Commentary Magazine


The Wagner Question

To the Editor:

“Wagner comes to Broadway” [Samuel Lipman, Music, January] is a vivid example of critical analysis which seeks to bring a work of art and its performers into line with the preconceived notions of the critic. The cast, director, and conductor of the Meistersinger in question hardly want to bite the hand that writes such lavish if anonymous praise, but from that “pinnacle of the City Opera’s achievement” they have a vantage point of objectivity which the critic neither sought nor attained.

This “heavily cut” production of Meistersinger eliminated exactly seventeen minutes of music, twenty minutes if the conductor is particularly slow. Nor is your critic’s watch very accurate, for the performance ends at ten minutes of twelve, and he fails to mention that it begins at seven o’clock, a full hour earlier than our regular starting time. The fact that the evening passed so quickly and this was a “comfortable” Meistersinger (whatever that might mean) is another tribute to our performance, or possibly to the seats in our theater.

Your critic, who sings our praises in English, decided that it is a difficult language in which to sing, yet this is the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, not to mention the inimitable American musical with the incomparable lyrics of Porter, Gershwin, Hammerstein, and Sondheim. If it is only in German that the German characterizations can be truly appreciated, then we should perhaps insist upon Bartered Bride in Czech, La Bohème in French, and Turandot in Chinese. Somehow I am reminded of the incompetent stage director of Carmen who, lacking powers of dramatic persuasion, shouted at a floundering chorus, “Haven’t any of you been to Seville?”

Whether he does so in German or in English, we would advise your critic, as well as those who read his article, to read the Meistersinger libretto. He will discover that Hans Sachs does not “trick” Beckmesser into stealing the prize song. He only assures him that he (Sachs) has not written it, which is true, and since Beckmesser has already appropriated the song, permits him to keep it.

Beckmesser is not beaten because he is a Jew or because he represents for Wagner the critic Hanslick (who was at best 50 per-cent Jewish, but certainly 100 per-cent a critic). He is beaten by David because he is caught serenading Magdalena whom he had mistaken for Eva. But the point of the fight is that most of Nuremberg becomes embroiled in it. Are we to understand that all of Nuremberg, or at least the half that gets beaten, is Jewish? Your critic overlooks the true anti-Semitism of old Nuremberg, for Beckmesser, were he a Jew, could not have been a member, let alone the leading member, of a guild, nor could he have been a suitor for the hand of the Aryan Eva. To the best of my knowledge not even in the darkest days of Nazism in Germany was Beckmesser ever presented as a Jew. If your critic does not recommend a yellow star for this “symbol of the crime of the Jews,” would a performer with a hook nose suffice?

Of course Wagner was an anti-Semite, but he was also an artist who fortunately knew the difference between art and poster art, between beauty and propaganda. His anti-Semitic articles were written in words which he did not set to music. He was also a great pragmatist and insisted that the Jewish conductor Levy do the first performance of Parsifal. It does seem arbitrary to interpret one man’s art in terms of his politics when we cannot do the same with others more reticent about their political outlook. Wagner’s stress on German art was part of a centuries-old unification movement, and it is only in retrospect, with the horrors attendant upon its all-too-great success, that we recoil from his nationalism. Verdi was at least as nationalistic about the Italian Risorgimento, but he is not blamed for “providing the shoulders” on which Mussolini’s anti-Semitic fascism stood. The feminist movement could work up a case against Puccini, with his sacrificial heroines and his “macho” attitudes toward sex. Our next performance of Madama Butterfly may be picketed.

All of this is nonsense; we, in fact, particularly chose to do Meistersinger in English because of its humanism, humor, and affecting warmth. The peroration by Sachs to German art at the end of the opera stands as a thing of its time and place and is no more Nazi than the triumphal march of Aida is militaristic or the fervid shouts of “guerra” signify Verdi’s praise of war. That we cut part of that peroration was not an effort to turn away from “the horrid.” It is a traditional cut (and not all traditions are memories of the last bad performance), one very likely sanctioned by Wagner himself. Significantly, one now finds many critical voices in German publications raised against uncut performances of Wagner. It is enlightening to note that your critic, who second-guesses and (mis)construes the composer throughout, when it comes to his last-act cut modestly states that it is impossible to tell what Wagner’s “real intentions” were, that they involve the psychology of his relations with his wife, etc., etc. Never give the opposition the benefit of the doubt! As for the cut being “harmonically clumsy,” it happens to go from C major to C major—nothing could be easier or more natural; it seems to have been made to order, possibly by Wagner. We might even have left the section in, if it didn’t come so late in the opera and didn’t seem so tedious at that point. We were really much more concerned with art than a cover-up.

