New letter: Richard Wagner begs a Jew for help

New letter: Richard Wagner begs a Jew for help


norman lebrecht

May 21, 2019

The Joseph Joachim scholar Robert Eschbach has discovered a grovelling letter dated March 1858 from Richard Wagner to the great violinist and friend of Brahms, requesting him to fix him up with an income from the King of Hanover.

This letter is written in the decade that Wagner published his notorious antisemitic tract, Jewishness and Music.


Dear Friend,

News of you has reached me through Clara Schumann and through Kirchner that has reassured me somewhat concerning your dismaying remoteness from me. More than this reassurance, my belief in the noble earnestness of your character enables me to entrust to you a matter that requires the delicate and discreet consideration of a friend, in the full sense of the word, if I am to approach you for counsel and help. I ask you then not to take my confidence in an unkindly way if I convey my request to you with the following….

I am again, as I have been for a considerable time, in the position of being most uncomfortable for want of an adequate and secure subsidy, since my alternative income from theaters is of such haphazard and unpredictable nature that I cannot rely on it in the slightest, and its often unexpected failure to appear causes me the most disagreeable embarrassment. Only the patronage of a prince can protect me against this, which, if it does not spare me from all need of earning money from my labors, would at least allow me the reassuring support of a secure livelihood. So it may well be forgiven me that I have had my eye on the King of Hanover for some time. His great and earnest love of art, his eagerness to secure excellent artists for himself by means of unrestrained liberality, and further, his outspoken affinity for my music, as I have been led to believe, are surely good excuses for me.

So it occurred to me then, that it would perhaps be necessary only to make him aware of me, my situation and my wish, in order to prompt him, completely on his own, to take vigorous action to help me.

I have chosen you, dear Joachim, as it made such good sense, to accord me this great act of friendship;…

Read the full letter here.


Wagner at his worst.


  • fflambeau says:

    Reminds me of that old Alan Sherman song, “Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh.” Please send money to me at Camp Granada.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    The last sentence in this entry may help clarify:

    And from The NY Times 2007:

    “…he was a walking show-and-tell for the trade-offs of Jewish emancipation. Like Heine, Marx and generations of Mendelssohns, who were his friends and patrons, he resolved them by joining the Lutheran Church. He then rooted for Prussia against France in 1870 and proudly declared himself a German, notwithstanding his Austro-Hungarian birth”.

  • Another Hasbeen says:

    While Mr Eshbach has probably provided the first published English translation of the letter I doubt he would claim to have ‘discovered ‘ the letter as it was included in Volume 9 of Wagner’s Collected Letters published by Breitkopf und Härtel in 2000.

  • Escamillo says:

    For any creative artist in 1858 who was not already in the employ of a prince, survival depended on writing letters and exploiting contacts no matter how tenuous. Joachim was just one among hundreds who would have received such a letter. How very much easier it would have been for Wagner to have continued as a factotum of the King of Saxony after 1849. Thank heavens he didn’t!

  • Caravaggio says:

    Hypocrisy and opportunism know no bounds, as we are transparently seeing in our days under our very noses. For example, how does one explain let alone justify the warm friendship and camaderie between the far-right racist (pace his own son in law and converted daughter) Donald Trump and the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanhayu or between the equally antisemitic Viktor Orbán and, again, Netanhayu? Who is begging who for what, one wonders?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The letter reads as truly bizarre and groveling, and in absurd contradiction to W’s notorious antisemitic pamflet, if is left out the fathomless abyss of humiliating pecuniary straits he suffered, in spite of some successes of his operas. And then, the painful conflict between theory and practice he had to confront all his life did not contribute to a more benign view on music life and successful Jewish composers like Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Halévy, Hiller, Offenbach, Moscheles and Joachim.

  • timpanitroll says:

    Meh, still doesn’t change the fact that he is the 2nd greatest composer of all time (Bach is 1st). Wagner is most certainly better than the subpar Mahler.

    • Ainslie says:

      No question that Wagner was greater than Mahler (I think Mahler would have agreed, although you’d have to define “subpar” for me).

      But I’d put Mozart as No. 1. Just my opinion.

    • Lydia Wahlberg says:

      Who was the better composer is not the subject of this article. What are you thinking?

    • R W Eshbach says:

      I have never understood the impulse to rank artists, or much else for that matter, as though they were consumer products. This impulse strikes me as fundamentally immature — growing out of a deep-seated insecurity about one’s own abilities — and the cause of much that is baleful in our lives, including all of the most destructive forms of discrimination. My friend Mary Rasmussen used to say “comparison is the root of all unhappiness.” I would go further. Comparison, ranking, prevents us from seeing things as they are — from understanding and appreciating what we see — from taking pleasure in the life of the mind and heart, and being at peace amongst the cornucopia of the world’s blessings.

