‘Verdi was more popular in Third Reich than Wagner’

The German musicologist Gundula Kreuzer has come up with a curious paradox. ‘He was a very useful composer for Nazi ideology,’ she says. Listen here to BBC Music Matters.


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  • This is not news to us acquainted with facts. Frederick Spotts exposed that the number of Wagner performances sharply declined during the nazi period reaching in 1939 less then two-thirds of what they were in 1933, with no Wagner work in the top ten and only “Lohengrin”, a relatively light and straightforward work, in the top fifteen in terms of number of performances. And if you scratch even more on the surface you’ll find that this story of Wagner being an influence on Hitler is just like Klingsor’s castle: an ilusion.

    • Wagner being an influence on Hitler: just an illusion ????

      So why did Hitler visit Bayreuth so often already in the twenties, becoming an intimate friend of the family (“Wolf”) ????

      One may discuss and question the sentence of Thomas Mann “Es ist viel Hitler in Wager”, but without question Wagner had a great influence on Hitler….

      • When Hitler first went to Bayreuth in 1923, one of his main objectives was to meet with Houston Stewart Chamberlain, which he did, visiting him on his sickbed. Chamberlain, who had married Eva Wagner in 1908 and was the son of a Royal Navy admiral, was a racist political theorist whose absurd writings had attracted Hitler’s admiration. When Chamberlain died in 1927, Winifred Wagner (nee Williams), Siegfried’s widow, became the focus of Hitler’s attention and she in turn cultivated the relationship.

        • I doubt whether that would have had much effect on him. If you read Ian Kershaw’s brilliant “The End”, which attempts to explain why Hitler and the Nazis kept on fighting until the bitter end and refused to accept that they were going to lose the Second World War, you will understand that there are some individuals who spend their entire lives in a cocoon and never even allow a thin shaft of light from reality to penetrate their self-imposed gloom.

      • Why? Well, the reasons are twofold. One is fairly innocent. Hitler’s wagnerism pre-dates his politics. He saw “Lohengrin” at age 11 or 12 and became enthusiastic about Wagner’s oeuvre, like millions of people in Europe at the time. His visits to Bayreuth were at least partially a pilgrimage that any Wagnerian does even today.

        The other reason, was more sinister. Bayreuth was the home of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the prime racial theorist of the time who married into the Wagner family but he himself never met or corresponded with Wagner and his marriage happened 24 years after Wagner had died. Chamberlain along with Cosima Wagner and others such as Hans von Wolzogen distorted Wagner’s biography and views to make him look like he was an agressive, extreme German nationalist and racial theorist when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. If you read Wagner in his own words carefully(preferably in original German and not via the mistranslations of Chamberlain’s minion William Ashton Ellis) you’ll see that he despised with a passion just about every individual feature of nazi ideology such as militarism, belligerence, imperialism, absolutist rule, group thinking, blind obedience to the state and authority…Even Wagner’s antisemitism is as much at odds with that of the nazis as it converges with it.

        This is what I meant by “illusion”. What is touted as “Wagner’s influence” is in fact influence of H.S. Chamberlain and his distortions of Wagner.

        • To my opinion this is just too simple and you cannot whitewash Wagner from influencing the Nazi ideology. Read just the following original statements:

          Letter RW to Hans von Wolzogen (1880-01-17):

          Fast fürchte ich, es möge uns schwer werden mit unsren Freunden und Gönnern zu einem Einverständniß darüber zu gelangen, was uns für alle Zukunft der wahrhaft erkannte, von aller alexandrinisch- judaisch-römisch despotischen Verunstaltung gereinigte und erlöste, unvergleichlich erhaben einfache Erlöser in der historisch erfaßbaren Gestalt des Jesus von Nazareth bedeutet und ist. Dennoch, indem wir Kirche, Christentum, ja die ganze Erscheinung des Christentum’s in der Geschichte schonungslos daran geben, sollen unsere Freunde immer wissen, daß dieß jenes Christus’ willen geschieht, den wir in seiner vollen Reinheit, seiner absoluten Unvergleichlichkeit und Kenntlichkeit wegen, uns erhalten wollen, um – wie vielleicht die sonstigen erhabensten Produkte des menschlichen Kunst- und Wissens-Geistes – ihn mit hinüberzutragen in jene furchtbaren Zeiten, welche dem nothwendigen Untergange alles jetzt Bestehenden folgen dürften. –

          Was wir daher gern der vollsten Schonungslosigkeit preisgeben, ist, was uns diesen Heiland schädigt und entstellt.