One of the advantages in writing such a lengthy polemic is that one can easily forget at the end what one has stated at the beginning. Thus, although with Meistersinger the New York City Opera, according to your critic, reached its “pinnacle,” the reader is later asked to question why this opera “was seen as the proper field for the exercise of the company’s undoubted virtues.” Obviously, because with it we reached that “pinnacle.”

The real question is why your critic is so patronizing toward the New York City Opera (he even writes a review without mentioning the name of a single performer). Whatever our faults, we are never patronizing, certainly not to our audience. We do not popularize opera, we perform it so well that more people enjoy it. We do not shorten works, we perform them artfully so that time seems to go by quickly; we do not turn our face from “the horrid,” but we do not seek it out where it does not exist. We performed the opera in English not to make its content less accessible but to make it more accessible to the public. It would appear self-evident, except to one intent upon distortion, that were we determined to conceal the true nature of the opera, we would have done it in German, not English.

Were the critic less preoccupied with clichés than with facts, he could not have made some of his patronizing assertions about the company. I am delighted that he finds us young and attractive, but “less experienced”? Norman Bailey (a name at last!) has sung the role of Sachs at Bayreuth and Covent Garden, he has recorded it with Solti, and he is considered one of the greatest exponents of that role anywhere. John Alexander (Stolzing) sings at the Met and in most opera houses of the world. The conductor performs regularly in Paris, Vienna, and Israel. Do Sills, Domingo, Niska, or Alexander (to mention only four of a legion) become more experienced as they walk west across Lincoln Center Plaza and instantly “less experienced” as they walk back east? Is it a fault that most great singers perform with us before they are old and un attractive?

Finally, to answer a question posed earlier as to why your critic is so patronizing toward the New York City Opera, I submit it is because that company is run by a Jew. Unlike himself, to be sure, not a professional Jew, but one who came close to extinction by the Nazis. Sound paranoid? Not nearly as paranoid as the polemic that occasioned this response.

Julius Rudel
New York City Opera
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Samuel Lipman invents or misinterprets facts and situations in his review of the City Opera’s Meistersinger.

First: Beckmesser is not tricked by Hans Sachs into stealing the poem. He steals it all by himself, without provocation, and Hans Sachs thereupon takes advantage of the theft for his own purposes. Quite a difference.

Pogner’s tale of the lack of respect for the middle class by both the lower classes and the aristocracy is a social comment not unlike today’s frustration of the “silent majority,” about which we have read some thoughtful articles in COMMENTARY. Pogner’s comments have no relationship to Sachs’s unmistakably and (I agree) repulsive ultranationalistic oration that ends the opera. Mr. Lipman connects them without even explaining the alleged relationship between them.

Hans Sachs ridicules and ruins Beckmesser, but he is not an unqualified admirer of Stolzing’s “modern” music, nor does he downgrade the value and role of the musical tradition of which Beckmesser is the ultrazealous guardian. The whole point of the final oration is a warning to Stolzing and all others who think like him not to have contempt for tradition and for the rules which Beckmesser so uncompromisingly seeks to uphold. What Sachs objects to in Beckmesser is his self-seeking personal motivation in exercising his artistic function, not the function itself. In fact, it is Sachs’s greatness that he sees the value of tradition but is also open to talent that strikes out in new directions.

In sum, then, both Sachs and Beckmesser are a lot more complicated than Mr. Lipman pictures them, and the artistic values they represent are examined critically and thoughtfully in Meistersinger. The opera is not as one-dimensional as Mr. Lipman would have it.

It is also very doubtful, against this background, whether Beckmesser is the vehicle for Wagner’s anti-Semitic purposes, as Mr. Lipman claims. Whatever the case may be, it’s not as open and shut as in Mr. Lipman’s piece, nor do we need to stretch and over- or mis-interpret things in Meistersinger in order to demonstrate Wagner’s anti-Semitic attitude and propaganda. Wagner has done this explicitly and amply, and the evidence of both his essays and many of his actions in life is more than adequate to prove the point.

