Is there anti-Semitism in Parsifal ?

or in any of Wagner's operas?

The Uncritical Paradigm

Anyone who has strayed into any online group where opera or music is discussed will have experienced strongly negative reactions when the name of Richard Wagner is mentioned. There are certain assertions about this composer and his works that many people consider both self-evident and incontrovertible. They are only too keen to tell you so, and anyone attempting to gainsay them, or to suggest that the truth is both stranger and more complicated, will receive virulent personal abuse. One reason for this might be that these assertions have been taught as facts by professors in the humanities faculties of colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere in recent decades. Here are the so-called incontrovertible and unassailable truths that students have been taught by — and in many cases uncritically accepted from — their rabidly Wagner-hating professors:

  1. Richard Wagner was a terrible man, a real monster, who must be condemned
  2. Wagner was not only an anti-Semite but also a racist
  3. Wagner was a prototype Nazi who wrote the script for the Third Reich
  4. Racial and anti-Semitic ideas were the driving force behind Wagner's creativity
  5. At least one character in each Wagner opera is a caricature Jew
  6. The underlying message of every Wagner opera is "kill the Jews"
  7. Wagner's belief that he had Jewish ancestors fuelled his anti-Semitic obsession
  8. Anyone who fails to accept without question any of these doctrines is an anti-Semite

It is well known and beyond dispute that Richard Wagner, at least in the second half of his life1, became increasingly anti-Semitic. As was his second wife, Cosima, and it is clear that she encouraged his prejudices. She made a note of all his anti-Semitic comments in her Diaries and, since their publication, an entire shelf of books have appeared (many of them written by Wagner-hating professors from undistinguished colleges in the American midwest) that use his anti-Semitism as a stick with which to beat Wagner, cherry-picking relevant sentences from Cosima's Diaries (usually something Wagner had said when he was in a bad mood at the breakfast table) and quoting from anti-Semitic statements in Wagner's crankier essays.

Unfortunately very few authors have tried to understand where this hatred of Jews and (almost) everything Jewish had come from. Notable and commendable exceptions (see reference section below) are Jakob Katz and Jens Malte Fischer, who have provided insightful, factual and balanced analyses. Katz followed a definite methodology: starting from minimal assumptions, he studied how Wagner's attitude to the Jews and to political developments concerning Jewish emancipation developed over his lifetime. The less methodical and less scrupulous anti-Wagner writers have ignored the fact that Wagner's views, on this and many other subjects, changed over the years. The vicious Wagner-hater Joachim Köhler, for example, does not hesitate to construct a sentence from various sources and from different decades, to make up something that Wagner never said, and then to attack him for it. This is not valid, of course: Wagner's attitudes to the Jews and to Jewish emancipation were different in 1850, in 1869 and in later years; and the political context in each of those periods was very different. Furthermore, the context of various statements that he made at various times (for example: in published articles, in his correspondence with King Ludwig, and in domestic conversation as recorded by Cosima) needs to be considered when examining each of those statements.

The Bayreuth Festival is to be congratulated for their recent efforts to shed light on the darker corners of Wagner's legacy, not least the anti-Semitism of Richard and Cosima, and on the history of Bayreuth, where a cabal of anti-Semites and reactionaries gathered first around Hans von Wolzogen (the editor of the Blätter) and later around H.S. Chamberlain (Wagner's posthumous son-in-law). Wolzogen and Chamberlain were determined to make their version of Wagner, as a racist and a reactionary, the accepted one. When Ferdinand Praeger issued a book about Wagner, based on his conversations with the composer, Chamberlain tried to get it suppressed. It would not do to have people reading about Wagner's early life or about his role in the Dresden uprising of 1849. To some extent the view of Wagner held by most people today is the distorted one created by Cosima, Wolzogen and Chamberlain.

The question of whether — and if so in what sense — anti-Semitism appears in Wagner's dramatic works has been much debated in recent years. Opponents of Wagner and his legacy have argued that it would be surprising if there were no traces of his anti-Semitic prejudices in the operas (or at least, in those written after Judaism in Music). His supporters have tried to argue that it is possible to separate the man from his works, a line of argument that some of us find unconvincing. For the simple reason that everything in Wagner's life and in his ideas is interconnected. This does not imply, however, that there is an anti-Semitic subtext to any of the operas.

