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Standing up for Hans Sachs: in his latest Wagnerian study, Father M. Owen Lee challenges those who find his favorite opera guilty of racism and anti-Semitism.

We have to deal with two problems that in the last decade and a half have come increasingly to dominate discussions of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, problems that Lucy Beckett, one of the most perceptive writers on Wagner, has succinctly summed up as "the streak of cruelty in the humiliation of [the Viennese Wagner critic Eduard] Hanslich/Beckmesser, which may be there, and a bullying German imperialism in Sachs's final address, which is certainly not."


Though Wagner's opera conjures up a storybook Nuremberg--picturesque, idyllic, an emblem of the best of old German art and life--no one my age can completely dissociate it from the Nuremberg of the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis saw to it that we couldn't. Hitler wrote to Wagner's son, Siegfried, that the sword he was wielding had been forged by Wagner. He commissioned annual performances of Die Meistersinger during his Nuremberg rallies, and held the rallies themselves in a stadium built in perverse imitation of the opera's final scene. Nuremberg was also the city that saw the publication of the Fuhrer's detestable anti-Jewish race laws. And of course it was the place where the Nazis went on trial, before an international military tribunal, after their defeat. By that time, Allied bombing had, in less than an hour, obliterated miles of the city's old streets, left the Katherine church a shell, and all but demolished the house of Hans Sachs. What was left of the house was soon pulled down. People said that Nuremberg, the Nazis, Wagner, and Die Meistersinger all got what they deserved. And while it is now possible to visit Weimar and pay homage to Goethe without blaming Goethe for the horrors of Buchenwald a few miles away, it is still impossible, for some travellers at least, to visit Nuremberg and not blame Wagner for every horror inflicted by Germans more than a half-century after his death.


Let me speak first to the objections raised against the notorious lines in Hans Sachs's final address. Wagner had had doubts about the address from the start and had decided to strike it from the text when his wife Cosima convinced him, after a full day's discussion, not only to keep the speech but to revise and expand it (with the verses beginning 'Habt Acht!') so that the opera could end with a cautionary statement about the impending Franco-Prussian War. It was, even from an artistic point of view, an ill-advised addition: the new lines can have the effect of reducing the universal aspect of a work that is timeless to the particulars of a nationalistic moment in 19th-century history. And it proved to be a disastrous addition when, three generations later, another war, a war with implications for all humanity, loomed over Germany.

In the final address, Sachs cautions Walther, who has refused to accept membership in the master's guild, "Do not despise the masters, I bid you, but rather honour their art. You owe your happiness today, not to your ancestors, however worthy they may be, nor to your coat of arms, nor to your weapons, your spear and sword, but to the fact that you are a poet, and that a master has accepted you.'

The controversial lines that follow are actually cast in terms of midsummer-mist madness and evil spirits faring abroad on the night before John the Baptist's feast day, but all the same they have been thought sinister, and they constitute a problem that no one writing on Die Meistersinger can ignore. Hans Sachs says to Walther, on the penultimate page of the score, "Take care. Evil spirits threaten us. If the German Empire and its people should one day fall under a false, foreign rule, then no prince will understand his people any more. They will bring foreign mists and foreign vanity to our German land, and no one will know any more what is really German--unless what is really German has continued to live on in our German masters. So I say to you,"--and we must remember again that Sachs is singing here to the recalcitrant Walther--"Honour your German masters. Respect what they did, and you will conjure up good spirits. Then, even if the Holy Roman Empire should fade away in the mist, we will still have with us here our Holy German Art."

The passage was used as propaganda by the Nazis. "Honour your German masters" was made to mean, not "Honour the mastersingers of the past," but "Acknowledge that we Germans are the master race." It was a gross misreading. The critic Andrew Porter, who is no German, rightly remarks, "The passage is not bombastic. It is marked piano." He recalls how the German baritone Theo Adam always sang the passage with an almost elegiac dignity, so that it meant what it was supposed to mean--that the good things in German tradition could be lost if the old German masters were no longer revered. The New Grove Encyclopedia entry on Wagner also insists that the passage is not militarist; quite the contrary, it is an affirmation that art is more important for a nation's survival than military might. Thomas Mann wrote that the lines actually "prove how totally intellectual and apolitical Wagner's nationalism was." John Warrack, in Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the most significant book on the opera in recent years, sensibly observes that when Wagner wrote the passage, it "would have seemed to no-one any more objectionable as an expression of love of country and anxiety about foreign threat than John of Gaunt's speech about England in [Shakespeare's] Richard II; and it is only in the light of the then-distant future horrors of German nationalism that it has caused distaste."

