Friday, May 3, 2013

Wagner's Reputation Mess – Part 2

Summary and links to the series of Wagner character posts:

I believe that Richard Wagner has been the victim of character assassination, which was started in his era but has come to full fruition in our own. While certainly Wagner does have character flaws, he is accused—casually, ubiquitously, and with no or little supporting evidence—of a whole host of faults, most of them exaggerated, and rarely counterbalanced with any sense of his goodness beyond musical genius. The result is that his true personality and character have been buried under an avalanche of mud. My introduction to that topic is here. I give a short introduction to his personality and character so that you can better understand the various charges here. I cover these traits: megalomania here; sexist, womanizer and wife-stealer – part 1 here, part 2 here; his problems with money and, consequently, friendship is here; the issue of his morality, hypocrisy and lying here; the issue of anti-Semitism is here. The first part of his reputation mess is here. The series concludes here with some thoughts about biography and a selected bibliography.

When Wagner republished his cultural attack on Jews, Judaism in Music, in 1869 there was no organized anti-Semitic movement in Germany. Although the essay became well-known, whether one agreed or disagreed with the sentiments, the effort was singular and out-of-step with the cultural tide.

However, the modern anti-Semitic movement in Germany sprang to life in the mid-1870s. As is clear from a few comments within Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, Wagner was favorably inclined towards this movement, if not its methods, which he considered coarse and along the wrong track.1  It was in this milieu that, in 1878, Wagner started the Bayreuther Blätter, a journal devoted to what he considered to be the right track— his music and his very idiosyncratic views about how to regenerate all people through a utopian  mixture of vegetarianism, temperance, pacifism, socialism, migration to warm climates, mysticism and Christian ritual within an artistic framework. Wagner wanted his journal to stay above the political fray and remain on an intellectual and uplifting plane, which it largely did if you accepted his assumption that all of society was degenerate, Jews most of all. What he ultimately advocated publicly, and what served as his answer to the Jewish question, was redemption of the society and all its members—explicitly and repetitively including Jews in this redemption—via a sort-of sacred art, Parsifal being the prime example.2  The Bayreuther Blätter had a circulation at its peak of 1,700, so these writings weren’t well-known in his lifetime and, to the degree anybody read them, I am sure that a receptive audience for such a mix of ideas was pretty damn tiny.3 

Cosima and Richard Wagner
Did Wagner’s anti-Semitism encourage or help create the movement that developed in the 1870s?  The Jewish scholar Jacob Katz, who has written extensively on both the rise of the modern anti-Semitism in Germany and Wagner’s particular anti-Semitism, sees little connection:

Judaism in Music played a certain role in stimulating the thoughts of like-minded people, but it failed to have any broader impact at the time. The agitation against the Jews that flared up five years later was fed by completely different sources. When [Wagner’s] essay “What is German” appeared, the anti-Jewish current was already swelling. A contribution in the publication aimed at the restricted circle of the Wagnerians could therefore not have had any decisive impact. The anti-Semitic movement would no doubt have gone its route without the collaboration of the Bayreuther Blätter.4

Wagner put in charge of the Blätter—knowingly—someone who shared his anti-Semitic views, Hans von Wolzogen, who remained at the helm of the enterprise until it ceased publication in 1938.  After Wagner’s death, and against his stated wish, the the journal became increasingly political. Over the years, as well, the politics shifted from Wagner’s left-leaning beliefs to an increasingly right-wing view. While many people imagine that Wagner was right-wing, this is clearly untrue. He did become deeply disillusioned with politics and political action as a means of creating change but, as author Bryan Magee devotes the book The Tristan’s Chord to clarifying, Wagner “did not ‘move to the right’ in the sense of becoming conservative: never at any time in his life was he conservative in his views or attitudes: to the end of his days he remained radically critical of the society he knew, and never from a right-wing point of view.”5 Thus, the move to the right would have been deeply upsetting to Wagner. Anti-Semitism, of course, remained, but it was no longer grounded in Wagner’s mystical and humanist vision, nor to his critique of the evils of property and money.6