The interpretation of some characters in Wagner's works as Semitic caricatures has a long history. Already in 1876 there were some who saw the dwarf Mime in Siegfried as a caricature Jew, and by extension also his brother Alberich, the eponymous Nibelung himself. Wagner never confirmed that such claims were valid and we do not know his intentions. It has been suggested that Wagner subconsciously made Mime into a caricature Jew; other people have argued that Wagner was subconsciously describing himself, since his description of Mime fits the composer rather well. In a sense, Mime is Wagner.

The notion of Wagner's supposedly Jewish ancestry began with Nietzsche, who noted (in a footnote to The Case of Wagner) that the name of Wagner's stepfather, Geyer (vulture) was like Adler (eagle), the latter often a Jewish surname. The ideas that Wagner was of Jewish descent and about his supposed anxiety about it have been popularised by several writers of anti-Wagner polemics in recent years. There are only two problems: first, Wagner did not believe that Geyer was his father, rather than his stepfather, and he said as much to Cosima (CT 26.XII.1878). Secondly, when the Nazi party investigated the ancestries respectively of Geyer and Wagner's legal father, they found no Jewish connections at all. So the American professors and other Wagner-haters who claim that Wagner believed that he was Jewish and that he had a complex about it, are wrong on both counts.

Wagner's Anti-Semitism: Its Origins and Growth

Before we can address the question of whether there is anti-Semitism in any of Wagner's operas, or any related questions about Wagner's life and legacy, we need to examine the facts of his life. There is an abundance of primary material, including Wagner's prose writings and more than ten thousand of his letters, together with secondary sources such as Cosima's Diary: which records and presents Richard Wagner as Cosima wanted him to be remembered by their children. There are also many valuable studies such as those written by Katz or Fischer, and by other serious and objective scholars. And of course many books full of malicious anti-Wagner polemics that pay only selective attention to the primary and secondary sources, without considering when a text was written, for whom it was written, or in what context. The authors of these anti-Wagner polemics prefer to quote from other anti-Wagner polemics, in an ever-decreasing circle of hearsay, distortion and invention. And as Professor John Deathridge commented in his (1986) review of Katz: Although everyone has heard about Wagner and the Jews, few have actually read what he said about them or bothered to grasp his dialectical, quasi-Hegelian train of thought and its significant changes of emphasis in the later stages of his life.

Wagner in Leipzig

The roots of Wagner's anti-Semitic obsession are most likely to be found in his childhood, growing up in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig. Unfortunately we know little of those years except for what Wagner wrote in his unreliable autobiography, and from the book by Ferdinand Praeger (see below). According to Praeger, Wagner's first love was for one Leah David, and his heart was broken for the first time when Leah decided to marry her cousin. That might be one of the wounds that never healed.

Another wound was Wagner's envy of his contemporary Felix Mendelssohn. While the young Wagner could only scrape together enough money to pay a few musicians to play through his compositions in the back room of an inn, Mendelssohn's wealthy parents could afford to hire an orchestra to perform the early works of young Felix. It is hardly surprising that Wagner, at least in retrospect, became critical of Mendelssohn. Katz notes that Wagner lauded Mendelssohn and sought his support, sending him the score of his youthful symphony, which Mendelsson lost. Their relations remained friendly, at least until the Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung ignored Wagner's operas Rienzi and Holländer: when Wagner started to believe that Mendelssohn was working against his interests. Despite this concern, Wagner's tone in correspondence with Mendelssohn was always friendly.

Wagner in Paris

On his way to Paris, Wagner met up with the established opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, whom Wagner hoped would open doors for him there. But although Meyerbeer was well disposed towards Wagner, the breakthrough never happened. Wagner was one of the crowd around Meyerbeer, many of whom were Jewish, including Halévy. Even after Wagner became hostile towards Meyerbeer, he still spoke warmly of Halévy and saw performances of his opera La Juive whenever he could. During his years in Paris, Wagner became friendly with the bookish Samuel Lehrs, a Jewish philologist who introduced Wagner to the medieval poems about Lohengrin, Parzival and Tannhäuser. Sadly Lehrs died of consumption soon after Wagner took up his post in Dresden. Lehrs was one of many Jewish friends who helped Wagner's career, in one way or another. Wagner's later criticisms of the Jewish community showed, if nothing more, a serious lack of gratitude to Jews who had been kind to him. It is difficult to accept Wagner's claims, made in private correspondence and domestic conversation, that Jews were abhorrent to him, when there is abundant evidence of his friendly relationships before 1850 with Lehrs, Auerbach, Halévy and other Jewish individuals.

