and his legacy all looked through the glass of temporary standards instead of putting it all in the proper context. It could even be overlooked if it wasn’t for patently false and slanderous claims presented along the way.

The film gets off the wrong foot right from the beginning when the first person inteviewed , a survivor from Aushhwitz(who, just like other participants, was not identified which is the film’s major flaw; I recognized some of the people in it but someone not versed into Wagner most certainly could not do so) stated that:”Wagner was the first to preach the separation of races, the first who defined the concept of a master race”. This claim is false, from the first letter to the last! I can vouch with my life that Wagner never said or wrote any such a thing! Even more egregious then the claim itself is it’s treatment by the authors of the film who left it unchallenged and prepared the usually not very knowledgeable average viewer into accepting the distorted picture of Wagner as some sort of a psychpath.

The film then continues in a more or less correct manner up until the last 5-10 minutes when it again abandons any pretense of scholarly standards. At that point, a “debate”, if someone can call it that, begins on whether Wagner’s works contain any antisemitism. It featured various authors, charlatans the lot of them save Barry Millinton, using all sorts of fantastic and ludicrous constructions as proof that Wagner integrated his animosity towards Jews in his musical dramas. Just like at the beginning not one attempt at balancing the views was made. And as an icing to the cake, the film ends just like it begins, with a lie that claims how Wagner hoped that “superior races would rule over inferior ones”. Again, not only is this not true but Wagner in fact called such state of affairs “a fundamentally immoral world order”. ( “Heroism and Christianity”)

This film, sadly, is not an isolated example but rather a template for the vast majority of Wagner-related publications. It’s long past time to set the record straight.


After first learning about “Inside Wagner’s head”, a monodrama by British actor Simon Callow, I thought:” Great. Yet another Wagner-bashing festival by an ignorant historian wannabe!”. Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. This text on the Daily Mail site shows that Callow, in fact, managed to penetrate the layers of falsehood and reach the real Wagner. Of special significance is the excerpt in the picture below.



Wagner, Levi and „Parsifal“ – The Truth


Hermann Levi in the 1870ies

In this entry I’d like to debunk one of the worst and most oft repeated slanderous claims against Wagner. The story goes that Wagner had an obligation to take the Munich Opera orchestra and  Hermann Levi as a conductor for the premiere of „Parsifal“, that he did not want him because Levi was a Jew and that he only accepted him after King Ludwig II threatened to withdraw the entire orchestra. This was a story that caught on early thanks to memoirs of people close to Wagner in those days such as Felix Weingartner and Engelbert Humperdinck.

The story above is false, from the first letter to the last! No document exchanged between Wagner and king Ludwig is there as much as a trace of Wagner’s dissatisfaction because of Levi, nor is there anything that could be interpreted as an order or a threat on the side of the king. Nor can anything of the sort be found in Wagner’s correspondence with the Royal opera in Munich. Not even Cosima Wagner’s diaries support this version of events save one remark by Wagner recorded a couple of days before the premiere of „Parsifal“, long after the conductor matter was settled, in which he said that „if he were an orchestra member he would not want to be conducted by a Jew“. That remark however was so out of character for Wagner and in contrast with his previous behavior that one must question it’s authenticity and/or context, especially given Cosima’s views on the „Jewish question“. And finally, Levi himself never complained about animosity of such kind on Wagner’s side?

How how did this slander come to be?  How is it possible that people undoubtedly close to Wagner could fall for it? The story is an amalgam of several separate incidents not connected to each other, some of which were interpreted in a most malicious manner by some so-called Wagner biographers and some blown out os proportion. Truth be told, Wagner himself through his cynicism was partially responsible for it’s inception. But let’s start from the beginning…

Initially Wagner did have an obligation to use the orchestra of the Royal Theater of Munch, in accordance with a contract made in late 1880. Besides the specification of instruments and musicians there was a sentence that said „conductor Levi is part of the deal“. This has often been interpreted as an order by king Ludwig but in fact it was a mere specification which of the two conductors of the Royal Theater(the other was Franz Fischer) will be sent to Bayreuth along with the orchestra. Things get even worse for Wagner detractors in March 1881. when king Ludwig, in accordance with Wagner’s wish for „Parsifal“ to be performed only at the Festspielhaus, issued a proclamation making the contract null and void and merely declaring the Royal Theater orchestra „at Wagner’s disposal“ with a remark that Wagner is free to choose additional members as he pleases. As of that date Wagner was under no legal obligation to take Hermann Levi as the conductor for the premiere of „Parsifal“. Levi conducted that premiere because Wagner wanted him to, and for no other reason.

