YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 2, 2012

The case of Wagner

Scene from “Hacking Wagner”

This is a guest blog by Dan Leeson, a member of the Humanities-Net discussion group “The History of Antisemitism.” What follows is his case against Wagner. My own view is that works of art should be constantly historicized and interrogated, but not censored. If Leeson’s analysis is correct, then the obvious question for us today, is what accounts for Wagner’s attraction to barbarian myths? Why was there a significan medieval revival in 19th century European high culture, and not just in Germany? What are the implications of neo-medievalism for today’s political culture in the West? How should scholars write program notes for performances of Wagner’s operas? Would anyone publish them, were they fully to engage with the folkloric stereotypes that Leeson lists?

What follows is Dan Leeson’s argument against the generally favorable article on the German performance of Hacking Wagner.

[Leeson:] In the link: http://www.timesofisrael.com/hacking-richard-wagner/ the argument is made (over and over again) that the reason behind those who insist on a permanent and perpetual ban on Wagner’s music in Israel is directly related to Wagner’s vicious antisemitism.

Not so, and very seriously not so. There have been other composers who held negative views on Jews and no one is calling for the same fate as that proposed for Wagner.  So what is so special about Wagner?

The point that Wagner lovers (and I used to be one) fail to see is that in Wagner’s case the operas themselves (though not all of them, but certainly the Ring, Meistersinger, and Flying Dutchman, at a minimum) are nothing less than anti-Semitic theater; i.e., when one sees those operas, one is watching a medieval antisemitic play with music.

For example, the characteristics exhibited in Beckmesser in Meistersinger generally pass unnoticed by contemporary audiences, mostly because our generation has little experience with and hardly any memory of coded nineteenth century antisemitism. The heritage of the Shoah has gone far to desensitize us to all but the most naked, uncamouflaged, and flagrant antisemitic actions. Our sensitivity to how the German world saw Jews at the time of the premiere of Meistersinger has become clouded, unfamiliar, and distorted by time, which makes it difficult for the contemporary world to recognize the subtle characteristics of coded antisemitism.


For example, we no longer remember the Grimm fairy tale, “The Jew in the Thornbush,” which appeared in 1815 though derived from a story dating from 1618. Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), a German-born Protestant intellectual, sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer (of Jewish descent) claimed that Wagner identified the character of Beckmesser with the Jew in the Thorn-Bush, though his assertion is disputed.   It is interesting to note that those who quarrel with Adorno’s contention have neither experience in the details of pre-20th century antisemitism or exposure to antisemitic theater.

In the case of The Ring, the personalities of the drama fall into two groups having opposite characteristics. One such group is the “Volk,” roughly translated as “the race” or “the nation,” but not “the common people.” The other is the “outsider” who differs from the Volk in many specifics.

Wagner assigns various characteristics to the good Volk, and then displays the opposite attributes as being present in the evil outsiders. One such characteristic is that the Volk walk in a poised and confident manner while the outsider staggers and stumbles. This stage device is derived from the medieval superstition that Jews had goat’s feet. In the middle ages, the billy goat was presented as a symbol of satanic lechery and the devil’s most usual disguise. The Jews, believed to be Satan’s minions, were also accused of having the same attribute. That the Jew’s feet were shod in public was interpreted as using the cloak of civilization to disguise his corruption. This acceptance of Jewish deviltry gave rise to the concept that the Jewish foot could not function at a normal gait; i.e., the Jew stumbled and staggered. In The Ring, the gnomes walk in this fashion while the Volk are surefooted, a characteristic also seen in the stumbling of Beckmesser as contrasted with the graceful dancing of the townspeople in Meistersinger.

In Sander Gilman’s, The Jew’s Body (1991), further significance is given to the Jew’s feet. They became a source of disease and the pace at which Jews walked was perceived as a sign of their affliction. The seventeenth century Orientalist, John Schudt, commented that the crooked feet of the Jews made them physically inferior and, ultimately, the general belief about the Jew’s feet influenced liberal efforts to include them in the modern state. This is particularly true with respect to serving in the military where it was believed that Jews would be worthless as soldiers. In Austria, for example, weak feet were said to be the main reason why Jews inducted into the military were subsequently detached.

Another example of a characteristic with hidden antisemitic meaning is that of vocal patterns. Wagner’s formulation of a large-scale male and female voice, for example, the “heroic tenor”, is used for the Volk whereas the outsiders sing in distinguishing non-Volkish ways. The gnomes in The Ring have high and piercing voices, the same coded message for the confusion between castration and circumcision as found in Meistersinger, as well as a related claim connecting circumcision with effeminacy in the Jewish male. Thus the Volk sing with heroic qualities while the outsider screams in a high-pitched voice.

