Germans get in a tangle over Wagner’s Jewish conductor

Germans get in a tangle over Wagner’s Jewish conductor


norman lebrecht

August 13, 2018

The Munich music director Hermann Levi gave the world premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882.

A rabbi’s son, Levi had to endure antisemitic sniping from the Master through the rehearsal period. In letters to his revered father, he bit his bearded lip

Wagner died the following winter and Levi continued as music director in Munich until ill-health forced his retirement in 1896, at the age of 57. He then made a late marriage to Mary, widow of a wealthy art historian. When he died in February 1900, she created an imposing tomb for him near their villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

The Nazis destroyed the mausoleum, outraged to find that their Master was involved with a rabbi’s son.

But the burial plot remains, and there lies the problem.

The present landowner, a former town councillor, called in the Mayoress and a rabbi to open the coffin, with a rabbi in attendance. Levi’s remains are still there. But the village – which gives pride of place to Richard Strauss’s grave – doesn’t want him there.

They have asked for the remains to be reburied in the Jewish cemetery in Munich.

Munich, it seems, is none too keen.

The media is waking up.



  • mr oakmountain says:

    The linked article differs a bit from the description above. While Partenkirchen is seemingly not keen on keeping Levi’s remains or rerstoring his grave, according to the article Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community in Munich, has suggested the “Neue Israelitische Friedhof” in Munich as a final resting place. The article does not, to my opinion, suggest that “Munich” has a problem with this.
    Partenkirchen is not looking too good in this article, however.

  • Tamino says:

    This case seems clear. The mausoleum – destroyed by the Nazis – shall be rebuilt. At a site that makes the most sense. If that is in Garmisch-Partenkirchen or in Munich, people who are familiar with the details should decide.

    And the comparison to Strauss is moot. Strauss was buried in a grave on the official town graveyard. Levi on the other hand was buried on private grounds. That is a crucial difference as far as responsibilities of the public administrations are concerned.

    Had Strauss been buried on private grounds, and the ownership of the land left the family hands, the problem would be a comparable one.

    Anyway, the authorities shall act, based on Levi’s merits, and in responsibility to repair the damage by Nazi barbarism toward his mausoleum.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    If I remember correctly in the dreadful Cosima’s diaries, she said that Wagner was hoping to convert Levi to Christianity virtually over night as he was to premier Parsifal on Good Friday? Why choose him in the first place?

    • Novagerio says:

      Because, as Wagner himself pointed out, Levi was the best.

    • urania says:

      Why are Cosima’s dairies dreadful?

      • Hornbill says:

        The comment was that it was Cosima who was deeadful, not her diaries.

        • Urania says:

          Ha, ha….hope you are not assisting Wagner operas since without her Wagner would not finished his artworks. What a world. Ha, ha..! She had a great mind and was a person who is rare to find these days.

          • Tamino says:

            She cheated her husband, she hated jews.
            And you think she was bottomline a great person, exemplary even.
            What does that say about you?

            I would asess, she was best case a very complex and conflicted person.
            Worst case she was a psychopath and monster.

          • Furzwängler says:

            It was not only Cosima Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism that showed her highly unpleasant character. Her father, Franz Liszt, was hurt and saddened by her crowing triumphalism on the occasion of the Prussian victory over the French, and occupation of Paris, in 1871. This caused a deep rift over many years between Cosima and Liszt, who had spent his youth in Paris and adored French culture. A rift that was hardly healed by the time Liszt lay dying in 1886, when she could barely find time for him, although both were in Bayreuth.

            For a taste of what the dreadful Cosima Wagner was like, Alan Walker’s The Death of Liszt is worth perusing. It makes for harrowing reading.

          • John Rook says:

            @Furzwängler, above: Even more so, considering she lived only twenty yards away.

        • Bruce says:

          I remember reading that she was the one who made him include the lines about “holy German art” at the end of Meistersinger. Spoils the mood of the whole opera IMHO. (Not irreparably — you can ignore that bit if you decide to — but it certainly doesn’t belong with the once-upon-a-time, fairy-tale aura of the rest of the show.)