          Diary Cosima Wagner, 1882-12-05:

          Wie ich ihm sage, daß ich soeben an Parsifal gedacht und mich gefreut, daß dieses letzte Werk auch sein Meisterwerk, erwidert oder unterbricht er mich sehr erregt: »[…]

          ich weiß, was ich weiß und was darin ist; und es kann die neue Schule, Wolz. u.a., sich daran halten«; er deutet mehr an dann, als er ausspricht, den Gehalt dieses Werkes, »Erlösung dem Erlöser« – und wir schweigen, nachdem er noch gesagt: »Gut, daß wir allein sind.«

          These statements can be interpreted as the secret and bloody meaning of the cryptic “Erlösung dem Erlöser”: From a very extreme point of view one could identify the whole opera Parsifal as a call for the Holocaust, just that at that time the man was missing to put it into practice…

          I wouldn’t go so far, but in any way there is clearly something dangerous in Wagner’s music which intoxicates people and makes them will-less and leads to uncritical glorification of these operas and the “great master”. Read the essay of Thomas Mann “Deutschland und die Deutschen” to understand the peculiar problem in German cultural history which lead to the Nazi catastrophe.

          • just as an add-on an excerpt from Adorno’s “Versuch über Wagner”:

            “Der Wagnersche Antisemitismus versammelt alle Ingredienzien des späteren in sich. Der Haß führt so weit, daß die Nachricht vom Tode von vierhundert Juden beim Wiener Ringtheaterbrand, Glasenapp zufolge, ihn zu Witzen inspirierte. Selbst den Gedanken von der Vernichtung der Juden hat er bereits konzipiert. Von seinen ideologischen Nachfahren unterscheidet er sich dabei nur, indem er die Vernichtung der Rettung gleichsetzt.”

            [Band 13: Die musikalischen Monographien: I Sozialcharakter. Theoder W. Adorno: Gesammelte Schriften, S. 10363 (vgl. GS 13, S. 24) http://www.digitale-bibliothek.de/band97.htm ]

          • Several problems with this…

            1) Hitler did not have access to these writings. These are private letters and diaries.

            2) Even if he did have access, Wagner uses terms such as “purity” and “cleansing” in a philosophical sense, refering to ideas, not people. Plus, Wagner contradicted himself on the matter both before and after those particular words.

            3) You yourself say that such interpretation of “Erlösung dem Erlöser” is “an extreme point of view”. Shakepeare wrote “kill all lawyers”. Does this mean that if a Shakespeare fan turns serial killer of lawyers “Henry VI” becomes dangerous? And this particular entry from Cosima’s diary makes no sense, really. It begs for further explanation. Not to mention some mundane questions such as, did she recall the event correctly, did she quote Wagner correctly and so on. This is a problem I have with treatment of Cosima’s diaries in general: they are awarded far to little healthy scepticism. Oh, and again, you quote from a source that was unavailable to Hitler.

            4) It is ludicrous to suggest that a joke, however inappropriate and crude, constitutes a program for mass murder. It says more about the person suggesting this then the one making the joke. Adorno was prone having his ideological and personal biases coloring his analysis, not just when it comes to Wagner. For a detailed take-down of Adorno’s “Versuch über Wagner” see here: http://thinkclassical.blogspot.com/2012/09/adorno-and-wagner.html

            There are other facts such as Hitler never really mentioning Wagner as an ideological influence. The oft quoted sentence “Whoever wants to understand nationalsocialism must understand Wagner” is, at best, apocryphal. Other similar references such as “In that hour it all began” by Kubicek or Rauschnings “Hitler speaks” are dismissed as ex post facto romantisation and hoax respectively. Then, there is the decline of Wagner performances during the Reich already mentioned, the nixing of “Parsifal” at Bayreuth during the war because of pacifist undertones, Hitler not having a single prose work of Wagner in his private library, not even “Jewishness in music” and others.

          • I cannot see that these extracts support your case. There is something peculiarly schizophrenic in the notion that Jesus Christ – himself a Jew – needed to be “saved” from the Jews. But then the twistings of crazed minds are sometimes unfathomable anyway. Great though Thomas Mann was, I wouldn’t rely on him as your arch-witness either. Remember his “Doktor Faustus” and the role in that novel which Schoenberg’s music plays. Wirklich kein Ruhmesblatt!

          • my comment was misplaced. I try to copy it to the right spot:

            It doesn’t matter that Hitler had no access to writings of whoever. The point is that there are certain roots and sub layers in Wagner’s work which cannot be denied to attract Nazi ideology. Of course Wagner has been misused. But this never would have happened to the music of Mahler or Mozart or whoever. Why ???

