Wagner’s Jews: A Fascinating Perspective on Wagner’s Attitude to the Jews

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner’s Jews a documentary, produced, directed and written by Hilan Warshaw in co-production with WDR/ARTE: Barbican Cinema, London 13.10.2013. (JPr)

It is worth beginning my comments with the publicity blurb for this important new documentary –

The German opera composer Richard Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic, and his writings on the Jews were later embraced by Hitler and the Nazis. But there is another, lesser-known side to this story. For years, many of Wagner’s closest associates were Jews — young musicians who became personally devoted to him, and provided crucial help to his work and career. They included the teenaged piano prodigy Carl Tausig; Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who conducted the première of Wagner’s Parsifal; Angelo Neumann, who produced Wagner’s works throughout Europe; and Joseph Rubinstein, a pianist who lived with the Wagner family for years and committed suicide when Wagner died. Even as Wagner called for the elimination of the Jews from German life, many of his most active supporters were Jewish — as Wagner himself noted with surprise.


Who were they? What brought them to Wagner, and what brought him to them? These questions are at the heart of Hilan Warshaw’s documentary Wagner’s Jews, the first film to focus on Wagner’s complex personal relationships with Jews. Filmed on location in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, Wagner’s Jews tells these remarkable stories through archival sources, visual re-enactments, interviews, and performances of original musical works by Wagner’s Jewish colleagues — the first such performances on film.


Parallel to the historical narrative, the film explores the ongoing controversy over performing Wagner’s music in Israel. In a different form, the questions dividing Wagner’s Jewish acquaintances still resonate today: is it possible to separate artworks from the hatreds of their creator? Can art transcend prejudice and bigotry, and the weight of history?


A partial list of experts and musicians interviewed in the film (in alphabetical order):


Yossi Beilin: Israeli politician and negotiator of the Oslo peace accords

Leon Botstein: President of Bard College; Conductor Laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra

John Louis DiGaetani: Wagner scholar

Asher Fisch: Israeli conductor

Robert Gutman: Musicologist and Wagner biographer

Uri Hanoch: Deputy Chairman, Central Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel

Jonathan Livny: President, Israel Wagner Society

Zubin Mehta: Music Director, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

Dina Porat: Chief Historian, Yad Vashem; Professor, Tel Aviv University

Paul Lawrence Rose: Professor of European History and Jewish Studies, Pennsylvania State University

Jan Swafford: Brahms biographer

Wagner’s Jews was broadcast in Europe on ARTE on May 19, 2013 to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, and will be re-broadcast on WDR in November 2013 and forthcoming screenings include Yale and Boston Universities, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York, the London Jewish Cultural Centre,  Musée Hector-Berlioz in France, Jewish Museum Vienna, and others.

I have never had a problem discussing this issue because although I am not Jewish my mother and grandmother were and they had escaped the Anschluss from Vienna to arrive in England before the Second World War. On film Warshaw, who is a violinist and conductor, never takes sides and pieces together the contributions of his talking heads with consummate skill to attempt to reconcile the ambivalence people might have towards Wagner because of his Das Judenthum in der Musik publication.