          • John Borstlap says:

            That bit in Meistersinger has mostly been misunderstood as a nationalist, political slogan, but it merely says that even if Germany would disappear as a country, its art (music) would still be alive and kicking. But it is not necessary for the plot, that is true.

          • John Rook says:

            That has more to do with Nuremberg’s Protestantism as a reaction to the Holy Roman Empire than easy-to-grasp claims of nationalism. Wagner revised the text, in any case. It’s not a case of pre-Nazis v. Good Hand-Wringers.

          • Tamino says:

            Hardly John. It was more a showing of the prevalent nationalist ‘group think’ among the cultural elite in the German states in the 19th century. We must remember that there was no unified German nation state until 1871 ( a few years after the Meistersinger were composed). The idea of giving the German culture – spread over hundreds of kingdoms , free towns, principalities and counties – a unified national statehood, was the main motive behind Wagner’s text here. Protestantism vs Roman Catholicism has not much to do with it. Wagner only dressed the text in this topos in line with the time of the story of his libretto. But there is frequent reference to the ‘Welsh’ = French poisoning influence on German culture. And that idea stems from the very recent Napoleonic war times mostly. Don’t expect a historically precise libretto from someone like Richard Wagner.

          • John Rook says:

            I’m aware of that, Tamino. The Wälscher Tand etc of the libretto, ostensibly fingering the HRE was, in fact, aimed at the French. Meistersinger was finished four years before the unification of Germany, a movement Wagner had supported for a long time. My mentioning of Nuremberg’s Protestantism as resistance to the HRE is, nevertheless a documented historical fact and is consistent with the libretto. To reduce Meistersinger to just a nationalist rant is facile. In any event, Germans should not be ashamed of their contribution to the world’s cultural heritage, far from it. I, for one, am immensely grateful to them for it.

          • Tamino says:

            I tend more to the POV, that it is a nationalist work, but that nationalism back then was young and ‘innocent’, ‘ein reiner Tor’ among identity building ideas. The horrific atrocities in the name of nations, instead of the name of (some) God (isn’t enlightenment wonderful, not) came later.
            Wagner’s national pathos thus needs to be judged like the libido of a teenager. He can’t be blamed for it. 😉

    • John Borstlap says:

      Levi was not chosen by Wagner. He needed the Munchen Hoforchester for the Parsifal premiere, and its chief conductor was Levi, one of the very best conductors around and also a great admirer of Wagner’s works. For Wagner, a ‘Jew’ conducting his ‘Weltabschiedswerk’ that he considered an ‘Ur-Christliches’ werk and as the central work of a new art religion that should replace an outdated Christentum, so: a work burdened with heavy symbolism as a regeneration project for a fallen humanity, was an impossible situation, undermining all the symbolism of his operatic message. He objected to King Ludwig, but the king simply answered that either he got the orchestra with Levi or no orchestra at all, so he had to accept Levi. Plan B was, to get Levi changing religion, which he tried, but Levi rejected the proposition. When rumor got round that Levi would conduct the Parsifal premiere, antisemites protested and even sent anonymous letters to Wagner, incriminating Levi – he showed one such letter to Levi who fled Wahnfried, and had to be lured back to save the performance. It was all mixed with absurdist and embarrassing complications. In the end, the performances of Parsifal were a hughe success, and Levi did a fantastic job, not taking Wagner’s conversion attempts very seriously and remaining dedicated to both the man and the music.

      For Wagner, ‘jewishness’ was a world view in which the negative aspects of modernity threatened the best of humanity, especially its culture. He was proven the opposite time and again by the enthusiasm of musicians and supporters from ‘Jewish’ descent, and got into knots about all those contradictions, caused by his own completely wrong analysis of the ills of society.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        It seems that Wagner’s view, like Goering’s, was that he decided who was a Jew, or at least a “good” Jew

        • John Borstlap says:

          Wagner thought that Jews were bad because of disrupting society with their brilliant but one-sided materialist talents, and the non-Jews were seriously degenerated and therefore vulnerable to the Jewish inroads, and he hoped that later-on, Jews would destroy the Jewishness in themselves and together with the gentiles would evolve into a new, better human race, which would be possible through total immersion in his music dramas. His writins on the matter are confused, contradictory and impulsive without too much thought going into his ‘theories’. And meanwhile, he had a worrying suspicion that he might be partly Jewish himself because his stepfather was Jewish, and he was not suite sure whether or not he was his biological father.

