Public Domain/Flickr
From ‘Histoire musicale de la main’ by Emile Gouget, Fishbacher, Paris, 1898Public Domain/Flickr
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Is Wagner’s Racism as Bad as It Sounds?

Alex Ross’ ‘Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music’

David P. Goldman
November 02, 2020
Public Domain/Flickr
From ‘Histoire musicale de la main’ by Emile Gouget, Fishbacher, Paris, 1898Public Domain/Flickr

Mark Twain quipped that Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s long-serving classical music critic, asserts the same about Wagner’s racism, but without Twain’s sense of humor. “Wagner’s anti-Semitism, ferocious as it was, stopped just short of ‘scientific’ or ‘biological’ racism: his conception of Jewishness remained quasi-metaphorical and subject to spiritual transformation,” declares Ross, after a cut-and-paste arrangement of Wagner’s pronouncements on the subject. That is grossly false: Wagner was obsessed with racial mixture to the point of asserting that miscegenation is mankind’s original sin. He wrote in “Heroism and Christianity” (1881), “We can rightly view world history as the result of the mixing of this white race with the yellow and black races,” adding, “The corruption of the white race derives from the fact that, incomparably fewer in number than the lower races, it was compelled to intermix with them.”

Wagner’s cited essay appeared after the premier of his last opera, Parsifal, in order to elucidate his peculiar notion of Christianity: As Joachim Köhler explains, “Communion signified the act of purifying degenerate blood. According to Wagner, this miracle had already taken place in Christ himself, who was from a mixed-race background.” That is the meaning of the final declaration of the chorus, “Salvation to the Savior!” The Semitic Jesus had to be purged of his Jewish blood, so that his blood could become an “antidote” to the corruption of the Aryan race. The Metropolitan Opera’s current Parsifal production captures this well by immersing the stage in a sea of blood.

Ross doesn’t cite this well-known and often-quoted declaration, but rather tries to qualify Wagner’s race hatred. The lines about miscegenation cited above were inspired by Count Gobineau, the 19th-century founder of pseudoscientific racism. Ross avers, “People of color ... cause Gobineau to shudder, while the composer’s opinion of them wavers.” That is a distortion: Ross suppresses Wagner’s unambiguous statement that racial mixture is the fundamental driver of human history, while scouring the composer’s letters and diaries for offhand remarks that seem less outrageous. He writes:

Yet Wagner could also be sympathetic to black people. He criticizes Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet ‘Occasional Discourse on the negro Question,’ expressing surprise over Carlyle’s ‘taking sides against the Negroes.’ He says that the American Civil War was ‘the only war whose aim was humane’ – presumably meaning the abolition of slavery … On the subject of Native Americans, Wagner seconds Cosima’s view that ‘I would give the whole of discovered America in exchange for the poor natives’ not having been burned or persecuted. And he praises Cershwayo, king of Zululand, who humiliated British forces in the early stages of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. … ‘Zulus are human beings like ourselves,’ he says.

Besides, Ross continues, Theodor Herzl and W.E.B. Du Bois both liked Wagner. “What Wagner thought of Jewish people and people of color is an inescapable question, although the answer is not as simple as it seems. Since this is a book about Wagnerism, the even more crucial issue is what Jews and people of color thought of him.”

This attempt to defend the indefensible is one of two large defects in the present book. The other is the near-absence of comment on Wagner’s music, which leaves the reader wondering what it was that turned seemingly sensible people into hyperventilating cultists after hearing their first Wagner opera. George Bernard Shaw, the very model of a modern rationalist, gushed: “Most of us are so helplessly under the spell of [Wagner’s] greatness that we can do nothing but go raving about the theater in ecstasies of deluded admiration.” Ross never explains why this should be the case, but he illustrates it. Ross is woke in matters of race, detecting with a witch-finder’s zeal the “systemic racism” lurking in aspects of music theory that seem as race-neutral as mathematics. Nonetheless his Wagner infatuation impels him to twist facts and truncate citations to make the man seem less horrible than he was.