Robert B. Goldmann
Englewood, New Jersey

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . The first duty of a critic is respect for the facts, but Samuel Lipman is a man with a mission, so he makes the New York City Opera’s production of Meistersinger lie upon the bed of Procrustes so he can stretch, twist, or cut it to fit his thesis. . . .

For over one hundred years the musical world has naively taken for granted that Meistersinger is a gentle, light-hearted, humanistic comic opera and in its invincible ignorance has been unaware, or worse still, indifferent to the fact that the opera is filled with anti-Semitic poison. This “poison,” according to Mr. Lipman, is concentrated in the person of Beckmesser who is not, as universally portrayed, the comic figure of a foolish old man seeking the love of a young girl but “the keystone of the great German arch” who “must be presented as a villain, not only personally but socially, not only individually but as a symbol of the crime of the Jews against the people” and who should be at least symbolically if not literally performed as if “wearing a yellow star.”

Let us return, then, to the libretto. The setting is the medieval city of Nuremberg and the Mastersingers Guild. No Jew appears in the opera, no reference is made to Jews, and, of course, no Jew could possibly have been a guild member. Beckmesser, whom Mr. Lipman in his perfervid imagination conjures up as a hated Jewish symbol, is in fact a Christian senior member of the guild, a keeper of its rules, and suitor for the hand of the virginal Nordic maiden. So much for the anti-Semitism in the text of the opera.

Mr. Lipman makes much of the cut in the performance of the hymn to German art, reading into the omission the intent to conceal the true meaning of the opera. Aside from the fact that Wagner himself had considered excising it and that the cut is quite customary even in Germany, what does the hymn have to do with anti-Semitism? It does perhaps represent an appeal to nascent German nationalism, but the obvious enemy here is not the Jew but France. . . .

In order to link Wagner’s anti-Semitism with the opera, Mr. Lipman unfortunately resorts to what must fairly be called deception. Referring to Wagner’s anti-Semitic tract, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewry in Music), he says in a paragraph supposedly summing up Wagner’s article:

The Jew as Wagner portrays him in this notorious tract possesses no culture of his own; at best he can only sing and talk in the language of the bazaar. Out of a mixture of tolerance and sloth, the Gentile world allows the Jew to compete for and win the highest prizes. Such tolerance is noble, but is extended at the cost of bondage to the Jew and the degeneration of a once-pure civilization. What the lascivious Beckmesser wants from the Mastersingers and from the virginal Eva is precisely what the Jews want from the Gentile world: domination and the joy of corruption. Thus Beckmesser is not only the villain against whom the beautiful lovers must struggle; he is the link between Wagner’s homely story of young love and Wagner’s socio-political ideas. It is the evil represented by Beckmesser upon which Wagner relies to unify the two strands of his opera [emphasis added].

The deception lies in the italicized sentences which represent Mr. Lipman’s own opinions but are included in the same paragraph to make it appear to the unwary reader that Mr. Lipman is still summing up what Wagner himself said in that article which, of course, . . . was written some eighteen years before Wagner wrote Meistersinger.

Finally, what we see in Mr. Lipman’s article is a classic case of inverted anti-Semitism. For a hundred years all the great Jewish conductors who have performed this opera, right up to Julius Rudel of the New York City Opera production, and all the great Jewish singers who have sung the leading roles, and all the great Jewish critics who have praised it, and all the Jewish operagoers who have loved it, are implicated in a great historic conspiracy to conceal the virulent, anti-Semitic message of Meistersinger, which now, thanks to Mr. Lipman, stands exposed before the world. . . .

Elias M. Schwarzbart
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . It is true that Wagner was under the impression that the Viennese music critic Hanslick was Jewish, as he states in Jewry in Music, and there is no doubt that Beckmesser in the opera is a parody of Hanslick, but there is not one line in Meistersinger that can be interpreted as a parody of Hanslick as a Jew.

The main burden of Wagner’s 1850 pamphlet, aside from some disparaging comments mostly not worthy of attention here, is that powerful interests, which he takes to be Jewish, are destroying German art. Much of his complaint is sheer anti-capitalism. . . . The chief ethnic charges against the Jews are that their mastery of German culture is superficial, and that there is a specific style of writing to which Jewish composers are given. Wagner cites especially Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, but it is notable that he does not accuse them of pedantry since this, and not anti-Semitism, is the theme of Meistersinger.

