Not surprisingly, the 2013 Bicentenary of German composer Richard Wagner’s birth saw a whole range of commemorative cultural activities. One of the most interesting contributions to the debate about Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism is Hilan Warshaw’s new documentary, “Wagner’s Jews”. The 55-minute film was recently presented by the Wagner Society of New York at Columbia University’s Barnard College. Filmed on location in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, Warshaw focuses on Wagner’s complex relationships within his immediate entourage in general, and the Jewish members of his circle, in particular. Overtonefilms Warshaw’s film introduces us to a broad range of Jewish artists who became absolute Wagner devotees and played a critical role in Wagner’s success.
The fact that the German composer surrounded himself with Jewish friends and artists might surprise: Wagner, author of the infamous pamphlet about the role of Judaism in music, “Das Judenthum in der Musik”, left no doubt as to his disdain of Jews. Yet, according to Warshaw, Wagner’s explicitly anti-Semitic attitude not only brought about considerable consternation among Jewish artists, supporters, fans and benefactors, but was also at the very heart of a perverted, reciprocal dependence. Wagner was probing, to great effect, some of his Jewish friends’ deepest vulnerabilities. “Wagner did not surround himself with Jews despite the fact that they were Jewish, but because of it”, says Warshaw.
“Scholars who question the severe gravity of Wagner’s anti-Semitism in light of his friendships with Jews are overlooking many nuances about those specific relationships”, Warshaw adds. “The fear factor was a great motivator in the psyche of the Jewish German community, which had just gained its independence but still had to prove its cultural equality, all in the face of a worsening anti-Semitism at the time,” explains Warshaw. “Wagner shamelessly used their eagerness to redeem themselves and, calculating on his part, ‘allowed his Jews’ to selflessly engage in his services; copy scores, raise funds… to partake in German culture, and contribute to it.“
Many young Jewish musicians became absolute Wagner devotees, and played a critical role in the promotion of his work and the financial support needed for it. There was teenage piano prodigy, Carl Tausig, and Hermann Levi, the son of a Rabbi, who urged his father to become a member of the Wagner Society. Short of being forced by Wagner to convert to Christianity in order to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, Levi however reassured his independence by declining Wagner’s wishes and threatening to abort his mission.
Another Jewish artist, baritone and theater director Angelo Neumann, became a major producer of Wagner’s work throughout Europe, and the young pianist, Joseph Rubinstein, who had lived with the Wagner family for many years, committed suicide shortly after Wagner passed away.
In evaluating Wagner’s anti-Semitism, some of today’s artists offer rather nuanced opinions. Pianist Evgeny Kissin concluded in Christopher Nupen’s 2004 Holocaust film, “We Want the Light” that “… the talent and genius of an artist, and his or her personal traits are just not the same thing.” And Zubin Mehta, conductor for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra argues that forgoing Wagner, the artistic forefather of composers such as Bruckner, Mahler and Schoenberg, would be similar to enjoying the fruit of a tree without acknowledging the tree’s roots (in Nupen, “We Want the Light”). On the other hand, Mehta fully respects the negative feelings of the generation of Holocaust survivors.
Warshaw admits that one of the motivations behind the film was to explore his own ambivalence towards Wagner. Born into a musical family, he studied violin and conducting before turning to film, and did not get to listen to Wagner growing up: “There was so much associated with Wagner, in connection with my family’s losses and tragedies during the Nazi area, so whenever Wagner came on the radio got shut off. When I finally had the opportunity to study and play Wagner’s music, I found it very striking, even electrifying … and when I became a filmmaker, I saw that in terms of links between music and film, Wagner is a very influential figure. Early film composers like Erich Korngold or Max Steiner, for example (“Gone with the Wind”) built on Wagnerian leitmotifs and his unending melody.”
Formally studying the composer’s music gave Warshaw a greater emotional distance to the man, which allowed for an appreciation of Wagner’s creativeness. “In a way, he thinks like a composer of film scores,” says Warshaw, “… his dramatic vision is sort of a precursor of film. His operas are shattering experiences for me, yet I have no illusion about how his anti-Semitism must be embedded within the concept of his art; and that is troubling for me, and has to be. It is the price I pay for my admission of enjoying his music.”
Of course, there were other composers who harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. Chopin is one example, but then Wagner was a much more outspoken and political figure.
The film also focuses on today’s Wagner policy in Israel. Even though there is no real political codex that implicitly forbids Wagner’s music on stage, musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta and others have failed in their efforts to introduce Wagner’s work to a majority of Israelis. Yet Wagner is often played on Israeli radio. Influenced by strong anti-Wagner sentiments and forces that appeal to issues bigger and more important, Israelis have bowed to the naysayers for now.
This conflict takes us back to 1938, the year of the ‘Kristallnacht’. Then, a performance of Wagner’s Overture of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by the orchestra now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was stopped, and, as a result of the Nürnberg race laws and the memories of Holocaust survivors recalling the horrors of Wagner’s music blasting from loudspeakers in German concentration camps, Wagner was dropped from any appropriate concert program altogether.
The fact that many Wagner scholars and expert performers, as well as enthusiasts, are Jewish and a Wagner society was founded in Israel in 2011 by Jonathan Livny, did not lessen the outcry in the Israeli press when, in 2011, the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Roberto Paternostro travelled to Bayreuth for their first ever-performance on Wagner’s turf.Interview Roberto Paternostro
Warshaw’s film doesn’t provide the answers to many of the questions the topic raises, but rather expects to create a discussion and to make audiences reflect for themselves.Says Warshaw: “The objective is not to present just the case for the defense or prosecution, but the whole trial.”
To mark the Bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, WAGNER’S JEWS was broadcast in Europe on ARTE on May 19, and will be re-broadcast by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) on November 18, 2013.
The film has started screenings in the U.S. and internationally, at venues including Yale, Columbia, and Boston universities, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York, the London’s Barbican Centre, and the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
“Wagner’s Jews” will be distributed in North America by First Run Features.