      • Vladimir Shcherbina says:


        Do you have any links for the story with king’s orchestra? There are a number of unconfirmed stories related to the agreement between king and Wagner about Levi’s preconditions to conduct the performance?

    • Hugo Rainer says:

      Wagner is the greatest musical genius of all time. It is of no importance what relgion a conductor has as long as he adheres to Wagner’ s musical genius

  • william osborne says:

    Garmisch-Partenkirchen has an interesting history. After the war, the Alpine areas of Bavaria and parts of Tirol became something like a national redoubt for many Nazis. In fact, that is why the Allies assigned the US military the southern sector of the German invasion and occupation. They thought it likely that Hitler and the Nazis would make a last stand in these Alpine regions. That didn’t happen, but the area still drew disproportionate number of Nazis. This shaped the character of the region until most of the old Nazis died off.

    The atmosphere was difficult to overlook. As one example, the 1936 Olypmics were held in Garmisch. The complex of building for them remained as a sort of Nazi monument for decades after the war.

    I forget the year, but sometime during the 1980s when I lived near Munich I was listening to the Armed Forces Network (AFN is the US military radio station) and heard a report that during Hitler’s birthday, some of his admirers in Garmisch-Partenkirchen set ablaze at night a huge wood pile in the shape of a swastika on the side of a mountain overlooking the town. This giant burning swastika burned for several hours in the night sky. The US Army had a base in the town and apparently they made some inquiries. According to the AFN report, they were told it was a “joke.” I took it not just as an example of the mindset of some in the area, but even more as how the American military and intelligence agencies all too often collaborated with some horrible people and overlooked things that they perhaps shouldn’t have.

    To this day in Germany, it is difficult to directly address things like the atmosphere in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, because the reactionary Nazi legacy is kept discretely veiled. The article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung thus reveals a typical approach of referring to the situation with ironic innuendo rather than direct statements. There’s a sort of an eye-rolling, “Yeah, we all know about Garmisch…” between the lines.

    I’m sure this old sensibility is changing as history moves forward. The town even has a woman SPD Mayor, but these developments with Levi’s grave show the difficulties that still exist.

    And one last bit of history. John de Lancie, who later became the famous oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined the US Army in 1942. At the end of the war, he went to Garmisch to meet Richard Strauss. De Lancie expressed his admiration and asked if he’d ever considered writing an oboe concerto. Strauss simply said no, but the visit by the admiring, young American soldier seemed a comfort to Strauss, a reassurance that German culture was still deeply respected, that it would survive, and that a better future was on hand, at least for West Germany. Strauss was moved. To De Lancie’s surprise, he saw about half a year later that Strauss had indeed published an Oboe Concerto. There’s always hope.

    • william osborne says:

      When Strauss’s oboe concerto was completed, de Lancie was only second oboe in Philly. Without seniority in the section, he was not allow to do a performance with the orchestra. He signed performance rights over to oboist Mitch Miller who was in the CBS Orchestra. Miller later became a famous TV personality for his sing-along show. Strange histories…

      • Richard says:

        That is fascinating. I am a Philly Orchestra history buff. Is there documentation on this? I would love to see it. Thanks fie the info.

        • william osborne says:

          Full details are here:

          One of the most interesting parts is that de Lancie had moved from playing in the Army Band to working for the OSS, the for-runner of the CIA. Not too many secret agent oboists out there…. De Lancie was involved with rounding up Nazis and de-Nazification at war’s end. It’s seldom mentioned, but I think his OSS credentials helped him make contact with Strauss. (The above article also implies that.)

