Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters

[from The New Republic]

Review of Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas (Yale)

In 1909, in a best-selling book called Contemporary German Music, the respected Munich critic Rudolf Louis diagnosed Gustav Mahler’s problem: “What I find so fundamentally repellent about Mahler’s music is its axiomatic Jewish nature. If Mahler’s music spoke Jewish, I perhaps wouldn’t understand it, but what is disgusting is that it speaks German with the Jewish accentthe all too Jewish accent that comes to us from the East.” Still worse, Louis added, was the composer’s masquerade: “Mahler has no idea how grotesque he appears wearing the mask of the German Master, which highlights the inner contradictions that make his music fundamentally dishonest.” Anticipating critics, Louis calmly dismissed the charge of anti-Semitism as exaggerated hysteriabut his ideas and his rhetoric were directly descended from, if not a close paraphrase of, Richard Wagner’s infamous anti-Semitic tract Jewishness in Music, written sixty years earlier. Far from an isolated rant, Louis’s writing represented a thread of Wagnerian myth running through the very fabric of modern musical thought.

What are we to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? The recent Wagner anniversary has brought a predictable amount of equivocation and hand-wringing about the German master’s role in the history of hate. We know by now not to read history backward. A nineteenth-century composer who died in 1883 cannot logically be accused of personal complicity in a twentieth-century genocide. Yet that does not mean that the broader question of his responsibility for the spread of modern anti-Semitism can be simply ignored. The issue cannot be brushed aside merely by reference to the fact that, as Daniel Barenboim and other commentators relish pointing out, Wagner loved a handful of Jews (albeit conditionally) and that many Jews (even Zionists) loved Wagner. The fact that there were and are Jewish Wagnerians is not a coherent answer to the question of Wagner’s prejudice against the Jews. Irony is no disclaimer. Nor, conversely, does the musicological obsession over whether Wagner secretly encoded anti-Jewish tropes into his compositions matter much beyond the precincts of academia. The real legacy of Wagner, one with which we are still living today, is nothing less than the sweeping imprint of racial ideology across the length and breadth of modern classical music.

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