For example, in the first act, a roll-call of the assembled Mastersingers is presented, with emphasis on the Germanic names and a musical accompaniment which leaves no doubt about the composer’s nationalistic intent. Beckmesser is included in the roll along with the others. . . .

Perhaps then it is something about Beckmesser’s way of doing things that is the alleged Jewish parody. In Das Judentum in der Musik Wagner attacks the Jews for being wealthy and powerful. He attributes their rule to money, and believes that Jews will rule so long as money is the force before which all must yield. . . . It is worth noting at this point that Veit Pogner, not Sixtus Beckmesser, is the rich man in Meistersinger.

Wagner wrote in his pamphlet that because of the mistreatment and the isolation incurred by their own religion, Jews speak the language of the nation in which they dwell in an alien manner, and he insisted upon the existence of pronunciations peculiar to Jews speaking German. Granted that this is a trivial point, especially from an American viewpoint, but if Beckmesser is a Jew, why did Wagner not write a peculiar language for him, or direct that he speak with . . . a Jewish accent? . . .

Mr. Lipman declares that Wagner holds the Jew to be without culture of his own, which is not true even in the pamphlet on Judaism in which the Jew is represented as unable to absorb German culture because he has his own. He is unable to write good German music and instead creates a motley collection of various forms taken from all schools and ages. Compare this with Beckmesser’s position as Marker or rule-keeper (critic if you like) of the school of the Nuremberg Mastersingers, whose single-minded adherence to a set of German rules is the background for the working out of the plot of the opera. . . .

Beckmesser, far from being a racial stereotype, is a musician of no mean order in Nuremberg and is no different from the other Mastersingers except that he has, to a greater extent than the others, the faults of a professor who thinks himself a poet. . . .

About Hans Sachs’s great oration at the close of the opera, there is little to argue. It is the speech of an ardent German patriot, and if this is evil, then the speech is evil. It seems sometimes to be forgotten, however, that Richard Wagner died in 1883, before the modern world was born. . . .

In sum, I believe Meistersinger to be what it seems to be: a well-balanced presentation of Wagner’s artistic theories. It concludes with high praise for the very German masters, including Beckmesser, who have plagued the young hero with their pedantry. Good German peddantry, Wagner seems to say, is the necessary basis of good German art, including his own. . . .

Esten Davis
Charlotte, Michigan

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . I have always been a Zionist and Jewish nationalist, and at the same time it has always been perfectly obvious to me that Wagner’s operas were among the greatest works of art ever. There was never any use denying that the political, social, and religious program advocated in his operas, if not actually ur-Nazi, was at least consistent with the doctrines of National Socialism. There have been many attempts to reinterpret the operas in more universal terms, e.g., Donnington’s brilliant Jungian analysis of the Nibelungenring or Shaw’s cramped view of the Ring as an attack on capitalism. Whatever the partial truth of such ideas, there is no getting past the Teutonic particularism of Wagner’s art. His Wotan is the god or conscious will of the Germans, not the almighty. His Sachs is out to save German art, not all art. His villains are all enemies of some aspect of the German spirit. The rule-ridden town clerk Beckmesser who steals German music, the dwarf Alberich who steals German gold and then worships it, the Oriental magician Klingsor who steals the magic spear and seduces German youth away from Christianity, are all identifiable as Jews. Kundry, present at the crucifixion, is explicitly Jewish.

Mr. Lipman correctly points out the wonderful emphasis given by excellent artists, Jews as well, to words like “was deutsch und echt, wusst’ Keiner mehr, leb’s nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr,’” in spite of the ideas expressed. It’s the art that does that; the spectacularly glorious music. No one can be unmoved by such art, no matter what god or devil it serves. In the opera house, Jew and Gentile alike exult in the triumph of “holy German art” against the false, foreign, empty . . . art of a Beckmesser. The music has that effect despite the fact that we know precisely what the words are really saying and how they were implemented by the Nazis. That exists in a different world.

How is it possible for a manifestly great work of art to serve a monstrous evil? . . . The liberal progressive view of things does not admit such a possibility. Art is supposed to be civilizing. We frequently even define civilization in terms of art. Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, et al. are to us classical Greek civilization, as Shakespeare and Co. are Elizabethan civilization. Art is even expected to promote morality. Aristotle says so. No doubt art can be educational, but it can also be murderous. It exists in its own world, with its own rules, beyond good and evil, peace and prosperity, justice or freedom. Nietzsche understood this; few others have learned. After all, it is perfectly possible to listen to Mozart and vote for Hitler. It’s been done. There’s no contradiction. . . .

