'A Vulture is Almost an Eagle'......
The Jewishness of Richard Wagner
extract from a seminar given at University College, London, on March 13th 2002.
......At the start of Jiri Weil's novel, 'Mendelssohn is on the Roof', set at the time of the Nazi occupation of Prague, a German officer is instructed to remove the statue of Mendelssohn from the composers above the façade of the concert hall. As the statues are without plaques, he tells his squad of workmen to pull down the image with the biggest nose. They promptly set about the statue of Richard Wagner...........
Caricature of Wagner by Karl Klic (1873)
Their mistake is understandable. Wagner, who was no more than 5' 6” high, with an outsize head, a prominent nose, and high brow, could well have passed for a Jew. He recognised this himself: Theodor Adorno quotes Wagner's deleted description of the dwarf Mime, whose wheedling themes are the most incontrovertibly 'Jewish' music of 'The Ring':
'Mime the Nibelung alone. He is small and bent…his head is abnormally large […] there must be nothing of caricature in all this: his aspect, even when quiet, must be simply eerie: it is only in moments of extreme excitement that he becomes outwardly ludicrous, but never uncouth'
Adorno comments 'Wagner's fear of caricature […] suggests, as does the suppression of this stage-direction, that Wagner recoiled with shock from the similarity between Mime and himself'.
It was, ironically, Wagner himself who, on the basis of his own paranoia, first believed that he might be Jewish. By a further irony, however, the more one looks at Wagner's life and career, the more plausibly Jewish he may begin to appear.
At the very outset of his autobiography, 'Mein Leben', Wagner intimates his first encounter with the world of Jewry - for he states that he was ' born May 22nd 1813 in Lepizig, two floors up in a house on the Bruehl', well-known as the Jewish section of town. We can imagine him being brought up rather short by an unwitting comment of his friend Uhlig, in a review of Meyerbeer's 'Le Prophète'. Uhlig, complaining of a supposed 'Hebrew art-taste' in music, wrote that if Meyerbeer's melodies were 'dramatic song, then Gluck , Mozart, Cherubini and Spontini ought to have made their studies in the New Market at Dresden or the Bruehl'. Shortly after losing his position and income by his involvement in the Dresden uprising of 1849, Wagner had attended a performance of the phenomenally successful 'Prophète' in Paris, and his contempt (and envy) for Meyerbeer rose to unprecedented heights. Uhlig's article precipitated the noxious sediment of his tirade, 'Jewry in Music'.
But did Wagner arrive in the world already Jewish? The problem of his possible genetic Jewishness did not arise for Wagner until fifty years later, at a time in his life when he supposed his great struggles were over - and some fifteen years after he had declared his Jew-hatred in 'Jewry in Music'. In 1864 had come the moment that Wagner, at any rate, knew he had deserved; a summons from his fan King Ludwig of Bavaria that effectively - although with many switchbacks on the way - set Wagner up for the rest of his life. 'Mein Leben', which concludes with the triumphant simultaneity in 1864 of Ludwig's invitation and the death of the despised Meyerbeer, was dictated to the composer's wife Cosima at Ludwig's request over the next few years, and prompted Wagner to gather information about his early life. This was almost certainly the incentive for his visit, described by one of his biographers as 'curious' and puzzling', to his sister Caecilie in Leipzig in 1868, after an absence of many years, which was to have two consequences which plunged him into his final, obsessive and virulently anti-Jewish phase. It is perhaps in the context of this visit that one should note the interesting entry by Wagner in his diary one week later: 'Consider 'Judentum' again'.
The first of these consequences was the discovery of a batch of letters from Wagner's stepfather, the actor and musician Ludwig Geyer, to his mother, which Caecilie eventually gave to Wagner next year. His reply to her on that occasion makes it clear that these letters, now lost or destroyed, caused him to believe that Geyer was his biological father.
Wagner speaks warmly and frequently of Geyer in in 'Mein Leben' and in his conversations with Cosima, recorded in her 'Diary'. There Geyer is referred to equally as 'stepfather' and as 'father'. Indeed Wagner mentions that, throughout his schooldays, until he left the Dresdner Kreuzschule in 1827, he was known by the surname Geyer - although Ludwig Geyer himself died in 1821. As has been noted by many commentators, all this may have some bearing on the regular problems that Wagner's operatic heroes seem to have with names and paternity.