I came across a Haaretz interview recently with Irad Atir who recently completed a PhD on Wagner: he suggests Wagner was a special kind of anti-Semite as ‘His opposition to Jewishness was part of his opposition to the socio-political and cultural reality of the period in general, including the non-Jewish German reality. He criticized certain aspects of Germanism; for example, the conservatism, religiosity, pride in aristocratic origins, and militarism. He also criticized Jewish separatism and lust for money. For him, there were good Germans and bad Germans, good Jews and bad Jews.’ Atir, another musician, is reported as believing the only way to understand Wagner’s art, which expresses political, sociological and musicological ideology, is to approach it neutrally. The usual link between Wagner, racism, anti-Semitism and Hitlerism should be ignored – and this, I suspect, is Warshaw’s thesis too. Atir’s research also sheds light on Wagner’s approach to Jews in his operas and shows it is not as ‘one-dimensional’ as some would want us to accept as fact and that although the composer ‘points out and alludes to Jewish characters; for example, through text that contains sibilant consonants in the case of Alberich and his brother Mime in the Ring, the most important example of a positive attitude, or at least a complex one, is taken from the Ring. The character who must be understood as Jewish – I explain why it must be so through musical analysis as well – is the character Loge, the god of fire. He is cunning but also acts in a positive way, helping good people; a Jew who has undergone change. The music associates him with the German world and the Jewish world. Sometimes it’s gratingly chromatic compared to the accepted mid-nineteenth century taste, and sometimes it’s different, expressing purity.’ Arid continues, ‘Another example: the Rhinemaidens mock Alberich, an ugly “Jewish” character, although he committed no crime against them. The “dark” world within Alberich turns to evil only after the “good” world has hurt him without cause. That means the “good” world also contains elements of evil.’

These thoughts are very much in the spirit of Warshaw’s film though its 55-minutes length does not allow him to explore any of the ideas – pro or contra Wagner – in any great depth.

Who knew there was an Israel Wagner Society? Wagner’s Jews begins with the plans of its founder, Jonathan Livny, to organize a Wagner concert at Tel Aviv University that soon apparently incurred the wrath of Uri Hanoch, leader of the Holocaust Survivors and was subsequently cancelled. Indeed in the film Hanoch is shown saying ‘As long as I live, I will make sure that Wagner will not be performed in Israel.’ If I recall correctly, this was pronounced with the romantic music that accompanies the wedding ceremony at the opening of Lohengrin Act III in the background! Intriguingly Leon Botstein, Conductor Laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, posited that Lohengrin is possibly a classic Jewish fantasy: ‘I – without having my name or my race known – am going to rescue this country. That is the fantasy of the outsider coming into the centre, in triumph. And that’s the fantasy of Lohengrin. It appealed to every aspiring young Jew.’

And so the debate in this fascinating exploration of Wagner’s attitude to Jews and Jewishness ping-ponged back and forth across both sides of the ideological divide all set against a lucid exposition of the historical background of the time in which Wagner lived and the writings of the composer, his wives Minna and Cosima and others. What was certain was how much Botstein, and the other interviewed musicians – Zubin Mehta, Asher Fisch, and Tzvi Avni as well as the absent Daniel Barenboim – insist Wagner should be performed in Israel. Indeed Wagner’s Jews concludes with a travel documentary shot of a Tel Aviv beach and the realization that it will probably need the passing of all the Holocaust survivors before Wagner can be accepted just like any other composer in Israel.

Following the screening there was a Q&A involving Warshaw, Alan Miller (a film director and co-founder of Truman Brewery) and Igor Toronyi-Lalic (co-founder and classical music editor of theartsdesk.com). It was chaired with all the gravitas of a public school debating society event by someone from the ‘Battle of Ideas 2013’ and really didn’t reach much conclusion. Miller thankfully seems to disagree with Woody Allen’s quip that ‘Every time I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland’ and Toronyi-Lalic dug himself into a hole with some nonsense about Wagner as misanthropic and anti-humanist and showed little of the open mind needed, I would have thought, for a ‘classical music editor’. Peculiarly he suggested he was repulsed by Wagner yet embraces his music – in another context this is the argument some of those trapped by Operation Yewtree try and get away with!

I believe Warshaw got closest to the truth about Wagner suggesting that he was just trying to create a stir with Das Judenthum in der Musik and he gives evidence for this in his film. I agree it undoubtedly reflected some of Wagner’s despicable private opinions but it is clear that there were nuances to his anti-Semitism that allowed him to befriend Jews and I will never accept it was just that he had to exploit them for his own ends. Put simply – in the days before social media – he needed to court controversy to get himself better known.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Wagner’s Jews visit http://www.overtonefilms.com/wagners.html.