Commentary Magazine


Wagner

To the Editor:

I commend Samuel Lipman for his ambitious article, “Greatness and Decline of Richard Wagner” [April]. Sorting through the mountain of scholarship on Wagner to produce a work as balanced and coherent as Mr. Lipman’s essay is a task no less awesome than guarding the Ring of the Niebelungen itself. A few points Mr. Lipman makes about Wagner’s reception in France, however, need to be clarified.

While it is true that Wagner enjoyed a measured degree of success with Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861, events of the Franco-Prussian war created such a hatred for the composer in France that only a handful of artists—few of whom were musicians—were willing to acknowledge any influence of Wagner on French culture after the war. From that time on, Wagner’s role in French culture fell far short of the “commanding position” Mr. Lipman describes.

The French artistic community’s break with Wagner stemmed from a widely-published parody Wagner wrote during the war mocking the French and their army. In the piece, which Wagner tauntingly entitled “A Capitulation,” Victor Hugo speaks from his home in the Paris sewers, the bumbling French troops chant “République, République, Blic, Blic, Pubel, Pubel,” and the French military hero Léon Gambetta and the photographer Nadar become entangled in the spire of Notre Dame as they ascend in their hot-air balloon to watch the battle below.

The humiliating defeat in 1870 and Wagner’s biting essay combined to keep Wagner and his Germanic music out of favor in the French cultural world well into the 20th century. When the directors of the Paris Opera scheduled the premiere performance of Lohengrin . . . , the public outcry was so great—including anonymous threats to blow up the Paris Opera and pledges from wealthy nationalists to buy up all the seats and recruit rowdy Latin Quarter students to jeer and heckle the musicians—that the performances had to be canceled.

The majority of French composers shared the public’s sentiments. By the mid 1880’s the Gallic objectivity of Saint-Saëns that Mr. Lipman cites had given way to a stronger national pride, and Saint-Saëns began criticizing Wagner and his doctrines openly and vigorously. “After the massacre of women and children,” Saint-Saëns wrote, “after the bombing of hospitals, after the destruction of cathedrals, after the profanities, after the cynical acknowledgment of hate for France, how can it be possible to find Frenchmen advertising the music of the one whom Germany has long considered her national genius, the author of ‘A Capitulation?’ ” César Franck scribbled “poison” on his copy of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Debussy wrote that France was choking from the “false depth of the detestable German syle,” and Fauré parodied Wagner in a comical rearrangement of his principal leitmotifs in Souvenirs de Bayreuth.

Among the few composers who remained devoted to Wagner throughout the decades of growing nationalism in France was the anti-Semitic Vincent d’Indy. A year before his death, d’Indy wrote a book praising Wagner . . . and claiming that Wagner was victimized by German Jews throughout his life, and that the greedy management of Paris theaters by French Jewry continued to keep Wagner’s music from the French public. D’Indy’s endless accolades for Wagner, in fact, were matched in enthusiasm only by his virulent anti-Semitic diatribes. “The Hebrew race,” d’Indy wrote, “has never and in no time been a creator of art.”

The same question that polarized Wagner’s reception in France—whether Wagner the ideologist can be distinguished from Wagner the composer—propels the debate on his music today. Given the history of these questions, it is likely that reminders of Wagner’s controversial beliefs will accompany the praise granted his music for a long time to come.

James H. Johnson
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Samuel Lipman’s essay is the finest piece on Wagner written in this half-century that I have read. Superb! . . .

There is only one point on which I disagree: Mr. Lipman’s comment on Israel. To be for, against, or neutral about Wagner one must include his music in the judgment, and include it prominently. But those in Israel who oppose him do not know his music. To them, the mere knowledge . . . defiles the knower. In any case, it is easy to oppose an anti-Semite. If the opposer is a Jew, his opposition says nothing about himself. The critical point in the aesthetics and meta-aesthetics of musical compositions is where the music and . . . Weltanschauung go together, as, for instance, in the passage from the concluding chorus of- Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder Und rufen Dir im Grabe zu” [We sit down in tears and call to Thee in the tomb]. . . . One might be tempted to reply: that case is different because a long time, two-and-a-half centuries, has passed since the work was penned and sung first; long intervals bar and protect. But such a reply would be wrong. In these things, there are no barriers or protection, and of all possible barriers one might cite, time is the weakest. Witness the Bible.

Matitiahu Tsevat
Cincinnati, Ohio

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Samuel Lipman writes:

James H. Johnson is correct in pointing out the rising tide of anti-German and related anti-Wagner feeling in France after the defeat of 1870. But despite French humiliation and the resulting desire for revenge, Wagner’s artistic and intellectual sway remained immensely powerful for many years after the rise of post-Sedan nationalism. For example, Wagner’s place in Paris musical life during the 1880’s is clearly documented in Adolphe Jullien’s idolatrous Richard Wagner, His Life and Works, which originally appeared in French in 1886. Here, after describing the increasing frequency of orchestral performances of the composer’s music in Paris in the 1870’s and the 1880’s, the author goes on:

The Parisian theaters are now anxious to play the works of Richard Wagner. The Opera-Comique repents of not having produced Lohengrin, known and admired by the whole world, and if it is so regretful, be assured it is because it was certain of finding in the opera heavy receipts and large profits; with theater managers there is no other objective point. . . . There is nothing to be done but to bow before a colossal genius, and the longer one delays in doing it, the more he will be held up to ridicule by posterity.

Matitiahu Tsevat quite properly raises the question—so inevitable in the case of Wagner—of the relationship between the artist’s art and his wider thought. Clearly Jews find both the words of the St. Matthew Passion and Bach’s theological inspiration for writing the work deeply unacceptable. Yet, as Mr. Tsevat implies, the work belongs to our common cultural patrimony. This is so for Jewish music lovers not because they accept Jesus as the messiah, but rather because in our pluralistic society we have agreed, by consent, to separate religious belief from a more inclusive cultural identification. Bach’s art, as informed by his religious belief, is therefore acceptable, even when those beliefs in themselves are in part not.

But there is no such social consensus in Israel on Wagner. For many Israelis (including, I might add, some immigrants from pre-World War II Europe who can be presumed to know something of Wagner’s music as music), Wagner’s racial and national beliefs, no less integral to his art than Bach’s religion to his, do not form part of that metaphysical corpus on which men of good will have agreed to disagree. For these Israelis the problem is not one of civilized disagreement but one of physical survival; Wagner’s 20th-century German ideological heirs did not wish to convert the Jews, they wished to kill them. Israelis even today are, after all, on the firing line, and they do not have the luxury of distinguishing so nicely between art and life. Because they don’t make this distinction, they pay Wagner the compliment, as I wrote at the end of my article, of taking him seriously. Here, indeed, is the measure of his remaining power.

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Correction

In Albert Wohlstetter’s article, “Bishops, Statesmen, and Other Strategists on the Bombing of Innocents” [June], two errors occurred. On page 18, column 1, the first two lines should read: “directed 80 one-megaton nuclear warheads. . . .” On page 19, column 2, under the title “Mass Destruction and Initial Doubts about Stability,” the first two lines should read: “Manhattan Project scientists assumed immediately after Hiroshima that the least destructive. . .”—Ed.

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