A genius and an anti-Semite, Wagner

Composer Richard Wagner, illustrated with prop.
Composer Richard Wagner, illustrated with prop. (Baltimore Sun)

It takes little effort to find severe problems with the character of Richard Wagner, the man who was born two centuries ago and, as he was the first to acknowledge, became one of history's greatest composers.

It's much harder to dismiss his music, which is receiving extra attention around the world during this bicentennial year.


Locally, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is taking a close look at Wagner over the next few months.

The focus starts this week with a program featuring, in concert form, Act 1 from "Die Walkure," the second of four operas that comprise "The Ring of the Nibelung," the epic filled with heroic and villainous mortals, giants, troubled gods, Valkyries on horseback, horned helmets, a mighty sword and, of course, a magical ring.


In April, the BSO will offer an orchestra-only arrangement that condenses the 16 or so hours of the mammoth Ring Cycle into one. There will also be a semi-staged production about the composer's relationship with his eccentric and extravagant patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

"I am trying in these concerts to give some insights into how Wagner revolutionized opera and the orchestra, how he inspired so many other composers, and also how he was such a flawed thinker," said BSO music director Marin Alsop. "Sometimes it's hard to separate the personal from the music, but the music is entirely and emphatically glorious."

Wagner's failings included, most notoriously, anti-Semitism — more about that in a moment — but there are plenty of other issues.

His tendency to pursue other men's wives comes to mind — only Wagner would compose an opera about illicit love while involved with one married woman and then start an affair with the wife of the conductor who led the premiere of that opera.


Wagner was also a complex and curious man who had a highly developed sense of self.

"He was megalomaniacal," Alsop said. "He changed the role of a composer from being a servant of music to being a demigod. He was always No. 1 in his mind. Beyond that, everyone else was subhuman."

Wagner cast a massive shadow over the whole of Western music from the mid-19th century on — even the way Western music is performed.

It was Wagner who greatly expanded the role of the conductor beyond time-beater. He pioneered the concept of individual interpretation — his podium specialty was Beethoven's Ninth — and how a conductor's molding of tempo, in particular, could greatly enhance the experience.

Wagner's primary importance, of course, remains his own music, which forever altered notions of harmony and melody. The revolution-starting notes heard around the world were unveiled in 1865 at the premiere of "Tristan und Isolde," the opera about doomed lovers brought together by a potion.

The orchestral notes of the "Tristan" Prelude did not strike every listener as wondrous — the most important German critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick, said the music reminded him "of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." (Wagner got his revenge, caricaturing Hanslick in the opera "Die Meistersinger.")

With that Prelude, Wagner lit a path away from the traditional, safe harmonic language that had served Mozart and Beethoven. Strange new worlds could open up with each chromatic shift from a tonal center.

And in "Tristan," the ground is always shifting, along with the fortunes of the characters, always trying to find resolution. That search takes on a sensual meaning previously unimaginable in music; this is earthy and spiritual stuff all in one. A lot of people were not prepared for such notions.

As Alsop noted, "Wagner in his lifetime was a polarizing force. Everyone lined up on one side of the street, pro or anti."

The anti could be wonderfully noisy. A glance at music criticism from Wager's day turns up any number of colorful descriptions of the music and the creator — "General Director of Hell's Music"; "The Antichrist incarnate of art." And those were the German critics.

But Wagner won his share of admirers from the start. They relished his revolutionary feat of liberating music. Rules taught in conservatories would now have to be rethought.

He greatly expanded the orchestra, in terms of color (he invented his own version of the tuba for the Ring operas) and scope. He employed a much larger orchestra for opera than was normal, and used the assemblage of instruments as another, equally important character in each opera.

Such innovations led directly to the profound symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, the brilliant operas and orchestral works of Richard Strauss — to name just a few important post-Wagnerians.

The influence has never abated. Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse's Ring-inspired "Der gerettete Alberich" will be performed during the BSO's Wagner program in April.

Out of his operas (he wrote his own librettos), Wagner achieved what was termed the Gesamtkunstwerk — total work or art, with music and drama fused in equal proportions.

To strengthen the structure of these "music dramas," Wagner employed the leitmotif, a theme that helps identify a character, an object, a feeling. This wasn't revolutionary in itself; other composers, notably Hector Berlioz, had explored the idea. But Wagner elevated the practice to a musically, theatrically, even psychologically complex art.

