Term Paper: Richard Wagner Great Musician or Controversial Racist

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Richard Wagner -- Great Musician or Controversial Racist?

Regarded one of the most controversial composers of his time, Richard Wagner has over time attracted both admiration and criticism from various quarters. Those who revere the composer regard him one of the greatest composers of all time. However, there are those who hold Wagner in low regard given the anti-Semitic as well as racist content in most of his works. In this text, I review the existing literature in an attempt to determine whether Wagner was indeed one of the greatest composers of all time or just a controversial racist as some claim.

Richard Wagner: A Brief Background

According to Bernstein, "Richard Wagner, born at Leipzig on May 22, 1813, was the ninth child of Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the local police court" (270). According to the author, Wagner came from a family that already exhibited some dramatic inclinations. To highlight his assertion, Bernstein notes that some of Wagner's siblings were already involved in drama long before Wagner begun to perform (270). Further, on the death of his father, Wagner's mother got engaged to a man by the name Ludwig Geyer - who was known to be "artistically-minded" (Bernstein 270). In that regard, it can be noted that Wagner's entry into the world of compositions was largely influenced by individuals close to him in the earlier stages of his life. Although the composer passed away in 1883, he is still remembered today mostly for his operas with some of his works still being performed widely. However, regardless of his musical genius, Wagner is in some quarters regarded a controversial figure for several reasons, some of which I discuss in detail in this text.

As Bernstein notes, "Wagner left no stone unturned in the expression of his ideas" (276). This is perhaps the reason why he chose to incorporate his personal views into some of his compositions. Indeed, the anti-Semitic as well as racial content of some of his compositions infuriated many with Israel banning the performance of his works for a couple of years. However, some of Wagner's die-hard supporters fault those criticizing the performer noting that most of his sentiments did not differ in any way from those of some of his contemporaries at the time. Mourby reinforces this assertion by quoting a London University lecturer who clearly notes that apart from Wagner, quite a number of other composers including Mussorgsky and Chopin also did occasionally let out some personal views which were in one way or another antagonistic towards Jews (n.p). Therefore, the obvious question that arises in this case is, why should we zoom in on Wagner while leaving out his contemporaries? The following section explores what can be regarded as the Wagner Controversy.

Richard Wagner -- Great Musician or Controversial Racist?

Wagner according to Music Academy Online "has attracted more than his share of both fervent admirers and equally passionate detractors" (n.p). This assertion attempts to capture both the admiration and criticism the composer attracts in equal measure. According to Mourby, there are those who mainly remember Wagner for his view that most of that which was regarded faulty in both the society and art was initially triggered or brought about by Jews (n.p). Indeed, as Mourby notes, "Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music)," one of the essays done by the composer particularly trains its guns on another composer of Jewish descent (n.p). The object of Wagner's criticism in this particular case was Mendelssohn. In the opinion of Wagner, this particular composer had clearly demonstrated that while a Jew could be endowed with a lot of talent amongst other things, he still came across as being "incapable of supplying the profound, heart-seizing, soul-searching experience we expect from art" (Mourby n.p). This particular comment can be seen as having been particularly antagonistic towards those of Jewish descent.

It is also important to note that the need to zoom in on Wagner while letting his contemporaries off the hook arises from the popularity of his works amongst the Nazis. According to Music Academy Online, "long after Wagner's death, the Nazis found support for their own beliefs in Wagner's writings…" (n.p). This Nazi link or association does more harm than good to Wagner, perhaps to an extent of further reinforcing the belief that his works were deliberately laced with anti-Semitic views for a more sinister motive. It is indeed intriguing to note that there are those who are convinced that Hitler may have been influenced by some of the composer's works. Though such claims have been refuted in some quarters, Nicholson sensationally claims that "the predominant view that emerges is that Hitler's ideology was based largely on the anti-Semitism of the writings and to some extent the artistic works of Richard Wagner…" (6). Although the authenticity of these claims largely remain unverified, the fact that such a view exists can be seen as a major pointer towards how Wagner's works are viewed in some quarters especially in regard to their racist and anti-Semitic content. Further, there exists some evidence demonstrating that Hitler held Wagner in high regard. As Nicholson notes, Hitler did indeed attend quite a number of opera nights (225). To have influenced Hitler's anti-Semitism, Wagner's musical works must have been heavy on the same.

It can also be noted that quite a number of Wagner's operas exhibited some anti-Semitic views. Some of these include but are not limited to Parsifal and Die Meistersinger. In this case, some of the characters Wagner chose to use effectively brought out some well choreographed anti-Semitic stereotypes. Indeed, as Vazsonyi notes, anti-Semitic claims in regard to Die Meistersinger arise mainly from "the character of Merker, Sixtus Beckmesser" (100). To highlight his assertion, the author notes that Wagner succeeded in weaving racist connotations using Beckmesser in this particular opera most particularly in the Act II riot scene (100). Through the use of coded messages, Wagner used the said scene to recommend "that Germans first physically abuse…, and ultimately eliminate Jews from their community…" (Vazsonyi 100). This can be viewed as yet another reason to brand Wagner a controversial racist.

As I have already pointed out earlier on in this text, there are those who still defend both Wagner and his compositions on several grounds. Though some deem it unfair to lump together both the works of the composer and the composer himself, Mourby holds a different opinion. In his submission, Mourby notes that though there is an argument that the creators of works of arts don't have to be as presentable as their creations, Wagner's case is an exception (n.p). To drive his point home, the author in reference to Wagner further notes that "Judaism in Music is what has made him the unforgivable exception" (Mourby n.p).

According to Mourby, the move by Wagner to openly express his views on Judaism triggered a number of things (n.p). For instance, quite a number of scholars as well as academics are actively involved in the analysis of Wagner's works for anti-Semitism seams. Further, as I have already pointed out elsewhere in this text, some of Wagner's works were at some point been banned in Israel for their racist content. In my opinion, though Wagner was and still is one of the greatest composers of all time, most of his works seem to have brought out the racist in him. Based on the examples I have highlighted in the text above, it is clear that Wagner considered Jews as being rather inferior. For instance, using Mendelssohn as an example, Wagner argued that Jews were not competent enough in matters art as they were "incapable of supplying the profound, heart-seizing, soul-searching experience we expect from art" (Mourby n.p). It would hence be fair to conclude that although Wagner was an immensely gifted composer, he also… [END OF PREVIEW]

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