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Wagner antisemite. Un probleme historique, semiologique et esthetique.

Wagner antisemite. Un probleme historique, semiologique et esthetique. By Jean-Jacques Nattiez. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2015. [716 p. ISBN 9782267029031 (paperback), 28 [euro].] Music examples, bibliography, index.

The subject of Jean Jacques Nattiez's new book-which simultaneously relies upon and significantly contributes to social history-is one that touches upon Wagner past, present, and future. In sixteen extensively-argued and exhaustively-researched chapters, ranging from the question of the principally-offending essay itself (Das Judenthum in der Musik) to the question of whether one ought to continue to perform and listen to Wagner, Wagner antisemite presents what is without doubt the most comprehensive disquisition in the French language on the darker side of the genius who composed Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Equally well known for his work on musical semiotics as on Wagner, Nattiez is especially well placed to enter this debate-which in recent years has been carried forth by John Deathridge, Thomas Grey, Barry Millington, Paul Lawrence Rose, Hans Rudolf Vaget, and Marc Weiner (to mention some of those writing in English who are perhaps most familiar to readers of this journal)-because he understands the history, the culture, the music, the language; because he has read almost everything (which, in the Land of Wagner, is a considerable undertaking; the bibliography here encompasses 31 pages); and because he is conspicuously concerned with the significance of words.

Of this deeply reflective book (Nattiez limits himself to seven hundred pages), a brief review can do very little justice. Let me attempt to shine light upon three issues, thoroughly dissected here, that other scholars have lately attempted to see with what one might wish to call contemporary objectivity. First, upon the crucial word "Untergang," the final word of what is the most crucial document of Wagner's antisemitism, Das Judenthum in der Music, that terrifying essay which appeared in September 1850 in two issues of the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, and again in 1869 in a separate, revised brochure of which we learn here (p. 506) the Nazis, in 1933, distributed 250,000 copies to German libraries and schools. In the best English translation, published in the British journal Wagner, Stewart Spencer rendered the title as "Judaism in Music" (Wagner 9, no. 1 [January 1988]; 20-33). (Others have opted for "Jewishness," "Jewry," and even "Jewdom," the latter etymologically neutral but, to an American ear, grotesque.) Nattiez and his collaborator Marie-Helene Benoit-Otis (who provides new French translations of that essay and five others) render it as "La judeite dans la musique." For "Untergang," Spencer chose "destruction": "But bear in mind that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse that weighs upon you," writes Wagner, addressing the Jews: "the redemption of Ahasuerus: Destruction!" (Spencer, 33). To the post-Holocaust listener, "destruction" sounds identical to what we have come to know as Hitler's "final solution." But the word "Untergang" is highly ambiguous and can refer to the destruction of a person, religion, nation, or way of thinking, i.e., of a cultural phenomenon (p. 215):

The least one can say is that among its critics, shortly after the appearance of the pamphlet, Johann Christian Lobe, in an article of 25 January 1851, gives to the word "Untergang" the meaning of the "Vernichtung" (anentissement) [annihilation] of the Jews, just as does, today, Hartmut Zelinsky. (My translation, p. 216)

Zelinsky was one of the many German scholars, with Udo Bermbach, Dieter Borchmeier, Jens Malte Fischer, and Saul Friedlander, who in recent decades have seriously concerned themselves with this issue.

After extensive reflection, Nattiez rather chooses "engloutissement." The word, which in English would be "swallowing up" or "devouring," resonates with the "swallowing up" of the Dutchman's vessel at the end of Der fliegende Hollander-the opera conceived at precisely the time, in the early 1840s, that Wagner came under the influence of the perniciously judeophobic Karl Gutzkow (1811-1878); and it suggests the autodejudaisation, or "self-de-Judification," that Wagner exhorts the Jews to undergo (p. 214). By using "engloutissement," then, Nattiez proffers something of the ambiguity of Wagner's original text. The eventual English translator of this new study (his earlier Wagner Androgyne was Englished by the formidable Spencer) will have no easy task dancing round the double optics of Nattiez's work, which interrogates das Ding an sich and, simultaneously, the nature of its actualization in both German and French. That English translator will have to begin with the spelling and implications of the word "antisemitism" itself-an epithet that is thoroughly interrogated the book's opening pages and that, without hyphen and capital, is probably preferable to "anti-Semitism," for reasons widely discussed here and elsewhere, but without consensus, in the literature.