Wagner in Exile

Wagner managed to escape from Saxony after the failure of the revolution and, with the help of Franz Liszt, travelled to safety in Zürich. There he stopped writing music, almost entirely, to focus on producing theoretical writings about music and drama. Wagner was now bitterly disappointed in Meyerbeer, whom he felt had done too little to help him in Paris and who was now doing nothing to help him in Berlin, where plans for a staging of Rienzi had been abandoned. Wagner's bitterness and frustration erupted in an anti-Jewish rant that he had published pseudonymously, in an obscure music journal founded by Robert Schumann, under the title Das Judenthum in der Musik. Later it was translated into English under the rather inaccurate title of Judaism in Music: it might be more accurately called Jewishness in Music. The trigger for Wagner's essay was discussion of Meyerbeer's latest success Les Huguenots, in that journal and elsewhere: see for example the article by Theodor Uhlig, partly reprinted in Fischer. The more intelligent commentators on this essay have argued that it is offensive not so much because of what it says, but more because of the way Wagner says it. Some of Wagner's assertions, for example when he says that Jewish composers are comparable to worms feeding on the body of art, are both anti-Semitic and offensive. His main thesis is that the artists of the Jewish diaspora are aliens in their host countries, cut off progressively from their own culture, and forced to imitate and satisfy the tastes of the host culture. Further he argues that this makes Jewish musicians and poets incapable of creating genuine and authentic art. While the first of these assertions might be true, the second is not.

Some commentators have compared Wagner's Judaism in Music to Karl Marx's essay On the Jewish Question, written seven years earlier. It has not been confirmed, however, that Wagner had read Marx: neither his Dresden library nor his Bayreuth bookshelves contain anything written by Marx. There is an interesting parallelism in their respective notions of how the "Jewish Question" might be solved. For Marx, the Jews (or at least the successful ones) had become the spirit of modern society: everywhere they had become financially or economically dominant. Now there was no longer any need for further emancipation of the Jews, he says, but rather for mankind to be emancipated from "Judaism". That is: from the worship of money and its accumulation through investment, speculation and horse-trading. In other words, capitalism has replaced religion: money degrades the gods and converts them into commodities. In his article, Wagner is narrowly concerned with the Jewish commercialisation (Verjüdung) of art, including music and literature: he says that the Jew converts art-works into an art-commodity-exchange (Kunstwarenwechsel): the art-work is converted into a commodity, and all that matters is the price. Marx says that if the Jew recognises his predicament and works to abolish it, then this abolishment (Aufhebung) contributes to "human emancipation". Wagner, perhaps coincidentally, says something similar: if the Jew succeeds in abolishing his own nature, and like Börne ceases to be a Jew, then he can find redemption together with the rest of mankind. For Marx, the emancipation of mankind would be achieved by overcoming man's alienation from himself, with the downfall of capitalism. For Wagner, society would be transformed with the help of the redemptive "art-work of the future". Common to both writers, integration of the Jews into existing society was irrelevant because that society had to be abolished, taking Judaism (the worship of money, the commercialisation of art) down with it.

The poetry of Heinrich Heine provides a counter-argument to the author's claims that Jewish people always spoke the language of the host country as a foreign language, and that they could not express themselves in the latter. As Wagner himself would have seen, had he tried to be objective. He only needed to recall his conversations with Heine, and all of the poems and essays by Heine that he had read, to realise that what he said about the Jews did not apply to Heine2. Towards the end of Judaism in Music, Wagner mentions Heine (the son of a Jewish family) almost as an afterthought: maybe because he had realised it. He writes, "I said earlier that the Jews had brought forth no great poet", and then acknowledges Heine as a great poet. But that is only relative, Wagner adds, because of the wretched state of German poetry now. This is nonsense: Wagner not only knew that Heine was the greatest poet of his time, when writing in German, but also that his poetry was on the same level as that of Goethe and Schiller. So all that Wagner had written about language in the preceding pages was invalidated by his acknowledgement of Heine's ability. As a result of the cognitive dissonance that Wagner now experienced, he avoided mentioning Heine for the rest of his life. Despite the clear influence of Heine not only in Holländer and Tannhäuser but also in operas written by Wagner after 1850. Even in Parsifal it is possible to see that he had found inspiration in Heine's Atta Troll.

