Leonard Bernstein, the great American musician, struggled with ambivalent feelings about Richard Wagner, the renowned German composer and theatre director (1813-1883). In a moment of exasperation, he said, “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.”
Wagner composed soaring epic operas featuring rich orchestration and harmonies and complex textures. His works included Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lehergrin, which will be performed at the annual Wagner musical festival in Bayreuth, Germany, from July 25 to Aug. 28.
Wagner, however, was an outspoken antisemite who, in a notorious pamphlet, Judaism in Music, claimed that Jews were an “alien element” in German culture whose influence had to be eradicated. Published in 1850 and reissued in 1869, it was a landmark in the annals of 19th-century antisemitic literature.
Much like Bernstein, Wagner’s great-granddaugher, Nike, recoils at the dark dimension of his legacy. “How could such a sleazy character, a trickster and a racist, write such wonderful and enduring music?” she observed in a recent article.
The problem transcends Wagner, who, curiously enough, had an assortment of Jewish friends, from the conductor Hermann Levy to the pianist Karl Tausig. Wagner’s heirs, Cosima and Winifred, both perpetuated the antisemitic tone he set after establishing the Bayreuth Festival, or Festspiele, in 1876.
Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the mother-in-law of the British racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, claimed that Germany was a “Judaized state.” In this spirit, Cosima hired Jews only if a “German” performer was not available, or if their star status made them absolutely indispensable.
In 1924, after an interval of 10 years since the outbreak of World War I, Cosima relaunched the festival as a manifestation of nationalist, antisemitic sentiment, some critics say.
Winifred, a Briton who married Wagner’s son, Siegfried, enjoyed a close friendship with Adolf Hitler. Winifred, who succeeded Siegfried as festival director in 1930, joined the Nazi party in the early 1920s, a good decade before Hitler became chancellor. She effectively turned over the festival to the Nazi movement after 1940, when Germany was embroiled in total war.
Hitler, who was born six years after Wagner’s death, was addicted to Wagner’s music. “My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds,” he mused in Mein Kampf.
In 1933, on the 50th anniversary of Wagner’s death, the Nazi party staged a grand celebration in his honour in Leipzig, where, ironically, he was born in its Jewish quarter. From that juncture onward, Hitler regularly attended the festival, giving it tax-exempt status and using it as a propaganda tool to bolster Nazi ideology.
During the war, two-thirds of Bayreuth, a pleasant town in Upper Franconia where Wagner spent 10 years, was destroyed by Allied bombardments. Wagner’s theatre, the Festspielhaus, whose design and construction he personally supervised, was miraculously spared.
Under the postwar U.S. occupation, the theatre stopped performing Wagner’s operas. But his music was brought back in 1951 with a performance of Parsifal. As for Winifred, she was banned from the festival. Her two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, succeeded her.
Wolfgang’s daughters, Eva and Katharina, took over five years ago in favour of their cousin, Niki.
In honour of this year’s bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, the German National Tourist Board reports, a host of German cities from Bayreuth and Leipzig to Dresden and Nuremberg will stage celebratory concerts. (Israel, unofficially, still bans Wagner’s music).
Bayreuth, population 72,000, is marking the 200th anniversary of his birth with a series of concerts and exhibitions. All over town, signs and banners extol Wagner. A glossy brochure issued by Bayreuth’s tourist office reads: “Throughout 2013, Bayreuth will be welcoming to orchestras, choirs and soloists who will be performing both traditional and contemporary interpretations of Richard Wagner’s works alongside works by his contemporaries.”
Visitors in Bayreuth can also pause at Wagner’s unmarked marble grave, and will be able to visit the Richard Wagner Museum once renovations are completed.
Tickets to the festival, which is housed in a sylvan park-like setting, are exceedingly difficult to obtain, with demand (estimated at 500,000) grossly exceeding supply (58,000 tickets).
Bowing to pressure, the festival has tried to come to terms with its antisemitic past. After Winifred’s death in 1980, a plaque was installed to pay homage to two Jewish singers who were murdered during the Holocaust, Ottilie Metzger-Lattermann and Henriette Gottlieb.
For the remainder of this year, Silenced Voices, an outdoor installation of grey glass panels etched with the names and photographs of former Jewish performers, will remind visitors that they played no small role at the Bayreuth Festival, the Wagners’ antisemitism notwithstanding.
The installation, sponsored by a bevy of prominent German citizens, lies about 50 metres away from the theatre.
Tragically, a number of these distinguished Jewish musicians and singers were murdered in Nazi extermination camps in Poland. Hendrik Prins, a violinist, and Lucian Horwitz, a cellist, were deported to Auschwitz. Henrietta Gottlieb died in the Lodz Ghetto. Hermann Horner, a baritone, was killed in Belzec. Still others, such as Elsa Julich, managed to emigrate before it was too late. Fleeing Germany in 1935, she settled in Palestine, and died in Ramat Gan in 1964.
This installation is not the sole reminder of the Nazi era in Bayreuth. The names of Jewish residents in Bayreuth who perished during the Holocaust are inscribed on a wall in the lobby of city hall. On the opposite side, a memorial pays respect to all victims of Nazism and recalls an Allied air raid in April 1945 that killed 875 residents of Bayreuth.
Despite Bayreuth’s infatuation with Wagner, some of its inhabitants could not care less about him. “Wagner was only a short time here,” said Felix Gothart, the president of Bayreuth’s Jewish community, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors and a building renovator. “He is of no interest to me. I don’t ignore the festival, but it’s not so important for me.”
A 57-year-old observant Jew whose wife is a Christian convert to Judaism, he is the son of Josef and Rifka Gothart, who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, settled down in Bayreuth after the war and knew a fellow member of the Mizrachi Zionist movement, Kurt Rothschild of Toronto and Israel.
Before the Nazi era, Bayreuth was home to between 200 to 300 Jews, some of whom were deported during the war. But thanks to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, there are now 500 Jews in Bayreuth, which is served by an 18th-century synagogue. A mikvah is due to open in the summer. To Gothart, the present and the future are clearly more important than the past.