Leaping from The Song of Names into the murk of Wagner

Leaping from The Song of Names into the murk of Wagner


norman lebrecht

March 01, 2020

The morning after Francois Girard signed off the final cut of his movie from my novel The Song of Names, he was on stage at the Met for the first rehearsal of the Flying Dutchman. We shared several pleasanteries about the dichotomy, but Wagner is no laughing matter.

Here’s Francois, talking this weekend to his hometown music magazine, Ludwig Van:

My perspective on Wagner is this: Yes, you can treat his pieces any way you want. But I am against the kidnapping of any opera when a creative individual expressed himself through it. With Flying Dutchman, you are already exposed to deeper elements. I am here to merely have a reading of them. You do what Wagner wrote and to serve any other cause is wrong. Yes, the question of anti-Semitism is always present in Wagner’s case. But people have to put it in context. If Wagner was guilty then a lot of Europe was the same at the time, But from a dramaturgical point of view, from a staging point of view, his work remains the brightest and the purest.

The movie opens this weekend in Israel and Spain.

Girard (l.) with TSON composer Howard Shore and soloist Ray Chen


  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Looking forward to the movie! Francois Girard is a good film director and one of the only ones that deals with Classical music felicitously.

  • Olassus says:

    Well said by Girard!

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The problem with Wagner is that he wrote essays, very nasty ones that influenced Hitler eventually. Otherwise I am not convinced he was the worst of men. If we look at major figures in art & literature (including British Romantic poets of the 19th century), Wagner comes across as rather mild, except for his antisemitism.

    • F. P. Walter says:

      According to the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, there is no evidence that Hitler ever read Wagner’s essays. Wagner’s point in “The Jewish Culture in Music” wasn’t racist but that Jewish artists couldn’t speak for — or communicate to — the rest of humanity while isolating themselves from it. The validity of this concern was borne out in the 20th century by great assimilated composers such as Mahler, Gershwin, Bloch, Bernstein, et al, whose music is cherished by listeners of all backgrounds.

      • fflambeau says:

        Want evidence that Hitler knew about Wagner? Read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, vol. 1 at 21: “Hitler’s passion for Wagner knew no bounds.” (with plenty of footnotes). Kershaw also notes that Wagner was one of 3 of Hitler’s “heroes”. The other being Martin Luther and Frederick the Great. Kershaw at 184. He knew all about Wagner; far more than Ross does.

        • F. P. Walter says:

          M. Flambeau — Please read what others actually WRITE. Of course Hitler knew Wagner’s music. In reply to Mustafa Kandan who claimed Wagner’s essays influenced Hitler, I noted, that, per Alex Ross, “there is no evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s essays.” Nor, M. Flambeau, did I claim Wagner wasn’t antisemitic — rather, his main point was that Jewish isolationism prevented the full development of Jewish artists … a concern borne out by the 20th century masterworks of great Jewish composers who joined the world marketplace.

          Certainly Wagner was a flawed human being with his share of fears, insecurities, and dishonesties. But he isn’t responsible for the crimes and cruelties of people born years after his death. That’s the ultimate form of buck-passing.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wagner was not as bad a person as so many people insist to believe:


  • V.Lind says:

    The “murk” of Wagner? Girard is staging a music-drama, and what he says of the dramaturgy is even more true of the music. I find nothing murky about either.

    Following the Polanski situation at the Césars, I was reminded of Wagner. I have not yet seen the film, though I have read glowing reviews of it and seen other Polanski works that I consider very fine (Chinatown, The Ghost Writer). I do not think the Césars were wrong to award the film, or director, its honours, any more than was the Oscars for awarding him for The Pianist. The WORK warranted it, and it was only the work that was under consideration in these fora.

    I do understand that women are upset — Polanski, after all is alive and thriving, while Wagner is long gone. He is known to be guilty of once case, and he is a genuine fugitive from justice in the US. He may well be guilty of more — his proclivities were not likely to be a one-off. If anyone is to be blamed, it is those who enable him to work freely in France, Poland and elsewhere that he is free from extradition. They would doubtless argue that the quality of the work justifies their decision. That’s the debate, but once the work is out there it is there to be judged and, if good enough, to be awarded.

    But if we were to dig very deeply into the lives and views of a lot of artists we esteem highly from days gone by, I daresay there would be quite a few that would not pass muster morally, at least by the standards of today and quite probably in universal terms. Repertoires would be stripped and galleries and libraries emptied.

    Wagner’s misfortune is that he had a devotee in the nastiest piece of work of the 20th century. We accept the work of people known to be pro-Nazi, so I am mystified as to why one of the greatest bodies of work in the musical canon has to be decried in itself because the composer held reprehensible views.

    • John Borstlap says:

      These views were not so reprehensible if you carefully READ the antisemitic pamflet, and filter-out the personal anger, and understand the rest as a cultural critique upon the industrial revolution and the havoc it created. The havoc was real. Because Wagner wanted to be a philosopoher of sorts but never had the training which would have given him the analytical tools to describe what he sensed in the murky waters of his subconscious, he would have made a distinction between ‘Jewishness’ and bad bankers, industrialists, charlatan musicians / composers, etc.