          And as the article notes, his contact evolved into a friendship. I also find it odd that the Philadelphia Orchestra did not feature the work with de Lancie more often. Even though the work if very difficult and requires remarkable endurance, it is an important part of the oboe repertoire.

    • CB1 says:

      Really interesting, thanks for sharing.

    • Derek says:

      Thanks William ,

      You do provide a wealth of interesting facts.

  • Another Hasbeen says:

    The premiere of Parsifal was on 26 July 1882. I know Easter is a movable feast but Good Friday is never THAT late!!

    Mr Borstlap is probably correct that Levi was imposed on Wagner as a condition of having the Munich Orchestra (which for financial reasons was essential for the 1882 Festival to take place). However it’s interesting that while Wagner and Cosima regarded Hans Richter as almost another son they were frequently privately critical of his conducting – yet despite their antipathy to Levi because of hisJewishness there’s no criticism of his work.

  • Wiebke Göetjes says:

    I think all jewish musicians should go on strike for this….
    See what happens…

  • David H Spence says:

    It appears to me, as though, the world may have started to go insane all over again. Where is Angela in all this, (Angela who makes her pilgrimage to ‘the green hill’ every late July, we all know)?

    • John Borstlap says:

      At home, she plays bits of the Ring when she has trouble with the coalition. When a vote in the Bundestag turns-out well for her, she plays Meistersinger afterwards, but when the AfD got in, she mourned that very night over the sounds of Gotterdammerung.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Angela Merckel reminds me more of the sinking ship at the end of Der fliegende Holländer. Nothing as “glamorous” or “solemn” as Götterdämmerung.

  • Micky Alexandru says:

    It is such a pity that after so many years the Wagner / antisemitism issue is still so much alive. Historical sites, tombs, mausoleum of famous people should stay on original site. But, unfortunately, politics and religion lead everything. Why to move the tomb ? No logical reason. Levy is still considered one of the very best conductors of his time. Why to move him from his eternal rest place ? Where the respect has disappeared ?

  • anon says:

    Levi should’ve taken out his izmel and converted Wagner.

    • Tamino says:

      Levi was not religious. He didn‘t care about religion much.

      • John Borstlap says:

        My grandfather spoke with him after the 2nd performance of Parsifal in 1882 and he always told us that Levi wholeheartedly believed in Parsifal as the basic document of the new Kunstreligion, open to everybody who would believe sufficiently in Wagner, so also suited for Germans of Jewish descent.

        • Tamino says:

          He was joking. Your grandfather – may he rest in peace – missed the joke. Your sense of humor must be inherited from another ancestor.

      • anon says:

        It still would’ve been nice to slice off Wagner’s foreskin.

        They could’ve preserved it in a shrine at Bayreuth for pilgrims to worship.

        It is true that among holy relics, there was never a foreskin, not even Jesus’s, Christianity’s first Jew. Levin would’ve been in good company. The paradoxes of religion. But I digress.

        • Tamino says:

          google ‘Calcata’ 😉

          • anon says:

            Well, I’ll be damned! Ya learn something new everyday. That’ll teach me to write something without first googling. Of course, somebody somewhere would be worshipping Jesus’s prepuce.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Certain branches of Christianity actually practise circumcision. And the very early Christians kept the full Jewish laws (at least until the late first century).

  • urania says:

    What a world we are living – both sides here!!! No wonder that all goes into pieces. First introspect all your own lives. If one cant find enough blame for Wagner it is always Cosima. Women like her do frighten most men, also Bülow, who cheated her first on many levels. No talent as a husband, words of Liszt.

    Cosima was very close with Liszt again from 1976 on. Should a daughter not expect from a father – who had taken her own mother into a scandal – understanding? Liszt was at home at Bayreuth, he did not move there because of the lady in Rome. Cosima did send her daughter Daniela to look after L. in Rome and Budapest. Countless letters show a different picture.