      Isaiah Berlin used to quote Joseph Butler, saying “Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.” I don’t think either Butler or Berlin would deny the utility of categorization, but the profound idea embedded here is that our categorizations are not reality — they are reifications — mental stand-ins — placeholders for reality that help us make sense of the world “out there.” As soon as we begin to accept our judgements as immutable reality, we end up with prejudice — such as Wagner calling Jews or Jesuits not “human beings,” for example. We know what happens next.

      As I say: comparison, ranking, prevents us from seeing and appreciating things as they are. See my post for what it is. All I did was translate an interesting letter that, to my knowledge, has not yet appeared in English (I may be wrong), and offer some (I think) well-informed speculation about how this letter might have struck young Joachim, who had some years earlier joined those calling for Franz Brendel’s ouster from the faculty of the Leipzig Conservatorium for publishing Wagner’s (at that point) anonymous “Judenthum” article, and who had three years earlier converted to Protestantism, at the “suggestion” of the very king Wagner wanted to cozy up to (the King stood as Joachim’s godfather). At the point that Joachim received Wagner’s letter, he was still ambivalent about Wagner and his music, and still saw much to admire, including primarily Wagner’s independence and courage. To see Wagner grovel like that (however common it might have been in those days) would surely have lowered Wagner in Joachim’s estimation.

      See the thing for what it is, and not another thing. It’s an interesting letter. Neither I, nor anyone else, made any reference to Wagner’s music, let alone Mahler’s, or denied its power. All of these people are geniuses, sui generis. We are personally enriched to the extent that we can look beyond prejudice and engage with their thinking — with their art — which should inspire us to creatively make own constructive responses, however imperfect, to the enormous challenges that life brings to each of us. — RWE

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed with the categorisation bit. WOrks of art should be experienced for what they are in themselves. But evaluation in relation to standards, or comparison, is part of the normal process of aesthetic judgement. The destructive egalitarian world view is born from the idea that everything is there to not be judged in terms of meaning and value, and it destroys any meaning in any art. As the Chinese oracle book I Ching says: every part of the human body is important, but not in the same way or to the same degree. Loosing a foot is bad, but loosing one’s head is worse.

    • Max Raimi says:

      “Competitions are for horses, not artists.”
      –Bela Bartok

      • John Borstlap says:

        He was right. It is humiliating.

        I even wonder whether it’s really good for horses, probably not.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Beethoven is clearly the most important since the orchestra would not exist as a permanent professional organisation outside of the opera houses. Orchestras were formed in 19th century Germany pretty much to perform Beethoven’s symphonies.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    At his worst? More like Wagner at his most typical; witness the similarly fawning and begging letters to men whose wives he dallied with. “Shameless” does not begin to explain it, and evidently he was incapable of feeling real shame.

    His poisonous essay about Jews in music was at the time of this letter still, in theory, anonymously written and little known,
    and he did not attach his name to its revised and expanded version until about a decade after this letter to Joachim. And again, shamelessly, even after attaching his name to it Wagner maintained or tried to maintain close friendships with many Jewish musicians, particularly if they were in a position to do him some good.

    It seems certain or at least likely that Joachim was among those who knew darn well who had written the essay, which perhaps did not attack Joachim by name as it did Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, but might as well have done so with its flat statement that Jewish musicians were thereby unworthy to be true champions of German culture, seemingly a coded reference to Joachim who by that time was perhaps the premiere champion of historic German musical achievement in all Europe.

    Franco Sciannameo wrote a fascinating article about the Joachim/Liszt friendship in The Violexchange Vol 6 No. 1, and states that Liszt’s defense of Wagner following the initial publication of the essay played a big part of the Joachim break with Liszt in 1857, which in turn was before this embarrassing letter by Wagner. Wagner could not possibly have thought that Joachim, having broken with Liszt, was favorably disposed towards him, regardless of whether Joachim was aware of the authorship of the essay or not. Dropping the name of Clara Schumann, whose dismissive views about Wagner were well known, seems particularly manipulative yet somehow also pathetic.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Obviously, Wagner was desparate, as so often.

      But this comment merely repeats a consensus, based upon appearances, not understanding.

      And his antisemitism was a cultural critique, clothed in racist terms. That is something different from the later quasi-darwinian racism which led to disaster.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      From all accounts, Richard Wagner was an odious individual from head to foot. But we seem to be able to reconcile ourselves to this fact because his music transcends human capriciousness. The more interesting question is ‘could a person with less narcissism, self-belief and bigotry have written music of the epic scale and vision of Wagnerian opera”?

      • John Borstlap says:

        If RW was an odious individual, how is it then possible that so many friends of high calibre made efforts to keep the friendship alive? They were sometimes angry, or irritated, but also accepted his eccentricities and lack of restaint. When they broke with him, they returned after a while. He was always generous to his friends, showered them with gifts, fetched them from the train in great anticipation, was fond of animals and children (and vice versa), treated his musicians always very well, etc. etc. It is too easy to simply dismiss such man, out of smug moralism.

  • Tamino says:

    Wasn’t Joachim an anti-semite himself?