Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters

Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters

“What are we to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? The recent Wagner anniversary has brought a predictable amount of equivocation and hand-wringing about the German master’s role in the history of hate. We know by now not to read history backward. A nineteenth-century composer who died in 1883 cannot logically be accused of personal complicity in a twentieth-century genocide. Yet that does not mean that the broader question of his responsibility for the spread of modern anti-Semitism can be simply ignored. … The real legacy of Wagner, one with which we are still living today, is nothing less than the sweeping imprint of racial ideology across the length and breadth of modern classical music.”

“But, ironically, the more we learn of banned composers, the harder it is to hear their music outside the framework of the Holocaust. The ending we all know and cannot forget reverberates backward. This is regrettable. For when the composer’s music is permanently coupled to his victimhood, Jewishness becomes merely a negative condition. That generation upon generation of Jewish musicians confronted racism at the heart of classical music does not mean that every work they wrote must be heard as a Semitic cry of despair. Not every knock at the door means the secret police. Not every minor-key passage is lachrymose. Still, the sonic shadows prove hard to elude. We may think we inhabit a post-Holocaust soundscape, but we still very much live in Wagner’s world. “

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