In essence, Das Judenthum is a hateful, bitter rant directed against Meyerbeer (whom he does not mention by name) and, to a lesser extent, Mendelssohn. At this time Meyerbeer was the most successful operatic composer, dominating the operatic stage in Paris and Berlin, just as Mendelssohn was preeminent in the concert halls and salons. Wagner was attacking Meyerbeer as man and artist, but at the same time he was expressing his antagonism toward the contemporary operatic and cultural establishment, as personified by Meyerbeer. Although for the first time Wagner was expressing these opinions in public, he had already revealed them in private: early in 1847 in a letter to Eduard Hanslick, Wagner had written that Meyerbeer — a kind and sympathetic man, in Wagner's assessment — represented everything that he found offensive about the opera industry of that time. Concerning the recently deceased Mendelssohn, in 1850 Wagner acknowledges his talent and achievements but claims that they were limited by his Jewishness. Wagner also names the journalist and writer Ludwig Börne, whom Wagner had never met but considered exemplary in that Börne had ceased to be a Jew. It is worth noting that at this time, and even into the 1870's, Wagner regarded "Jewishness" as something that could be given up, or overcome. At least in this period, clearly Wagner saw "Jewishness" as cultural rather than racial, although it was a problem, as he saw it, of the Jewish tribe. It was only in his last years, after conversations with Count Gobineau, that Wagner began to think about racial, rather than cultural, obstacles to escaping from "Jewishness".

So the essay is aimed at Meyerbeer, with feeble attempts to make a general case against Jewish musicians and writers, who might (like Heine or Börne) by sufficient effort be able to overcome an accident of birth. Writing to Franz Liszt in 1851 3, Wagner said that, although he had found Meyerbeer amiable and pleasant, theirs had been a dishonest relation (also on Wagner's part) and now he felt only antagonism and disgust. Which Meyerbeer had done nothing to deserve, as far as we know. Wagner admits to desperation when he hears "even friends" associate him with Meyerbeer, with whom he claims to have nothing in common. But he did not want to make the conflict personal, Wagner writes to Liszt, so he did not mention Meyerbeer by name in his article. Although Wagner published the essay under a pseudonym, many German musicians found out who had written it, and probably read the article with much shaking of their heads. If Wagner's intention was to distance himself from Meyerbeer and the circle around him, he went much further than necessary.

Wagner in Munich

The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who had been friendly towards Wagner, said that Wagner's anti-Semitism was a purely psychological phenomenon. This might be an accurate assessment. Wagner had an extraordinary mind that some commentators have regarded as that of an evil genius. To get his creative juices flowing, it seems, Wagner needed to love and to hate. He needed strong emotional currents. So while he was composing the music of Die Walküre he needed to be in love with Mathilde Wesendonck and, while writing Die Meistersinger he needed to focus his hatred on poor Hanslick; who, like Meyerbeer, never understood why Wagner had turned against him. Although in a sense Hanslick was a model for Beckmesser, the opera contains a subtext that is more of an attack on critics in general than on any one critic in particular4. It has been argued, cleverly if not always convincingly, that Beckmesser is a caricature Jew and that Wagner based him on Hanslick because the composer believed that he was Jewish. In fact, Hanslick was not at all Jewish, except to the extent that Wagner associated negative traits with Jewish people and projected these traits on to Hanslick (and on to Beckmesser).

An important thread in Wagner's thinking, especially in his pre-Schopenhauer years, was about community. He saw it as difficult to achieve community spirit (Gemeingeist) in a city. Unless it was a city that already had a common ethos and an homogeneous population, such as in his idealised Nuremberg, where the citizens gather for religious ceremonies and cultural festivities. Obviously it would be more difficult to establish a common ethos, which might be reinforced in these religious and cultural gatherings, in a city where there was religious or cultural diversity. Wagner never seems to have resolved the contradiction between his desire for people to recognize and to celebrate their common humanity (Reinmenschlichkeit) and the need to respect such diversity.

