4 JANUARY 1992, Page 20


Should the Valkyries ride over Jerusalem?


It is easy to sympathise with those Israelis who do not want Wagner's music to be played in their country. Wagner was an exceptionally unpleasant man and not the least of his nastier characteristics was his venomous anti-Semitism. It was not just the commonplace anti-Semitism of the day and age either; it was deep-rooted, ideological and intertwined with Wagner's whole approach to music, especially his own. It was also coloured by the fear, now known to be unfounded, that he himself was Jew- ish. During his radical period Wagner, like Marx (five years his junior), was much influenced by the young Hegelians, such as Bruno Bauer, who held the Jews responsi- ble for many of the ills of the world. Marx produced his anti-Semitic tract, On the Jew- ish Question, in 1843-4, and five years later Wagner followed with his essay Jewishness in Music, arguing that Jews were poisoning musical culture just as Marx maintained they were poisoning society as a whole. Wagner concluded that only by renouncing their Jewishness could the Jews (and music) be redeemed, echoing Marx's con- clusion: 'The social emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of society from Judaism.'

These two evil men thought that by exposing the Jewish basis of bourgeois soci- ety they could bring about radical change. Marx expanded his anti-Semitic theory into his general theory of capitalism, a process largely complete by 1848 when he pub- lished his Communist Manifesto. The fol- lowing January, Wagner began to work on a five-act scenario for an opera, Jesus von Nazareth, which portrayed Jesus as a social revolutionary, preaching that property is a crime against nature, and thus posing a threat to the rich Jewish priestly aristocra- cy, who had him destroyed. Nothing came of this project and in time Wagner moved away from radicalism, but his anti- Semitism, if anything, became more intense. In 1869, as if in protest at Bismar- ck's final emancipation of the Prussian Jews, Wagner republished his essay on Jews and music. A decade later, in an essay entitled Modern, he broadened his charge to assert that Jews were now dominating German culture as a whole and stealing the national heritage, including the language. This and other writings of Wagner were important in shaping 20th-century German opinion, especially under the Weimar Republic, where the alleged 'theft' and `poisoning' of the race-Kultur of Germany was potent in converting middle-class Ger- mans to apocalyptic forms of anti-Semitism and so to Hitlerism. Wagner charged: 'I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything that is noble in it; it is certain we Germans will go down before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against the Judaism which is already getting control of every- thing.' This was very much Hitler's mes- sage: to some extent, indeed, inspired it, for Hitler was profoundly influenced by Wagn- er's music and thought.

Oddly enough, though Wagner's anti- Semitism was universally known — it per- vaded his whole life — a number of distin- guished Jewish musicians were associated with him. They included Joseph Rubin- stein, Carl Tausig, Heinrich Porges and, above all, Hermann Levi, who conducted the first performance of Wagner's great `Christian' opera, Parsifal. Such men abased themselves before the little tyrant and he exploited them, especially Levi, ruthlessly. But then he exploited everyone. Even more surprising, and perhaps less well known, is that Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and thus the progenitor of Israel, was a passionate admirer of Wag- ner's music. Indeed he frequently heard Wagner at the opera house while writing his great work, Der Judenstaat, and claimed it inspired him: 'Only on the nights when Wagner was not performed did I have doubts about the correctness of my idea.' Herzl was a bit of a showman and made elaborate plans for the gorgeous cere- monies which were to accompany the actu- al founding of the Zionist state, including the 'coronation' of its elected ruler or 'doge', who would be a Rothschild. Wagn- 'I thought myrrh was a bit boring.' er's music was to play a big part in these events.

Herzl, it seems to me, had the right approach; to treat Wagner's anti-Semitism as the expression of the base, the unre- deemed part of the man's nature, and his music as something quite apart: an example of the way divine providence endows even the wicked with genius which transcends them. I have argued, in my book Intellectu- als, that you cannot entirely separate the private life and the public works of writers, especially those who put forward proposals to transform the whole nature and condi- tion of mankind: weaknesses in conduct tend to be reflected in weaknesses of argu- ment — Marx being an outstanding exam- ple. You occasionally find the same thing in a painter: there is, for example, a visible streak of cruelty in some of works of Rib- era, to which his violent and ruffianly life provides a clue. But as a rule a painter and his canvases can be separated, and in music, which is so abstract an art, it seems to be possible to divorce completely the human personality from the composer. The meannesses, smallness of mind, lying and cheating of Beethoven find no echo in his music. In Wagner, despite all the intense German-ness of his thematic material, the anti-Semitic side makes no appearance. It is sometimes argued that one or two of his villains are anti-Semitic archetypes. Maybe they are, but not to the point where such a gloss cannot be removed entirely in pro- duction.

It is, too, significant, that anti-Semitism makes no appearance in that most sacra- mental of his works, Parsifal. it is almost as though, when Wagner's genius is at its fiercest, his anti-Semitism is, by that very fact, buried. Or so I would argue. Wagner's music can inspire all kinds of different emotions, often contradictory ones. It can doubtless deprave and corrupt, like other great works of art. But it can, also ennoble, and at its best that is, in the end, its salient characteristic. In short, we might call Wag- ner a high-risk composer. But then taking risks is a necessary element in maintaining civilisation. Israel itself is a huge risk, a great adventure, embarked upon by men and women who put their ideals, their vision, above their comfort and safety, and so far the risk has proved abundantly worth it. Playing Wagner is a further, tiny hazard that Israel and its brave people ought to be able to take in their stride.