Wagner's Music and the Holocaust

by Barry Drogin

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Wagner's works are long works which are long, and long drawn out, because this old sorcerer looked upon boredom as a useful drug for the stupefaction of the faithful.

- Jean Cocteau, Cock and Harlequin, 1921 (transl. Rollo Myers)

I was on the roof of The Cooper Union's Foundation Building, attending a reception sponsored by the Danish Design Council for the opening of their exhibit at the Houghton Gallery below. Prince Henrik of Denmark was there, with a coterie of visiting Danish reporters and photographers. One was busily taking pictures of the view, where Fourth Avenue and Third Avenue converge at the triangular park that holds the Saint-Gaudens statue of Peter Cooper.

"How breathtaking!" he remarked. "What is this street called?"

"The Bowery," I had to reply. "See the bums there and there?"

Surely we have all had the experience of looking at or listening to something, perhaps even several times, without noticing some aspect which, when pointed out, becomes obvious. With art, this is especially the case. We talk of "the trained eye" or "the trained ear", artists and musicians who can see and hear what the layman cannot.

In music especially, the gap between audience and artist has widened appreciatively. In the visual arts, a vocabulary, developed by artists and curators for use in numerous arts magazines and recorded walking tours, has evolved along with the art. But, aside from the music critic and program note writer, composers have not enjoyed such a relationship with the lay public. It cannot be that such a dialog is impossible to accomplish, but there are obstacles. I have seen the most insightful and literary music critics use such inanities as "dah-DUM-dum" or "the B-flat-A-C motive" rather than subject themselves to specialty printing (reproducing a page from the score), which might not help anyway. At least a visual artist can have slides reproduced as a fairly accurate indication of the visual object of interest. Until personal computer sound cards become common, and the Internet bandwidth becomes wide enough, something as simple as example and illustration will remain rare in intelligent music writing.

I use this rather lengthy preamble as introduction to the topic of the music of Richard Wagner and anti-semitism. I was provoked into writing by several articles and letters in "Jewish Currents" magazine that caught my eye. A letter writer proclaimed that "Music without words is abstract" and "Meaning itself, and the value we assign to art, are changed by new perspectives." An article, asking why we shun Wagner but not Orff, claimed, without citation and with what appears to be a bit of a sneer, that only a "deconstruction" of the music might reveal its content.

As a composer (and of opera, no less), I read these pieces with mounting distress. To use a cliche, the foxes have definitely taken over the henhouse --- laymen debating the worth and content of music! As one who uses music as a chief form of expression, to have to put up with one who declares that music has no content, and another who says that such content can only be revealed by dubious means!

Given my relatively unpracticed skills at such a task, and within a culture which has steadfastly refused to develop a vocabulary for its expression, I will attempt to convey what might be considered very strong anti-semitic and pro-Nazi content in the music of Wagner. But beware! Those who love such works may find it impossible to listen again with the same ears!

As an opera composer, I write as one with a particular interest in Wagner. The history of opera is largely separate from the history of classical music. When a symphonist speaks of music of the Romantic era, he may speak of Chopin and Lizst, but never of Verdi. Some of my appreciation for Wagner comes filtered through a sentimental attachment to Mahler. Debussy satirized "Tristan und Isolde" in "Golliwogg's Cake Walk" from "The Children's Corner." I must admit to doing the same, in a sketch for a proposed musical about "Hagar the Horrible." I realize that this is "the sincerest form of flattery," but that Prelude just can't be ignored by any serious student of music. And, Anna Russell notwithstanding, Wagner's development of "leitmotif" must be considered by any opera composer, if only to be rejected.

My seminal encounter with Wagner did not come while analyzing the tonal slipperiness of the Prelude or the patchwork quilt of The Ring. I was studying Orchestration privately with Gil Robbins, a conductor, arranger and composer known largely for his choral work (some of which can be heard in the films of his son, Tim). Aside from the formalities of instrument ranges and notational arcana, orchestration can be a slippery craft. As my teacher pointed out, an orchestrator can get away with almost anything, as long as the notes are not impossible. How will an audience know that the composer did not intend that the sound be muddy?

Some practitioners, however, chose orchestration itself as a means of expression. Debussy's "Prelude A "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune" really must be experienced in the concert hall to be fully appreciated. This concentration on orchestration continued with Ravel and Stravinsky, and continues today. Score study, then, can be quite instructive to the budding orchestrator, and one day I was given the assignment of looking up that monster of over-the-top orchestral writing, the "Paris Version" of the Overture from "Tannhauser und Der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg."

Undoubtedly, program note writers from here to eternity will be writing about the off-stage (and in modern productions, on-stage) "Venusberg" bacchanale that Wagner attempts to depict to open his opera. Given the unusual length of the piece, surely some comment to an unsuspecting audience must be made. So-called "programmatic content" was made to order for laymen to debate, discuss and criticize. But when I encountered the score, it was without the smoke-screen of dubious "meaning" of this kind. I faced the notes on the page, and I recall my distress to this day.

