Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Wagner's Religion and Anti-Semitism: Part II

Roots of Wagner's Anti-Semitism

The roots of Wagner's anti-Semitism are pretty clear. Even in a society where expressing racist thoughts was not uncommon or especially rude, Wagner's views were extreme and socially embarrassing.

Many people have wondered if -- and some have boldly stated that -- Wagner himself thought he might be Jewish. We are pretty sure that Wagner was illegitimate, and that his real father was an actor named Ludwig Geyer, who married Wagner's mother shortly after her first husband's death. The family was poor and lived in a Jewish neighborhood, and Geyer is not uncommonly a Jewish surname. But church records (marriage, baptisms, etc.) indicate clearly that Geyer came from a long line of Lutheran church musicians. Furthermore, later in life in one of Wagner's typical acts of vanity, he adopted the vulture as his personal crest. The German word for "vulture" is Geyer. One can hardly imagine that if Wagner had any real suspicion that he was the illegitimate son of a Jew he would have taken that step.

The accusation has been given an air of academic legitimacy because it was made by none other than Nietzche himself, who had known Wagner quite well but later had an enormous ideological falling-out with the composer, and savaged him in print every chance he got.

I believe Wagner's anti-Semitism was caused by his psychosis and fueled by the financial difficulties he experienced as a young man. He was extremely paranoid, and probably bi-polar, the sort of person who believed that the world was "every man for himself" and that given a chance any ordinary person would stab you in the back to get ahead. Furthermore, because of his exceptional vanity, he believed he was the victim of a large conspiracy, that the world wasn't just "every man for himself" but largely "everyone against Wagner." As we well know from racist language, the words "conspiracy" and "Jewish" are frequently found together, especially when it comes to matters of money.

To say Wagner was financially irresponsible would be the grossest understatement imaginable. He was always in debt, lived well beyond his means for much of his life, and "borrowed" as much and as often as he could from friends and patrons. Of course he never repaid a cent. He was also frequently forced to go to professional moneylenders, who were often Jewish. Wagner despised having to be at their mercy, having to beg and grovel from a Jew for money, especially if they were not particularly polite about his inevitable delinquency. More than once he was threatened with imprisonment for debt, and would only escape by "borrowing" more money from friends. This all played into his fantasy of a Jewish conspiracy to keep him down and out.

Wagner frequently knew severe poverty in youth. Trying to get his career started, he went to Paris in the 1830s, then the cultural capital of the world. The opera houses were utterly dominated by the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was Jewish. Wagner regarded Meyerbeer as an inferior composer -- which he was -- and also assumed it was part of the "conspiracy" that this hack should be the most celebrated opera composer in the world, while he lived shoeless in the streets of Paris, having pawned all of his possessions and having sold the pawn tickets.

Meyerbeer was a sort of operatic Jerry Bruckheimer. The plots didn't make much sense, but the music was appealing and wrapped up in a spectacular effects-laden production. Young Wagner initially thought he could achieve commercial success by imitating what was currently popular. In fact, his third (and longest) work, Rienzi, has been snarkily called "Meyerbeer's greatest opera." Of course it bombed, and Wagner did not begin to carve a name for himself until he began to find his true voice with Der Fliegende Holländer.

Wagner wrote a disgustingly sycophantic letter to Meyerbeer (he signed it, "Your Slave") asking for assistance. Perhaps Wagner thought Meyerbeer would instantly recognize superior genius and would step aside for the young German, arranging premieres in Paris' great houses. Meyerbeer was helpful, and it was in fact through Meyerbeer's own influence that Wagner was able to get Tannhäuser produced for the first time -- in Dresden.

This was not quite the instant success Wagner had hoped for, and he wrote savage critiques of Meyerbeer himself and his music. Even though he used a pseudonym and didn't mention Meyerbeer by name, everyone knew who wrote it and who he was talking about. Needless to say, the relationship between the two cooled somewhat permanently.

This was typical Wagner; he would grovel and abase himself in front of anyone he thought could help him, and then he would turn around and stab them in the back if he felt their assistance had been anything less than total devotion; woe unto the person who declined to help. Frequently he would accuse such people of being Jewish, even if they weren't.

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