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Richard Wagner

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Author Topic: Richard Wagner  (Read 1911 times)
Thor, God of Thunder
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Posts: 1863

« Reply #30 on: July 26, 2007, 10:11:54 pm »

Race and racial purity
A Tale of Two Wagners

I sometimes think there are two Wagners in our culture, almost unrecognizably different from one another: the Wagner possessed by those who know his work, and the Wagner imagined by those who know him only by name and reputation ... I have innumerable times heard well-meaning people say in minatory tones such things as, 'After all, one can't ignore the ideas behind these works', as if the ideas were quite different from what they are. Such people seem to think they know that the ideas are of a dictatorial and chauvinistic nature. This often goes together with another attitude that is widespread among people lacking acquaintance with the actuality of Wagner's work, and that is a sense of personal superiority towards it. 
o Bryan Magee in his most recent book (Wagner and Philosophy, or The Tristan Chord) describes the gap between, on the one hand, Wagner as he is known to those who have studied his works, and on the other hand Wagner's misleading reputation as it is known by everybody else. Since everyone "knows" that Wagner was a racist, a chauvinistic nationalist and a womanizer, etc. then these things must be true. It comes as a surprise to many, myself included, to discover that this reputation is untrue and undeserved. Not least in the widely held view that Wagner was obsessed with ideas about race.

  anyone who has studied Wagner's prose and poetic works -- whether in the original German (or in a few cases in the original French) or in the rather odd translations of Wm. Ashton Ellis (the Prose Works in eight volumes) -- will know, ideas about race and racial purity do not exactly leap out at the reader from every page. In five of the volumes of Ellis' Prose Works there are scarcely any references to race -- no more in any one of those volumes than can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- and in the remaining three volumes such references are limited to a few paragraphs in certain articles or essays, with the exception of a single late essay. So in the prose works alone, there is by no means enough evidence to support the hypothesis that Wagner was obsessed with ideas of race and racial purity. Further, such ideas are only to be found, if they are to be found, in the poetic works when they are subjected to aggressive and controversial analysis.

omething else that might strike the attentive reader is that the German word for "race", namely "Rasse", is conspicuous by its absence from Wagner's prose and poetic writings. If the books by Gutman and the lunatic fringe were to be believed, then one would expect that the word "Rasse" or its derivatives would be leaping out from every page of Wagner's writings. If anyone can give me one quotation from Wagner's writings in which he used the word "Rasse" then I should be most grateful because I have found none. Not a single example.

Dynasty of Kings and Lineage of Heroes
his does not mean that Wagner never mentions race, in a weaker sense of the word, even though the instances are few and far between. The word he prefers to use, most often, is "Geschlecht". There is no exact equivalent of this relatively elastic term in English, although there are cognates in most Germanic languages. One sense of "Geschlecht" is "sex", e.g. "das andere Geschlecht", the other sex. Another sense of "Geschlecht", the one that Wagner tended to use, means extended-family, dynasty or descent. Thus in the second act of Lohengrin, Ortrud publicly challenges Elsa as follows:

Kannst du uns es sagen,
ob sein Geschlecht,
sein Adel wohl bewährt?

 Can you tell us,
whether his descent
and nobility are well proved?

The word "Geschlecht" also appears in Parsifal:
Oh weh'! Wie trag' ich's im Gemüte,
in seiner Mannheit stolzer Blüte
des siegreichsten Geschlechtes Herrn
als seines Siechtums Knecht zu seh'n!