Going beyond the visual and acoustic, Wagner employs the allegory of smell to evoke images of character. Sulphurous fumes and the noxious stenches that emanate from the outsider often accompany them. The central theme of this coded idea is especially despicable because it is derived from the belief of the “Jewish stench,” or “foetor Judaicus.” The assertion that the Jew has a distinctive and unpleasant odor is a particularly grave accusation, first because of the origin alleged to be the stench’s cause, and second because of the several ways Jews were said to act in order to eliminate it. Common belief during the middle ages associated good spirits with emitting a pleasant fragrance while evil spirits, particularly Satan and his minions, gave forth an obnoxious stench.

For example, when the coffin of St. Stephen, the protomartyr, was opened, his body was said to have filled the air with a sweet fragrance that insinuated the odor of sanctity.  In the case of the Jews, the stink was said to be a punishment for their alleged crimes, which included accusations of host desecration and deicide. (A personal comment here.  My retirement community has several Austrian survivors of the Holocaust. One Viennese expatriate told me that his mother and grandmother would never cook with garlic and when asked why, they refused to discuss it.)

The Jews were said to have two ways to eliminate the smell, one of which involved murder and cannibalism; i.e., it was said that Jews killed Christian children to obtain their blood for ritual purposes, one of which was said to occur during the Passover Seder. It was alleged that Jews consumed cups of this blood as an alleviate for the Jewish stench. The other choice was acceptance of baptism. A direct quote from the time states that “the water of baptism carried off the Jews’ odor” and that this left them with a fragrance “sweeter than that of ambrosia floating upon the heads touched by the sanctified oil.” This accusation went beyond those expressed in the extreme anti-Jewish rhetoric of Martin Luther, causing him to say, “So long as we use violence and slander, saying that [the Jews] use the blood of Christians to get rid of their stench…, what can we expect of them?”

Another discriminatory feature used by Wagner is that of vision.  Poor eyesight is a class attribute that was never applied to anyone but Jews. The medieval view was that Jews were blind to Christianity, that the synagogue was veiled, etc. Statues of a blindfolded woman, an allegory representing “the synagogue defeated,” still decorate churches in Europe. One stands today in an alcove on the exterior of Strasbourg’s cathedral, and postcards of it may be purchased at nearby shops. This notion eventually was concretized as weak eyes, which, among other things, caused squinting and blinking, characteristics that are found in the outsider.

Wagner carried the idea of good vision of the Volk to a higher dimension in suggesting that they recognize each other by glance alone, and they can “see” the outsider as being different.

Finally, in The Ring, Wagner gives coded messages about the dangers of race mixing. The character Hagen, who has a gnome father but a Volkish mother, bears no good maternal characteristics. Instead he retains the depraved character of his father, namely that of a liar, usurper, and villainous murderer. But his racially pure counterpart, Siegfried, the product of an incestuous twin brother-sister relationship, is an idealized hero who is handsome, honest, virtuous, and brave, and whose most significant flaw is that he is too trusting of strangers.

In effect, those who think the ban on Wagner to be entirely derived from Jewish reaction to his personal antisemitism are blinded to the presence of the medieval antisemitic characteristics of (1) stumbling and staggering, (2) vocal patterns, (3) sight, (4) smell, and (5) race mixing. By being ignorant of and insensitive to these elements in the Wagner operas, they focus their attention away from the central issue, namely that Wagner’s Jew hatred is made part and parcel of his operas. [End, Leeson remarks]

[Clare:] Note that “the Flying Dutchman” is widely considered to be a variant of the Wandering Jew myth. That character should be better known as a figure of the artist, like Pierrot,  alienated from his culture. In the case of Wagner, his own writings accuse Jewry of infesting the modern world. In one recent documentary on Wagner’s life, I recall Alberich’s theme from Das Rheingold as a recurrent motif. On Alberich and gold, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberich. For more on the Wandering Jew myth see http://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.

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  1. It’s so funny: the jew stereotype characters would sing in high pitched, piercing voices? That would be Mime, the gnome. But his brother Alberich is supposed to be as gnomish and jew as he is: still Alberich is a bass. So is Beckmesser. Wagner was indeed an antisemite, but let’s not speak nonsense.

