In 1998, after a phenomenally successful run as one of the highest paid comedians of the decade, Jerry Seinfeld released the collected insights of a professional at the height of his career in a comedy special thoughtfully entitled “I’m telling you for the last time.”
Where Jerry left off, his co-creating colleague(and the genius behind Seinfeld), Larry David picked up, or rather reinitiated the social dialogue of the prior with the irreverent and invective “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It was a triumphant showcase of Jewish humor, uncensored in all of its latent display of the subtle Talmudic-tendencies underlying the surface of Jewish etiquette, so often reinterpreted and sublated into a more digestible, secular veneer for the majority of Jews. In other words, it was a brilliant display of the dichotomy of Jews clinging to Jewish things, for Jewish reasons, divorced from the cognizant prerogative of religious observance, and, the resulting turmoil that those affections can inspire within a larger community.
In one episode, Larry, on a romantic date with his wife, recounts the story of the composer Richard Wagner’s passionately pastoral musical gift to his wife and daughter of the composer Franz Liszt, Cosima, for her birthday. The Siegfried Idyll, as it is known, was performed on Christmas morning 1870, by a small ensemble seated at the bottom of the stairs of the couples’ villa at Tribschen, in Switzerland. Cosima awoke to the enchanting and deceptively chromatic melody, in what must have been a display of overwhelmingly gorgeous sensitivity, romance, and unspeakable emotion.
Larry attempts to impress upon his wife the sheer beauty of the melody by whistling it while the couple waits in line.
Undoubtedly, and true to life, an excoriating reputation of rebuke shatters the moment between the couple.
“WERE YOU JUST WHISTLING WAGNER?“
What ensues as an argument between two Jewish men on the ‘right’ for a Jew to appreciate (even love) the music of Wagner. The proposed syllogism goes something like this: If you are a fan of Wagner, you accept his deplorable attitude toward Jewish people, are unaware of the anti-semitic view’s of the composer or are in fact, a bigoted racist yourself.
In the episode, Larry’s Jewish combatant intellectually disarms Larry by calling him a self-loathing Jew. At the end of the episode, Larry responds by hiring an ensemble to perform the Siegfried Idyll on the front lawn of his opponent in the early morning hours of a peaceful weekend.
As hilariously evocative as the episode concludes, it illustrates a sobering, myopic reoccurrence for working musicians. The inability of a person to remove who Wagner was from what Wagner did. But this view becomes problematic from another angle. The lack of realization of what Wagner did not do. Namely, he was not responsible for the death of 6 million Jews at the hands of Hitler, any more than Fredriech Nietzsche, who’s philosophical genius was mutilated and reappropriated in the hands of a psychopath.
Nietzsche, who was also a contemporary, a colleague, and dear friend to Wagner for a time(until issues such as Wagner’s anti-semitism created an unmanagable chasm between the genius of both men), reflected such an observation in his text ‘Human All Too Human‘:
“All philosophers have the common defect that they start from present-day man and believe that they can reach their goal by an analysis of present-day man. Lack of historical sense is the inherited defect of all philosophers.”
As deplorable as Wagner’s anti-semitism was, it was by no means a rarity in 19th century Europe. Wagner also kept close friendships with Jewish people; Even some he came to trust and determined reliable; Even… ‘not like other Jews”. It is not unlikely that his attitude toward a commonly denigrated people such as the Jews was something akin to Apartheid-era relations between caucasian middle-class families and the prominently native African staff that was tasked with raising and caring for the families of the former. It was racist, it was abhorrent, and it was common to the contextual culture of that particular time period.
Removing Wanger from the critical complications of his culture is a historical aberration. It is falsity and misrepresentation. Yet, that is exactly what happens on an almost daily basis when the discussion of musical progress, inevitably sojourns through the Wagnerian territory.
So, taking the cue from Jerry Seinfeld, I would like to clarify the case for Wagner one last time.
Wagner, as a concept, stands as a monumental arch by which all composers, theorists, musicologists, and the large majority of musicians must pass under, through expansive darkened seas, if any is to understand how the shores of Beethoven and the First Viennese School vouchsafed a journey to the lighthouse of Schoenberg and the Second School, where music fractured under the light of the chromatic prism in the early 20th century. Without the carefully plotted territory of Wagner, those fragments of light would loosen in its coherency to the past.