Of course, Jews may resent the fact that Wagner was an ur-Nazi and made propaganda for our enemies, and that his evil propaganda is artistically glorious. I know this is hard to accept, but it’s true. . . .

Alexander Firestone
Ames, Iowa

_____________

 

Samuel Lipman writes:

Though the specific points differ, all of these letters (with the honorable exception of Alexander Firestone’s) present a common conception of Meistersinger, as “gentle, light-hearted, humanistic”; and accuse me of heinously violating it. This conception is of course the one which animated the production presented by the New York City Opera. The purpose of my article was not primarily to review the performances of individual members of the company, but rather to question that conception.

The picture of the opera put into practice by the City Opera seemed to me to show us a land of smiles, a whole world turning on love. To this, I opposed a conception of the opera as a masterpiece full of beauty and poison, of love and hatred, of truth and lies. The dark side of the opera I associated with the dark side of Wagner’s genius; I identified the character of Beckmesser as being the repository of Wagner’s greatest evil, his hatred of the Jews. This conception of mine is, I think, unacceptable to my critics for two sets of reasons: one set involves their particular stated objections to my argument, and the other—ultimately more interesting—involves their mostly unarticulated ideas about the relationship between a work of art and its performers as well as its audience, and about the very nature of art itself.

The most easily dealt with of the stated objections is that I falsely accused Sachs of tricking Beckmesser into using Walther’s song as his own. As the discussion in Ernest Newman’s The Wagner Operas shows, it was very hard for Wagner to arrange that Beckmesser should want the song because he thought it to be Sachs’s without Sachs becoming guilty of lying. After several false starts, Wagner solved the matter through the following exchange, which begins as Beckmesser produces the paper he has picked up while alone in Sachs’s room, and which has Walther’s song written on it in Sachs’s handwriting:

Beckmesser: Is this from your hand?

Sachs: Ah, is that why?

Beckmesser: The writing’s fresh.

Sachs: And the ink not yet dry.

Beckmesser: Maybe, it’s a biblical song?

Sachs: If that’s your guess, your guess is wrong.

Beckmesser: Well then?

Sachs: Well what?

Beckmesser: You ask?

Sachs: Why not?

Beckmesser: Despite your show of honesty,/you seem the greatest rascal to me.

Sachs: Perhaps, and yet I was never known/to take away what I don’t own./And just so that no one might think you cheat,/The paper is yours, I give you the sheet.

Beckmesser: Good lord, not that song? Not a song from you?/But wait,/I must watch for things I may rue/You’ve learned these words by heart, I will bet?

Sachs: Believe me, my friend, you need not fret.

Beckmesser: You give me the sheet?

Sachs: Your honor to save.

Beckmesser: To use as I like?

Sachs: Just as you crave.

Robert Gutman, in his now classic book on Wagner, has put the whole matter in a way which cannot be improved upon:

Desiring the public to be aware of only the genial side of Sachs’s complicated character Wagner, in the final act of Meistersinger, took pains to clear him technically of complicity in the ruin of Beckmesser. But legalistic sophistry remains sophistry nonetheless. Though Sachs is careful to convey to Beckmesser only the paper on which the prize song is written, this hairsplitting does not free him from guilt in a clear case of entrapment. Beckmesser’s understandable assumption is that the freshly penned verses on Sachs’s table in Sachs’s handwriting are the work of Sachs. . . . If his victim had a lawyer’s ear for words he would have realized he was being presented with only a piece of paper and not its content . . . even in glorious Meistersinger, morality rests upon the idea that any means justifies a Wagnerian end.

I have spent so much time on this rather simple matter because two of my readers, in raising it, show how unwilling they are to accept that Beckmesser is more than a figure of fun who gets minor punishment for his minor foibles. He is, to Wagner, a real villain who must be seen to deserve what is done to him.