The Ring Cycle is the most audacious example of Wagner's aesthetic philosophy. It is not just monumental in scale, but also intimately involving; the mythic tale is filled with insights that bring the characters to our level, even as the music elevates them to rare heights.

The first act of "Walkure" that the BSO will perform — with tenor Brandon Javanovich as Siegmund, soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, bass-baritone Eric Owens as Hunding — packs a tremendous amount of drama into a single, taut hour fueled by intensely expressive lyricism.

The last few minutes, when Siegmund and Sieglinde declare their love, deliver an ecstatic rush.

"That first act, more than any other act in opera, could be an opera in itself," Javanovich said, "the way it goes from such a low point, with Siegmund fleeing from his enemies, to this fabulous ecstasy. It's a journey of discovery."

Never mind that what Siegmund discovers is that Sieglinde is his sister. As the late comedienne Anna Russell famously said in the middle of her Ring analysis, "You can do anything in opera, as long as you sing it."

The power of Wagner's music is that it can persuade the listener even if the plot proves problematic.

"Wagner was able to paint a picture with a musical palette in a way unlike any other opera composer out there," Javanovich said. "It is just so sweeping in its entirety. Every note says something you can relate to in the story. You can't help but get caught up in the tsunami of sound."

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was so caught up upon discovering Wagner that he lavished money and affection on the composer in one of music history's most peculiar cases of patronage.


Such idolatry was a not uncommon reaction to Wagner in his day. But it required overlooking, or sharing, the composer's worst side.


In 1850, Wagner wrote a grotesque article, "Jewishness in Music," arguing that Jews were alien to Germany, were incapable of proper linguistic skills or producing anything but frivolous music, such as Felix Mendelssohn's. Wagner had the article republished less than 20 years later.

Hardly surprising that, long after his death in 1883, he would be embraced by the Nazis, or that he would posthumously provide a kind of soundtrack for the Third Reich.

"He can never escape that association," Alsop said.

It is Nazi association that has kept in place an unofficial ban on performing Wagner in Israel, despite efforts by some Jewish conductors, notably Daniel Barnenboim, to overturn it.

The fact there is also an Israel Wagner Society says a lot about the remarkable hold the composer continues to exert. (That society tried unsuccessfully last June to hold a Wagner concert conducted by Asher Fisch in Tel Aviv.)

The anti-Semitism issue is further complicated by Wagner's own behavior.

He penned his noxious article largely because he felt — wrongly, as it turns out — that the successful Jewish opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer had conspired against him. But Wagner was favorably disposed toward another Jewish opera composer, Jacques Halevy.

More curious still, perhaps, is the fact that Wagner entrusted a devoted Jewish disciple, Hermann Levi, with conducting the premiere of the composer's most heavily Christian work, "Parsifal."

There are stories of Wagner and his equally, if not more, anti-Semitic wife Cosima, urging Levi to convert. But here is Levi writing to his father (a rabbi, no less) in 1882:

"Posterity will one day realize that Wagner was a great human being as well as a great artist. Even his attacks on what he calls Judaism in music … sprang from the noblest motives. There is no petty anti-Semitism about him. That is proved by his manner toward me [and other Jewish musicians]."

Noblest motives? That seems like a very big stretch. But in the 130 years since Wagner's death, eminent Jewish musicians, far less naive than Levi must have been, embraced the music wholeheartedly. Mahler, a celebrated Wagner conductor, is just one example.

Critic and librettist Paul Griffiths neatly summed up the whole Wagner matter this way: "For some, his failings of humanity must damn him. For others, his works count as colossal acts of atonement."

BSO and Wagner

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra marks the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth with three programs conducted by Marin Alsop.

Act 1 of 'Die Walkure,' featuring soprano Heidi Melton, tenor Brandon Javanovich and bass-baritone Eric Owens, will be performed on a program that includes excerpts from "Tristan und Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger" at 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Feb. 17 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda.

An orchestral synthesis of the Ring Cycle will be performed on a program with Christopher Rouse's Ring-inspired "Der gerettete Alberich" at 8 p.m. April 18, 3 p.m. April 21 at the Meyerhoff.

The BSO's Off the Cuff series presents "Wagner: A Composer Fit for a King," a semi-staged dramatization that includes orchestral excerpts from the Ring Cycle.

For ticket information, call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.