Politics has nothing to do with these contortions. We encounter the same compulsion to rehabilitate Wagner across the political spectrum. The last English-language book on Wagner to elicit wide attention was the late Sir Roger Scruton’s 2016 study of the Ring cycle, and I excoriated it when it appeared the following year. Like Ross, the Wagner-besotted Scruton sought to vitiate Wagner’s Jew-hatred by quoting some of the composer’s less virulent writing: “Wagner himself wrote a striking autobiography. It tells the story of a fraught and difficult life and abounds in expressions of love and gratitude, as well as self-praise. The book reinvents its author as a symbol of the emerging Germany, is catty and mendacious about Meyerbeer, and is less than generous to Mendelssohn. But it steers clear of ardent nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments.” Never mind that the rest of Wagner’s published writings (as Ross reports in detail) stink of Jew-hatred. A self-styled defender of traditional values, Scruton also embraced Wagner’s liberated sexuality (for example, the brother-sister incest of Siegfried’s parentage).

Something about Wagner beguiled the left-wing Ross and the right-wing Scruton such that both fell into “ecstasies of deluded admiration.” Both writers felt compelled to defend the composer for offenses against their most cherished beliefs. That thing, of course, is Wagner’s music.

It is odd to consider that there is no other important composer aside from Wagner who evokes polar opposite reactions in different listeners, or in the same listener under different circumstances. I know gifted professional musicians who prefer root canal to Wagner, and others who will fly across the world to hear a Ring cycle. Ross describes his own vicissitudes in this regard. The “great classical tradition from Bach to Brahms” occupied his youth, he reports, and Wagner evoked “a kind of auditory seasickness.” However, “At the end of my college years my life veered in a somewhat chaotic, self-destructive direction. It was at this point, naturally, that I began to fall in love with Wagner. … I realized that Wagner is not simply a phenomenon of sound; the characters assumed sharp profiles in my consciousness, and melded with my own emotional world, stunted as it was.”

This writer had a similar experience. In my early teens I found Wagner repugnant. But at the age of 15 I acquired the Hans Knappertsbusch recording of Parsifal taken live at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival—in the opinion of many the opera’s definitive rendering—and during my occasional spells of adolescent depression, I would lie on my bed and wallow in its turgid pace. In my normal mood I couldn’t abide the thing and cannot today. When I reviewed the Metropolitan Opera’s version for this publication in 2018 I read the score in preparation rather than listen to it.

In fact, there is a close parallel between Wagner’s music, especially in its treatment of time, and the experience of time in clinical depression. A 2018 study by psychologists at the University of Mainz found that depressives experience time differently than healthy individuals. In 2019 Rowena Kong of the University of British Columbia showed that depressives were more attuned to the past than to the future, such that “events that have taken place in the past could also be casting a forward temporal and cognitive effect on depressive symptoms which follow.” That is precisely what distinguishes Wagner’s music from the compositions of everyone else from Bach to Brahms.

Alex Ross concludes: Hitler embraced Wagner to the point that the composer became the definitive icon of National Socialist anti-culture, but that was because he didn’t understand the man.

Goal-oriented motion is the invariant characteristic of the classics. The composer states a home key (or “tonic”) and moves away from it, almost always to the key of the note a fifth above it (the “dominant”) and returns to the home key at the conclusion. The journey from tonic to dominant and back may be simple, as in the bridge of most popular songs, or tortuous and extended, as in a late Schubert sonata, but this forward-looking expectation drives the music forward. The great composers create suspense, irony, tension—the whole palette of human emotions—by delaying or temporarily diverting the ascent to the dominant and the descent to the tonic, but this framework (or “fundamental structure” in the term of the great Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker) always is there.

Regularity of meter at least at some level always is present in classical music. Mozart habitually writes phrases of irregular length, but we hear them as expansions or contractions of regular phrases. Frequently, the great composers create a higher-level meter that bears the listener on the journey to tonal resolution. The spiritual connotations of goal-oriented motion are profoundly Western; indeed, for this reason it is fair to think of classical music as the most characteristic art form of the West.

The soul’s journey to salvation, or the individual’s journey to redemption, are not pictured but rather recreated in classical composition. It is no accident that the authoritative thinker in modern Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, loved classical music (especially Bach), and ruled that the prohibition against listening to music during the Three Weeks before Tisha B’Av did not apply to “sublime” classical music but only to music of revelry. Among Western art forms classical music comes closest to Jewish time-consciousness, which recreates the past in the present through the public declamation of Torah in emulation of the Sinai revelation, the reliving of the Exodus at the Seder, and the remembrance of creation in the Friday evening Kiddush.

