German composer Richard Wagner is almost as famous for being an anti-semite as for writing operas. Derek Strahan discovers there may have been a more complex cause behind his prejudice.


The music of Richard Wagner is everywhere – on recordings, on radio and live in the theatre. Wagner groupies travel the world in pursuit of live performances of his opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. Quite apart from the intrinsic appeal of the music and the craft employed in its orchestration, the Wagner operas are hugely effective as music theatre, and enduringly useful to music organisations who can rely on them to bring financial reward. One consequence of Wagner’s popularity is that he remains a controversial figure – not because of the music itself, but because of its associations with the Nazis before and during World War II, and also because of Wagner’s own anti-semitic writings in pamphlets published during his lifetime. 


If your acquaintance with Wagner comes through his music, it can be a shock to read his anti-semitic rants, most famous of which is the 1850 tract Judaism in Music, to which he wrote an appendix in 1869. Although couched in the form of musical critique, there are passages in the text which overstep the bounds of artistic comment and degenerate into personal abuse. What is even more disturbing is that, in its emotive and irrational aspects, Wagner’s prose reads like a prototype of later Nazi propaganda. 


It is ironic that Wagner’s influence is also to be found in the work of many fine Jewish composers of the early 20th century, including those who suffered persecution under the Nazis, and whose work is currently being re-discovered, performed and recorded (notably in the Decca Records Entartete Musik series). Wagner’s influence is to be heard in the work of the many accomplished Jewish composers who escaped from Europe, many of whom went to America to work in Hollywood. Wagner effectively “invented” many of the devices which found pertinent application in the creation of the great symphonic film scores of the 1930s. Given how pervasive Wagner’s music is, the controversy over his politics seems unlikely to die quietly. 


One question hanging over Wagner’s life is often mentioned by writers and commentators – but always in passing, often literally in a footnote by biographers. This is surprising, because the question is monumental: was Wagner Jewish? Or, more compellingly: did Wagner think he might be Jewish? From which arises the even more germane question, was Wagner afraid people would think he was Jewish? While the answer to the last question is almost certainly “yes”, a definite answer to the first question could be provided only by conducting a DNA test, were this possible, on Wagner’s descendants, who trace their bloodline not to Wagner’s presumed father, Friedrich Wagner, but to his stepfather, the successful actor and painter Ludwig Geyer. It is Geyer, not Friedrich Wagner, who is now most widely believed to be the true, biological father of the composer.


But did Geyer have Jewish roots? Opinions diverge on this point. John Chancellor, in his 1978 biography of the composer, states bluntly that he did not. “He could claim the same sturdy descent as the Wagners. His pedigree also went back to the middle of the 17th century and his forefathers were also, for the most part, organists in small Thuringian towns and villages.” Chancellor blames Nietzsche for raising the question of Geyer’s Judaism as an extra seasoning to his charge of illegitimacy, when the philosopher had fallen out with Wagner. But, in his book Wagner & Nietzsche, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau appears to accept that Geyer was Jewish. 


The famous singer draws on Wagner scholar Robert Gutman to suggest that Richard and Cosima egged each other on in their anti-semitism, because both had Jewish roots to deny. Cosima was the daughter of Liszt and the Comtesse d’Agoult, whose maternal grandfather was a Jewish banker from Frankfurt. 


There does seem to be agreement, however, that Wagner himself had doubts about his own parentage. Geyer’s affair with Wagner’s mother pre-dated the death of Wagner’s presumed father, Friedrich Wagner, a Police Registrar who was ill at the time young Richard was conceived, and who died six months after his birth. Soon after this, Wagner’s mother Johanna married Ludwig Geyer. Richard Wagner himself was known as Richard Geyer until, at the age of 14, he had his name legally changed to Wagner. Apparently he had taken some abuse at school because of his Jewish-sounding name. Could his later anti-semiticism have been motivated, at least in part, by sensitivity to this abuse, and by a kind of pre-emptive denial to prevent difficulties and suffering arising from prejudice? 


Wagner’s rhetoric in his article Judaism in Music, written in 1850, is pernicious, but its generalities may have been a mask to disguise a more specific purpose – to attack, firstly, the Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. This was an ignoble way to return Meyerbeer’s earlier attempts to assist Wagner’s career in Paris. Correspondence of the time suggests these attempts were sincere, but Wagner later felt they were only token gestures, since they did not bear fruit. The failure to advance a career in Paris was a deeply felt humiliation. 