Wagner's grand schemes fell apart in Munich after he became the target of the press, who rightly pointed to the composer's extravagant spending of King Ludwig's treasury. Wagner felt that he was being attacked by the Jews and the Jesuits: the Jews being the journalists writing for the secular newspapers and the Jesuits being those writing for the Catholic papers. For the rest of his life Wagner, increasingly paranoid, was ranting about the Jews and the Jesuits, who were all out to get him. He made the mistake of republishing the long-forgotten Das Judenthum, adding an introduction and an afterword (see Fischer for the full text), in which Wagner claimed that this article he had written nineteen years earlier was the cause of the hostility from the Jewish community in Munich and elsewhere; and for the attacks on Wagner in the Viennese press, which he believed to have been orchestrated by the hostile Eduard Hanslick. Hostile to Wagner not, it should be noted, as a result of Wagner's parody of anti-Wagner critics in Beckmesser but mainly as a result of Wagner's negative criticism of Hanslick's Musikalisch-Schöne. Nobody except Wagner himself could see any connection with the long-forgotten essay that Wagner had many years earlier published in an obscure music journal. Wagner was deluded: in reality, the attacks made on him by the press were the result of his behaviour in Munich and elsewhere. Republishing Judaism in Music only made matters worse for Wagner, who had to flee Munich and abandon his plans. Wagner's timing was not only bad but remains hard to explain: since at that time his musical works were getting performed and applauded, also by audiences that included many Jewish people.

Wagner in Bayreuth

In Bayreuth they say that there were no Jews in the city before Wagner arrived. Perhaps this is an exaggeration but it is the case that many of the musicians and artists who supported Wagner in his Bayreuth project were Jewish. When Liszt was unable to manage his unruly pupil Carl Tausig, he sent the boy to the Wagners, who took charge of him. In return, Tausig worked hard for them, helping to establish the Patronatverein that partly funded the Bayreuth Festival. At the age of only 29 Carl died of typhoid fever and the Wagners were devastated. Despite the fact that Tausig was Jewish. Another Jewish pianist was Joseph Rubinstein, who accompanied the chorus in rehearsals before the 1876 Festival. Rubinstein struggled with his mental health but the Wagners looked after him in their own house. Another notable member of Wagner's "Nibelung Chancellery" was his assistant Heinrich Porges, also of Jewish ancestry, whom Wagner told to follow all my rehearsals very closely and note down everything I say, even the smallest details ... When it is mentioned to critics of Wagner that the composer took in Jewish artists who lived with him under his roof, the more vicious of the Wagner haters sneer at "Wagner's house Jews".

Then of course we come to the first conductor of Parsifal, Hermann Levi. It appears that Wagner liked Levi but he was afraid that, after all of his anti-Jewish rhetoric, people would laugh on hearing that he had hired a Jewish conductor. So he tried to get Levi to accept baptism, which did not go down very well with the conductor. Despite Wagner not treating him well, Levi became a loyal supporter of the Bayreuth project, returning to conduct there in the years after Wagner's death. In summary, Wagner's Jewish supporters (like his French disciples) often had to tolerate bad treatment from Wagner but they remained loyal to him. Despite Wagner's paranoid mutterings about "the Jews and the Jesuits", he was able to distinguish between the Jewish artists who were on his side, and the Jewish journalists who were not.

Thesis: Kundry is Jewish

Anti-Semitic Stereotypes in Other Operas

As noted earlier, it is an article of faith, among the Wagner-hating academics of the American midwest and elsewhere, that each Wagner opera must have at least one character who is in some way Jewish. In Holländer obviously it is the Dutchman himself, the Ahasuerus of the sea, condemned always to wander and denied eternal rest. Although, curiously, the malicious Wagner-hater Professor Rose claimed that the Dutchman was not Jewish, which is what made the opera about him anti-Semitic. In his wandering the Dutchman is very much like Kundry, who by extension also must be Jewish. Maybe. In the Ring we are told (by Adorno and his disciples) that it is Mime, so by extension Alberich and indeed all of his Nibelungs must be Jewish. When Wagner's critics raise this interpretation, I like to remind them that at the end of Siegfrieds Tod (the predecessor of Götterdämmerung), Brünnhilde declares that the Nibelungs have been redeemed, and so they are now free. Therefore, if the Nibelungs identify as Jewish, Siegfrieds Tod (and presumably too the Ring cycle that grew from it) is about the liberation of a Jewish race. Nobody seems to be identifiable as Jewish in Tristan und Isolde but we are told (by Rose) that it is anti-Semitic because it celebrates adultery. Yes, really. Writers of anti-Wagner polemics have competed with each other to invent the most absurd falsehoods concerning Parsifal. One of the more fantastic inventions is that Wagner had given instructions that the oriental magician Klingsor "should be dressed as a rabbi".

