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Wagner high and low.

RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883) WAS IN is own day, and remains on the bi-centennial of his birth, the operatic composer most important to philosophers, literary men, honest-to-goodness intellectuals, and the usual assortment of those impressed above all with the depth and gravity of their own minds. Whether in their praise or their animadversions, the intelligentsia naturally favor those artists who lend themselves to being talked about, and written about. Wagner after all was steeped in the ideas circulating throughout the intellectual world of his time. He was not just a musician but also a poet, autobiographer, journalist, and aesthetic theoretician. He wrote the libretti, or poems as he preferred to call them, for his operas and for his music dramas, as he called those innovative works of his maturity that he valued most. From his remarkable learning, colossal ambition, and bottomless resentment, he filled an immense reservoir of theoretical justification to feed his artistic output.

His Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Work of Art, would spell an end to the inane coloratura twittering and Babylonian spectacle that had filled the opera houses with ninnies on both sides of the footlights. By several orders of magnitude, his aspirations exceeded in grandeur--and above all in moral seriousness (after his own distinctive antinomian understanding of morality)--the loftiest achievements of his predecessors and contemporaries, not only in opera but indeed in all the arts. Only Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Beethoven met the standards of greatness that he intended to reach, and exceed.

Operatic Colossus

FROM HIS ADOLESCENCE, LIKE MOST great composers, Wagner knew his calling, but he floundered longer than masters usually do, turning out inconsequential work until he was almost 30. Then in 1842 he premiered Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes), a grand historical opera in the Parisian manner of Giacomo Meyerbeer, with which he intended to take Paris by storm. Paris had no use for Wagner's effort to seduce her, but with a good word from Meyerbeer a production in Dresden was arranged and it had a remarkable success, though only a local one. His next three operas, Der fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), Tannhauser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850), enjoy an honored station in today's opera houses; Wagner himself would see them as transitional works in his renegade movement away from traditional opera--which is to say, the Italian and French grand opera then in vogue--and toward an avant-garde art of which he would be the sole practitioner for a good long while.

His reputation as the 19th-century operatic colossus stands mostly on the works that he did not consider operas at all: the music dramas that he labored over from 1848 until 1882: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and Parsifal. They are all masterpieces of the first order, and each work is singular, though all bear the toolmarks of a unifying spiritual obsession and formal innovation.

The Ring of the Nibelung is a 15-hour tetralogy that remains the most ambitious work of art ever produced. In it, Wagner creates a mythic world--based in Norse saga but uniquely reimagined--of gods, giants, dwarfs, heroes, and even ordinary men and women; this world is ravaged, and the reign of the gods ultimately destroyed, by the evil that emanates from the original sin" the theft by a malignant Nibelung dwarf of the Rhine Gold; which is simply an object of beauty and joy to its primordial guardians, but from which someone willing to renounce love forever can forge a ring that gives him world-dominating power. Wagner originally thought he would depict the old order obsessed with power rightfully yielding to a genuinely humane dispensation ruled by love; but the sharp turn his general thinking took from political hopefulness to universal pessimism upset that intention.

Tristan and Isolde (1865) is widely known as the supreme opera of romantic love. In fact, the music, of chromatic complexity unexampled in its day--so difficult that after nearly 80 rehearsals Wagner despaired that singers and orchestra could even perform it--portrays the most exquisite longing that only extinction fulfills. "[he work begins with the famous "Tristan chord," which contains a double dissonance, painful as original sin, and the music proceeds through partial resolutions, and resolutions that only create further discords, until the work's ultimate chord provides satisfaction at last, in the arms of death: the climax of the final aria.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1868), by contrast, is famous for its overture in stolid un-Wagnerian C major, befitting the world of 16th-century burghers and artisans who are also proud composers and performers of song. This work is often described as Wagner's sole comedy; yet it too emphasizes the pain of longing that must remain unfulfilled. Hans Sachs, a cobbler and the city's foremost Mastersinger, is a middle-aged widower, and as he has watched Eva Pogner, half his age, grow from a child to a beautiful young woman, he has thought that she might be meant for him, and she has thought that he might be her true love. But when a handsome young aristocrat appears in town and it is evident that he and Eva are made for each other, Sachs resigns himself to the bitter truth of inevitable loneliness: subtly telling Eva of his renunciation, he says that he will not play King Mark, the older man whom Isolde betrayed, and the orchestra launches into music from Tristan, to make the point quite clear. The extraordinary beauty of The Mastersingers has been overshadowed, however--really from its first performances--by Wagner's characterization of Beckmesser, a poetaster and scoundrel whom many have seen as an anti-Semitic caricature, and by Hans Sachs's stirring public exhortation to revere "Holy German Art," which has more recently acquired the taint of monstrous German chauvinism. In the 2007 production of the work at Bayreuth--sanctuary of Wagher's art, which he founded and which to this day presents only his operas--Sachs screams out these words as he presides over the immolation of the dramatic misinterpreters who have defiled Wagner's masterpieces; the ghastly firelight is reflected in his glasses, and he could not look more like a maniac ablaze with a particularly German evil. The stage director of this production was Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter. It is well known that the overture to The Mastersingers led off the annual Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg. Some things are hard to get over.