If, regarding "Untergang," Nattiez prefers ambiguity, then regarding the second issue that I address here-one much at the center of current Wagner scholarship-Nattiez makes himself perfectly clear: not only are the theoretical writings and librettos marked by antisemitism, but so, too, are the scores. In chapter 11, to take one telling example, he finds it "possible to demonstrate how Die Meistersinger von Niimberg is intentionally antisemitic from beginning lo end, as much in the dramatic action as in the music" (my emphasis) (p. 89). In the chapter in question we find the unequivocal claim that Beckmesser "is nothing other than a caricature of Hanslick" and that "for Wagner, Hanslick was a Jew" (p. 372); we find an accounting of the unusually elevated tessitura of the role of Beckmesser, an illustration of the "gurgling, yodeling, and babbling" (p. 378) that Wagner speaks of in Das Judenthum; we find an explanation of the "tradition of antisemitic interpretation" (p. 381) of the role of Beckmesser; and we find an analysis of Beckmesser's Serenade (in act 2, scene 6) as an explicit parody of the declamatory style of the Jewish cantor (pp. 384-91). Nattiez finds support in analyses by others who share his sentiments, and he finds "disconcerting" (p. 207) the certitude of Dieter Borchmeyer's opposite point of view.

I wish, because of the gentle sincerity of his urging, that I could hear the cantorial parody that Nattiez hears in Beckmesser's Serenade. I do hear the humor of the opening lute accompaniment with its awkward second-inversion dominant seventh chord; I do hear the oddity of the fermata on the third syllable of "erscheinen" (we might have expected it on the second) and other strangely accented syllables, although such incorrect accentuation is precisely the reason for Sachs' hammer-enforced complaints (which arrive one eighth note after each wrongly accented syllable); I do hear the oddly extended melismata, although these would seem to be central to Meistergesang itself, as Kolhner very clearly explains it in act 1, scene 3; and I do hear those curiously falling 4ths in the melisma (in m. 1249) on "Werben" ("da denk'ich nicht an Sterben / lieber an Werben," which could be rendered as "I do not wish to perish / rather to cherish") although these, to me, rather resemble Siegfried's recurrent falling 4ths in the motive that Robert Donington (in Wagner's 'Ring' and Its Symbols [London: Faber, 1976]', 295) calls "Siegfried's infectious impetuosity in love"-and Siegfried, I think we all agree, is not Jewish. But what I hear in the spring of 2016, as I write these words, is of little importance. for Nattiez's claim turns on what he believes the natives heard in the summer of 1868-or rather, in the spring of 1870, in Berlin, when Beckmesser's Serenade, at the premiere there of Die Meistersinger, caused "whistling, yelling, inarticulate shouting, and catcalls" presumably on the part of the Jews in the audience (as Cosima reported the matter), "while others applauded" (p. 383).

Nonetheless, if the music can convey anti-Jewish animus, and if Die Meistersinger is antisemitic "from beginning to end" ("de bout en bout"), then surely we should be able to decipher at least something of the antisemitic agenda from the very beginning-that is, from the beginning of the Vorspiel. Does Nattiez hear antisemitism at m. 27 of the overture, when the falling 4ths motive (which Beckmesser later rerhythmicizes) is first presented? That would be surprising. But that would also be, I believe, the true test of the theory that musical notes can convey ideas. I fear that in this regard (Wagner wrote the score of the overture before scoring the opera; he would have had to have conceived the 4ths as antisemitic front the beginning). I must cast my lot with Borchmeyer, who is no apologist for Wagner ("Wagner exhausts the whole xenophobic arsenal of traditional anti-Jewish feeling, not in order to define, in rational terms, the catalogue of prejudices, stereotyped images, and antipathetic emotions and thus to overcome them in a spirit of enlightened humanism, but rather to invest them with a greater legitimacy," he writes, in the Wagner Handbook, ed. Ulrich Midler and Peter Wapnewski, trans. John Deathridge [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992], 171), but who "discounts the view that Beckmesser is a caricature of' the Jewish intellectual" (ibid., p. 183).