Hans von Wolzogen

Wagner died without a will, but Benedikt von Gross—the savior of the family, really—quickly maneuvered to put Cosima in charge of Bayreuth (against opposition), and helped the family move from near financial ruin to being rich over the next few decades.7 And, therein, a big problem began. First, Cosima and her deceased husband clearly had large differences on the question of Germany: she, a French native, was fanatically pro-German in a way that her husband never was; he always had wildly conflicting feelings about Germany and its people.8

Secondly, and more importantly, while all reputable scholars who have studied Wagner agree that he had contradictory feelings and writings about the Jews and, particularly, “the Jewish question,” Cosima had no such ambiguity. According to Jonathan Carr, author of The Wagner Clan, “Both her diary and many of her letters, written both before and long after Wagner’s death, show her abhorrence of Jews to have been complete and obsessive.”9 According to Cosima's biographer, Oliver Hilmes, for Cosima—and this was miles away from Wagner’s actions—“Jewish ancestry ruled a person out of court as someone who could make an authentic artistic contribution to the festival.”10


Cosima Wagner

Cosima saw her role as protecting Wagner’s legacy. She thought the way to do that was to sanitize his image by censoring the record, suppressing whatever facts she could, and lying as necessary.11 Wagner’s official biographer, Carl Glassnapp, toed the line in his 6-volume opus. It was never a popular work, being dense and boring, and is now, as it should be, in the dustbin of historical biography. Enter Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a Wagner enthusiast who could actually write. He penned a shorter biography—526 pages—for the masses and it sold well, but it was, essentially, fraudulent. Chamberlain’s principal aim was to deny—contrary to the record—that Wagner was a revolutionary-leftist-activist in politics and to clean up his messy private life through lies, distortions and attacks on those who dared to contradict the “official” story.12  Stewart Spencer called it “one of the most egregious attempts in the history of musicology to misrepresent an artist by systematically censoring his correspondence”13


Chamberlain was the most prominent, nay notorious, member of what became known as the Bayreuth Circle.  Beyond rewriting Wagner’s biography to his and Cosima’s desires, he then became the self-appointed—sometimes with Cosima’s backing— leading interpreter of Wagner’s prose. The problem was that he didn’t actually agree with Wagner on many essentials, so he just ignored what he didn’t like, took what he did, and implied or asserted that his own work was an extension of Wagner’s thoughts. His seminal work of 1899, Die Grundlagen des 19en Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteen Century), which the Nazi party called “the gospel of the Nazi movement,” was a racist, pro-Aryan tract that was read widely in the Western world at the turn of the century.14  Thus, a man known to the world as the leading Wagnerian writes a proto-Nazi tract and is embraced by Bayreuth. Not only this, but eight years after writing his book, he became a family member, marrying the 18 year-old Eve Wagner (when he was 53).


Houston Stewart Chamberlain

In the meantime, Wagner’s son Siegfried, the heir—who became a conductor and composer like his dad—had been trained in the family anti-Semitism and did seem to be a chip off the old block: contradictory. While he wrote letters saying various anti-Semitic things, he was also like his dad in that he had plenty of Jewish friends and, contrary to his mother, pointedly welcomed Jewish artists to Bayreuth.15 In 1907, the reins were passed to him after Cosima suffered a heart attack. Though she lived for another 23 years, she was increasingly isolated and out-of-it, and the locus of power shifted away from her to the younger members of the clan.