    He died at Bayreuth and Cosima did take care of him very well. Poor Lina Schmalhausen did show in her memoires that Liszt’s last days have been close to Cosima, she was there more than often, also her children and doctors. Sometimes she came from the Festspielhaus late and did stay to sleep in a chair at the bedside of Liszt. Merci Lina for being so determined!

    • M2N2K says:

      If she “was very close with Liszt again from 1976 on”, then there must be a video evidence of this somewhere. How touching it is that it took her less than half century after her death to get “very close” to her daddy.

  • barry guerrero says:

    I’m not sure how nice a person Cosima could have been. She certainly tried to keep Mahler from gaining musical power in Vienna (for obvious reasons). Personally, I don’t think she was such a great influence upon Wagner either.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well….. it is obvious from all the biographical material that Wagner was saved from definite Untergang by both King Ludwig and Cosima, the king taking care of the financial side, Cosima of the emotional and psychological and professional side. He himself said as much in his letters. Cosima was a product of Parisian haute bourgeois upbringing and knew exactly how to move in the high society circles which Wagner cruised, with perfect manners and dignity, while Wagner was rather uncouth which made direct contact with him by the over-refined king a bit difficult (Wagner would thumb on the fragile 18C furniture to make his point in conversations at the Munich court). She functioned as W’s factotum, secretary, promotor, agent, confidente, lover, and played the piano with W four-hands sometimes. She even overdrew his manuscript scores with ink over his pencil notations, and prepared fresh scores with all the bars set-out and the instruments indicated in the margin, when he was working on the instrumentation. She created a treadbare realm around the artist where he could negotiate the world outside, which he failed to achieve effectively before, when on his own, or troubled by his 1st wife. So of course W was completely dependent on her, as he was on the king. But this were small sacrifices to make in comparison what he got from those two.

      Cosima was one of those women with an overbearing ambition and creative zeal which were channeled through her husband. She wanted to be the wife of a Great Man, so she added all she could to create an image of Wagner which he was not, really. When you read how pleasantly, inspiring and joyful Wagner worked with his performers, as an artist among artists, and freely mixed with them in the interval of rehearsels without the slightest ‘von oben bis unten’ and Cosima’s criticism of such behavior because it did not correlate with her idea of ‘Greatness’, you get an idea of her dominating and disturbingly effective influence. But sometimes Wagner got back at her, and regularly committed rude jokes at her expense which made her suffer quite much. Like, when she had one of her regular days of guilt agony about Hans von Bulow which had been treated so shabbily by them both, W would say to her: ‘Oh, I see you have your catholic face again today’, totally undermining her seriousness about the matter.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Hermann Levi was also a very close associate of Bruckner, that most Catholic of composers.Levi premiered Bruckner’s Seventh symphony and the composer submitted the manuscript of the Eighth symphony to Levi for critical commentary.

  • luigi nonono says:

    He should be re-interred on top of Wagner, and Wagner’s tomb replaced with his. Wagner should be wiped from the face of the earth.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Quite an achievement to be capable, some 120 years after your death, to provoke anger in people as a result of your works and ideas.

    • M2N2K says:

      He was “wiped from the face of the earth” quite decisively over 135 years ago, but his music is good enough to continue enhancing our life and culture for as long as we are able to preserve our ability to appreciate it.

  • Charles B Hall says:

    A brilliant new play now playing in New York City addresses the relationships between Wagner and Levi. “My Parsifal Conductor” should be translated into German and performed in Bavaria. Kudos to playwright Allen Leicht.

  • Joel T says:

    What does it all matter? We have Strauss’s masterworks and Levi was the conductor of Wagner’s. What they did when they were alive is what is essential and to be honored. Useless squabble…It’s the music that matters!

  • Joel T says:

    Another point to be made is that given the progressive musical ideals that Levi/Strauss harbored as Wagnerians, they probably would have preferred that all this debate go into creating a festival that is devoted to today’s progressive music. When Levi conducted the premiere of Parsifal it was still considered a revolutionary work by some: progressive musicians like Webern and Boulez got their courage from Wagner’s musical example. From the standpoint of musical history Levi played an important role in the art’s evolution and that is how he should be remembered.