            Concerning “Doktor Faustus”, you should keep in mind that this is by no means a biography of Schoenberg. It is a portrait of Germany and the description of a slip into barbarism through the hubris of an overall German supremacy thinking and feeling especially in music. It also has an autobiographic layer in the sense that Thomas Mann as an artist for himself fell into responsibility for all what happened. This is what he clearly pointed out in his speech “Deutschland und die Deutschen”:

            „daß es nicht zwei Deutschland gibt, ein böses und ein gutes, sondern nur eines, dem sein Bestes durch Teufelslist zum Bösen ausschlug. Das böse Deutschland, das ist das fehlgegangene gute.“

            (there is not a good Germany and an evil one, but just one Germany, where the best by devil’s cunning turned into evil. The bad Germany is the good one gone astray).

            The novel “Doktor Faustus” is far to complex to be denounced as “kein Ruhmesblatt”.

          • Stephan wrote:

            “The point is that there are certain roots and sub layers in Wagner’s work which cannot be denied to attract Nazi ideology”

            Nonsense, as I mentioned already, if Hitler had understood Wagner he would have foreseen his own downfall. To say Wagner’s music attracts Nazi ideology is absurd. It’s only possible that it attracted stupid Nazis.

  • I think Gundula Kreuzer made the case very ably: it is quite false to equate Hitler with the entire Nazi movement or the German population as a whole. The fact that one man was extremely passionate about one composer does not translate into mass adoration. You could just as easily argue that the Queen’s passion for corgis means that the whole British nation is bonkers about that species of dog.

  • And here is a quote from an Italian Fascist writer in 1940: ‘We love Verdi outside the theatre. He remains for us a symbol of our art, but he is at the same time a vital energy, a will. He is almost an emanation from the earth. The Italian Fascist can taste in Verdi’s music the flavour of his earth. Verdi’s music belongs to us all. Pride of our creation, our blood, our earth. . . . Music-earth: a dual concept, the meaning of which we exalt. . . . Music is offered to the worker like a mystic banquet. Every Italian, eating at this meal, is once more united with his neighbour through that which illuminates Italy. At this meal we do not eat only bread. . . . Verdi’s music is also bread.’

    We should be wary of how the image of people like Verdi and Wagner can be manipulated to suit the needs – and prejudices – of the times, past and present.

  • The pact with the devil which Adrian Leverkuehn enters into symbolises Germany’s pact with Nazism, i.e. it has sold its soul to the forces of evil. By implication there is something devilish about the works of Schoenberg, which is why I used the comment “Wirklich kein Ruhmesblatt” to refer to the effects of Mann’s creative ideas. For Thomas Mann to taint Schoenberg’s works by association with Germany’s descent into devilish Nazism – and remember, all of Schoenberg’s oeuvre was reviled by the Nazis as “entartete Musik” – was a disservice to musical development in the 20th century. Das muss doch jetzt sonnenklar sein, oder???

    • Once more, the composer in “Doktor Faustus” is Adrian Leverkühn and NOT Arnold Schoenberg. Nowhere in the novel is made a reference to Schoenberg and nowhere is written that Leverkühn is the inventor of Schoenberg’s twelve tone method. Rather there are connections and hidden references to Nietzsche and Hugo Wolf (and to a lot of other people). The search of Leverkühn for a rigid system (“strenger Satz”) for his compositions is a clear reflection of the discussions in the Kridwiß circle, where fascist ideas of authority, power, dictatorship should replace truth, freedom, reason and right. The regressive way back behind cultural developments of Christianity towards pre civilized barbarian stages as dreamed of in the Kridwiß circle is explained in the music by the tendency to tear down the freedom of subjective ideas through a rigid system of polyphonic objectivity. Leverkühn thus goes way back behind Händel and Bach, back behind Perotin to find the barbaric glissando for his “Apocalipsis con figuris”.

      Schoenberg himself never moaned about being connected to Nazism through Mann’s novel, but only wanted to be acknowledged as the real inventor of his method. After some harsh discussions both wanted to reconcile the controversy in public at Schoenberg’s 80th birthday, but this unfortunately could not take place, since Schoenberg died.