The idea that Kundry is some kind of anti-Semitic caricature has only emerged recently and for several years featured in the fantasies of the more vicious Wagner-hating authors. As Chikako Kitagawa noted in her Versuch über Kundry (pages 207-213), although Kundry had been interpreted as a female equivalent of the Dutchman, this did not make her "Jewish". Even articles that appeared in the Bayreuther Blätter, even during the Third Reich, did not describe Kundry as "Jewish" or as an anti-Semitic figure. When Adorno claimed that certain characters in Wagner operas were anti-Semitic caricatures, he did not mention Kundry. This is most likely because Kundry had already been identified as a "wild woman" archetype, a description that fitted her better than other possible alternatives. It was not until 1968 that the eccentric Robert Gutman suggested that there was something anti-Semitic about Kundry, after which this idea became an article of faith among the Wagner-hating authors and Wagner-hating academics.

The Thorn Bush

Concerning Die Meistersinger, there is a clever and contrived theory that Barry Millington expounded some years back, identifying the thorn bush mentioned by Walther as the same one that concealed a Jew in a fairy tale told by the Grimm brothers, in which the Jew is beaten to death. Specifically Millington identified Beckmesser as the Jew in the thorn bush. Some people (such as Barry Kosky) are convinced by this theory. Some people think that Millington has deceived himself into seeing Beckmesser as a caricature Jew, and that he went too far in claiming that "anti-Semitism is crucial to an understanding of the work". See below for references to the original articles.

Herodias, the Eternal Jewess

As noted earlier, it is common knowledge among former students of humanities departments in undistinguished colleges of the American midwest that in each Wagner opera there is at least one character who is Jewish. In the case of Parsifal it is Kundry, the wild woman and part-time seductress, who has been identified by the Wagner-hating academics as the Jewish character in this opera. The main argument for their claim is that Klingsor, while conjuring up Kundry at the start of the second act, names her as Herodias. Under this name Kundry could be related to the wandering Jewess of Eugène Sue's novel Le juif errant (1844), the female shadow of Ahasuerus, who had once demanded the head of John the Baptist. As in other 19th century literature, here the biblical Herodias is conflated with her daughter Salome. The other notable identification of Herodias as Jewish can be found in Heinrich Heine's late poem Atta Troll. Once the queen of Judea, Heine's Herodias kissed the head of St John, and now she rides with the wild hunt of Diana. If Klingsor's line refers to the Herodias of Sue's novel and Heine's poem, then (in one of her previous lives) Kundry was Jewish. Like Sue's character, Kundry in the opera is a character unable to find rest. She is the female equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, the "Ahasuerus of the sea". Like Heine's dead princess, Kundry as messenger of the Grail rides across the sky.

Antithesis: Kundry is not Jewish

Herodias, Princess of Judea

The mythical Herodias who rides with Diana and dame Holda probably did not, originally, have any connection with the biblical Herodias. This was suggested by the American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who argued that the mythical character was (and in southern Europe still is) called Erodiade or Herodes. Her story had been mixed up with that of the biblical Herodias, according to Jacob Grimm. Who had written in his Deutsche Mythologie: There is no doubt whatever, that quite early in the Middle Ages the Christian mythus of Herodias got mixed up with our native heathen fables: those notions about dame Holda and the 'furious host' and the nightly jaunts of sorceresses were grafted on it, the Jewish king's daughter had the part of a heathen goddess assigned her ... This Erodiade is not a princess (except in Heine's poem) but either a witch or a pagan deity. The biblical Herodias was not Jewish but Edomite, like both of her husbands. Although the Edomites had much earlier converted to Judaism, Herodias despised the religion, according to the historian Josephus. So the historical Herodias was neither Jewish by race or by religion. Therefore the identification of Kundry with the historical Herodias, as one of her earlier lives, does not make her in any sense Jewish.

The Nameless Kundry

Wagner's Kundry, like his Parsifal, has had many names. At least in the case of Kundry but perhaps also in that of Parsifal, those were names they received in earlier lives. Parsifal has forgotten his many names until, like other Wagnerian heroes, he is called by Kundry with a name that his mother gave him. Klingsor invokes Kundry with many names and he calls her Namenlose, nameless one. She does not have a real name, only temporary labels that others have applied to her in her "unending cycle of rebirths". Perhaps her real name is "woman"?

Synthesis: Conclusions

So how does the evidence stack up in relation to the received view of Wagner and his operas? In many ways, and at times, Wagner was a terrible man. He had a nasty streak in him and he was capable of vindictiveness and vendettas, as in the case of Hanslick. On the other hand, in the accounts of his friends he was good company, although they had to put up with his rants and his fits of rage too. From about 1850 onwards Wagner had a growing and paranoid obsession about the Jews. Hanslick was almost certainly correct when he described this obsession as a psychological phenomenon. Wagner's anti-Semitism was more often directed towards Jewish people whom he had never met, or towards the German Jews in general. It did not prevent him from collaborating with individual Jewish artists and patrons, and some of them were prepared to ignore or even to excuse his anti-Semitic rants.

