Richard Wagner, “Das Judentum in der Musik”
Richard Wagner wrote the essay with the above title, which the English translator renders as “Jewishness in Music,” but might also be translated as “Judaism in Music.” I had read it eons ago without remembering much of it. So I conjured it into my Kindle and reread it, if not exactly carefully, and was immensely disappointed in a way I will make clear below; however, I can say up front that the piece—mercifully short—is not very interesting, so feel free to stop right here reading my account.
But first let me say that I think that Wagner has created a series of masterpieces which deserve to be ranked with the operas of Mozart—my idea of the zenith of the genre—however different they are from them. When I was in high school, molti anni fa, I became an aficionado of the Zauberflöte and the Ring and saw both at the Met (then on 38th Street) when I was a sophomore or junior, in 1942 or ‘43. I’ve seen quite a few other Wagner performances in a number of different houses, most notably several additional Ring cycles, of which the Bayreuth set was not the best.
Wagner was a great composer. That he was a mediocre poet, as revealed in the texts that he wrote for all of his operas—somehow, one hesitates to call them librettos. If I am right about that, it is not of the utmost importance, since in the real world of performances the audience gets to understand only a fraction of the words that are being sung.
My admiration for Wagner as composer, especially of his later works, is unqualified. That high regard does not spill over into my assessment of Wagner’s person as reflected in his opinions and writings. Not a nice man! He is not alone among great artists who combined outstanding creativity in their domains with personal characteristics that are far from sterling. Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer, Voltaire was a fervent anti-Semite, and Dostoevsky was no angel, to pull out a few names from my not very well-stocked memory. So with Wagner who had dubious relationships with a quite large cast of characters, even, as an older man, he turned with fury on his wife Cosima whom he had wooed away from her first husband, Hans von Bülow, who nevertheless remained a faithful conductor of Wagner’s music, most notably conducting the first performance of Tristan und Isolde.
Wagner was also what today we call an intellectual and wrote an immense amount of stuff, short pieces and quite long ones; if you are interested, look at this impressive list: http://users.utu.fi/hansalmi/appen.html. That makes his Judentum essay particularly disappointing. I expected a clever account of how music written by Jews differed from music by gentiles. However perverse, that might really have been interesting. But not so. There are brief bits about Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, of whose Paris success he was envious and whose name Wagner never actually mentions, plus a coda on Heinrich Heine. But most of the piece is generic 19th century anti-Semitic talk.
The language is, to put it succinctly, vile. Wagner never says Jewish this or that, but speaks incessantly about The Jew, a kind of generic figure of his (and his fellow anti-Semites’) construction. He divides this personage into two sub-types, the (in his view) uneducated Yiddish speaking Shtetl Jew and the cultured, educated, presumably German Jew. Though for Wagner, the latter doesn’t really get beyond his presumed origin. As for music, the Jew does not transcend his synagogue music, and is incapable of understanding “our” music.
Since this is all generic talk, the fact never comes up that perhaps Wagner’s most trusted conductor, who among other duties conducted the first performance of Parsifal, was Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi.
As for Mendelssohn, he acknowledges his great natural gifts, but notes that his oratorios lack the “content” of Bach’s. He is clearly not in the class of the Germans, Mozart and Beethoven. What else is new? He does not mention,of course, that he, Richard Wagner doesn’t quite make it into that class either. The brief paragraphs on Meyerbeer of whose success in Paris he was probably jealous) accuses him of catering to popular taste and in a couple of paragraphs we find out that Heinrich Heine does not measure up to Goethe and Schiller. Surprise.
Rereading that essay was not edifying, but what was particularly disappointing is that Wagner the great composer, has really nothing to say about what makes the music composed by The Jew, Jewish music.