BERLIN — Few composers inspire such a mixture of appreciation and disgust as Richard Wagner. Especially here in Germany – where Wagner’s work is understood as a combination of national cultural gem and national political embarrassment – the composer’s work is loaded with meaning and interpretation.
Alongside his musical dramas, Wagner’s legacy includes his anti-Semitic and nationalist political writings, and the Nazi dictatorship celebrated his musical works as a symbol of the pure German culture they hoped to promote. Hitler was a regular at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, where he was warmly welcomed by the composer’s descendants, and the regime used Wagner’s music at rallies and official events.
“You can’t have a naive, beautiful production of a Wagner opera in Germany,” said Michael P. Steinberg, a cultural historian at Brown University who, with Katherina J. Schneider, co-hosted a forthcoming exhibition on the composer at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. “It’s impossible.”
This show, “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Sentiment,” opens April 9 and runs through September. The first exhibition dedicated to a composer at the German National History Museum, it explores the relationship between Wagner’s politics and his artistic output and influence.
“If Wagner had only written his 3,000 pages of prose, he would be remembered as a lunatic, a second-rate manic thinker,” Steinberg said.
Instead, Steinberg added, he is best remembered for the opus of musical dramas that made him “undoubtedly the most transformational composer of the mid-nineteenth century, without which one cannot understand the European art music after him”.
Wagner was an “emotion technician”, he said, who orchestrated collective feeling experiments that incorporated his ideas into his art. That means poisonous music and politics cannot be separated, Steinberg said. “Ideas come out on stage subliminally,” he added, “through worlds of feelings that are conveyed through music and text.”
For this reason, he and Schneider have organized the show around a series of emotions through which they argue that the composer’s legacy can be understood: from the alienation felt by Wagner as a revolutionary of the 1840s; the sense of belonging as it began to gain institutional acceptance; to the eros that characterizes the seduction of his work; and, finally, the disgust and repugnance that animated the composer’s prejudices.
These feelings, according to conservatives, were “national” because the popularity of Wagner’s music helped to entrench them in German national consciousness, especially after the unification of Germany in 1871.
To support their case, they collected objects on loan from collections across Europe, as well as artifacts from the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s own collection, combined with video clips of performances and stagings, and interviews with notable Wagnerian artists.
The curators also commissioned a new audio installation from Barrie Kosky, the director of Berlin’s Komische Oper, whose Jewishness is an important part of his artistic identity. He has spent the past few years pursuing what he calls a “public cultural exorcism” of his own Wagnerian demons, exploring the composer’s anti-Semitism through a series of acclaimed productions that culminated in an acclaimed staging of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in Bayreuth, which ended with the composer literally on trial.
His starting point for the installation, he said in an interview, was Wagner’s infamous essay “Jewishness in Music.” The essay, an anti-Semitic screed that argues that Jewish composers could only imitate, and never truly create, also dwells on the composer’s visceral hatred for the Jewish “voice”. Arguing that art music arose from racially-based folk cultures, Wagner describes Jewish folk music as “gurgling, yodeling, and cackling confusing meaning and sound.”
Kosky said he heard echoes of these hated sounds in the music of Wagner’s characters who embody anti-Semitic archetypes: the pedantic critic in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” for example, or the gold-hungry dwarfs in the “Ring “.
Kosky’s sound installation takes place in a small, dark room in the museum. Visitors hear shuffled recordings of synagogue music, excerpts from old recordings featuring Wagner’s “Jewish” characters, and phrases from “Jewishness in Music.” read by a woman, in Yiddish. Kosky called the effect “deliberately nauseating”.
Kosky said he would continue to direct the composer’s musical dramas, even if they contained anti-Semitism. Having completed his “exorcism”, he adds, he feels personally and artistically free to approach the composer’s work from new perspectives.
“It’s the combination of things: the music, the text, and the cultural specificity of what he uses that makes Wagner’s work, for me, so deeply problematic and fascinating,” Kosky said.
Mark Berry, who heads the music department at Royal Holloway, University of London and has published extensively on politics and religion in Wagner’s work, said Wagner had become something of a scapegoat in the German attempts to come to terms with the country’s past. It was, he added, as if the guilt for the murderous consequences of German anti-Semitism could be placed on a single man who had died long before the Nazis came to power.
“There are clearly romantic nationalist elements in Wagner’s thought,” he said, “as there were in just about any German artist of that time. Looking at his theoretical writing, however, he is adamant that the time for national characteristics in art is over, that it will be an era of artistic universalism.
Yes, Berry said, there were anti-Semitic tropes in Wagner’s musical dramas and anti-Semitic politics in his essays. But, he added, that does not make the music itself anti-Semitic, and Wagner was not the main vehicle through which anti-Semitism became prominent in the German national mood, nor the basis of politics. state genocidal.
Daniel Barenboim, one of the most prominent Jewish figures in classical music in Germany and musical director of the Berlin State Opera, wrote that Wagner can hardly be held “responsible for the use and misuse by Hitler of his music and his vision of the world”. He declined to be interviewed, but in an article on his website described Wagner as “a virulent anti-Semite of the worst kind whose statements are unforgivable”.
In this article, Barenboim, who will conduct a new “Ring” in Berlin in October, asks: why allow Hitler to have the last word on Wagner when so many Jewish artists – singers, conductors, directors – have made a career out of the composer’s work? , and his work has inspired so many Jewish composers?
This same essay opens with a meditation on the storm scene that opens Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre”, Barenboim laying out the precise, almost mathematical structure through which Wagner sketches the feeling of being in a forest and a snowstorm, and the emotions of an alienated alien on the run. The phrases swell and move away before an explosion of winds and brass and a sudden roll of timpani. In the audience, your heart skips a beat. These are the techniques by which Wagner manipulates emotion – on the scale of a phrase, or a melody, or an opera, or a nation.