Even the secular music of the great classical composers evokes a biblical, i.e., Jewish, sense of time. As Franz Rosenzweig writes, “Revelation is the first thing to set its mark firmly into the middle of time; only after Revelation do we have an immovable Before and Afterward.” Pre-biblical time by contrast has no necessary direction and no internal direction; it is the time of peoples for whom the past is lost in mist and the future is the unthinking reiteration of the present. It is not a specific time, but only “once upon a time,” the unchanging repetition of life as it is and always will be. The pentatonic music of pre-modern peoples is inherently static (in fact, modern composers borrow from it to slow the march of musical time). Only with the memory of Sinai (or for Christians, Calvary) and the expectation of ultimate redemption does time take on internal differentiation and a sense of necessity. As R. Soloveitchik explains, “Time-awareness also contains a moral element: responsibility for emerging events and intervention in the historical process. Man, according to Judaism, should try to mold and fashion the future. That is exactly why he has been created as a free agent.” Time is not perceived passively, but rather constituted by human intent, which in turn allows for moral differentiation and judgment.

That is precisely what Wagner set out to subvert in his music, that is, our obligation to moral law as well as the constitution of time that arises from it. “Time is absolute Nothing. Only that which makes time forgotten, that destroys it, is Something,” he wrote in 1852 to Theodor Uhlig. In Wagner’s last opera a guardian of the shrine of the Holy Grail says the same thing in so many words: “Here time becomes space.” In other words, time ceases to be time.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism is explicitly racist, but it is also therefore metaphysical: He sets out to subvert not merely the concept of covenant, but the constitution of time demarcated by the Covenant and ultimate redemption. The composer has a bag of tricks to befuddle the listener’s sense of time. Ross gives rapturous mention to the moment in Wagner’s Siegfried, the third of the Ring cycle operas, where the hero wakens the Valkyrie Brünnhilde after braving the magic fire that surrounds her. “It falls to the orchestra to conjure the majesty of the scene—the first harsh glint of the sun (E minor) followed by the warming spread of its rays (harp-caressed C major).”

Wagner’s music, though, is far cleverer than the banal tone-painting reported by Ross. We hear what appears to be an E minor chord in the upper register of the orchestra, but this turns out not to be a chord at all, but a just passing motion; the prolongation of the E minor sonority deceives the ear, and its top note (B natural) resolves upward to C. Wagner has turned the E minor into an apparent tonic, but then revealed it to be a false tonic, passing to the true local tonic of C major. Thus Wagner evokes Brünnhilde’s awakening; we reinterpret our dream state once we pass into a wakened state. Time seemingly stops as Brünnhilde and her onlookers hear, as it were, backwards.

The same is true of the notorious “Tristan chord,” about which Ross enthuses: “That first chord, the “Tristan chord,” is a nebulous, ambiguous half-diminished seventh. In a well-defined harmonic context, it would be unremarkable, but in the hazy space delineated by the cellos it assumes an identity once sensuous and unstable.” But it is not a chord at all; once again, it is passing motion between chords, as professor John Rothgeb explains.

Distinguishing between stable tonal areas and passing motion between them is a critical contribution of the theory of Austrian Jewish scholar Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), whose teaching dominated the analysis of tonal music in American universities for the past half-century. Last year an obscure musicologist, Philip Ewell, proposed to cancel Schenker studies on the grounds that the theorist (whose wife and daughter died in Nazi concentration camps) had made some racist statements in passing: Ewell earlier got his 15 minutes of fame for asserting that “Beethoven was just an above-average composer.” In the ensuing furor the Journal of Schenkerian Studies was suspended from publication by its sponsor, the University of North Texas.

Ross, who excuses Wagner’s racism, denounced Schenker, affirming professor Ewell’s charge that “Schenker’s system is, in fact, founded on national and racial hierarchies. Reverence for the kind of supreme talent who can assemble monumental musical structures shades into biological definitions of genius, and the biology of genius spills over into the biology of race.”