Parsifal (1882) is a Wagnerian rendition of the Grail legend, with the world of sinful lust, physical agony, and spiritual desiccation redeemed by "the pure fool," who learns wisdom through compassion. Wagner's "stage-consecrating-festival-play" (as he called it) has been revered as superbly Christian, or dismissed as contemptibly so, or said to be about religion without being religious, or even seen as a celebration of the Aryan purity of blood on which true brotherhood is founded. Hitler himself is said to have endorsed that last understanding; it is as insane as he was. To say that the work is irreligiously "about religion" gets it wrong, too. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber wrote about religion, but Parsifal is profoundly religious; its music is agonized with balked spiritual need, ecstatic with the need fulfilled, sublime as clerestory light. The religion has a Christian foundation, but is Wagner's own peculiar faith, steeped in the healing power of Nature.

Annihilating Love

AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER, WAGNER believed in almost everything but Christian orthodoxy and capitalism. He absorbed, like no other great musician, the latest and most shattering developments in philosophy, especially in political thought, aesthetics, and metaphysics. And no other great musician had so deep an impact on the thinking of a great philosopher as Wagner had on Friedrich Nietzsche.

In Dresden during the late 1840s, when Wagner was Kapellmeister in the court of the king of Saxony, he knew quite well the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who had come to Germany because that was the cynosure of serious philosophizing, and, after mastering Hegel, had stayed to stoke revolution. Bakunin's whole being was a roaring blaze. In Wagner's autobiography, Mein Leben (My Life), he remembers of Bakunin, "The annihilation of all civilization was the objective on which he had set his heart." Yet it was only because Bakunin's heart was moved by sorrow for the poorest of the poor that he preached, as Wagner put it, "the destruction of all those things which, deeply considered, must appear even to Europe's most philosophical thinkers as the real cause of all the miseries of the whole modern world." Wagner's portrait of Bakunin is the most detailed and passionate of any in the autobiography, yet is also politic and circumspect: "in this remarkable man the purest humanitarian idealism was combined with a savagery inimical to all culture, and thus any relationship with him fluctuated between instinctive horror and irresistible attraction."

Wagner here presents himself in temperate contrast to the subversive hothead. Although political fevers throughout Europe predicted "an inevitable catastrophe," Wagner was sufficiently cool not to advocate bringing down the old regime. So he said. Others remembered him rather differently. In his new book, The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work, and His World, Barry Millington quotes from the diary of Eduard Devrient, a Dresden actor and writer: "[Wagner] wants to destroy in order to build anew" (June 1, 1848). "He's still of the opinion that the destruction of property is the only way to achieve real civilization" (March 31, 1849). Evidently there was more of Bakunin in Wagner than Wagner cared to admit. In the aftermath of the 1849 uprising in Dresden, Wagner was compelled to flee to Switzerland, and was not permitted back in Germany until 1860, and in Saxony until 1862. Bakunin was sentenced to death in Saxony, extradited to Austria and sentenced to death again, and eventually repatriated to Russia, where he served a long prison term. No wonder the composer wished to put as much distance as he could between his own views and his sometime companion's. Yet he had indeed written habitually, and would continue to do so, about "this diabolical idea of money," which true law will necessarily abolish.

Devrient went on in his diary to say that in their discussion Wagner had come to agree that just government must be founded on "the law of love." Love as the ultimate moral and legal arbiter was the teaching of Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity, he argued that Christian faith usurped this law, because love based on faith all too readily turns to hatred for unbelievers. "Love is in itself unbelieving, faith unloving. And love is unbelieving because it knows nothing more divine than itself, because it believes only in itself as absolute truth." Reading Feuerbach ignited an "inner excitement" in Wagner, who saw the philosopher as "the proponent of the ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority." That's a ponderous Teutonic locution for the confidence that love justifies breaking the established law, and thereby laying down a law of its own.

