Recalling Richard Wagner: On music and politics

Ahmed Al-Moslemany
Sunday 8 Dec 2019

An ignoble racist, Richard Wagner was nonetheless a musical genius whose influence continues to expand until today

In 1981, an orchestra in Israel played a musical piece by the famous composer Richard Wagner. Suddenly one of the audience stood up, went to the stage and opened his shirt showing traces of wounds due to the torture he was subjected to in Nazi concentration camps. The concert was cancelled.
In May 2012, Tel Aviv University cancelled a large concert for Wagner. In 2014, Israeli Radio apologised for broadcasting a musical piece by Wagner and said that it was by mistake. 
Richard Wagner was a great German composer and considered one of history's giants of classical music. Wagner (1813-1883) lived for 70 years and was one of the grand figures of the 19th century.
There are several stories about the upbringing of Wagner and his life. Some claim that in his early years he wasn’t skillful in playing any musical instrument. However, he was the composer who moved musical history from the symphony era to the opera era. 
Wagner was enchanted by the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven died when Wagner was 14 years old. The well-known philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also held Wagner’s fascination, to the extent that Wagner said: “Nietzsche is my only gain in life. He has given me life. I swear before God that he is the only one who knows what I want.” 
Nietzsche, meanwhile, was fascinated by Wagner to the extent that he said: “When I am beside Wagner I feel as if I am beside a god!” 
Nietzsche’s fascination didn’t last forever. The relation between religion and music in Wagner’s compositions led to Nietzsche’s extreme displeasure and anger. Nietzsche was an atheist while Wagner was a believer. Wagner’s religious evocations in his works were the cause of the two falling out. When Wagner vigorously supported Christianity against paganism in some of his works, Nietzsche said: “He has fallen in the abyss of religious obscurantism, after I considered him a symbol of liberation.”
The non-musical intellectual doesn’t need to exert great effort to be a musically cultured man. For classical music, which seems to be difficult and distant, and opera, which appears to the uninterested a cacophony of screams and noises, are rich and full to the patient. In every opera, there is a fantastic story standing behind the refined musical creation. Unfortunately, Arab culture didn’t produce many who explain and simplify Western musical thought in an adequate way. A state of arrogance in world classical music circles led to disdain and mockery on the other side — especially amid the deterioration of music and singing in the Arab world.
Reading about Wagner’s musical project helps dispels many of the reasons of divisiveness across these two worlds.
In 1843, Wagner sailed to Paris when a strong storm blew in the North Sea. Sailors tried to relieve frightened passengers by recounting stories and tales. One of these legendary stories was the story of the Flying Dutchman. A sailor was circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope in spite of strong storms and he cursed the ocean’s evil spirit. Accordingly, the evil spirit decided to cast a spell on him so that he remains a wanderer among the waves. The spell was softened on the condition of finding a girl that loves and is faithful to him until death. The evil spirit allowed him to dock his ship every seven years. After long years passed, he finally succeeded in finding that girl.
Such tales as in the Flying Dutchman opera found legendary music transforming sailors’ chatter into immortal masterpieces.
Another legend from the 14th century was the subject of the Rienzi opera. In Italy, a dreamer attempted to wake the people to liberate Rome from despotic noblemen. But a conspiracy hatched by noblemen companions led to the dreamer’s murder.
A third legend in Tannhäuser opera revolves around a singing contest organised in Wartburg Castle. The prize was marrying the Saint Elizabeth. Tannhäuser won the contest, but vanished. Wagner music historians say the march in the Tannhäuser opera, which portrays a pilgrims’ procession, captivates the world until now. 
In the Lohengrin opera, the knight hides himself in a swan in order to save Elsa from an evil monster.
As for the famous Parsifal opera, it recounts the Holy Grail into which the blood of Jesus was poured.
In 2015, German authorities reopened the Wagner Museum after restoring it. Eva Wagner, the granddaughter of the composer, said: “At last, people in Bayreuth knew that this is the most important composer in the world. Finally, he had a fitting and marvellous museum.”
Many historians hold the view that the Romantic period is divided between Beethoven and Wagner, where the former prevailed in the first half and the latter dominated the second half of the period.
Wagner wasn’t great in the field of thought, as he was in the field of music. He was a racist and devoted to German Jews a large share of arrogance and hatred. Wagner in his racism towards Jews was a source of inspiration for the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler who was born six years after Wagner’s death. Hitler visited Wagner’s grave many times and in one of these visits he said: “When I visited Wagner’s grave … I knew my mission!”
Hitler admired Wagner immensely and Hitler’s words were decisive: “Wagner is magnificent and his music is my creed." Jews in Germany were Germans speaking German and living in their country for centuries. But Wagner wrote in his famous essay, “Judaism in Music”: “Jews are strangers, parasites. They aren’t deep-rooted in the land. It is impossible that they can be creative. They aren’t Germans. They are contemptible, worthless creatures. The Jew is Satan who led to the Fall of Mankind.”
Wagner died more than a century and a quarter ago. None of his twisted thoughts have survived, but his legendary music still enlightens world’s theatres and opera houses. 
Wagner was limited by his racism but a giant in talent. He became banned in Israel and an icon in more than 200 countries. Politics lowered him and music elevated him. Racism withdrew, but genius remained.  
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