Where Wagner's published writings are concerned, apart from the notorious Judaism essay there are few indications of his increasing obsession, at least not until the cranky essays of his last few years. Attempts by some Wagnerians, such as Professor Dieter Borchmeyer, to exclude these essays from the canon can only be called misguided5. Jens Malte Fischer has argued that Judaism is organically related to other writings of Wagner from his Zürich exile years, notably Opera and Drama, such that it is impossible to discuss the themes that Wagner develops in these writings without reference to his Judaism. In general, since one of the peculiarities of Wagner's mind was his obsessive connecting everything with everything else, it would not be possible to form anything like a complete picture of Wagner's mental world whilst ignoring his anti-Semitic obsession, or his tendency for intense emotions, including both love and hatred. With Wagner everything is related to everything else because that is the way he thought about the world. This means that his attitude to the Jews and to Judaism touches everything he wrote, including his stage works.

The strangest aspect of this is that commentators and critics have struggled to identify any anti-Semitic elements in the Wagner operas. With the possible exception of the Nibelung smith Mime, who was seen by some people as "Jewish" as early as 1876, it is only with special pleading that any character has been labelled as such. Even in the case of Mime, his Jewishness is only visible to those who are able to conceive a caricature Jew, and in doing so they open themselves to accusations of thinking in terms of anti-Semitic caricatures. Concerning the currently popular idea of Beckmesser as a caricature Jew, rather than a kind of Malvolio, it is remarkable that when the Nazi's applauded Die Meistersinger it never occurred to them that there was an anti-Semitic subtext. See the essay by David Dennis on Die Meistersinger in the Nazi era; see the essay by Bryan Magee for a thorough discussion of Wagner's possible influence on Hitler and other Nazis.

But, you ask, is not Kundry in some sense Jewish? As discussed above, it is possible to argue that Kundry is related to the wandering Jewess of Eugène Sue, or to Heine's dead princess of Judea, if not directly to any historical character who might have identified as Jewish. So if Kundry is, or has been, or once identified as, Jewish, does that make her portrayal by Wagner anti-Semitic? She is, after all, a sympathetic character: Wagner encourages our sympathy with her. In the original stage directions, although not always as seen on stage today, like other Wagnerian heroines she dies at the end of the opera. But even in death we are led to sympathise with her: Kundry has suffered through hundreds of years (endlos durch das Dasein quält) and now she is released, never to be born again. There is nothing hateful about the portrayal of this character, neither directed towards an individual or to a race.

Selected References

Those students whose belief in the assertions they were taught in college (see above) remains unshakeable will not want to expose their minds to any book or article that might challenge them. For those who do wish to inquire further, the following books and articles provide food for thought. For those who do not, there are plenty of books and articles that perpetuate the caricature of Wagner as a racist monster.