      • You really need to read more carefully. I never said that Adrian Leverkuehn was Arnold Schoenberg. Great writers do not make that direct equation. However, for anyone familiar with the culture of this period it is incontrovertible that Thomas Mann specifically based his character on that composer, with all the implications that follow on from that. To pretend otherwise is like saying that the central figure in “Tod eines Kritikers” was not supposed to be Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

        • Sorry, but this is just nonsense and not true…. you cannot compare “Tod eines Kritikers” with “Doktor Faustus”. Apart from the fact that this would be an insult to Thomas Mann (with respect to the literary quality of his work), there have never been deep personal relations between Schoenberg and Mann which would support the equation Leverkühn = Schoenberg.

          I already pointed out that the hidden figures are Hugo Wolf and Nietzsche.

          I have to return your reproach back: YOU SHOULD READ MORE CAREFULLY !!!!!

          • I do not need to read more carefully, nor do I need your capital letters. Arnold Schoenberg is credited as being the father of the twelve-tone technique and Mann created a figure whose creative genius centred around his twelve-tone music. Dissonance and disharmony in the music can be seen as a symbolic underpinning of what happened on the political stage. If you choose to understand Mann’s “Doktor Faustus” differently, that’s up to you, but you won’t find a single literary critic of note who thinks the elephant in the room is really Hugo Wolf.

          • Okay, to make it clear, neither I need to read more carefully.

            I don’t know what critics you are talking about, but I have a rather good overview of widely acknowledged secondary literature, e.g. from E. Heftrich, R. Vaget, and others, and also the new commented edition of “Doktor Faustus” in the GKFA by R. Wimmer. Nowhere is talked much about Schoenberg, only in connection with the well known appendix on the last page of the novel. Leverkühn is a fictitious composer who does not have any connection with Schoenberg. Maybe the connection to Wolf is not very strong, in any case Nietzsche is a central hidden figure. But in any case, apart from the syphilitic infection taken from Nietzsche or Wolf or even Schumann, the life of Leverkühn itself is pure fiction. Can you see any correspondence between Leverkühn’s life and Schoenberg’s ?? No. On the contrary, there are more well known characterizations of other people like Pretorius (Kridwiß) and of course Mann’s closest relatives and friends which I don’t need to mention. Moreover there are other traces to Pfitzner and Strauss (read Vaget: Seelenzauber, p. 222-237: “Salome und Palestrina als historische Chiffren: Zur musikgeschichtlichen Codierung des Doktor Faustus”). Also a lot of other ideas, e.g. from Kahler and from Haffner, entered into the novel, but I can only repeat: there is practically nothing which could trace back to Schoenberg as a person.

            Remember also that TM talked about the secret of the identity of the protagonists, signaling that Leverkühn and Zeitblohm are one person, like Jekyll and Hyde, the good and the evil Germany, because there is only ONE Germany. One could even enlarge this to a triplicity: Zeitblohm – Mann – Leverkühn. How does that go with Schoenberg… ???

            And finally, don’t forget the enthusiastic essay of Ernest Newman in The Sunday Times (1949). There appears not one word about Schoenberg…

            “Wirklich kein Ruhmesblatt” ????

            where am I reading Doktor Faustus differently … ???

          • You seem to spend all your time in these columns trying to prove to everybody else that they are wrong and you alone are right. If you wilfully misunderstand what I wrote then of course I am justified in expecting you to read more carefully. I really don’t see the point in quoting all the sources I could in order to support my case because you would presumably argue that they are all wrong anyway. However, why don’t you look at G.M. Roesch, Roman im 20. Jahrhundert and the chapter on Doktor Faustus, where it is clearly stated that Mann used references to Schoenberg so specifically that the composer complained bitterly to Mann about them and Mann then referred to Schoenberg by name in a “Nachschrift” he wrote to his novel..

          • So what do you want ??? I don’t know the book, but at least found a lesson manuscript which is open to the public in internet. I presume that the basics are the same and there it says:

            “Von Schönberg übernahm Mann folglich nicht die Biographie, sondern die Grundzüge der Zwölfton-Musik, die Adrian mit Zeitblom diskutiert. Schönberg protestierte gegen diese Verwendung seiner Technik so vehement, dass Thomas Mann eine Nachschrift an das Ende des Romans setzte, in der Schönberg namentlich genannt wird.”

            This is exactly what I said: He did not take anything from the person Schoenberg, The trouble arouse only because Schoenberg wanted a statement that he was the inventor of the twelve tone method.

            But above you claimed:

            “However, for anyone familiar with the culture of this period it is incontrovertible that Thomas Mann specifically based his character on that composer, with all the implications that follow on from that. To pretend otherwise is like saying that the central figure in “Tod eines Kritikers” was not supposed to be Marcel Reich-Ranicki.”

            This is quite different from what your source Roesch says and I cannot accept it.

