Thursday, August 2, 2012

Richard Wagner: Pussycat

I just watched an interesting film, Wagner and Me, in which Stephen Fry, a Jewish Wagner freak, treks to the composer's shrine/theater in Bayreuth, where he attempts to reconcile his love for the music with the atrocious anti-Semitism of the composer and the enduring taint of the Nazis' appropriation of his music for their mythic meshugaas.

He has a short interview with witheringly brusque great-grandaughter Eva Wagner, who currently runs things (her father called Hitler "Uncle Adolf"), and he spends the film wandering around as if he were the first Jew to have ever breached these grounds.

And that piqued my curiosity, so I did some research, learning about conductor Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi, who was one of Richard Wagner's best friends and who conducted at Bayreuth countless times. When he was chosen to conduct the debut of his religious epic Parsifal, Wagner suggested that he consider being baptized first (due to the religious nature of the piece). Levi walked out in a pique, and Wagner sent him this apologetic note, which strikes me as genuinely affectionate and completely fraternal (bear in mind that this was Wagner at the height of his renown, with total leeway to be a prick):
Dearest and best of friends, much as I respect all your feelings, you are not making things easy either for yourself or for us! What could so easily inhibit us in our dealings with you is the fact that you are always so gloomily introspective! We are entirely at one in thinking that the whole world should be told about this shit but what this means is that you must stop running away from us, thereby allowing such stupid suspicions to arise! You do not need to lose any of your faith, but merely to acquire the courage of your convictions! Perhaps some great change is about to take place in your life - but at all events - you are my Parsifal conductor! So, come on! come on! Yours, RW.
Wagner gave up trying to convert him, Levi returned to Bayreuth, conducted the piece and the composer was, as always, delighted with his work. He later served as pallbearer at Wagner's funeral.

So what's going on here? It jibes poorly with our image of Wagner as a virulently racist proto-Nazi. As I explained once before, there are two completely different sorts of racism, one characterized by an insurmountable divide, and another by a general predilection often riddled with exceptions (the cliche about "Some of my best friends" can be quite honest, even if it doesn't excuse the prejudice).

As any minority knows, type #1 racism, no matter how polite and passive, is the worst. Type #2 racism, no matter how vitriolic and offensive (Wagner's writings on Jews were both), is far more forgivable.

Wagner's descendants were loathsome, as were their Nazi pals (and this Eva character seems straight out of a Cloris Leachman performance). But Richard himself? Genius aside, I believe I know the type, and it doesn't particularly bother me (though, musically, I could do without his screaming sopranos and megalomaniacal sturm und drang).

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