Above the front door of Wahnfried, the house Wagner designed for himself in Bayreuth in 1874, he devised a glass panel with the coat-of-arms he had invented for himself - a vulture bearing on its breast the constellation of the Plough. This was a reference to Geyer, who had married his mother after the untimely death of his legal father, Friedrich Wagner, when Richard was only 6 months old. A similar motif adorned the title-page of' 'Mein Leben'. 'Geyer' is the German for 'vulture' and the seven stars represented the Wagner orphans whose care Geyer undertook.
The other consequence of Wagner's visit to Leipzig was his introduction to a young enthusiast for his works, whom he invited to visit him in his retreat in Switzerland. By the time that this young man, Friedrich Nietzsche, took up this offer the following year, he had been appointed Professor at the University of Basel. At this time, Wagner had reached the year 1861 in 'Mein Leben' and conceived the idea of privately printing 18 copies for the delectation of his disciples. However, preparing this document for the printer would have been tedious work and Wagner correctly identified in Nietzsche an enthusiastic and trustworthy new acolyte to undertake this task on his behalf. Proofreading was neither the last nor the only menial task which Nietzsche undertook for the Master before eventually, as did so many of Wagner's close colleagues throughout his life, breaking with him.
In 1888, five years after Wagner's death, Nietzsche, on the verge of his final mental breakdown, was still attempting to exorcise Wagner's spirit. In the afterword to 'Der Fall Wagner' ('The Wagner Case') of that year appears the following footnote:
'But was Wagner anyway a German? One has grounds for such a question. It is difficult to discover any sort of German characteristics in him. Like the great student he was, he learnt to imitate much that was German - that's all. His nature itself contradicts what hitherto has been felt of as German - not to speak of the German musician! His father was an actor named Geyer. Ein Geyer ist beinahe schon ein Adler. [A vulture is almost an eagle]. What has hitherto been treated, in Wagner's 'Life', as a circumlocution, is a 'fable convenue', if nothing worse.'
This curious comment of Nietzsche was in fact a very carefully planted explosive charge. Those who could run - and thanks to Wagner's notoriety there were by then many of them - could clearly read the references. 'Adler' was then - as now - a fairly common Jewish surname. Nietzsche was one of the very few initiates who had read 'Mein Leben' - (it was not made available to the public until 1911). He even prepared the manuscript for publication - his former unique closeness to Wagner made him a very likely recipient of any dark secrets. Few dispute the insight of Wagner's biographer Ernest Newman that Wagner must have discussed his paternity with Nietzsche, and also expressed his concern that Geyer was at least part-Jewish.
Although many have commented on Nietzsche's pun, it has not I think been noticed that in the previous sentences, Wagner, - as a supposed imitator of a German -, was being paid off heavily in his own coin - for had not his 'Jewry in Music' sought to prove that no Jew could make a genuine contribution to culture?
'The Jew speaks the language of the country in which he dwells [...] always as an alien […] the general circumstance that the Jew talks the modern European languages merely as learnt, and not as mother tongues, must necessarily debar him from all capability of therein expressing himself idiomatically, independently, and conformably to his nature'.
You may have noted a missing link in this chain. There is in fact not the slightest reason to suppose that Geyer had any Jewish ancestry whatever. His lineage, like that of Friedrich Wagner, extends spotlessly through a long series of German church musicians. Yet in Wagner's own highly relevant words:
'…He whose purpose is to vindicate the deeds of men and races by their inmost views and impulses, will find it of the highest moment to note what they believed, or tried to make others believe, about themselves'.
In this context it is worth noting that after Wagner's death and until the end of the Nazi era, Wagner's successors continued to generate propaganda, including deliberate misquotation from then unpublished sources such as Cosima's 'Diaries', to dispel any idea that Wagner might have been Geyer's son, or to prove that Nietzsche's attack was brought about by his falling under Jewish influence.
Wagner had in fact painted himself into a corner. His anti-Judaism, like all of his opinions, arose from purely selfish and personal reasons. At the time of 'Jewry in Music' it reflected his jealousy of the operatic success of his benefactor, the Jewish composer Meyerbeer. It then lay fallow for fifteen years; during which time Wagner fell into the clutches of Cosima who was, unlike Wagner, anti-Jewish by conviction. This may havde been because she herself feared that she had a Jewish ancestry that she did not wish to disclose; and will not have been diminished by the consistent Jew-hatred of her first husband, also a Wagner disciple, the conductor Hans von Bulow. The discovery, or rather self-generated fear - or maybe even the sharing of Cosima's paranoia - that he himself might be of Jewish stock, (coupled perhaps with a sort of triumphalism following the death of Meyerbeer), is the only plausible prompt for Wagner's sudden reassertion of anti-Jewish propaganda, beginning with the reissue in 1868 of his book 'Opera and Drama'. Characterized, not only by Wagner's tedious theories on opera, but also by an onslaught on the commercialism of Meyerbeer, the book was published with a new preface and dedication to the reactionary nationalist Constantin Frantz, in which Wagner emphasizes his own Germanness, his German spirit and his 'successes as a German opera-composer'.