It was Feuerbach's celebration of love, Millington writes, that aroused the best in Wagner. In The Ring, the adulterous and incestuous love of the Walsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who were fathered by Wotan, the supreme god; the Valkyrie Brunnhilde's defiance of her father Wotan's order to punish the lovers' transgression by striking Siegmund dead; and Brunnhilde's overwhelming passion for the son of that emphatically illicit union, the hero Siegfried, all bear the mark of Feuerbach. The tragedy of Wotan stems from his godly responsibility to enforce the moral law even as he longs for the triumph of the human hero who exults in perfect freedom: Siegfried, his grandson. Wotan's strong-arm plundering of the Ring from the original thief, the Nibelung Alberich; his admission that he had grown weary of love and had sought power instead; his abjection in the face of his wife Fricka's righteous insistence that he was not free to bless immorality, however immorally he might have lived himself; his self-loathing rage at Brunnhilde for her presuming to enact her father's true desire rather than his official command; the agony with which he strips Brunnhilde of her godhead, parts from her forever, and leaves her on a mountaintop surrounded by a wall of fire that only the greatest hero will dare to penetrate; his anger mingled with a creator's pride as he encounters that hero, Siegfried, who treats him as a nuisance of an old man and who easily breaks Wotan's spear, on which the moral law is carved, with his sword, Nothung, or Needful which is in fact Wotan's legacy to his human descendants: in music of stentorian majesty, hushed tremulousness, crumbling nobility, and choking impotence, Wagner depicts his most extraordinary creation, a figure as complex as Shakespeare's Prospero, and sadder, the god whose overwhelming longing is for The End. Wagner's impassioned reading of Feuerbach is apparent. Friedrich Engels would scold Feuerbach for the "extravagant glorification of love" that missed the most pressing social realities. But Wagner for his part enfolded extravagant glorious loves within a damning socialist critique of wealth and power.

Music's Consolation

YET ANOTHER PHILOSOPHICAL ENCOUNTER would work its way still deeper into Wagner's soul: in 1854 he read Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, and he would re-read the 1,000-page tome three more times over the next year. All Creation, Schopenhauer writes, emerges from the sovereign Will a force incomparably savage and cruel. Turning Leibniz's Theodicy on its head, Schopenhauer asserts that this is the worst of all possible worlds--not the worst imaginable, but the worst that can actually exist. "Everything in life proclaims that earthly happiness is destined to be frustrated, or recognized as an illusion." No good can compensate for the world's evil. The two principal remedies that philosophy has proposed for our condition, "prudence, foresight, cunning" on the one hand, "stoical equanimity" on the other, are laughably inadequate to the task. The brute fact is that pain is superior to all philosophy. Every human being contracts a debt, "at the begetting." Love, and specifically sexual pleasure, is the ultimate snare, entrapment in which only perpetuates the misery. Man proves himself endlessly deserving of every agony he suffers. The general rule of human conduct is "injustice, extreme unfairness, hardness, and even cruelty." Political leaders bent on conquest--the "archfiends"--send multitudes to slaughter. Negro slavery, "the ultimate object of which is sugar and coffee," is impressively vicious, but not incomparably so: "to enter at the age of five a cotton-spinning or other factory, and from then on to sit there every day first 10, then 12, and finally 14 hours, and perform the same mechanical work, is to purchase dearly the pleasure of drawing breath. But this is the fate of millions, and many more millions have an analogous fate" And every human being ever born is subject to the agonies known by every other, for all humanity is trapped in the eternal cycle of endless rebirth: the industrial magnate enveloped in luxury, which Schopenhauer assures the reader has its own privations, will eventually feel the business end of social injustice. There is no easy way out.