It is an eminently logical supposition that Wagner would imbue his works with his anti-Jewish animus, and it is eminently possible to interpret them, as does Nattiez, with plentiful evidence, as documents of antisemitism. It is also the case that the works of art we tend to consider "great" are deeply imbued with ambiguity (The Merchant of Venice, Mono Lisa), as Wagner not only knew but underscored-by explicitly refraining, as Nattiez observes (pp. 528-29), from auto-exegesis. It is thus equally possible to believe that Wagner went beyond politics when composing his music dramas and concerned himself above all with dramatic contrast, conflict, controversy, and counterpoint. Bv creating Beckmesser, writes Nattiez, Wagner simultaneously "ridiculed Meyerbeer, Hanslick, and the Jews" (p. 393). Perhaps. My ancestors were Jews, and I learned a lot about antisemitism as a boy, but I came to love Die Meistersinger before I knew anything at all of Meyerbeer or Hanslick. Little, I suppose, did I know.

Towards the end of the book, in answer to the question of whether it is appropriate, today, to listen to Wagner in Israel, Nattiez offers a response that would suggest he does not wish to ask of musical notes more than they can give:
   When I hear the music that accompanies
   the claudicant utterances of Alberich,
   Mime, and Beckmesser, I can associate
   them with racism and antisemitism only
   because I am able to explicate them in a
   literary context-whether that be the theoretical
   essays or the operatic librettos-
   which then gives meaning to the purely
   musical figures, (p. 550)


He then goes overboard, in my view, by saying that it is not necessary to know the title of La Mer to hear the movement of the wind and the waves in Debussy's great symphonic poem. But music itself is sound in motion. Why waves and wind and not fire and water? This is the oldest debate of them all. The first movement of La Mer is called "from dawn to noon on the sea." Erik Satie particularly liked the passage around half past ten.

The third point I wish to consider is in some ways the darkest of all: "L'ombre d'Hitler," as Nattiez entitles chapter 15- the shade, or shadow, or ghost of Hitler, who was born (it helps to remind those who far too facilely find the foundations of the Fuhrer's furor in the Fach of his would-be forerunner) in 1889, some six years after Wagner's death. About Hitler's fascination with Rienzi there is no doubt, as Nattiez demonstrates, referring to the work of John Deathridge, Pamela Potter, Thomas Grey, and neglecting among the major essays only Hans R. Vaget's "The Political Ramifications of Hitler's Cult of Wagner" (in '/Aim Gedenken an Peter Borowsky, ed. Rainer Hering and Rainer Nicolaysen [Hamburg: Hamburg University, 2003], 103-28). That Die Meistersinger became the official opera of Nazism (p. 506) is clear. That Hitler and "Bayreuth" were on intimate terms for decades is beyond a shadow of a doubt. That very specific aspects of Hitler's program of conquest and execution derive from Wagner, however, is something ultimately unprovable. Nattiez explicitly distances himself from those (Paul Lawrence Rose, Frans Lemaire, Gottfried Wagner) who see Wagner as the "cause" of the Holocaust, and defines his own position in italics:
   Wagner exercised absolutely no direct influence
   upon the series of events that brought
   Hitler to power; it was not Wagner who gave
   the order to send six million Jews to their
   death, (p. 518)


What is crucial to the essay by Vaget (who reviews the entire applicable literature) is its reminder of Hitler's ultimate realization that a "demonstratively nonpolitical cult of Wagner" was, in the long run, politically more effective than any short-sighted propagandistic exploitation of the composer's political and social ideas, to which neither Hitler nor Houston Stewart Chamberlain (whose Foundations of the Nineteenth Century [Die Grundlagen des neunzehten Jahrhunderts (Munich: Bruckmann, 1899)] became the Bible of Hiderism) ever made any reference whatsoever. Goebbels yes; Hitler no. On the uncannily emotional impact of Wagner's music, Nattiez cites the greatest of the Wagnerians, Thomas Mann, and he cites Hitler himself: "This sort of expression attained its absolute apex in the works of the great master of Bayreuth" (pp. 547-48).

It could be argued that the role of Wagner in the development of Hitler as man and "artist" does not, properly speaking, fall into the domain of the music historian. But the specifically operatic connections between Hitler and Wagner and more particularly between Hitler and "Bayreuth," where the renown and cult of Wagner were maintained and developed by Cosima, by Siegfried Wagner and his English wife Winifred, by Eva Wagner and her English husband Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and, despite their later efforts to distance themselves from their youths, by Wagner's grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang, demand, it seems to me, the kind of inquiry that Nattiez, with great expertise, has conducted in the finest spirit of academic debate.

Peter Bloom

Smith College
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Author:Bloom, Peter
Publication:Notes
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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