This was followed in 1869 by a reissue of 'Jewry in Music' in an extended format which now laid into various new enemies which Wagner had imagined or created in the meantime, and attributed all his troubles to Jewish intrigues. As the original had existed only in the little-read pages of a magazine, at a time when Wagner had limited fame, the reissue in pamphlet form by the now notorious composer gave rise for the first time to wide publicity of his views. The senselessness of this completely unnecessary provocation shocked many of Wagner's close supporters, including Liszt and even Cosima and von Bulow. One might indeed at this stage have applied to Wagner the mirror-image of his analysis of his former friend in Dresden, the Jewish writer Auerbach:
'One day I turned to him in an amiably intimate way and advised him simply to let the whole Jewish question go hang; there were, after all, a number of other standpoints from which to judge the world. Curiously enough, he lost his air of ingenuousness at that point, adopted what struck me as a not entirely authentic tone of whimpering emotion, and assured me that he could never do that, as Judaism still contained too much that demanded his complete sympathy'.
Or perhaps his action might bring to mind his own description in 'Jewry in Music' of a supposed characteristic of the Jew, that
'…..Never was he (the cultured Jew) driven to speak out a definite, a real and necessary thing, but he just wanted to speak, no matter what, sheerly to make his existence noticeable'.
Perhaps significantly, Wagner axed the last clause in the revised version of 1869. By then his existence was generally noticed as it had not been 20 years earlier.
If the reissue of 'Jewry in Music' was intended as a pre-emptive strike, Wagner was hoist comprehensively by his own petard: the parodies, whispers and cartoons in German magazines about Wagner being Jewish become evident from about 1870, immediately after the republication. They were given ongoing reinforcement by the fact that, although Wagner's written and conversational attacks on Jews as a people became ever more hysterical until his death, he was no less surrounded, as throughout his life, by Jewish colleagues, giving rise to cracks in the Press about the 'Bayreuther Higher Rabbinate'. Amongst these were the impresario Angelo Neumann, the conductor Hermann Levi (who premiered 'Parsifal'), the writer Heinrich Porges, the pianist Carl Tausig, and the pathetic Wagner groupie Joseph Rubinstein, who later committed suicide following the Master's death. Jens Malte Fischer reprints a parody published in Berlin in 1871 - 'Die Meistersinger, oder das Judentum in der Musik', which mocks equally 'Richard von Wahnsing' and his enemies 'Meyerbach', 'Offenbeer', and 'Mandelbaum', and ends with Richard stuffed in a trunk and Offenbeer sitting triumphantly on top. This is a neat satirical inversion of Wagner's attempt to 'bury' Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn aesthetically, now that they were both safely physically inhumed. The ongoing satire and Wagner's anti-Judaism were of course mutually reinforcing although Wagner pretended to take no notice of the former.
Now before 1850 Wagner had exhibited few if any signals of especial anti-Jewish feeling or behaviour. Historians attempting to classify him as a proto-Nazi have to scrape the barrel, and even then to present scraps out of context (or indeed even misleadingly), to find anything in his letters or writings which indicate that he had any feelings whatever towards the Jews (as opposed to a growing envy during the 1840s of Meyerbeer). There was certainly a golden opportunity for Wagner to lash out, for example, in his polemic 'Art and Revolution', of Summer 1849, where we are treated to an obvious predecessor of the money-grubbing dabbler in the arts personified in Meyerbeer in 'Jewry in Music'. But here instead we have:
'the god of the modern world, the holy-noble god of five per cent, the ruler and master of ceremonies of our modern 'art'. Ye may see him embodied in a strait-laced English banker, [……] when he engages the chief singers of the Italian Opera to sing before him in his own drawing room rather than the theatre, because he will have the glory of paying higher for them here than there'.
If anything, as Jakob Katz has pointed out, Wagner's associations before 1850 would have marked him a philo-Semite, and even Katz records only a fraction of these connections. Wagner's earliest sweetheart was a Jewish inhabitant of the Bruehl, the banker's daughter, Leah David. And from there onwards stretches a long line of Jewish friends, colleagues, supporters and benefactors, up to the end of Wagner's life.