Siegfried Wagner
Siegfried was gay and, therefore, had little interest in marriage. That said, he had tremendous pressure to do so, both to extend the family line and to obscure his sexual preference, as blackmail or press exposure was a real fear.16  So he succumbed to the pressure and, at 45, married the 18-year-old Winifred Williams-Klindworth. She was British by birth, orphaned young, but raised from age 10 in Germany by an elderly distant relative, Henrietta, and her musician husband, Karl. The Klindworths had known Wagner and remained in his circle. Due to the family’s enthusiasm for his music, Winifred, too, became a huge fan of Wagner’s music in her teens, so she was anxious for the introduction to the family, which happened at the Bayreuth festival of 1914. Siegfied found her attractive enough, and agreed to do his duty. Incidentally, yes, the Klindworths were very anti-Semitic, which they passed to their adopted daughter.17


Wagner's kids before the Nazi era

Okay, that is the set-up. Enter Hitler. When he encountered Wagner’s music in his early teens he was highly emotional, living in a dream world, and fell hard for the music. He forever remained a fan. In his early adult years, when he wanted to be an artist, Wagner’s life story was a particular inspiration. Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw wrote this of the nature of his hero worship:

It was a world created with grandiose vision by an artist of genius, an outsider and revolutionary, all-or-nothing refuser of compromise, challenger of the existing order, dismissive of the need to bow to the bourgeois ethic of working for a living, surmounting rejection and persecution, overcoming adversity to attain greatness. It was little wonder that the fantasist and drop-out, the rejected and unrecognized artistic genius in the dingy room in the Stumpergasse, could find his idol in the master of Bayreuth.18

In Mein Kampf, Hitler did cite—along with Martin Luther and Frederick the Great—Wagner as an inspiration, but this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Hitler’s anti-Semitism, as Wagner is only mentioned in passing in the book again. Hitler never cited or referred to any prose works of Wagner in his life, and there is, in fact, no evidence he even read any.19 At the time Hitler fell in love with the music he wasn’t anti-Semitic, and the sources of his anti-Semitism are well reported by himself and others; no reputable Hitler scholar implicates Wagner in the rise of Hitler’s particular brand of anti-Semitism.20 Even if he had read Wagner’s prose works, they would have seemed much too liberal for him as Wagner’s assimilation conclusion for the Jewish question was clearly rejected by Hitler. Be that as it may, the fact that he was an inspiration to Hitler is undeniable.


To move this story along, Hitler came to Bayreuth to pay homage in October of 1923. He became a family friend—“Uncle Wolf” to the kids, who adored him. According to Geoffrey Skelton, one of Siegfried and Winifred’s sons, Weiland, said, “you should be our daddy, and daddy should be our uncle.”21


Winfred Wagner and Houston Chamberlain—the Brits in the household—saw Hitler as the German savior, and let the world know it via two open letters.22  After Hitler was jailed following the infamous Beer Hall Putsch, Winifred rallied support for him and brought him writing paper in jail to, you know, write Mein Kampf.23


Siegfried, initially affable to Hitler—he was an affable guy, by all reports—gradually grew increasingly hostile to him and to the Nazi movement, banning Winifred from contact with Hitler and the Nazis. She ignored him. Siegfried’s last opera, Das Flüchen, was, in fact, written as an anti-Hitler parable.24  He died in 1930, without the opera ever being staged and leaving one of Hitler’s biggest fans, Winfred, in charge of Bayreuth.


I hope the picture is clear. It isn’t that Hitler and the Nazi’s appropriated Wagner; it is that Houston Chamberlain, with Cosima’s blessing, had remade Wagner into a model of his own right-wing, fascist beliefs. From there, he and Winifred Wagner turned Bayreuth over to Hitler. To quote the conclusion of an excellent article entitled “The political ramifications of Hitler’s cult of Wagner” by Hans Vaget:

No transgression or misappropriation was required here. The role of the guardian of the Wagner legacy and the future savior of Germany, as defined by Chamberlain, was offered to him, the devoted, ostensibly nonpolitical admirer of the Meister, on a silver platter.26

Wagner clearly was complicit in what happened to his reputation in his time, and set up the pre-conditions that led to his adoption by Hitler and the Nazis and, thus, the post-war collapse of his reputation.  He is not blameless.  But, on the other hand, he is not directly responsible either.  I think most of the blame for Hitler’s association with the Wagner clan can be laid at the feet of, ironically, the trio of three non-Germans:  Cosima Wagner, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Winifred Wagner.  Since he didn’t know the latter two, he cannot be held responsible for how they twisted his legacy. But his relationship to, and entwining with, Cosima, who ended up being the chief agent of his destructive legacy, is certainly his responsibility.