  • Theodor Adorno: Versuch über Wagner, Suhrkamp Verlag 1952. The English translation by Rodney Livingsone makes a bad translation of the title into In Search of Wagner, Verso, London and NY 1981. Republished with a foreword by Slavoj Žižek in 2005.
  • Dieter Borchmeyer: The Question of Anti-Semitism in Wagner Handbook translated by Stewart Spencer and edited by John Deathridge, Cambridge MA 1992. Originally in German as Richard-Wagner-Handbuch edited U. Müller and P. Wapnewski, Stuttgart 1986.
  • Houston S. Chamberlain: Richard Wagner first edition 1896. Ungekürzte Volksausgabe, F. Bruckmann A.G., Munich 1933.
  • David B. Dennis: Die Meistersinger through the lens of the Third Reich, in Wagner's Meistersinger: Performance, History, Reception, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi, pp.98-119. New York, 2003.
  • Jens Malte Fischer: Richard Wagners Das Judenthum in der Musik, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Wurzburg 2015. Contains the full text of the republished Judaism annotated to show the many small changes that Wagner had made to his 1850 original. With many other contemporary documents.
  • Thomas S. Grey: The Jewish Question. In The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, CUP 2008, pp.203-218.
  • Eduard Hanslick: Aus meinem Leben, ed. P. Wapnewski, Kassel 1987.
  • Translated by Francis Hueffer: Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt; revised by Wm. Ashton Ellis. New York, 1887-89.
  • Jacob Katz: The Darker Side of Genius, Univ. of New England Press, 1986. German edition Richard Wagner: Vorbote des Antisemitismus.
  • Chikako Kitagawa: Versuch über Kundry: Facetten einer Figur, Peter Lang Gmbh (PC Academic Research), Frankfurt a.M. 2015.
  • Bryan Magee: Wagner and Philosophy (or US edition: The Tristan Chord), Appendix Wagner's Anti-Semitism. London and New York 2000.
  • Karl Marx: Zur Judenfrage 1844, reprinted in Frühschriften, ed. H-J. Lieber and P. Furth, Darmstadt 1962. Translated as On the Jewish Question, in Karl Marx on Religion, ed. S.K. Padover, New York 1974.
  • Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Briefe, ed. R. Elvers, Frankfurt am Main 1984.
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer: Briefwechsel und Tagebücher, Berlin and New York 2002.
  • Barry Millington: Parsifal: Facing the Contradictions, in The Musical Times, 124, 1983, pp.97-8.
  • Barry Millington: Nuremberg Trial: Is There Anti-Semitism in Die Meistersinger?, in Cambridge Opera Journal, volume iii, 1991. Reprinted in The Wagner Compendium, Thames and Hudson, Macmillan, London 1992.
  • Barry Millington: Richard Wagner's Anti-Semitism, in the Musical Times, December 1996. Reprinted in Wagner, May 1997, vol. 18 no.2.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: The Case of Wagner/ Nietzsche contra Wagner, trans. Anthony Ludovici, London 1910.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy/ The Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York, 1967.
  • M. Owen Lee: Richard Wagner: the Terrible Man and his Truthful Art, University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • Ferdinand C.W. Praeger: Wagner as I Knew Him, Univ. Press of the Pacific, Honolulu 2001: English translation of Wagner, wie ich ihn kannte, 1885, 1892.
  • Theodor Uhlig: Zeitgemäße Betrachtungen, VI. Außerordentliches in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 33/7, 23.7.1850. Partially reprinted in Fischer, see above, pages 165-166.
  • Cosima Wagner: Die Tagebücher. Edited with notes by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack; Piper and co. Verlag, Munich and Zurich, 1976. English translation by Geoffrey Skelton; William Collins Sons and co. Ltd., London, 1978.
  • Richard Wagner: Sämtliche Briefe. Edited with notes by Gertrud Strobel and Werner Wolf; VEB Deutsche Verlag für Musik, Leipzig, 1983-.


Footnote 1:   There is no firm evidence of an anti-Semitic Wagner before his exile, although some of his modern critics have tried to read anti-Semitism into his earlier writings where there are some neutral and inoffensive references to Jewish people. Wagner's friendly relations with Jewish composers and with his friend Samuel Lehrs (1806-43) during his Paris years suggest that his anti-Semitic prejudices had not developed at that time, although he almost certainly harboured silent resentment against Mendelssohn and other individuals.

Footnote 2:   Wagner found himself forced into criticism of Heine by his own arguments, made in the earlier parts of his article, about Jewish writers being incapable of authenticity when using the language of the host culture. Wagner had probably not forgotten his passionate defence of Heine, in an article he wrote for the Dresden Abendzeitung in 1841.

Footnote 3:   Sämtliche Briefe v.3 no.153 pp.542-547. Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt v.1 no.59 pp.97-99.

Footnote 4:   It is sometimes claimed that Hanslick turned against Wagner when he recognized himself caricatured as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. This legend originated with Wagner, writing in his autobiography of a public reading of the draft libretto that he gave in Vienna. Hanslick attended but left before Wagner was done. There is no evidence, in Hanslick's memoirs or elsewhere, that he was offended by anything in the libretto. But Wagner clearly was thinking of him while writing the (third) Prose Draft in which he called the character Veit Hanslich, later changing the name to Beckmesser. Hanslick was not Jewish, of course, even if Wagner came to think of him as being in some sense "Jewish".

Footnote 5:   In a strange lapse of good judgement, Dieter Borchmeyer edited and published an edition of Wagner's writings that omitted the anti-Semitic essays: Richard Wagner: Dichtungen und Schriften: Jubiläumsausgaben. Perhaps he thought that they were simply embarassing and best forgotten? The good news, which will surprise those who believe that all Wagner wrote were anti-Semitic rants, is that the writings included fill ten volumes.