The sentiments expressed in Hans Sachs's speech are hardly unique. The stage director Harry Kupfer feels them today, in a Germany threatened by the pervasiveness of what he calls an American "unculture." France has entertained a similar love-hate attitude towards all things American, and for much longer. Canadians are constantly told by their media, and even by their government, that their national identity is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by movies and television from south of the border. British scholars in my academic field, classics, often express a desperate disdain for, and even a fear of, what they regard as the intellectually inferior researches of Americans and Germans alike. The sentiments in these and other nations are not always admirable, but perhaps they are, given the circumstances, understandable.

All the same, the director-driven deconstructionist productions of Die Meistersinger so prevalent today persist in misreading Hans Sachs's exhortation; when they deck the Festwiese scene with swastikas, they do it unopposed because the slightest opposition is likely to brand an objector as politically incorrect if not an actual Holocaust denier. But we have every reason to object to these weird excesses. Pianist and music theorist Charles Rosen says, apropos of the swastikas and newsreel images that swamp the stage as Hans Sachs bids his Germans respect their artistic heritage, 'When an American lecturer exhorts us to continue reading Emerson, Whitman, and Mark Twain, I do not think we should feel obliged to flash slides of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo on the screen. 'The cultural achievements of a nation's past are themselves a rebuke to the moral failures of its present. There is no need to dishonour the one with the infamy of the other.

The Germany celebrated in the choruses that open and close Die Meistersinger is a nation renewing its confidence, not in chauvinistic nationalism, but in the enduring value of art, love, and faith. That Germany has risen again in our lifetimes, and Die Meistersinger, with its baptisms and its waving banners, has rightly become again the festival work in Germany's more than 70 opera houses. Today, some three generations after the fall of the Nazis, the opera should be an answer to the neo-Nazism that can still threaten Germany and other countries, for it is ultimately an affirmation of the triumph of beauty and humanity over irrationality and self-destruction.

It is immensely sad that great art can be made to serve evil purposes. Homer's Iliad was used by Alexander the Great to justify his bloodiest conquests. Virgil, on his deathbed, wanted his Aeneid burned--and I think, with Hermann Broch, who fled the Nazis, that Virgil feared inter alia that the Aeneid, and in particular the central lines spoken by the hero's father, might be used by imperial Rome as a mandate to subdue and oppress. The Bible itself, though much more than a work of art, has been used to justify evil. So, it need hardly be said, has the Koran. Great works of art and faith can be grossly misinterpreted, and we ought to remind ourselves, if art and faith are any concern to us, that no one interpretation, certainly no reductive interpretation, of them is the only one, or the right one. Wagner has Hans Sachs say, when Beckmesscr suggests that one level, a biblical level, might suffice for the true reading of song, "You're pretty far off if you think that." Art means many things, and great art is rich in meanings. It is an abuse of art to limit its interpretation to a single line of thought, let alone a false line of thought. A true work of art radiates meaning on meaning outwards.

The second problem concerns Wagner's treatment of Beckmesser, often cited, even by those who love Die Meistersinger, as a major blemish on the work. I cannot agree. Wagner's Beckmesser is likeable even in his spite, and in performance he often steals the show. More importantly, the treatment eventually meted out to him is required, on what ever level we read the opera. If the opera is a fairy tale, and in part it is, then the dragon must be slain by the knight in shmmg armour in order that the maiden in distress he rescued; that is what happens in stories about knights. If the opera is an elaborate baptismal allegory replete with Christian symbols, and in part it is, then the devil must be exorcised; that is what happens at baptisms. If the opera is a comedy true to comic traditions, and it is very much that, then, as in Shakespeare the braggart Falstaff must be plucked and tickled and the vainglorious Malvolio must be utterly humiliated, as in Italian opera the malicious Doctor Bartolo must be outwitted and the presumptuous Don Pasquale must be bamboozled, as any number of comic villains and fools in Aristophanes and Plautus, in Ben Jonson and Moliere, must get their comeuppances, so the foolish Beckmesser must be outwitted and humbled; that correcting is what comedy is all about, and always has been. Classic Greek comedy needed to deflate a self-deceived alazon [a braggart character], and Roman comedy needed to chasten a posturing miles gloriosus [boastful sofdier], in order to restore order to a society thrown into confusion.

All the same, I like the recent productions of Die Meistersinger in which Beckmesser comes on at the end, dragging his lute behind him, to hear the song he has stolen properly sung. He really listens for once, and he learns something. This is not in Wagner's stage directions, but it is justified in his text: Sachs says, after Beckmesser has stolen the song, "He won't keep up his malice for long. Many a man throws away his reason and yet, even with that, he eventually finds his way home. An hour of weakness comes for every one--and then he sees how foolish he is and allows himself to be spoken to."