In the later appendix to the article, Wagner delivered a slightly muted attack on Mendelssohn, calling him technically clever and good at evoking “nature”, but lacking “depth”. This same nonsensical charge has been levelled against Mendelssohn until as late as the 1960s. Wagner’s slur was tactical. He was trying to create a “place” for himself by attacking others, a common if odious practice in the arts, and which would be thought trivial in Wagner’s case were it not for the political context in which the remark was made. 


In passing, it must be said that Wagner had a penchant for vociferous complaint, and few targets escaped his scrutiny, including Germany itself. In a letter to Franz Liszt, of September 1860, he wrote: “It is with horror that I contemplate Germany and my plans for the future there. May God forgive me, but all I can see in Germany is small-mindedness, boorish behaviour, pretence and arrogance.”


Railing against Mendelssohn was a preparation on Wagner’s part to carve out a politically correct role for himself as a German nationalist, writing music to this agenda as distinct from (what he described as being) the synthetic, non-nationalist kind of music favoured by Jewish composers. As pointed out in the recent Thames & Hudson publication The Wagner Compendium, there is no question that Wagner was being mischievous by deriding what we describe today as an element of cultural “fusion” in music. Indeed, the ability to treat all ethnic musics with impartial interest, and to absorb their elements into original works of art music, as Mendelssohn did, is basic to the craft of composition. 


Wagner’s music, in its time, offered a paradigm for this kind of evolution in his chosen area of work, music theatre. And it is ironic that later Jewish composers such as Franz Schreker, Erwin Schulhoff and, before he settled in America, Erich Korngold, successfully applied his techniques in opera. The Nazis condemned atonality and jazz as degenerate, but they could do nothing to prevent the flowering of Jewish musical talent in the area of music for film by a generation of Jewish composers who fled persecution in Europe to settle and find work in Hollywood. Many of the techniques they used for this new form of music theatre called cinema were based on Wagnerian theory and practice. 


It is also true that Wagner’s anti-semitic rhetoric was not matched by his behaviour. The Nazis denied Jewish musicians employment, imprisoned and killed them, but Wagner employed them in high positions of trust at Bayreuth. He did make a nuisance of himself trying to convert them to Christianity, but he also inspired in his colleagues a degree of professional dedication unusual in the performing arts in any period. Conductor Hermann Levi, in letters to his father, a chief rabbi in the town of Giessen, writes of his time preparing for the first Bayreuth Festival. “Wagner is the best and noblest of men… I thank God daily for the privilege to be close to such a man. It is the most beautiful experience of my life.” 


And although anti-semiticism was ubiquitous in Europe during Wagner’s lifetime, it was not an attitude encouraged by the wearer of the Bavarian Crown. Ludwig II wrote to Wagner: “It is good, beloved friend, that you are not going to discriminate between Gentiles and Jews when it comes to performing your exalted, sacred work [Parsifal]. Nothing is more odious, more disagreeable than such antagonism. Whatever our religions may be, fundamentally, we are all human beings and as such we are brothers, are we not?”


It is true that some of Wagner’s descendants consorted with the Nazis, and that one of the architects of racial theory, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, married into the Wagner family. But not all Wagners collaborated with racists, then or now. Wagner’s son, Siegfried, also a composer, who died in 1930, refused a request to bar Jewish patrons and artists from Bayreuth. 


Writing in 1921, Siegfried reasoned thus: “We have a great number of loyal, honest and unselfish Jewish friends. They have frequently given us proof of their devotion. You demand that we should turn all these people from our doors for no other reason than that they are Jews? Is that human? Is that Christian? Is that German? Oh no! If we were really to consider such action, we Germans would first of all have to turn into quite different people… It is a matter of complete indifference to us whether a human being is a Chinese, a Negro, an American, a Red Indian or a Jew. But we could well take lessons from the Jews in solidarity and in helping one another … If the Jews are willing to support us, they deserve our particular appreciation, for my father attacked and offended them in his writings. They are entitled to hate Bayreuth, and yet, many of them revere my father’s works with genuine enthusiasm, in spite of his attacks on them…”


As mentioned earlier, the Wagner problem only arises for the period following the horrors of World War II because his music has consistently made money for musicians and music institutions worldwide. If his work had sunk into obscurity because of disinterest, there would be no controversy. But because he is such a money-spinner for the entire music industry, Wagner had to be re-instated, and this was achieved, initially, by attempts to whitewash his character and downplay his politics. These attempts are still being made, and they are regrettable because truth is always more edifying than evasion, and repression of fact obscures other issues which merit attention..