Before the Schopenhauerian revelation of virtually inescapable human malignancy, Wagner had dreamed that the masses' evil fate of wage-slavery might be abolished. Under the influence first of political reformism on optimistic "Hellenic principles" and socialist inspiration, then of Feuerbach, and lastly of Schopenhauer, Wagner's thinking as he wrote and rewrote the very ending of The Ring changed radically, thereby altering the import of the entire work again and again. In Richard Wagner: A Life in Music, the accomplished German musicologist Martin Geck lays out the progression. The 1848 ending is not apocalyptic but optimistic, yet unconvincingly so: the gods live on but humanity is no longer subject to their despotism, though how that liberation will happen is unclear; and when the bourgeois revolution, and a fortiori the abolition of the money civilization, failed a year later, Wagner must have felt the inadequacy of such hope. The 1852 version brought devastation, and yet Brunnhilde's peroration declared that "blessed in joy and sorrow love alone can be." In what came to be known as the Feuerbach ending, love endures when the unjust rule of the gods comes to an end.

By 1856, however, Schopenhauer had struck decisively: Wagner wrote in a letter that "in the course of the myth this love had emerged as fundamentally annihilating," and Brunnhilde's final words are now "Grieving love's profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end." This is much more faithful to the action of Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final installment of The Ring, which sees Siegfried, under the influence of an evil potion, not only betray Brunnhilde with a very objectionable woman, but also procure her for a most unsavory man; for which Brunnhilde confides to Hagen, the son of the Nibelung Alberich, conceived not in love but in violent lust, how he might kill the nearly invulnerable Siegfried. The new dispensation of supreme love has proven the triumph of illusion and hate. In subsequent revisions, Wagner deleted Brunnhilde's long renunciation of "the home of delusion," in the belief that the orchestra would breathe pure Schopenhauer and obviate the need for text and voice. At the same time he added stage directions for men and women to watch the conflagration of the gods, according to one version "in speechless dismay," in the full score "with highest emotion."

Music itself, Wagner learned from Schopenhauer, was some consolation. In his revulsion from grand opera, in which he had failed to conquer the all-important Parisian world, Wagner had declared that the perversity of opera had been to subordinate the text and action to the music. He began to insist that operatic music must serve the words, and thereby the drama, and accordingly the cause of social reconstitution. But as his theory and his practice ripened, the orchestra assumed a new dramatic primacy, underscoring or complicating or even contradicting the meaning of the music and the text that the singer was singing. The Wagnerian innovation of the Leitmotif, or leading motive, the brief musical phrase that encapsulated a character or object or idea, and that would be reiterated, expanded, inverted, combined with other motives, became the musical foundation of Jibe Ring and other works. Moreover, in accordance with the teaching of Schopenhauer, the "continuous melody" from the instruments revealed nothing less than the very world's metaphysical essence, the Will that was the origin of all existence: the noumenon which only music, of all human inventions or discoveries, embodies, and which thus offered the one genuine relief of man's estate, if only for as long as the music sounded. For a composer of genius, of course, the music sounds even when there is no actual orchestra playing it: as Wagner observed to his wife, Cosima, "Music transfigures everything, it never permits the hideousness of the bare word, however terrible the subject."

Proud Anti-Semite

BUT SOMETIMES BARE WORDS MUST DO; and the subject of Wagner himself has impressed many as especially hideous and terrible. His record as proud anti-Semite is incontrovertible. The essay "Jewishness in Music" (1850, published anonymously, but unmistakably Wagner's to all who read it; republished in 1869, with his signature and a flourish) registers his disgust that the rootless unworthy Jew has reached "the rulership of public taste" in music. Meyerbeer, whom he had courted indefatigably in the days of his own Parisian ambition, was the cock on the dung heap. Jewish musicians aspiring to high art can only fake profundity and authenticity: "Judaic works of music often produce on us the impression as though a poem of Goethe's, for instance, were being rendered in the Jewish jargon." The genuine Jewish sound is that of synagogue music, "that sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, yodel, and cache, which no intentional caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here in full, in naive seriousness."

Wagner is surpassed in notoriety as German Jew-hater only by Hitler and perhaps some Nazi minions. That he was a favorite artist of Hitler's does not generally count in the composer's favor. The Fuhrer by his own count attended hundreds of Wagnerian performances, starting with one of Rienzi in the provincial town of Linz, when he was 12: instant intoxication. Wagner furnished the soundtrack for the mass rallies under the Third Reich. Josef Goebbels hailed Meistersinger as the "most German" of German operas, "the epitome of German civilization, embodying everything that helps to make up the German soul and German cultural awareness." Not least, Wagner "taught us what a Jew is."