    Comment by Bleistein — September 10, 2012 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

    • Dan Leeson responds: There does not seem to be much purpose in continuing to respond to these kinds of ill-informed accusations. Those who write them are not in a mood to learn anything, so why bother. However, I don’t think that the party who submitted the most recent inquiry know very much about Sixtus Beckmesser and the role he plays in Meistersinger.

      Looking below the surface, Beckmesser is very much a Jewish caricature. What Beckmesser sings, particularly in his prize song parody, and how he sings it presents Wagner’s corrupt ideas about the rhythms and vocal inflections of synagogue chant. Further, he sings in a very high voice, far too high for the bass voice specified by Wagner. It is an example of the effeminate high voice that parodied the imagined result of castration, which, in the mind of the ill informed, was confused with circumcision.

      Beckmessser’s original stage name, though altered early in the creative cycle, was “Hans Lick,” (a variant of the name of the so-called “Bismark of critics,” Eduard Hanslick), It is in the use of that name that one finds a clear signal that Wagner designed the character in Jewish terms. The fact that Wagner even considered this humiliation for a man who he regarded as an archenemy is notable. Beside the fact that Wagner detested Hanslick because the critic was so negative about Wagner’s music, it is equally noteworthy to point out the fact that, Hanslick’s mother was Jewish, something that Wagner would have found reason enough to presume that Hanlick’s ideas about music were incompetent, hateful, destructive, and far too Jewish.

      Beckmesser’s performance as a poet/singer is so outrageously incompetent that the reactions to him from the citizens of Nuremberg range from cynical disrespect to outright ridicule. His ardent but pathetic serenading of the wrong woman leads to a riot. And he is a thief, too, stealing a poem that he uses as the text for his own prize song. But even in this Beckmesser fails because, in Wagner’s eyes, Beckmesser (like any Jew) cannot be a musical person even when given satisfactory raw material and coached in its proper use by a master. Here the parallel to the unpoetic, inarticulate, and unmusical Jew is unambiguous.

      Finally, there is the matter of Beckmesser’s participation in a song contest that directly challenges Walther, the opera’s hero. Beckmesser’s purpose in this foolish act, which results in further humiliation for him, has to do with the contest’s prize being the beautiful daughter of a wealthy fellow guild member; i.e., the image of Beckmesser is that of a talentless and incompetent older man having sexual pretensions for a young, pure German maiden, as well as lust for wealth, this description summarizing Wagner’s opinion of Jews, in general.

      Wagner lovers are incapable of accepting any negative interpretation of their favorite composer’s music or person. Instead they offer the view that, while Wagner was an antisemite, lots of musicians were, too, so why pick on poor Richard.

      On the other hand, I see one long historical arc from early Christian Jew-hatred to that of Martin Luther (as seen in his pamphlet, “On the Jews and Their Lies”), to Richard Wagner (whose pamphlet “Das Judentum in Musik” made him the most influential antisemite in Germany), to Adolf Hitler, and to the Holocaust. As much as I enjoyed listening to and playing Wagner’ music (until I figured out what the subliminal message was), I no longer listen to it and turn away any opportunity to play it or hear it, which means that it negatively affects my income’s bottom line. It is where his brand of thinking leads that causes me to stay away from anything with which he was involved. And I do not kid myself. I am musically poorer for my behavior, but I just cannot conceive of listening to or performing music written by a man who was so influential in maintaining the kind of hateful thinking that eventually lead to Auschwitz.–Dan Leeson

      Comment by clarespark — September 10, 2012 @ 9:30 pm | Reply

  2. [Here are Dan Leeson's replies to Milos's objections below:] It may be the author’s view that Barry Millington’s article on the antisemitism in Meistersinger has been roundly ridiculed, but I find that attitude is an easy way to dismiss what Millington wrote. Rather than dispute the details, a person with a contrary view finds it easier to suggest that (paraphrase) “everyone knows that the view of xxx is nonsense.” And in this way the view of xxx is dismissed in at once.

    I am anxious to learn which of the 1993 NY Times article have been debunked. On the other hand, it is probably impossible to write a newspaper article in which some of the text is open to question. Writing for newspaper is not writing for scholarly journals.

    As for Hans Sachs aria, whatever he sang (i.e., the “Jew in the Thornbush” business) is small potatoes next to the insertion of medieval antisemitic stereotypes, which can only be understood with a serious knowledge of medieval antisemitism. A great deal of study of the discipline of antisemitism doesn’t go much earlier than WW2. I am of course referring to items such as feet, sight, race mixing, smell, and vocal patterns. Those who dismiss the presence of these elements in the Wagner operas may not have had much experience in dealing with medieval antisemitism. For those who know about them, they are a red light bulb that light up Wagner hatred of Jews.

