How to Understand the Anti-Semitism Embedded in Wagner's Music

Mosaic Magazine opened an important dimension in the old debate about Wagner’s anti-Semitism with Nathan Shields’ January essay, “Wagner and the Jews.” Shields argues that Wagner’s music itself has anti-Jewish implications, an important riposte to the usual excuse that Wagner harbored Jew-hatred despite his great artistry. Shields argues rather that Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his music are of the same ilk. That is a breakthrough, but only that: Shields, whose own music offers the sort of atonality that most modern listeners abhor, knows that something is amiss in Wagner’s music but does not know what it is.

Now Edward Rothstein, a New York Times critic, has responded to Shields’ essay with a claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is “metaphysical.” That gets rather far afield. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is not “metaphysical” at all. It is musical, and must be understood in musical terms.

It can be put quite simply: Wagner is a neo-pagan, and paganism is self-worship. Neo-paganism is narcissism, the glorification of the impulse in place of obligation. In place of Beethoven’s celebrated epigraph to the Quartet Op. 135, “Es Muss Sein!” (It must be), Wagner insists that it can be whatever he wants. Music proceeds in time, and classical composition preceding Wagner uniquely achieved an ordering of time that bespeaks necessity: goal-oriented motion towards a desired conclusion. The journey to the goal may take detours, encounter surprises, and evoke suspense as well as humor, but it must reach its conclusion. Classical music was conceived to portray in sensuous terms the Christian journey to salvation. The great Ashkenazic Jewish cantors used the mechanism of Western music to evoke the reversal of time’s arrow, for redemption in Judaism looks backward as well as forward.

Wagner, by contrast, apotheosizes the moment, that is, the narcissistic impulse of the individual unbound by tradition, covenant, or obligation. What makes him an important composer is that he discovered means to make this narcissism sensuous. That is what sent his contemporaries into paroxysms of bliss; as I wrote in a 2009 essay for First Things:

Late in the nineteenth century, men and women in apparent possession of their senses heard Richard Wagner’s new operas and announced that their lives had changed forever. Charles Baudelaire saw Tannhäuser in 1861 and gushed, “Listening to this impassioned, despotic music, painted upon the depths of darkness, riven by dreams, it seems like the vertiginous imaginings of opium.” (Baudelaire, author of The Flowers of Evil, meant this as a compliment.) The twenty-three-year-old Gustav Mahler, after hearing Parsifal, wrote, “I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life.” For the first time in history, a composer lent his name to a cultural movement with ramifications far beyond music. As Adolf Hitler observed in 1943, “At the beginning of this century there were people called Wagnerians. Other people had no special name.”

A 2011 review of the new Metropolitan Opera Ring cycle for Tablet lifted the curtain on Wagner’s musical prestidigitation. Ironically, Wagner’s destruction of musical time requires application of the methods that the classical composers employed to construct musical time. Once one knows the tricks, the music seems rather less impressive:

The Ring cycle’s pivotal moment comes when Siegfried shatters his grandfather’s spear, traverses the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde. “The whole world exists just to ensure that two such beings may gaze on each other,” the composer wrote, and the cleverest music in the cycle is reserved for their first encounter.

Siegfried’s kiss is accompanied by a grand orchestral gesture on a B-major 7th chord, preparing a quite conventional resolution to E minor, that is, the sort of cadence from the 5th scale degree to the tonic that we hear in every piece of Western music. But Wagner has a trick up his sleeve: The E-minor chord, blown in a grand fortissimo by a steroidal brass section, isn’t a resolution at all. The top note of our E-minor chord in the brass choir resolves upward to C (pianissimo in the strings with harp accompaniment), so that we hear the E-minor triad not as a tonic chord, but as passing motion to C major. (Click here for my audio explanation [embedded below] with musical examples at the piano. Readers unfamiliar with musical terms might skip the explanation below and listen to the audio example instead.)

That is a piece of musical sleight-of-hand worthy of Siegfried and Roy. After first hearing it, we reinterpret what we have heard; the E-minor triad was not a point of resolution, as Wagner had tricked us into hearing, but only the preparation for something else. The real tonal goal, C major, is announced grandly in arpeggios in the harps (Wagner wanted six; the Met had four).

In Western music, we expect the leading tone (the 7th step of the scale) to rise to the topic (“si” rising to “do”) to achieve stability. Reversing the direction of the leading tone (with “do” falling to “si”) is a conventional gesture in popular music. We hear it in songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and “Both Sides Now.” It evokes nostalgia; instead of “going home” to the tonic as “si” rises to “do,” we move away from home, so to speak.

music from ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Siegfried’

Wagner’s climatic gesture is something like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in reverse. We thought we had arrived at one tonal goal (E minor), but to our surprise, we find ourselves in a different place altogether. Wagner evokes in purely musical terms a sense of waking from sleep. As the leading tone rises to the tonic in its delayed resolution, we return from dream to reality.

Wagner’s grandiose gesture, laboriously prepared, twice repeated, and underscored by the full resources of his orchestra, stops time dead in its tracks: At the C-major tonality on “Sonne,” we have to stop and reinterpret where we are. Exultation in the moment replaces dedication to a goal. Of course, Wagner had to cannibalize the musical techniques of goal-oriented music in order to subvert it.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde have something in common with Siegfried and Roy: Once you know how the trick is done, it’s much less fun to watch. The better I understand Wagner’s music devices, the less I want to hear the music again, and I present this brief example in the hope that it will spoil your appetite as well.

Why, then, did the young Mahler and so many other arbiters of culture get so gooey over Wagner? The young Mahler felt his life changed; the mature Mahler said, “There is Beethoven and Richard, and after them, nobody.” W.H. Auden called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived.” And Wagner’s great apostle in the English-speaking world, George Bernard Shaw, said, “Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of his greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theater in ecstasies of deluded admiration.” Hitler had a lot of company. One can sit such people down at the piano and show that a single late Schubert sonata has more tonal originality than the whole Wagner corpus, to no avail. They will continue in their ecstasies of deluded admiration.

The trouble is that modern audiences no longer hear the tricks: our ears are so corrupted by Wagner’s chicanery that we cannot tell the lampoon from the original. As a remedy I prepared a brief music appreciation class on Siegfried’s Awakening, contrasting the classical precedents with Wagner’s twisted use of classical technique. This was originally presented with the Tablet review, but I refer to it by way of answering the question that Nathan Shields frames but does not address.

As a composer Shields exemplifies the awful damage that Wagner did to classical music: by undermining its original purpose, the musical embodiment of the journey towards salvation, Wagner left future composers with few options; these included the atonality that Shields embraces. The last true Wagnerians were film composers like Max Steiner, whose music served as an auxiliary to cinematic plot. Wagner is backward-looking rather than forward-looking, dependent on classical methods of composition, but he burned his bridges behind him. It is not that difficult, though, to make Wagner’s tricks transparent, as I try to do in my little class.


Cross-posted from Spengler, image illustration via shutterstock /