Beside such misanthropy, antisemitism is almost incidental

Beside such misanthropy, antisemitism is almost incidental


norman lebrecht

February 06, 2008

This weekend, CBC Toronto will be airing a conversation between Dominic Lawson and me on the question of Herbert von Karajan, and whether (as discussed on this blog) a bad man can make good music.
A comment by Richard V Harris has been rolling round my mind.
Biology, he writes, ‘is the science of exceptions, and we are not dealing here in absolutes (of goodness), only tendencies. Wagner was a great composer, but we do not see him as having been a good man, largely because he was an anti-Semite. I have no idea as to whether or not he privately carried out acts of kindness more than the average person.’
Well, from the evidence in his letters and autobiography, not to mention Cosima’s diaries, Wagner never knowingly performed an act of kindness without intending self-benefit. He abandoned his first wife Minna, milked the affections of rich women like Mathilde Wesendonck, seduced and impregnated the wife of his acolyte Hans von Bulow and flaunted his conquest to her father, Franz Liszt, who had done more than anyone to assist his career.
Cosima was just as bad. When Liszt lay dying in the middle of a Bayreuth Festival, his daughter was seldom at his side. Beside such wilful misanthropy, their rabid anti-semitism can appear almost incidental.
The question that arises is: did Wagner have to be such a brute in order to achieve his Ring? Every act of creation requires a degree of egotism. Do the greatest acts demand the most inhuman conduct? Discuss.


  • Miss Mussel says:

    I’m not sure I prepared to say that great works demand inhuman conduct although I am certain that the presence of it doesn’t automatically void a work’s greatness.
    Wagner didn’t have to be such a brute in the sense that being a jerk isn’t a prerequisite to creating art. He was, as it turned out, and it was under those circumstances that he created what he did, which means, I guess, that the Ring would not have happened if Wagner was a nice man. That is not to say, of course, that he may have created something even better if he had been. Who’s to know?
    The other issue with this argument is that our concept of what is inhuman changes as time goes on, so it isn’t really fair to categorize someone’s behaviour after the goal posts have been moved.
    From what I remember of history classes, anti-semitism was quite common among the 19th century elite, so would probably not have been perceived as a mark on a person’s character. Rather quite the opposite, I should imagine. Same with having slaves in America.
    Still the bigger argument, is what connection if any, should morality have with music? I say none. At least not in the sense that the worth of a composition or performance should be increased or diminished because of it.

  • JimB says:

    Creativity requires a commitment and absorption that rule out a lot of normal social behavior, but such egotism doesn’t necessarily turn a person into a monster. Brahms was difficult and self-centered, but a decent, honorable person within those limits – and certainly a better friend than Wagner ever was.

  • “Do the greatest acts demand the most inhuman conduct?” No, otherwise we’d be up to our necks in great art created by rapists, child molesters and serial murderers. The greatest acts (of artistic creation) demand a degree of selfishness, not inhumanity. Frank Zappa said that a composer was someone who inflicted his will on unsuspecting air molecules, not someone who inflicted his crazed, demonic hatred on another’s person.

  • Jessica Weissman says:

    Marc Geelhoed – that’s a classic logical fallacy called the undistributed middle.
    “Artists act inhumanely” is not the same as “People who act inhumanely are artists” any more than “Squares are rectangles” is the same as “Rectangles are squares”.

  • Jude Bloom says:

    I once had the opportunity to meet the late Southern author Walker Percy — winner of the National Book Award for his novel The Moviegoer. I asked him this same question; I was quietly amazed by the quietness and ordinariness of his life down there on the bayou in southern Louisiana.
    He told me he thought it was actually the opposite that was true: that this type of stuff was a distraction and took away, if not from the quality of one’s work, then at the least from the amount of time and mental energy one had to devote to one’s work. He said he thought the best artists, authors, etc. were the one who led quiet, decent lives and approached their art as a job.
    The number of examples on all sides — good people who produce bad works, bad people who produce good works, and all vice versa — seems so many and varied that frankly one doesn’t seem to have much to do with the other in any way.

  • Jessica Weissman: True, except that I’m not arguing that artists are murderers, and murderers are artists. I’m saying that behavior doesn’t preclude artistic greatness, nor does goodness. The greatest acts don’t require, or demand, the most inhuman conduct. That seems plain to me. The proof of artistic greatness is in the text, the music, or the painting, not in the biography.

  • Gilles Duchamp says:

    If Wagner had not been so single-minded and ruthless it is possible he might not have achieved all he did – a complete revolution of opera and indeed music. Many have thought, and some still do, that his ideas (operas lasting over four hours in a seemingly endless chromatic flow)were as mad as Ludwig II’s.

  • Kile Smith says:

    All human endeavor is moral endeavor. This includes artistic creation. (Most people define morality as–at the very least–loving our neighbors, and I cannot conceive of any creativity that does not include the love of others.) We are all flawed, yet we all create, whether it be art, ideas, automobiles, or relationships. The challenge then becomes: how much better could our creations be if we were, in fact, better people? But humans also have the ability–sometimes useful, sometimes maddening–to compartmentalize their lives. This explains how a church-goer can yell at traffic while driving to service, how a serial killer can be kind to puppies, and how a Wagner can compose ineffably gorgeous music. Wagner was a good artist in spite of his failings, not because of them.

  • Gilles Duchamp says:

    Judging from Cosima’s diaries, Wagner would seem to have been a very good father, ready to devote time to his children and by no means without a sense of humour.

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