We find, for example, Jewish patrons starting with Mme. Gottschalk, ' a trustworthy Jewess' according to 'Mein Leben', who kept Wagner's creditors at bay in Magdeburg in 1835 and with her husband constituted two-thirds of the audience for Wagner's opera 'Das Liebsverbot'. (The other member was, bizarrely enough, an orthodox Polish Jew in full rig-out). Further contributors included Meyerbeer himself, to whom Wagner wrote an introductory letter in 1837 so fawning that even its recipient, no stranger to communications of that sort, must have cringed. In 1840 Wagner wrote a long article - later rigorously suppressed from his canon - praising Meyerbeer as a man and artist. Apart from lending him money and giving him moral support, Meyerbeer successfully recommended Wagner's 'Rienzi' for its premier in Dresden in 1842 - Wagner's first big break - and had also procured the acceptance by Berlin of both 'Rienzi' and 'The Flying Dutchman'. As late as 1846 he was writing to Meyerbeer signing himself 'your ever greatly beholden, Richard Wagner'. Later in Wagner's career, even after 'Jewry in Music' in 1850, Jews were prominent in supporting Wagner, apart form the Bayreuth circle already mentioned; the Mancunian widow Julie Salis-Schwabe underwrote the losses of Wagner's 1860 Paris concerts, (and sued him for the money back when he struck lucky with King Ludwig). Thomas Mann's father-in-law Dr. Pringsheim, was with many other Jews in the forefront of those who subscribed to the creation of the Bayreuth theatre and festival in the 1870s.
Nor was Wagner reluctant to deal with or solicit support from Jewish composers other than Meyerbeer. He curried favour with Mendelssohn, and even gave him the autograph of his own symphony in tribute. He was friendly enough with Ferdinand Hiller, even after the latter declined to oblige him with a loan of 2000 thaler. Hiller notes in his diary among many other meetings with Wagner the one when the loan was discussed in February 1845, 'Wagner comes round to discuss his affairs - conversations with Wagner on religion' and one in March 1847 when he played Wagner his new opera, 'Conradin'. During his first Paris period (1839-42) Wagner wrote articles praising Halévy's opera 'The Queen of Cyprus' and his other works.
During this stay in Paris he worked hand-in-glove with Jews, not always admittedly to his gratification. The music publisher Schlesinger worked him like a horse, making arrangements of the latest operatic hits for piano, trumpet and every instrument under the sun - but at least he provided employment. Wagner's greatest friend in Paris - according to 'Mein Leben' 'the most beautiful friendship in my life'- was the Jew Samuel Lehrs. The first wave of the great piano virtuosi - including the Jews Henri Herz and Sigismund Thalberg - were wowing Parisian audiences. The very subjects of Wagner's operatic canon owe much to his Jewish connections. His reading, whilst in Riga, of Heine's treatment of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, so impressed him that on arriving in Paris he obtained the author's permission to prepare a libretto from it. Later in the 1830s, Heine's version of 'Tannhäuser' was to give Wagner the stimulus for another of his works. Lehrs brought him materials which contained further details of the Tannhauser story and introduced him to the epic of 'Lohengrin'. It has been suggested that even 'The Ring' owes a debt to Heine's treatment of myth in his essay 'Elemental Spirits'.
Back in Germany, Wagner was only too aware that at Leipzig, where 'Jewry in Music' was published, the Conservatoire, founded by Mendelssohn, numbered amongst its professors the piano virtuoso Moscheles, and the violinists Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim, with all of whom he was personally acquainted. And in his own orchestra in Dresden in the 1840s Wagner consulted with the noted horn-player J. R. Lewy, a pioneer of the valved horn, leading to reorchestration of 'The Flying Dutchman' and undoubtedly influencing Wagner's future handling of the brass section of the orchestra.
This did not prevent Lewy being remembered in 'Mein Leben' as 'the odious horn player Levy' and libelled as a spy for Wagner's Dresden enemies. Needless to say, virtually all Wagner's musical, financial or other debts to Jews were omitted, deleted or toned down in his own later accounts of his life. However, those who, in the 1840s, criticized the 'Young Germany' intellectual movement, with which Wagner was allied, for being 'cosmopolitan', 'un-German' or 'Young Palestine', need have looked no further than the young composer for a satisfactory example, had they wished to follow the above lines of thought.........