    Dan Leeson

    Comment by clarespark — August 5, 2012 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

  3. The Austrians should be the last people on earth to complain about stench from humans. When my wife and I toured the Austrian Salzkammergut we stopped at sevearal resorts to listen to noon day concerts, but generally could not stay because the stench of body odor so permeated the concert halls.

    By the way I came across your blog via your comments on Commentary, and I am enchanted with them.

    Comment by Robert Ennis — August 3, 2012 @ 5:26 pm | Reply

  4. Whoever this Leeson character is he belongs in a lunatic asylum. Simple as that! To show you how absurd his fantasies are I’ll give you an example of Beckmesser: not even the nazis saw that character as an anti-Jewish metaphor as prof. David B. Dennis showed in his study published in Nicolas Vaszonyi’s monography about Die Meistersinger.

    Comment by Milos — August 3, 2012 @ 8:48 am | Reply

    • Citing one scholar won’t do. The entire subject is controversial, but here is a link to a NYT article that delineates the controversy. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/24/arts/classical-view-beckmesser-two-villains-at-a-swipe.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.

      Comment by clarespark — August 3, 2012 @ 3:25 pm | Reply

      • Well, this one scholar has actually dived into a sea of primary sources that Wagner-haters never even bother to cite but just say “it was common knowledge”. Well, it wasn’t. Go have a look at the list of the sources and articles prof. Dennis has gone through and you tell me it is not enough.

        As for the NYT article it is from 1993 and since then some of the myths in it have been debunked. The first one is is about the critic Hanslich walking out of the reading of the libretto. Scholar Stewart Spencer in his book “Wagner remebered” shows that Hanslich himself in his memoirs mentions nothing of this incident and in fact praised the libretto.

        Beckmesser’s serenade from Act 2 is a parody of the Italian operatic style. Cosima Wagner mentioned vaguely in her diary in 1872 where that according to her “the Jews were spreading rumours that Beckmesser’s song is a parody of an old Jewish song” but from the tone of the writing it is fairly clear she believes the assertion to be rubbish. And she was a bigger antisemite then Richard was. Plus, noone else mentions similar rumours, not then or ever.

        Barry Millington’s fantasies about Die Meistersinger have been roundly ridiculed. I’ll just mention the one where he tries to on basis of one verse, or rather a single word, to connect Die Meistersinger with an antisemitic story of the Grimm brothers. The verse is a part of the stanza where he expresses resentment against the whole Mastersinger guild, the stanza which is all but undiscernible because at that point everyone is singing his own part simultainiously: Walter, Beckmesser, Sachs, the masters, the apprentices…There are dozens of Meistersinger Act 1 finals on Youtube, go have a look at any of them and see if you can make out anything of what is being sung in the last 2 minutes or so.

        Comment by Milos — August 5, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

      • And for the end, a word about the Hans Sachs’ final monologue: the whole controversy stems from a mistranslation of one word that was originally done innocently for the sake of simplicity but later Wagner haters outside of Germany(since no-one in Germany would be able to pass this around without being thought of as a crackpot) have been using this ambiguity to misrepresent the passage in extremely bad faith. There are verses “Beware! Evil tricks threaten us! If the German people and kingdom should one day decay, under a false, foreign rule” that in original German go like this “Habt Acht! Uns dräuen üble Streich’: zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich, in falscher wälscher Majestät”. The German word “wälsch” (or “welsch” in modern spelling) was translated as “foreign” but it does not mean “foreign” as in “something non-German” in a broad sense. The German word for that is “fremd”. On the other hand “wälsch” has been used to denominate first the Gaelic/Celtic tribes living next to the Germanic ones, then the Romanic peoples whose language derived from Latin(often even called “Latins”), primarily the French and the Italians, a meaning that stands to this day. During the protestant reformation “wälsch” also became a colloquial term for Roman Catholics.

        There is no way an average German from Wagner’s time when he heard “in falscher wälscher Majestät” would have thought of Jews. Political nationalists would have immediately associated the word with the French since Die Meistersingers premiered on the eve of the unification of Germany. German cultural nationalists would have seen it as an anti-French or anti-Italian message since those two cultures were main foreign influences as well as competitors. And a die-hard protestant, one still having grievances dating from the Thirty Year War, would see it as an anti-Catholic message.

        If you do not believe anything of what I wrote, consult a German dictionary of your choosing.

        Comment by Milos — August 5, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

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