      I have tried to read a number of his essays and articles, but they are a confused mix of sharp insights, silly speculations without any basis, and paragraphs which are incomprehensible from any point of view; obviously he did not think through what he was writing.

  • fflambeau says:

    I agree. Wagner was a total conundrum.

    A horrible man, a strong anti-Semite and many other bad things but his music is marvelous. One cannot listen to Tristan and fail to be impressed. He was revolutionary. Accept him with warts (and more) and all.

    I think he also poses the question, in human form, of where does evil come from. Remember too that Reinhard Heydrich, was also a supremely vile man, but a very accomplished violinist (and son of a man who not only taught classical music but had a musical school). He raises the same question.

    • John Borstlap says:

      To suggest that RW represented human evil, is ridiculous. He was an exceptional artist with an exceptional personality structure, of which there were elements which did not quite ‘fit’. There are indications that he may have suffered from some sort of personality disorder, one of them being a lack of inhibition. He was only human, and in the context of his time and how music life was then (dis-)organised, many of his mistakes are fully understandable.

      To name one of the darkest figures of the nazi regime in this context, is clinically insane.


  • fflambeau says:

    To F.P. Walter who claims Wagner was not an anti-Semite. Read Wagner’s essay. He said, among other things: “…the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings”and our dealings lose their force.”

    And this: “… to-day is turned to money by the Jew: who thinks of noticing that the guileless-looking scrap of paper is slimy with the blood of countless generations? What the heroes of the arts, with untold strain consuming lief and life, have wrested from the art-fiend of two millennia of misery, to-day the Jew converts into an art-bazaar (Kunstwaarenwechsel): who sees it in the mannered bricabrac, that it is glued together by the hallowed brow-sweat of the Genius of two thousand years?—”

    And this (which Hitler echoes in Mein Kampf): “The Jew—who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself—in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward [83] appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably (09) foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that.”

    He also personally attacks Felix Mendelssohn.

    Wagner was an extreme anti-Semite.

    http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wagjuda.htm (Wagner’s essay translated)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Again, if you read carefully, it is a cultural critique of the industrial revolution and its developing business models, but clothed in racist terms. It is like someone thinking, after seeing a number of communists with red hair, that it is their hair colour which creates communism. If such (stupid) mistake is combined with painful recollections of personal, pulverizing humiliations at the hands of ‘such people’, the blown-up emotionalism will be understandable.

      Antisemitism in the fifties of the 19th century did not have the holocaustic overtones it got later-on, with the addition of quasi-Darwinian underlinings.

      And we see the same mistake being made today in relation to European immigrants.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Have you read Cosima Wagner’s diaries? Ugh!!! She says how they tried to convert the conductor of the premier of Parsifal to Christianity in a couple of days as it was wrong that a Jew should conduct a Christian opera. Can’t remember why they chose him in the first place.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You will find the answers in Genius and Anxiety.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But that is a well-known story – Wagner needed the court orchestra (he got it for free) and its conductor was Hermann Levi. Wagner greatly admired the conductor, but – considering ‘Jewishness’ an inherent world view rather than simply a religion, and considering his Parsifal as something like a substitute-religious work of regenerating Christianity, he tried to convince King Ludwig to let him have the court orchestra without its chief conductor. But the king simply refused and W had to accept the whole package. Plan B was to get Levi Christianised, which failed as well. In the end the performances went very well and nobody experienced some harm by a ‘Jewish’ way of conducting. It’s a crazy mix of misunderstandings and wrong projections. If W had understood that the thing he wanted to warn against and to attack all of his life had nothing to do with ethnicity, he would have had an easier life.

      In the debate around the Enlightenment, W was on the side of philosopher Herder who claimed that Enlightenment values were not universal at all and much too abstract to be implementated in a real sense – human rights etc. as being rationalistic, interventionalist ideas without consideration of the real world of how people live. W saw that the modern world with its rationalistic and materialistic treatment of nature, of humans, of art was entirely self-destructive. We see comparable problems today – they still have not been solved satisfactorily.

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    Perhaps the most detailed examination of the relationship between Wagner & Hitler is to be found in a book called RICHARD AND ADOLF: DID RICHARD WAGNER INCITE ADOLF HITLER TO COMMIT THE HOLOCAUST by a retired judge of the Supreme Court in South Africa, Christopher Nicholson published in Israel by Gefen Publishing House in 2007.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is the book by Joachim Kohler: ‘Wagner’s Hitler’, explaining Hitler from the operas and writings. But later-on Kohler reverted his conclusions and admitted he was wrong.


      There’s a lot of nonsense told around Wagner and his work. The territory remains a challenging test for anybody’s moral understanding and intelligence, where even the most brilliant minds stumble and fall.

      • V.Lind says:

        I agree. The whole notion of “blaming” Wagner for Hitler is ludicrous. And the likelihood is that while Wagner adopted the sort of anti-Semitism common in his day it was far from a preoccupation.

        Blaming Hitler because he liked Wagner’s music and exaggerated his philosophic obsessions is like blaming Christ for the Westboro Baptist Church.

    • V.Lind says:

      A book riddled with errors from the get-go and completely discredited.