All my critics accuse me of going beyond Wagner’s actual words, of making Meistersinger into an anti-Semitic tract indistinguishable from Wagner’s loathsome Jewry in Music (which one of my critics seeks, if not to defend, at least to mitigate). I did nothing of the kind; what I did say was that Wagner modeled Beckmesser on the supposedly Jewish Hanslick, and that Wagner filled out the resulting character with the traits he despised in the Jews. Beckmesser’s proclaimed pedantry in the opera is the analogue to what Wagner saw as the Jews’ reflective intellect, which has ceased to be animated by living feeling. These traits I mentioned in my article; here I would only like to add that far from Wagner writing, as one of my critics has stated, that the Jew is unable to absorb German culture because he has one of his own, he actually wrote:

The Jew has never had an art of his own, so his life has never had any artistic side. Even today it offers to the seeker no universally human experience, but merely a peculiar method of expression . . . he listens only superficially to our music and its lifegiving organism. By this cursory listening he only discerns superficial similarities to the one thing he can understand, that which is peculiar to his own nature. So to him the accidental externals of our musical and artistic life must seem to be their essence; and when as artist he reflects them back to us, his creations necessarily appear to us strange, cold, peculiar, listless, unnatural, and distorted. Thus, the works of Jewish music often produce in us the kind of effect we would derive from hearing a poem by Goethe translated into that Jewish jargon we know as Yiddish.

I submit that this is what Wagner had in mind at the end of Meistersinger, with Walther substituted for Goethe. Beckmesser’s prize-song performance is but Wagner’s paragraph quoted above and translated by his genius into high art.

Of course Wagner did not, in point of fact, write Beckmesser’s lines in Yiddish; of course he did not mention the word Jew in the opera. He did not need to, because he could take it for granted that the audience for which he wrote would unconsciously receive and react to the socio-political message conveyed by the symbol which Beckmesser so plainly was. The power of a symbol is not that it explicitly states its significance; its power stems from its ability to communicate on a level deeper than explicit meaning.

The point I have made above would hardly seem to be necessary, for we constantly read and construe great literature in this way. From Homer to Joyce, we see no harm and indeed a great deal of benefit in going beyond the characters and their words to find their symbolic meaning. And the same effort is made in Wagner; I need only mention the frequent interpretation of the Ring as Wagner’s parable of 19th-century capitalism and its attendant misery—Wagner wrote against capitalism almost as much as he wrote against the Jews. But there is nothing in the Ring explicitly referring to the features of the economy Wagner knew. The stealer of the gold is named Alberich and not Krupp, and no one at all is named Bakunin. Had I myself in my article construed Sachs as Wagner’s good father, Walther as an expression of Wagner’s sexual strivings, and Eva as a symbol of art and Wagner’s mother, my readers might have been bored, but they wouldn’t have been upset.

I cannot escape thinking that this feeling of outrage at my finding an anti-Semitic message in the character of Beckmesser is quite special, and that they would be rather less upset had I discussed Meistersinger in terms of Marx or Freud. For Marx and Freud, each in his own way, are popular causes. Each represents some of the best hopes of progressive mankind. But the Jew—even to Jews—is not a popular cause. Many people—especially the intellectually sophisticated—would rather ignore such unpleasant matters.

We see this attitude in two of these letters; one correspondent writes: “The main burden of Wagner’s 1850 pamphlet, aside from some disparaging comments mostly not worthy of attention here . . . [emphasis added].”

Another writes: “It is also very doubtful, against this background, whether Beckmesser is the vehicle for Wagner’s anti-Semitic purposes as Mr. Lipman claims. Whatever the case may be . . . [emphasis added].” The message is clear: we can leave the Jews to politics, let’s talk about art, dear art, and leave one unpleasant artist himself out.

Wagner would not have agreed. For him the man and the artist went together. He wrote in 1857, describing himself on the verge of the period in which he wrote not only his greatest theoretical aesthetic works, Art and Revolution (1849), Art-work of the Future (1850), Opera and Drama (1851), but also Jewry in Music (1850):

I had entered on a new and decisive period of my artistic and human development, the period of conscious artistic evolution in an entirely new direction, which I had taken owing to an unconscious necessity and in which, both as man and artist, I am now advancing toward a new world.

Wagner was a Romantic artist. It was of the essence of the Romantic artist that his work was seen as the natural expression and fulfillment of his life. This started, in music, with Beethoven; it continued in Liszt; it acquired new meaning in Wagner. If we have no trouble seeing Beethoven the lover of freedom and mankind in his most abstruse string quartets, we should not unduly resist seeing Wagner the anti-Semite in some of his own work.