It certainly does no credit to Wagner’s character to suppose that he may have adopted anti-semiticism as a mask to conceal any hint of Jewish heritage in his background. But the possibility is worth exploring in the context of his life, his talent, and his creative aims. He was not born into a Jewish heritage, nor was he Jewish by religion, so the hypothesis we are exploring is not a normal case of denial, but a case of pre-emptive denial of a possibility. We are not dealing with a certainty in Wagner’s life, but with a question to which he could never be given a clear answer. In this context, he may have felt that being Jewish, or being thought to be Jewish, was not a burden that he wished to bear. The artistic aims he set for himself from an early age were enormously ambitious; indeed they were grandiose and, on the face of it, impossible to achieve. In the end, they were only achieved by a miracle, the timely support of an adolescent admirer who ascended to the throne of Bavaria, and who became his most ardent patron, Ludwig II.


What were Wagner’s aims? As they finally evolved, they were to achieve a revolution in the art of opera, or, as he defined it, music drama: the Gesamtkunstwerk (complete artwork). With Ludwig’s help, he was largely successful in a number of respects. He pioneered the dissolution of the Classical system of harmony and paved the way for many developments in music of the 20th century, including the Leitmotif and other techniques for giving music a narrative role in drama. He championed the use of new systems for instruments and new brass instruments – in particular the specially developed “Wagner tuba” which allowed him to write more innovative and robust chromatic harmonies – of which other composers, such as Brahms and Schumann, strongly disapproved. 


Wagner also pioneered innovations in theatre design, which included hiding the orchestra in a pit below the stage, and blacking out the lights in the auditorium. He overcame enormous hostility to achieve these changes. It is possible to imagine that, in some private moments of reflection early in life, he must have decided that such aims were difficult enough, without adding to them the burden of racial and cultural prejudice which came with being, or being thought to be, Jewish. Such fears could well have originated when he was an impressionable adolescent, if he had had early experience of being teased at school for being Jewish. 


Such speculation is only interesting if there is to be found, in his creative work, any resonance of such an issue, any traces of cultural ambiguity. Music historians have been quick to point out anti-semitic elements in Wagner’s libretti: the gold-loving Nibelung lord Alberich as a symbol of Jewish materialism; the jealous rival songsmith Beckmesser in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, who is incapable of original work and resorts to stealing the work of others – a symbol of the kind of Jewish creativity Wagner attacked in his polemical writing. But it is also possible to find other symbols in his libretti which are sympathetic to a Jewish heritage in European culture. The hero of the early opera The Flying Dutchman is synonymous with the “Wandering Jew”, the Dutchman’s endless journeying analogous to that symbol 
of the Jewish Diaspora. 


Despite Wagner’s anti-semitic rhetoric there is consistent evidence of his interaction with Jewish artists throughout his life, both on a personal basis and, professionally, after the establishment of Bayreuth: and there was a persistent groundswell of support for his innovations from Jewish people in Berlin, in the early years of the Festival, which continued despite the hurtful republication of
his earlier tracts. 


Wagner’s music is here to stay. But can he be forgiven? Unlike Hitler, the Wagnerphile with whom he is often associated today, Wagner never gave up on art, as Hitler did on painting, and though he condemned Jews, he never refused them employment, and never committed acts of violence against them. A Jewish friend of mine has put it in a more concise, and rather generous, way: “As an anti-semite, Wagner was an amateur”. 


As for the question of a possible Jewish heritage, if DNA testing were carried out, Richard Wagner could be acclaimed in history as one of the great Jewish composers of the 19th century. Such a verdict would please as many people as it would outrage. It would also be a final, fitting irony in the career of a man in whose life ironies abound.