Wagner’s Grudge

A series of Tweets by Chilly Gonzales (while touring in Germany), made reference to Wagner. The first referenced Munich’s status as the first city outside of Bayreuth to play Wagner’s Parsifal:

More than likely this was a reference to the private performances held there for King Ludwig II shortly after Wagner’s death. Ludwig II originally came to an agreement with Wagner that Munich would receive exclusive rights to Parsifal in perpetuity (Wagner’s wife Cosima was instrumental in reaching this agreement). The Munich Opera was part of the deal, which is why the opera was involved in the Bayreuth premiere – including its conductor Hermann Levi, who had known Wagner for some time prior to Parsifal. As it turns out, several German princes decided to provide funding to the struggling Bayreuth festival in exchange for Bayreuth having exclusive rights to Parsifal in perpetuity. Ludwig II capitulated, and the premiere was held in Bayreuth.

Cosima Wagner (Wagner’s wife) vehemently opposed the switch of cities from Munich to Bayreuth, but eventually complied. In fact, she even defended Bayreuth’s ‘exclusive’ Parsifal rights to such a degree, that she would impose a lifetime ban on any performers in Bayreuth who had participated in an ‘unauthorized’ production of Parsifal anywhere in the world.

After the initial Tweet, Gonzales tweeted:

Which even prompted one Gonzales follower to unfollow! As Andrew Jackson once said, “I never consider a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” It would appear that Gonzales would like nothing more than an honest discussion on his assertion (he even replied “Whoa there!” to the unfollower).

Why does Wagner bring out such passion in people? A large part of it was the dichotomy of the man himself. On one hand, he was described as a gambling, womanizing, cheating, dishonest, backstabbing, total douchebag, and on the other hand, he was heralded as a musical genius and close friend. The major trait that forever sealed Wagner in infamy was his anti-Semitism. He wrote treatises and did not shy away from his anti-Semitic views one bit; qualities that Hitler admired greatly. Not a role model by any means, and still, there are many people who regard the music he created as ‘ground breaking’ and ‘the start of a new era in music’. Composers such as John Williams used Wagner’s epic, bombastic sound as inspiration for soundtracks such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. How can someone who is credited with changing the direction of music be labelled as ‘overrated’? Gonzales cited Brahms as an example of a ‘more versatile composer’ and a ‘better human being’. Both true, but Brahms certainly doesn’t invoke the passion that the name “Wagner” does! To see the source of this passion, it’s interesting to look way back in Wagner’s life.

Sometime around August of 1850, Wagner forwarded a copy of a scathingly anti-Semitic manuscript he had written to a good friend, knowing that the document would eventually make it’s way to the publisher of “The New Journal for Music” (founded by Robert Schumann in 1834 while he was in his early 20s). It was published the next month signed “Freigedank”, which translates to “Free Speech”, but Wagner assumed that everyone knew that he wrote it. About a year later, Liszt asked Wagner if he authored the article. Wagner’s reply was:

“I had long nursed a secret grudge against this Judaism, and that grudge is as necessary to my nature as gall to the blood.”

Apparently, Wagner hated Jewish people because he “had to”. Although the true source of this hatred may never be known, it has been theorized that it started with a single individual from Wagner’s youth – a young and up-and-coming hotshot Jewish composer that Wagner admired, and tried to befriend. When Wagner was rather unceremoniously rebuffed, he appeared to make it his mission to discredit this composer as a ‘phony’ – someone who prostitutes German musical traditions for money, popularity, and profit.

When Gonzales talks about the basis behind “The Grudge”, he often explains that a grudge can stem from envy or positive jealousy of someone – even if that person never even really knew that they somehow offended you. The grudge motivates you – gives you a reason to get up in the morning and work hard. Could this Jewish composer’s treatment of Wagner single-handedly have started Wagner’s lifelong anti-Semitic stance? Probably not, but in any case, Wagner’s grudge was based on negativity, of which nothing good can come. More likely, it only added fodder to a long mental list of perceived grievances that Wagner had against Judaism. His first wife hated his essay, but still tolerated his rants. Not so for some individuals in the music community.

Wagner claimed that as a youth, he contracted a skin disease (possibly Rosacea or contact dermatitis) that caused redness and swelling with anything contacted or irritated his skin. His only ‘relief’ was to have only the finest silk and furs against his skin to lessen his suffering. This caused widespread ridicule among the music community as Wagner spent considerable sums of money on silks and furs. Eventually, someone managed to collect a number of letters where Wagner explained his penchant for what was considered ‘ladies’ fabrics. The individual brought the collection of letters back to a group of musicians who regularly met, which included Brahms, whereby they had a good laugh at Wagner’s expense. The group even tried to blackmail Wagner into paying to have the letters returned, although there’s no evidence that Brahms was involved in the scheme. Wagner refused, and the letters were printed in the paper, much to the amusement of readers.

Paradoxically, on an individual level, Wagner befriended and collaborated frequently with many Jewish musicians and composers. Were these individuals just part of the typical anti-Semitic defence, “I have many Jewish friends”, or a select group self-hating Jewish people, or people who were ‘blinded’ by Wagner’s fame? Could Wagner have been using people to his advantage regardless of their background? Based on his character, this is quite likely. One of his friendships was with the conductor of the Munich Opera – the aforementioned Hermann Levi. Although Wagner insisted that no one else but Levi could conduct Parsifal, Wagner was bothered by having a Jewish conductor premiere a work that was essentially Christian imagery. At some point, Wagner suggested that Levi convert to Christianity which Levi declined. Some friend! Brahms, also a friend of Levi, took Levi to task for his friendship with Wagner. Levi was fully aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance, and yet still chose to associate with Wagner for “the good of music”. Brahms broke his friendship with Levi on those grounds essentially stating that, “Any friend of Wagner is no friend of mine!” Levi never regretted his decision to remain friends with Wagner.

Brahms had the depth of character to know that regardless of the music Wagner produced, he could not separate the man and the music. Like Brahms, the moral dilemma remains for many of us. Can we enjoy Wagner’s music knowing what we know about the man? By way of a more modern example, can we still enjoy Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2″ knowing that he is a convicted paedophile? Some people say we should separate the art and the individual. In fact, after World War II, the Germans had a unique term that stated exactly that: “Werkimmanente Interpretation”, which roughly means separating the individual from the art. The term is not popular anymore, since we know that personal choices undoubtedly have an impact on everything we do in life – one cannot hide behind a convenient term to ‘ignore’ the past. In some sense, not knowing keeps us ‘safe’ from facts that would spoil many items around us; from cars to computers, music, food, friends, etc. But knowing is better, as it creates a feedback loop whereby individuals and corporations are motivated to ‘do good’ or risk being vilified in the press when the truth leaks out (as it tends to do).

The ‘monster’ part of Wagner cannot be denied. Overrated? Based on the sheer amount of attention garnered by Wagner in relation to other composers at the time (including Brahms), the answer is a resounding yes. Because of the perceived dichotomy between monster and genius, more books have been written about Wagner than any other composer. This fact overshadows many other composers’ works at the time, and had it not been for Wagner’s anti-Semitic stance, he may have faded into relative obscurity.

One thinks of music to be ‘pure’ and ‘free from bias’, but the more people discover about the music industry and composers, the more we discover that music, like any other media, sometimes requires a degree of critical thinking. Gonzales is a rare performer who regularly exposes the music industry, lists his ambitions, and admits to manipulating emotions through his art. Maybe Gonzales posed the Wagner question to start people thinking about whose lens we view composers through – and maybe it’s time for a new pair of glasses.

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