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Critic's Notebook

Loving Wagner anyway

From the 'Ring' composer's bigotry, egotism and megalomania emerged

September 20, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

At the Hollywood Bowl recently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave a rare performance of Percy Grainger's imaginary ballet, "The Warriors." There were, as far as I could tell, no protests from the audience about performing this rambunctious and wonderfully odd score, despite the fact that John Henken's program notes alluded to the fact that the Australian-born composer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1914 was a racist.

He was quite the anti-Semite as well. Grainger even went so far as to clumsily purge the English language of words that might have a foreign or ethnic tinge. Yet such bigotry often is excused as a kind of endearing eccentricity.

The late Albert Goldberg, who was music critic of this newspaper for many years and was Jewish, studied piano with Grainger in the '20s, and I once asked him whether his teacher's anti-Semitism was an issue. He reminded me that Grainger, for all his prejudices, had many Jewish and African American friends and thought the names of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington belonged next to Bach's.

So how did Albert explain this?

"People," he said, "are funny."

Richard Wagner's dislike of the Jews, however, has never been so easy to dismiss. His article "Judaism in Music" is the most repulsive screed penned by a great artist that I've ever come across. Wagner's operas proved an inspiration for Hitler and perhaps the creation of the Third Reich. "Siegfried," the third in the "The Ring of Nibelung" cycle, presents a spectacle of the pure Aryan hero ridding himself of a sniveling, scheming cultural interloper. That opera reaches Los Angeles Opera Saturday afternoon, during the Jewish high holidays and just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day on the Jewish calendar.


'Judaism in Music'

Wagner was not all bad. He was kind to animals. He took an interest in Buddhism and was a pacifist with anarchist leanings, all of which would have made it exceedingly difficult for him to become a brownshirt had the German composer, who was born in 1813, lived on to be around when Hitler took power 120 years later. Still, Wagner's anti-Semitism was no small quirk, and it left him plenty to atone for.

"Judaism in Music" was originally published anonymously in a small music journal in 1850 by a young composer jealous of the success of the Jewish French grand opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. The Jew's art, Wagner came to believe, was imitative and as such could never be an authentic vessel for holy German culture. Wagner deemed that deception dangerous and the Jew repugnant.

In 1869, at a time of German unification and the granting of full civil rights to Jews, Wagner republished the essay under his own name. Now a highly celebrated composer and cult figure, he added an appendix to the essay with petty attacks against a so-called Jewish press and with puerile insults heaped on Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn (who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism).

Given that Wagner was perhaps history's most influential musician, this anti-Semitism is all the more pernicious. Protests about L.A. Opera mounting a $32-million, high-profile "Ring" Cycle this year have come from Jews and Gentiles alike, and organized demonstrations or vigils at performances are a possibility. Last month, county Supervisor Mike Antonovich proposed that the company change the focus of the related citywide "Ring" festival -- which has just begun and will continue through the spring, when the full cycle is performed -- to something less Wagner-specific. In response, many Times readers pointed out that it's possible to love the art but not the artist. Michael Jackson's name came up repeatedly.

Taking on an easier subject than either Wagner or Jackson, New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen wrote in a recent column about his quandary concerning the screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had just died. Cohen admires the film "On the Waterfront" but disapproves of Schulberg having named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It is hard to make great art and it is hard to be a good person, Cohen concluded, so asking for both may not be humanly possible. It is the art that lives on.

Even so, I believe we lose much in separating the artist from the art. Wagner the man is all over his operas, and that is what makes his operas universal.

Let's forget Wagner's anti-Semitism for a second and look at some of his other awful character traits. He is excoriated for having been a lech and a leech, for his adulterous affairs and for continually finagling his financiers. In 1857, Otto Wesendonck, a silk merchant and Wagner devotee, gave the composer use of a house beside his villa outside of Zurich. Wagner figured that Wesendonck's beautiful young wife Mathilde went along with the lodging.

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