The modern Left, which is to say the virtual consensus of semi-educated people, identifies anti-Semitism as the original sin of German fascism, and this fascism with the natural tendency of the capitalist-nationalist-imperialist-racist Right carried to its inevitable diseased conclusion. Yet during the 19th-century golden age of socialist and Communist theory, the Jewish parasite banker, industrial overlord, or even mere grasping shopkeeper who took the honest workingman's crust of bread right out of his mouth, was a regular feature of inspiring revolutionary lore. Wagner, then, was very much in his element, as a man of solid Leftist credentials and soaring personal ambition who blamed on the Jews the social corruption, artistic malfeasance, and difficulty he had in convincing the world of his supreme genius and in making the fortune he deserved.

The matter of whether Wagner's anti-Semitism infects his artistic works remains the most heatedly contested question in the literature. To those who uphold the purity of his masterworks, Wagner's personal opinions, and his savage polemical writings, may betray the weakness one will find in any man, but his art represents only his best self, which is among the noblest that mankind has known. Some of Wagner's most valuable commentators--M. Owen Lee, in Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art (1995) and Wagner and the Wonder of Art: An Introduction to Die Meistersinger (2007), and Bryan Magee, in The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (2000)--quiver uncontrollably at the assertion that the poison in Wagner's everyday mind could have leached into his immortal art. Michael Tanner, a former Cambridge philosophy don, author of books on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and the formidable opera critic for The Spectator since 1996, wrote over 30 years ago, "I feel as incensed as ever when a critic tells us that Mime [Alberich's loathsome brother], or Beckmesser, or Klingsot [the renegade knight of the Grail whose evil wizardry Parsifal overcomes] is clearly intended to be a Jew." It is the duty of serious critics to apply the wood to "the mistakes and mendacities which anti-Wagnerians seem to need to produce." In his book Wagner (1995), Tanner says that it has been mostly during the post-Nazi period that these preposterous allegations have surfaced; the Nazis themselves never suggested such things; so "why did Wagner make the point so obscurely that we have had to wait more than a century for these 'discoveries' to be made?"

But in fact the ugliness was clear enough to the audience of Wagner's own day, as Jews quite rightly expressed their outrage while "real Germans" vociferously approved every anti-Semitic insult. Cosima Wagner records in her diary for March 14, 1870, a musical newspaper's report that Beckmesser in the Vienna Meistersinger had been greeted with hissing and calls to stop the music. This Jewish indecency had been drowned out by the righteous, however, and Cosima proclaimed "complete victory for the Germans." Richard Wagner observed, "That is something none of our fine historians of culture notice: that things have reached the stage of Jews' daring to say in the imperial theatre, 'We do not want this.'" Cosima's diary entries over the next two months note that the honorable faculty and student body at the University of Vienna fully support Meistersinger, "whereas the Jews are showing violent opposition"; that protesters dared to disrupt another Meistersinger in Berlin, but that the mischievous insects "were completely crushed"; and that Berlin opera management had shelved the work until the autumn, in the hope that "passions will have time to cool."

The Master's Art

PASSIONS CONTINUE TO RUN HIGH, HOWEVER. Some disbelievers in Wagner's artistic anti-Semitism fume that the model for Beckmesser was not the all-purpose Jew but specifically Eduard Hanslick, the premier traditionalist among the critics at that time, an admirer of early Wagner who, as the composer wrote in his autobiography, "had since developed into one of the most vicious opponents of my work." The composer's deft sadism was strictly personal his brazen contempt a matter of artistic honor, these modern defenders say. What they never mention is that, according to the official Nazi Dictionary of Music (1941), Hanslick, indeed "immortalized by Wagner as the despicable Beckmesser," was a '[Jewish half-breed." Whether this racial honorific was bestowed posthumously by the party is uncertain; at the very least the dictionary entry confutes the claim that the Nazis were as unaware of anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas as Wagner was himself. They knew only too well, and they loved him for it.

Wagner's most distinguished artistic successor loved him, in spite of it. Gustav Mahler (1860-1910) is renowned as one of the greatest conductors of Wagner, and perhaps the greatest composer since Wagner, and one profoundly influenced by the Master. Mahler was a Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism, so that he could be appointed director of Vienna's Imperial and Royal Opera in 1897, the most prestigious position at that time for a conductor. Cosima Wagner lobbied unsuccessfully to forbid him this eminence, but she did make sure that he never conducted at Bayreuth. All the same, Mahler loved Wagner almost as much as Cosima did. When Mahler attended the Bayreuth Festival for the first time in 1883, the performance of Parsifal left him "incapable of uttering a word, [and knowing] that all that is greatest and most painful had been vouchsafed to me, and that I would carry it around within me, inviolate, for the rest of my life."