    • Alexander – I think if you read Doktor Faustus, you will get a better idea of what the book is about than just from reading the Wikipedia article. It’s actually a pretty good book, even though it doesn’t have pictures.

      • Another smartarse who thinks he knows it all. You might care to know that I had to study Doktor Faustus in the original for my MML course (do you even know what this?), and no, I don’t get my information from Wikipedia even if you appear to do so.

  • My appreciation and congratulations to all participants for the level of this discussion and interchange and that it did not become personal. I think that this relationship between a ruthless and cruel ideology and the idea that it co-opted the flag bearers of German culture, Wagner et al. needs more of this kind of discussion with views that are based in facts (interpreted as they may be). Are there lessons in this for us today?

    • Let me point out that I, too, admire Wagner’s operas to much extent, especially the musical structure and development of The Ring I know almost by heart. Anyhow I always keep a certain distance and often feel uncomfortable after having heard too much of Wagner’s music within little time.

      If you’d ask me for a composer ranking (I know that his is quite dubious…) I surely would not place him in first place, but way back behind Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, especially Mahler and also Alban Berg.

      My distance is not a result of this ranking but the fact that Wagner is indeed unique and a singular case in the way he transformed his work into religion. And I cannot accept if people do not see the dark and questionable sides of him.

      Where else in the world is a place where only one composer is performed and where people make a “pilgrimage” as if going to Lourdes to adore their “Master” ?? Where still in the 70s of last century, 30 years after the end of the war people got crazy about a Ring staging (precisely Chereau’s wonderful production) and some would have liked to kill him. I think this would not have taken place in Salzburg or somewhere else. It comes from the fact that Wagner still is adored like a god and that it is taken as a crime “das Werk des großen Meisters zu besudeln” as they say. But all this was prepared by Wagner himself, who from a revolutionary in the 1840’s turned into a monarchic institution in the 1870’s.

      Remember the controversy between Pfitzner and Busoni and lateron also with Bekker about musical culture and tradition in Germany. This “Weltbild” of Pfitzner fits perfectly into the desrciption of Germany as done by Thomas Mann in his speech “Deutschland und die Deutschen”. It is this bullheaded thinking of German supremacy.

      Or remember the awful “Protest der Wagnerstadt München” initiated by Knappertsbusch against Thomas Mann which forced him into exile. It was not possible to express a modern picture of Wagner connected to psychoanalysis. And the “worst” of course was the attribute of dilettantism which Mann used for Wagner’s work. This caused the uprising of all these bullheaded (I cannot avoid to repeat this word!) conservative nationalists like Knappertsbusch, Pfitzner, Strauss, Gulbransson, the phycisist Walther Gerlach, many other university professors and also members of Thomas Mann’s own Rotary Club, who all signed the “protest”. These all were NOT Nazis, and especially from this fact emerges that the basics of thinking were perfectly prepared for the Nazi ideology to take over.

      What I want to point out is that of course Wager has been misinterpreted to some extent and widely misused. But one cannot deny that the roots lie in himself. Such a development could not have taken place with another composer.

      And for me Mime and Alberich certainly ARE burlesques of jews irrespective if you like or dislike Adorno….

      This will be my last statement in this discussion, and let me just clarify that I am German and born in 1949. I did not live in those dark years, but since my youth I live with this conscience of what cruelty Germans have done to the rest of the world…..

  • Stephan,

    I don’t think you understand Wagner’s music. I don’t think Hitler understood Wagner’s music either. There’s nothing dark or sinister in Wagner’s music. In the Ring Cycle, what Wagner seems to be saying, is that power is the opposite of love, and of those two, the one that Wagner supports, is love. Wagner says people who lust after power will be destroyed by their lust for power, and it will end in a massive conflagration. Parsifal is about compassion and redemption.

    Wagner is my favourite composer, even above Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. In the recent debate, “Verdi Vs Wagner”, hosted by Stephen Fry, the audience voted in favour of Wagner. Wagner won 53% of the vote. Verdi only got 42%.

    • Thank you very much that you know exactly that I don’t understand Wagner’s music.

      I tell you one thing: Wagner was not capable to compose true absolute music, he always needed the scenery to get a musical idea. He wrote powerful music, yes, but it never can be compared to the humanity of Mozart or the perfection of Bach.

  • Wagner did compose absolute true music, and with respect to the human condition, I find Wagner’s music far more insightful than Bach and Mozart’s. I’d much rather watch a Wagner opera than a Mozart opera anytime. I like Bach more than Mozart, but not as much as Wagner.

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