 O woe! How it grieves me to see,
in his prime,
this lord of a victorious race
fall a slave to this sickness!


ere Gurnemanz is referring to the lineage of Amfortas, i.e. the dynasty founded by Titurel. This might be seen as the same "Geschlecht" that was referred to earlier, the lineage of Lohengrin and Parsifal, since (according to Wolfram) both Parsifal and the king he will succeed are descended from the Titurel. That there is a common lineage is implicitly assumed in Wagner's libretto, perhaps because he wanted to emphasise that Parsifal gains the kingship through merit, not through right of inheritance. The point here is that in both passages "Geschlecht" (a generic term for race or kin) means a royal lineage. It does not mean, as Gutman wrongly assumed, a race of "distinctive Aryanism". Incidentally, Titurel was "siegreich", victorious, in the sense that he had won the Grail; his descendant Parsifal will become the "siegreich Vollendete", the victoriously perfect, by overcoming the world.

he word "Geschlecht" does not reappear in act one. One might think this curious, given Gutman's insistence that the drama is about race. It turns up again in act two:

Noch nie sah' ich
solch' zieres Geschlecht

 Never before have I seen
such a handsome race


ere Parsifal is addressing the flower maidens. No doubt Gutman assumed that they were vegetables of "distinctive Aryanism". Otherwise the word "Geschlecht" does not reappear in Parsifal, nor does "Rasse" appear. The only other word that appears in the libretto that reasonably might be translated as "race" is "Stamm" (which Ellis consistently translated as "stem" but which might be better rendered as "lineage" or "dynasty"):

Sein Stamm verfiel mir,
unerlöst soll der Heiligen Hüter
mir schmachten

 His dynasty ruined by my magic,
the holy guardian will languish


ere, in the first scene of act two, Klingsor is referring to Amfortas. Once again the reference is to the dynasty of Titurel, the royal race of Grail kings. In the third act there appear no words that might be translated as "race". As noted above, it has become commonplace to speak of Parsifal as a work filled with racism. Is it not remarkable that in the entire libretto there are only three words (two instances of "Geschlecht" and one of "Stamm") that might be translated as "race"? Perhaps Gutman's idea about the "racial crisis" was wrong?

The Pure Fool
nother of Gutman's claims is that Parsifal contains a subtext about racial purity. There are two small problems here. The first is that Wagner never stated, or even hinted, of the existence of such a subtext. The second is that the words "racial purity", or anything similar, never appear in the libretto. The word "purity" does appear, of course. It is through "purity" that Parsifal is able to overcome and destroy the power of Klingsor, the lord of illusion, and it is through "purity" that he achieves the enlightenment that qualifies him to become the Grail king. The meaning of purity in "Parsifal's purity" was explicitly stated by Wagner in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk. There is nothing racial about it at all.


Semites and anti-Semites
Wagner's Anti-Semitism
ichard Wagner revealed his anti-Semitic views in his notorious Judaism in Music (1850), an article that seems to be aimed mainly at Meyerbeer, who is not mentioned by name, and to a lesser extent at Mendelssohn, who is. His hostility towards Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and other Jewish musicians seems to have faded into the background after this outburst, and we find only occasional anti- Semitism in his writings until 1868, when Wagner's paranoia about the "Jews and Jesuits" in the Munich press and elsewhere led to his ill-judged decision to republish the essay. In his later years, as revealed by Cosima's Diaries, Wagner was constantly muttering about the "Jews and Jesuits", who were supposedly conspiring to frustrate his plans, except when he was directing his anger against the French.

  mentioned above, Theodor Adorno put forward the opinion that some of Wagner's characters were anti-Semitic caricatures. There was already a tradition of perceiving "Jewish" characteristics in Mime. Although when Wagner wrote down for insertion in the score of Siegfried a description of Mime, emphasizing these supposedly "Jewish" characteristics, he realised that he had accurately described himself.

Kundry, Herodias and a Castrated Sorcerer
he allegation that there are anti-Semitic elements in the libretto of Parsifal mainly concerns Kundry and less often Klingsor. In the case of the former, we are told that the Herodias, whom Klingsor reveals was Kundry in an earlier life, was the princess of Judea who married first the Tetrarch Philip and then, after his death, his brother Herod. She appears in the New Testament, where we read that she intrigued to bring about the death of John the Baptist, who had condemned her life-style. Since Herodias was a notoriously bad person, it is unlikely that many girls were named after her, and therefore Klingsor's line Herodias warst du is a specific historical reference (as well as being a subtle reference to the Herodes of German folklore).

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