Of late, however, Beckmesser's treatment in the opera has been cast in a decidedly sinister light by a coterie, a veritable cottage industry, of academic writers who shall go unnamed here. (Anyone interested can find their names and works cited in the rebuttals made by critics listed in my endnotes and bibliography.) We are asked first to believe, on the basis of a reckless statement made by Theodor Adorno in In Search of Wagner ("All the rejects of Wagner's works are caricatures of Jews"), that Wagner's mature operas not only contain anti-Semitic caricatures, but are encoded throughout with anti-Semitic messages. These coded messages have for more than a century escaped the attention of critics and public alike, but now, the coterie tell us, the truth is out at last. They have cracked Wagner's code. Actually, what they have done is to bend every effort to accomplish what the Nazis were unable to do--reduce Wagner's work to the basest level of racial hatred. And, I hope to show, they have failed.

The coterie are certainly right in saying that Wagner was a particularly nasty example of the anti-Semitism that, in his day, was rife all across Europe. But Wagner wrote volume after volume explaining himself and his work, and never once did he indicate even slightly that the operas contained any anti-Semitic coding. Neither did Hitler at any time invoke Wagner's name to justify his anti-Jewish policies. Nor did the rabid Nazi propaganda machine, eager to use Wagner's anti-Semitism for its purposes, ever even insinuate that any of his characters was a Jewish stereotype; there is not a single reference to Beckmesser as Jewish in the whole voluminous output of extant Nazi material.

Still, the coterie insist that (1) an oblique reference to a Grimm folk tale, "The Jew in the Bramble Bush," in the second Stollen of Walther's Act I trial song (Beckmesser is at the time in the marker's booth) is somehow proof that anti-Semitism is woven into the whole ideological fabric of Die Meistersinger; that (2) Beckmesser's serenade is a malicious and deliberate parody of Jewish cantorial style; that (3) Beckmesser's limping and twitching in Hans Sachs's workshop is anti-Jewish stereotyping; and that (4) Jewish communities in Vienna and Berlin saw Beckmesser as an anti-Semitic caricature and protested violently. But apart from the one suggestion--if it is a suggestion at all--that Wagner wanted us to associate Beckmesser in the marker's booth with "The Jew in the Bramble Bush" (an association not noticed by anyone onstage or anyone in the audience until one coterie member made the connection more than 100 years after the opera premiered), there is not a single anti-Semitic allusion in the entire opera. Nor is there any documented trace of Jewish cantorial style in Beckmesser's serenade; the music is markedly Germanic in its outlines, and Wagner thought enough of it to use it as the cantus firmus for the immense finale to Act II that involves every character in the opera. Nor is Beckmesser's limping and twitching in Act III evidence of any perceived "Jewishness"; they are clearly the result of his having been pummelled by David in the Act II riot. Nor is there any real evidence that the protests made by Jews in German-speaking lands were caused by Beckmesser's serenade or by anything else in Die Meistersinger; the hostile reactions by both press and public at performances of the opera were a quite justified response to Wagner's infamous pamphlet Judaism in Music, which he foolishly published for the first time under his own name within a year of the Meistersinger premiere.

The plain fact of the matter is that, unlike the Shylock of Shakespeare and the Fagin of Dickens, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger is not depicted as Jewish at all. He is a typical German pedant with an echt-German name. Anyone labouring in the groves of academe has seen him and heard him many times at committee meetings and on faculty councils, picking away at small points, unimaginative, literal in the extreme, forever missing the forest for the trees, mirthless but often the unwitting object of mirth.Yet one industrious coterie member insists that no production of Die Meistersinger is valid today unless Wagner's contentious town clerk is depicted as a victimized Jew. The coterie are not disposed to see any significance in the fact that generations of Jews have loved, listened to, sung in, played in, and conducted Wagner performances the world over. They will have it that, though those unfortunates have been duped into thinking that there is no anti-Semitism in Die Meistersinger, at least they haven't.

Two members of the coterie, painfully aware that their "discoveries" have not found wide acceptance in scholarly circles, have now qualified their first statements to the extent of saying that "Jewishness" is only one of many potential interpretations one could make about Beckmesser; they have even admitted that the whole opera cannot be defined exclusively by what they see as its anti-Semitic context. That has not prevented their grotesque "dark underside" from making its way into virtually all handbooks on opera written in the last decade. Repeat a lie often enough and, for some people, it becomes fact.

Dark underside? [The late English journalist and broadcaster] Bernard Levin, who was Jewish, and more aware than most critics that Wagner can be "dangerous," cites Die Meistersinger as "the one work of his that has no darkness in it." He finds the Act III quintet "the most light-filled music ever written" and calls the opera "a benediction on all mankind, if all mankind would simply listen to it."

Excerpt from Wagner and the Wonder of Art: An introduction to Die Meistersinger by M. Owen Lee. Copyright University of Toronto Press, 2007. Reprinted by permission of Toronto Press. Father Lee's published text includes 26 footnotes and citations not included here. Minor amendments have been made to clarify references.
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Title Annotation:Summer Opera Readings
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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