This almost concludes my series on the character assassination of Wagner.

Wagner had lots of faults, and thus, there is no reason to have to resort to character assassination, which has been done primarily through selective quotation, exaggerated claims, misleading half-truths, manipulation or “spinning” of facts to create a bogus conclusion, or simply lies. One can accurately report both his good and bad sides, the good and bad things he said or did, and let the reader form his or her own conclusion. But that is not what has happened in the Wagner literature in the main, as most of it is junk, increasingly so in the internet age. To get a fair portrait of Wagner, it is necessary to carefully pick through the massive amount of rubble—discarding both those uncritical and manipulative Wagner supporters along with those who seek to create the myth of Wagner as a near-Hitler or the world’s worst guy. He was neither just a sinner or just a saint, but a lot of both.

For those writers who casually repeat half-truths or untruths as I have identified in this series: just stop it! Take the damn time to actually learn about him instead of mindlessly repeating what others—who clearly have an ax to grind—write. Next week, I will add one more installment to the series: what a fair-minded person should be reading. (And, yes, I think I am fair-minded!)

End Notes

We got a new area rug that needed to be "uncurled"; even if you don't read them, these books work very well as weights.

1 Katz, Darker Side of Genius, 106, 110 
2 My sources for this summary Wagner's "regenerative" writings, see here for download; Carr, The Wagner Clan, 73; Katz, "public anti-Semitism" 104-119; Deathridge, et. al, Wagner Hanbook, chapter 5 by Dieter Borchmeyer, and a number of the articles in Millington, The Wagner Compendium 
3 Carr, 98 
4 Katz, 110
5 Magee, Tristan Chord, 2 
6 Carr, 98
7 Carr, 55-58 
8 I will be doing a blog post about Wagner's complicated relationship to his homeland.
9 Carr,   87
10 see here    
11 Carr, pages 90-110, the chapter “Spin Doctor”
12 Carr, 97-100
13 Spencer, Wagner Remembered, 81 
14 as quoted with original source cited here; this blog is interesting on the Nazi ideology development
15 see this fascinating blog
16 Carr, 122
17 Carr, 134-137
18 Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936, 43
19 Vaget, “The political ramifications of Hitler’s cult of Wagner” is here, page 107-108; if you read the full piece, I strongly disagree with one sentence of it on page 115: “Wagner had thematized again and again, from Rienzi to Parsifal, the idea of Erbe, even of Welterbe – world dominion.” That’s poppycock, and therefore mars an otherwise extremely penetrating article on this subject matter. Also for another good piece on the Wagner/Hitler connection, this NY Times piece is quite good. 
20 Even Dina Porat, a historian and supporter of the Israeli boycott of Wagner, concurs with this point. See here
21 Skelton, Wieland Wagner, see here
22 Vaget, page 122, Chamberlain's letter here  (warning: the site that posted this letter seems to be a left-wing apocalypse site)
23 Carr, 142
24 see here,  also Carr, 145-146. Incidentally, there is a little war between the principal biographer of Siegfried Wagner (in German only), Peter Pachl, and the principal biographer of Winifred Wagner, Brigette Hamaan. In her biography of Winifred, she tries to rehabilitate Winifred—who still claimed loyalty to Hitler to her death; a difficult person to rehabilitate! Anyway, part of that effort is throwing the blame on the Wagner clan as the real culprits and claiming—I think without merit—that Siegfried was actually as much of a Nazi supporter as Winifred. Pachl hotly disputes it, and his arguments have the upper hand, I believe. The link in this footnote talks about this battle to some degree. One thing that needs to be known is that Winfred would write letters and sign Siegfried’s name, which has created a true problem of historical investigation. See page 30 of Hamaan. Therefore one has to be extremely careful not to assume that something truly came from Siegfried’s hand.
26 Vaget, 30  

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