To assert that the belief that there are musical geniuses implies a belief that genius is racially determined is ridiculous, of course—but it is no less ridiculous than Ross’ excuses for Wagner’s explicit racism. Schenker thought Wagner a great talent who could not, however, sustain a music idea for more than a few measures. What Wagner accomplishes in moments like Brünnhilde’s awakening is quite effective, for reasons that Ross feels at some level but can’t articulate—but could have if he had studied Schenker.

Despite these defects, Ross’ book contains a wealth of valuable material. Wagner still casts a long shadow over popular culture, and no other single volume documents Wagner’s influence so exhaustively. Ross argues persuasively that Wagner had a thematic presence in the work of Proust, Joyce, and Eliot, among other writers. Marcel Proust’s quest to regain lost time had a distinctly Wagnerian inspiration, Ross argues. The novelist wrote, “I shall present the discovery of Time regained in the sensations induced by the spoon, the tea, etc. as an illumination à la Parsifal.” Music evokes many of Swann’s memories in Proust’s cycle, and “If Proust had kept to his original plan, the entire sequence of epiphanies would have hinged on Parsifal.” Eliot’s use of mythological material from the Parsifal legend (the “Fisher King” story) is well documented, but Ross goes further: “The last part of The Waste Land is like an afterimage of Wagner’s syncretic religiosity.”

Because film scores account for the majority of music in the classical style heard by most people, we might fairly call Wagner the most influential composer in Western history. Film music from Max Steiner (whose 1933 score for King Kong invented the through-composed soundtrack) to John Williams relies on Wagner’s compositional technique, especially the leitmotif, a recurring musical theme associated with a character or concept. Think of Steiner’s many transformations of the opening bars of “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca, or Darth Vader’s da-DUM-dum-DUM in Star Wars. Williams stocked his score with leitmotifs in emulation of Wagner.

But Wagner’s influence extends much further: The Star Wars cycle, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, the three iconic fantasy epics of the past half-century, all derive from Wagner, albeit in quite different ways: Siegfried has preternatural strength and freedom from fear, Harry Potter has magic, and Luke has the Force. Each of them must confront and overcome the power of the past: Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear (on which are engraved all the covenants of mankind), Harry defeats Voldemort, and Luke fights his father, Darth Vader.

The parallels between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Wagner Ring cycle are even richer and more direct: A magic ring whose bearer can conquer the world, which nonetheless is cursed and destroys its owner; a sword that is broken and reforged; an immortal maiden who marries a mortal man; a new era that begins with the departure of the immortals from the world. Wagner uses the same term, “Light-Elves,” to describe his gods as Tolkien applies to his elves.

Ross doesn’t like Tolkien because he thinks that Brünnhilde is a feminist icon: “No glorification of the heroine takes place at the end; instead, a hobbit sits down to the meal that his wife has cooked for him. The Lord of the Rings spins the fantasy that the world will end and life will go on as before.” He is also disappointed that “sex, all-important in Wagner’s world, is peripheral in Tolkien’s.” But Ross misses the broader significance of Tolkien’s riposte. Wagner’s heroes, and their descendants like Harry and Luke, depend on their racial superiority. Tolkien’s hobbits are ordinary folk, whose moral fiber allows them to resist the Ring which inevitably corrupts the descendants of the Númenórean kings.

Hitler embraced Wagner to the point that the composer became the definitive icon of National Socialist anti-culture, but that was because he didn’t understand the man, Ross concludes. “Historical cliché requires Hitler’s last days to be described as a Götterdämmerung: so Joachim Fest titled the final chapter of his Hitler biography,” and so it was understood by a panoply of critics. “Yet Götterdämmerung is no apocalypse; it envisions a transfer of power, from gods to people. It is also the redress of a wrong, restoring the Ring from the illusory heights to the truthful depths. Wotan, very unlike Hitler, has repented of his megalomania.”

That is the punchline of Ross’ book, sneaked into the penultimate paragraph of a middle chapter: an eccentric, willful misreading of Wagner in defiance of the mass of contrary evidence. We who look back on the horrors of the 20th-century—the pointless slaughter in the trenches of World War I and the systemic annihilation of whole civilian populations in World War II—ask ourselves how it was possible. It was possible because Europe spiritually and artistically rehearsed its own annihilation for decades before the first shot was fired.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.