The question is, of course, having once seen the connection between an artist’s life and opinions and his art, what use should we allow ourselves to make of the connection? Obviously what one must depend on here is inference and informed speculation, not apodictic demonstration. One does not, in attempting to divine the hidden and profound intentions of an artist, ever have the kind of evidence admissible in a court of law; one’s purpose, however, is not to convict but rather, by use of the understanding, to present a round and rich account of a work of art. Often a performer or a critic has no choice but to go beyond hard evidence into a realm of hints, suggestions, and possibilities. To deny this process to those concerned with the communication of a work of art makes possible only literal readings which are, because of their shallowness, false. Exactly such a simplistic, literal reading of Meistersinger was responsible for the City Opera’s inability to integrate all the music and words at the end of the opera. What they did not understand, they found irrelevant; what they found irrelevant, they cut.

What I said in my article about the presence of poison—both anti-Semitic and nationalist—in Meistersinger does not add to Wagner’s guilt for his political views; still less does it destroy Meistersinger as a supreme work of art. For what we must realize is that only because of the existence in the opera of what Wagner saw as evil—the loathsomeness of Beckmesser—was it possible for Wagner to create, and for us to appreciate, the sublime beauty of Sachs’s renunciation and the happiness of the star-crossed young lovers. It is this opposition of good and evil which is the source of the dramatic richness of the work, the counterpart of its musical richness. This combined richness is the measure of Wagner’s colossal musico-dramatic achievement in the opera, his perhaps greatest realization of the unity of word and tone.

That he achieved this miracle of art through investing a character with for him despicable Jewish traits is a tragedy for the Jews, and for humanity. But it is not a tragedy for art: art, whether we like it or not, is beyond good and evil. It is because art is fundamentally amoral that we must separate it from life. We must not do that by separating a work of art from its creator, we must do it by separating, as I suggested at the end of my article, the fantasies of the artist from the proper goals of social policy. To separate a work of art from its creator is to run the risk of falsifying the work of art; to fail to separate art from politics is to run the risk of murder.

Elias M. Schwarzbart has accused me of implicating a hundred years of Jewish artists, critics, and music-lovers in a conspiracy to hide the poison I say I have discovered in Meistersinger. What nonsense! I was not attacking any past performances; I plainly mentioned the Jewish Friedrich Schorr as the greatest Sachs. I was talking about the City Opera production and its sanitized approach. Indeed, I suspect that past performances were quite faithful to Wagner’s intentions—all the more for being so unconsciously—because of their closeness in time to the creation of the opera. It is here now, in America, that we must discover through intellectual means what can no longer, due to time and distance, be supplied by tradition.

As for Julius Rudel’s letter, its tone shows he is no more used to having his work examined seriously than he is to treating great art seriously. He interprets my article as being an attack not only on the opera but, even more important for him, on his company. If I was cautious in assigning blame in that I mentioned no names, it was because I did not know whom to blame; I had no way of knowing for sure who did what to whom. But as Mr. Rudel’s letter makes abundantly clear, the responsibility is largely his. And so my comments must of necessity concern him, both as conductor and evident informing spirit of the production, and as Director of the New York City Opera.

His letter makes his approach to Meistersinger clear. Where I tried to discuss the problems of doing operas in English, he mentions Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley; I am not aware that any of these three poets wrote operas. Where I discuss the implications of doing Meistersinger in English, he mentions the excellence of Porter, Gershwin, Hammerstein, and Sondheim. Where I find the interrelation of beauty and poison, he finds humanism, humor, and affecting warmth.

One point Mr. Rudel makes deserves attention. I objected to the cut at the end of the opera because, in addition to its elimination of dramatically necessary and musically valuable material, it was accomplished in a harmonically clumsy way. His justification of the cut as being acceptable because it only goes “from C major to C major” is misleading. For it is actually a cut which fails to resolve a C dominant seventh chord, which Wagner chose to resolve by a natural progression to F major. Mr. Rudel’s cut, by going instead from the C dominant seventh chord to C major, leaves the seventh chord unresolved. The result may break no rule, but it sounds terribly clumsy. His concluding remarks on the subject—“We might even have left the section in if it didn’t come so late in the opera and didn’t seem so tedious at that point”—only show that his attiude seems to be a little more music, a little less, what’s the difference?

His calling me a professional Jew, as odious as it is incomprehensible, only deserves to be printed, not answered. On one thing, I am glad to say, we come close to agreement: I said the City Opera presented a musical and he says that’s the way he likes it.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.