Of course, with Wagner, hardly anything is simple and straightforward. Wagner did want Levi and loved and respected him both as musician and as a man but this was no guarantee that his engagement would be free of controversy. What Wagner detractors often conveniently supress is that Wagner and Levi go back from the late 1860-ties when they began corresponding and first met in 1870. From then on, Levi was a regular and most welcome guest at the Wagner household. Needles to say, he conducted Wagner’s works regularly throughout, much to the Master’s considerable and often expressed delight. „Parsifal“, however, was a special case. Wagner saw it in quasi-religious terms, a „Gospel according to Richard“ of sorts, and suddenly it seemed inappropriate that this „Christian“ work would be conducted by a Jew. Initially, Wagner covertly, but also partially jokingly suggested that Levi should convert to Christianity. Seeing that this tactic was ineffective he suggested it outright. As Cosima was to write in her diary later, Wagner said to  Levi in for him uncharacteristically timid fashion that, „Parsifal“ being a Christian work, it would be appropriate for him to be baptised. According to Cosima’s follow-up „these words caused such an expression on our friend’s face that R. Immediately changed the subject“. Never to bring it up again, I add…

The next incident happened in late June 1881. Wagner received an anonymous letter in which, aside from being criticized for having a Jew conduct a „Christian work“, was an accusation of Cosima having an affair with Levi. As Cosima noted in her diary they both laughed it off as nonsense. Wagner, wanting to play a practical joke on Levi, left the letter on Levi’s desk without any side comment.

The joke, however, went awry. Levi took offense at the letter, and solely because of the second part in which he was accused of wrecking Wagner’s marriage. He thought Wagner was confronting him and immediately left Bayreuth. After Wagner explained himself in a letter(in his own characteristic way, it has to be said) he returned a couple of days later and the misunderstanding was glossed over. This did not prevent malicious authors from giving it the worst possible interpretation according to which the whole thing was a ruse on Wagner’s part so Levi would quit himself since Wagner could not force him out.

The question that now poses itself is how some people close to Wagner came to believe Levi was imposed on him? As I already wrote, Wagner himself is partially to blame since he himself likely is the source of the rumor, seeing it as a way out of a situation where he looked like a hypocrite. Also, the recollections of Weingartner and Humperdinck were written long after the incident(s) actually happened. Lapses of memory, erroneous interpretations and other problems usually connected to memoirs must be taken into account.

Finally, let us see what Hermann Levi himself said about his relationship with Wagner. Levi’s father Benedict was a rabbi and just before the „Parsifal“ premiere Levi received a letter from him in which Benedict expressed satisfaction and pride that his son is a part of something so special and also added „I wish I could like Wagner as well“. To which Levi wrote in reply:

„You certainly could and you should like Wagner. He is the best and noblest of men. Of course our contemporaries misunderstand and slander him. It is the duty of the world to darken those who shine. Goethe did not fare any better. That he bears no petty antisemitism like a country squire or a protestant bigot  is seen by the way he treats me,  Rubinstein, the late Tausig whom he loved dearly…Even his fight against what he calls „Jewishness“ in music and modern literature springs from the noblest of motives. I am convinced that posterity will learn what we who are close to him know already: that in him we had just as great man as a musician. I consider myself very lucky to be working with such a man and I thank God for it every day.“

Hermann Levi was, sadly, horribly wrong in predicting that the world would know the truth about Wagner but he truly believed that it would. His letters, however, are a testimony to that truth and a means to expose the lies of today.

PS For a detailed debunking of the false story on how Levi was imposed on Wagner read „Richard Wagner and the Jews“ by Milton Brenner, chapters „Levi and Parsifal“ and „Lichtenberg and the Knieses“.