Yet Mahler knew well the malice in Wagnerian opera directed at the likes of him. Martin Geck quotes Mahler's remarks on the grotesquely overdrawn anti-Semitic caricature of the singer portraying Mime in the Vienna Ring that Mahler was preparing in 1898:

   Although I am convinced that this character
   is the living parody of a Jew as envisaged
   by Wagner (in all the features
   with which he invested him: his petty
   cleverness, his acquisitive greed, and his
   whole jargon, which is musically and
   textually admirable) it really mustn't appear
   exaggerated here and laid on with a
   trowel.... I know only one Mime ... and
   that's me! You'd be amazed at what's in
   this role and how I would bring it all out!


Geck concludes that Mahler as composer of symphony and song found bountiful precedent in "Wagner's fearless ability to let beauty and ugliness, the sublime and the trivial clash with uncompromising directness." Mahler could feel the injury, but appreciated the Master's art that caused it. Did Mahler then hate his own Jewishness, or forgive the unforgivable in an artist he revered? The answer is not obvious. Yet some matters are simple and clear. Wagner was singularly alive to certain commanding ideas of his time; he was also susceptible to the worst inclinations of his chosen luminaries. A virulent anti-Semitism feeds Bakunin's demonic cleansing fire, in which he wished to consume not only "the Jewish financial world" but also select rival incendiaries. As he wrote of Karl Marx in Statism and Anarchy, "By origin Marx is a Jew.... A nervous man, some say to the point of cowardice, he is extremely ambitious and vain, quarrelsome, intolerant, and absolute, like Jehovah, the Lord God of his ancestors, and, like him, vengeful to the point of madness." Of course Marx had his good points too. Marx was Bakunin's Meyerbeer.

For Feuerbach, the Jewish doctrine of Creation supplanted the glorious Greek theoretic view of Nature: Anaxagoras' beautiful thought that "Man is born to behold the world" was displaced by the 'practical egoism" of "a special Divine Providence." The Jews created a God who created the world especially for Jews; wit ness the innumerable miracles in the Old Testament. "And all these contradictions of Nature happen for the welfare of Israel, purely at the command of Jehovah, who troubles himself about nothing but Israel, who is nothing but the personified selfishness of the Israelitish people, to the exclusion of all other nations--absolute intolerance, the secret essence of monotheism."

A classic text in the genre.

Schopenhauer preached compassion as the indispensable moral virtue in a world that subjects all its creatures to fathomless pain. And in the essay "On the Foundation of Morality," he deplores the decided absence of compassion in contemporary Europe, "above all because of the 'foetor Judiacus' [Jewish stench] that permeates everything." Wagner clearly learned compassion from Schopenhauer.

The words of Wagner's intellectual heroes speak for themselves. But Wagner never actually mentions Jews in his operas; so they must not be there at all or at least he must intend them no harm, when his higher self is at work. A letter that Cosima wrote on February 6, 1870, to Nietzsche, then very much under the Wagnerian spell, suggests that discretion is sometimes the better part of civilized anti-Semitism:

   I have a request to make of you, a request
   as from mother to son. Do not stir up a
   hornets' nest. Do you follow my meaning?
   Do not refer to the Jews by name,
   especially not en passant. Later, yes--if
   you are prepared to take up the fearful
   struggle. But not yet.


Nietzsche adopted the accepted code, referring drily to "international hoarders of wealth" and "callous optimists." Later, however, as Nietzsche turned away from Wagner, he would extol the marvels of the Hebrew Bible and announce his disgust with Christianity--especially for the sometime Master's "prostration before the Cross" in Parsifal. Even so, in The Case of Wagner (1888), Nietzsche acknowledges an ever present need: "When in this essay I assert the proposition that Wagner is harmful I wish no less to assert for whom he is nevertheless indispensable--for the philosopher." And he goes on, "I understand perfectly when a musician says today: 'I hate Wagner, but I can no longer endure any other music.' But I'd also understand a philosopher who would declare: 'Wagner sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian.'"

Essay by Algis Valiunas

Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and a semi-retired operatic bass-baritone.
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Title Annotation:German composer Richard Wagner
Author:Valiunas, Algis
Publication:Claremont Review of Books
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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