How do I begin to describe what I saw? After all, it could not be just the quantity of notes --- I had long loved Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," which opens with pages of more swirling complexity than ever encountered in "Tannhauser." But the delicate playfullness of Stravinsky is very different from what I can only describe as the two-fisted arrogance of Wagner in this piece. The orchestration proclaimed a smug superiority from every measure. My Christian teacher, less involved in post-Holocaust reflection than I, was surprised by my reaction.

In this score I found a clear expression of theories of the ideal and utopia as I had never encountered anywhere else. It is only now that I can observe how this pursuit dominated the rest of his music, and the plots of his operas, from then on. Perhaps those seeking anti-semitism in his music are looking in the wrong direction. Certainly, I cannot claim that a hatred of Jews, as a people, is contained in these notes. A theological approach to music analysis might bear some fruit, but I won't go into that here. But the ideas that made the Holocaust a reality, the striving for an (in this case) Aryan ideal, the classification of peoples and cultures in hierarchical order, the proclamations of perfect beauty that suffuse Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" as well as her "Triumph of the Will," these are all present.

Looking at the same piece now, I can still locate the source of my disgust, although it is tempered now with pity and pathos. The excessive repetition, the massive tutti, and the useless torturing of the strings probably set me off. I can see now that these are centered in a musical personality adverse to, or incapable of, polyphony. The homophony (what the Oxford Dictionary of Music describes as parts "in step" with one another, as in hymn tunes) extends to homo-melody --- in Wagner's harmonic language, even parallel thirds and sixths are unfeasible. That Wagner is a great melodist is probably circular reasoning --- only a great melodist will end up a great opera composer, and be remembered as great. But Wagner is single-minded in this gift --- he sticks his melodies in the brass, and all other parts have one of two choices: supplement in unison and octaves, or fill in with busy filligree. The melodies don't evolve, they repeat, and the variation in accompanying orchestration is typically the only "variation" form present.

The way Wagner handles his melodies illustrates what I've described as his arrogance. His melodies are not revealed after an introduction, as a gem or gift, but baldly proclaimed, typically in brass. This is a key insight: Wagner, the brass melodist. Wagnerian sopranos, tenors and basses, to the extent that they can simulate trumpets, horns and trombones, are successful. But Wagner is not interested in just writing for brass band --- he wants all the arts, lighting, stage design, ticket-taking, absorbed into his total (and totalitarian) vision, and the winds, percussion and strings are his whipping boys. They must either tag along in unison, or work long hours in subservient background business.

I have described Wagner as a brass melodist, which has made his writing for orchestra so unusual. The backbone of the romantic nineteenth century orchestra is, after all, the strings, not the brass, because they do not get tired. In normal orchestration, the woodwinds are the soloists, the brass are for punctuation, but the strings are the meat, the substance of the orchestral sound. There have been twentieth century experiments with these balances, but that is not the point here. Wagner's writing for strings is practically sadistic in the "Venusberg." Quick scales, constant, repetitious bowings, on and on for measure after measure, and for what? To be buried under the massive bellowing of the brass! In Wagner's orchestra, the strings are a subservient class, toiling continuously but never rewarded. His hierarchy of forces is never questioned.

Where are the differing points of view? In Wagner, there are none. The leitmotifs always mean the same thing, and are insistent. Sometimes, two leitmotifs may have a little call and response, but neither yields. There is no self-criticism, no doubt, no modesty, no humor in this music. The dirty realities of human existence, the angst of Schoenberg, the existentialism of Dostoevsky, have not yet been faced. Although it depicts an orgy, this is not the "degenerate art" of Shostakovitch. The music comes from a pen that believes that it can achieve, nay, has achieved, perfection. It cannot be rearranged, reorchestrated, without destroying it completely. But unlike Beethoven, there is no compassion, no humility, no gentility, and no evolution. Anna Russell likes to point out that at the end of the Ring cycle, nothing has been accomplished --- we appear to be right back where we started! And yet, there is a desperate confidence in its own content. The themes have been purified down to an essence, a pure soul, but their construction is insistent, unrelenting, soul-less.

Once revealed, this insight dominates. Of course, this confidence can be heard in "The Ride of the Valkyries," but isn't it in the love duets, too? Certainly it is not only present on the page --- it can be heard. But it takes a critical ear, an aware ear, one not easily convinced by rhetoric or sentiment.

This is the Wagner that requires a Festspielhaus in Bayreuth for performance. This is the Wagner that "transports" you for hours to a place where there are no gypsies, no Jews, no homosexuals, no handicapped people (except as evil presences), where the fascist trains run on time at the perfect tempo and super-human stamina and Wagnerian vocal techniques are required. THIS IS WAGNER. I have not invented him, or interpreted him. He is not "abstract" or objectively meaningless. It may give you pleasure, just as a blanket made from human hair can give you warmth, but you indulge in it at your peril.

Writing is, after all, the truly abstract art form. What are words? Music is, at least, itself, and any attempt to translate it into words is a weak cousin. You can parse my sentences and come up with dust. If I have failed, I apologize. But what is a Jew? What is revelation? Should Wagner be performed in Israel? This is a social question. Should you derive pleasure from Wagner's music? This is a moral question. The choice is yours.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007