At the theoretical level, he was a prophet, undermining phrase structures and reanimating chordal relations. His music is as much geometrically pleasing as it is aesthetically and emotionally. The observance of his compositional tenacity yields still today priori requisites for the justification of assemblies of chromatic order. His philosophy of orchestration is a treatise to the exploration of combinations of the future sound, and yet his respect for all things ancient places his music on a throne of dualism, both introspective and outwardly projecting; Ancient and futuristic; Spiritual and carnal; Light and Shadow.
It is that which is adored by fans of Wagner; His genius, not his politics. To deconstruct his art into the mere musings of a raving racist is puerile and platitude. His position as such was pleaded earnestly by two prominent Jewish composers. Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg, the latter of which became increasingly more observant and outspoken with his Jewish identity as a form of repudiation to growing anti-semitism during Hitler-era Germany. It seems unlikely that Schoenberg was a “self-loathing” Jew who traded his moral judgment for ‘anti-semitic music.’
I was confronted twice in the last week on similar grounds; The mere mention of Wagner. In both cases, the individuals were not musicians. In both cases the mention of Wagner was factual, not preferential:
“If you’re interested in chromatic third relationships, look into the transformations of the grail theme in Parsifal”, to which, like our ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ example was met with the Wagner police sounding an alarm and verbally reprimanding and informing us that Wagner was “anti-semitic.”
At this point, all critical or productive dialogue takes a backseat in favor of a churlish witch trial compiled of porous logic and superficial understanding.
These are not isolated cases.
the casual perusal of classical music forums and social media groups yields this scripted dialogue on a weekly basis. Enough so that Larry David finds it ripe for satire and parody, almost 2 decades ago.
If I had to theorize why, I would assume it has to do with the fact that while most people do not know anything about Wagner’s music, they do know that he was the favored composer of Adolf Hitler(to the point of obsession), therefore solidifying the fact of his anti-semitism in an otherwise myriad of things to remember about classical music composers. That one kind of stands out. People who can’t recall even a fragment of Wagner’s music can recall his politics.
However, if we were to only confine our discussion about music to those composers who didn’t show anti-semitic tendencies, even Bach would need to be pushed beneath the salt, as it were. The St. Matthew’s Passion, historically, has had to go through considerable edit’s in the past to make the program acceptable to modern audiences, due to its treatment of Jewish culture. Yet, you would be hard-pressed to hear someone to insouciantly blurt out “Bach was an anti-semite” when discussing the beautiful symmetry of voice-leading in the first prelude of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier.
The emphatic irony of the course of both dialogues is that the individuals came from a fairly conservative, religious background. This might seem in contrast to who you would expect to be a likely variant of Wagnerian opposition, and, at least on grounds of one of the postulates, it is wrong to like Wagner because it is against a people that the Creator loves. Yet, on another post, the same individual was voicing his disapproval for Israel’s open protection of LGBT rights because the same Creator opposes the rights of homosexuals. The irony here being that the same theological discourse that condemns homosexuality today, condemned Jews, even interracial marriage, yesterday.
It is highly likely, however, that the issues surrounding LGBT rights today is less controversial than Anti-semitism was in Wagner’s day. That is to say, infringing on the rights of LGBT communities in 2019 places you further away from the mark of expected normalcy in comparison to where it placed you for being Anti-semitic in 1850 Europe. Let me make this abundantly clear: While I do not at all oppose religion and religious people, being Jewish myself, it is a profound and universal truth no single person should be forced to feel inferior because of their biological traits, including sexual orientation.
Separation of church and state is there to protect the individual’s freedom, not to place an entire people in bondage. Being able to build relationships and bond with individuals who think differently than you should be an ennobling feature of all life philosophies and religions.
Never the less, the issue of LGBT rights is an understandably controversial issue within the historical and cultural context of today for conservative philosophies. It is hard to fault someone who is motivated by religious beliefs, especially when it is so heavily supported by the greater identity culture that surrounds them. But that doesn’t lessen any the stressed tension one might feel, about the insistence of those beliefs, especially when those beliefs breed hatred of others. Extremism gives rise to extremism. So perhaps, as enlightened individuals, time would be better spent engaging each other’s belief systems without attaching the faults of the system to the individuals who project them.
And so, in the case of Wagner, for the last time, It is his politics, not his music that need to be condemned.