Wagner, Richard°

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WAGNER, RICHARD ° (1813–1883), German composer. Disillusioned by the failure of the 1848 revolution, in which he had played an active part, Wagner (like *Proudhon and other early socialists) made a bitter attack on the Jews, whom he portrayed as the incarnation of money power, symbolized by the Rothschilds and commercialism (he published "Das Judentum in der Musik" anonymously in Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, 1850). This common stereotype and the composer's emotional aversion to Jews were given a kind of rationalization in his racial deterministic theories. He transferred his dislike to the cultural field, denying Jewish cultural creativity in general and, in particular, that the composers Giacomo *Meyerbeer and Felix *Mendelssohn or Heinrich *Heine could be considered truly creative. In ambiguous terms, under the guise of speaking of their redemption, he conceived the idea of the extinction (Untergang) of the Jews. Under his own name Wagner republished the article as a separate pamphlet with a supplement, "Enlightenment on Jewry in Music," in 1869, blaming his current problems on the alleged control of the press, theater, and cultural life by Jews, and including in his strictures those non-Jewish writers and editors who were opposed to his chauvinism. Identifying modern materialism with alleged Jewish influence, he envisaged the forced removal of Jews from cultural life or, alternatively (since he was inconsistent), their complete assimilation by means of art and music. Like the original article, the pamphlet, the ideas of which were eagerly seized on by Eugen *Duehring, provoked a storm of controversy. In a series of articles entitled "German Art and Politics" (1867) in the semiofficial Bavarian Sueddeutsche Presse, Wagner expounded his ideas of the pure-blooded German mission, opposed to "alien" French and Jewish materialism. Founding his own paper, the Bayreuther Blaetter (1878), he (and his disciples) used it as a platform for his notion that the pastoral Germans of romantic idyll were economically dominated by Jewish speculators and bankers, and reiterated his view on the control of cultural life by Jews, borrowing phrases from the antisemite Wilhelm *Marr. In "Know Thyself," a supplement to Religion und Kunst (1881), Wagner deplored the granting of civil rights in 1871, applauded political antisemitism, and branded the Jews as the "demon causing mankind's downfall" (Untergang).

Wagner's antisemitism was shared by his devotees, and above all by his wife, Cosima, trustee of his estate for 47 years. She and Houston Stewart *Chamberlain, who married Wagner's youngest daughter in 1908, established the "Wagner cult" as a faith adumbrating the Nazi Fuehrer principle. Wagner Clubs were founded on an international scale from the 1860s on. Wagner began publishing his Collected Works in 1871; by 1912 they comprised 12 volumes. The articles and pamphlets on Jews and antisemitism are reprinted in volumes 5, 8, and 10. Wagner's works, which circulated widely among the educated classes, made antisemitism culturally respectable, and generally spread racialist doctrines, popularizing those of *Gobineau, with whom he was personally acquainted. Wagner's political writings were among the great ideological influences on Adolf Hitler, and his favorite reading. He was an admirer of his operas from his early youth and had them regularly performed at Bayreuth in connection with the Nazi Party conventions. The question of Wagner's parentage – whether he was the son of his legal father, Carl Friedrich Wagner, or the actor Ludwig Geyer (whom his mother married eight months after the former's death) – led to the widely circulated rumor that he was of Jewish origin. According to recent research, Wagner was Geyer's illegitimate son. But Geyer was the descendant of German Protestants whose ancestry could be traced back to the late 17th century. The genealogical investigation was undertaken by the Nazis to remove all doubts concerning their cultural and ideological hero.

In the State of Israel, Wagner's music remained excluded from the repertoire of its Philharmonic Orchestra and broadcasting program, in spite of divergent opinions and even protests.


R.W. Gutman, Richard Wagner (1968); E. Newman, Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. (1933–46), index, esp. v. 4 index: Wagner, Richard, Anti-semitism; F. Kobler (ed.), Juden und Judentum in deutschen Briefen (1935), 323–4; M. Boucher, Political Concepts of Richard Wagner (1950), 50–55, 72; L. Stein, Racial Thinking of Richard Wagner (1950); T.W. Adorno, Versuch ueber Wagner (1952), 17–19; O. Kulka, in: blbi, 4 (1961), 281–300; R.E. Herzstein, in: Zeitschrift fuer die Geschichte der Juden, 4 (1967), 119–40 (Eng.); E. Friedmann, Das Judenthum und Richard Wagner (1869); A. Holde, Jews in Music (1959), index.

[Toni Oelsner]