Thursday, April 5, 2007

Ludwig, Wagner, Hitler, and the Jews

Ludwig II’s sponsorship of Richard Wagner(left) lifts him into a rarefied sphere of artistic influence – one in which only a handful of patrons (the Medici, Gertrude Stein) could claim precedence. For Wagner’s radical ideas about “music drama” – his development of the leitmotif, his extreme chromaticism, and his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” would not only transform operatic form but also be immensely influential in the development of film music, and even in the general theory of film itself. Indeed, Wagner set all kinds or precedents, large and small; he was the first to dim the "house lights" during performances, and the first to sink the orchestra into a "pit." But all of this might not have happened without Ludwig, who rescued the composer from financial ruin, sponsored the composition and production of both Tristan and Isolde (during which Wagner met his second wife, Cosima) and the Ring cycle, and largely funded the building of the famous Bayreuth Festspielhaus (below), the international center of Wagner production to this day.

But Wagner would also exert a horrifying influence over twentieth century history through his notorious anti-Semitism. In 1850, he published the essay Judaism and Music, an attack on the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn (ironically, but unsurprisingly, a major influence on Wagner) which developed into a wild condemnation of the Jewish people as a threat to German culture. Wagner claimed that Jews had club feet (so they could not keep proper musical time) and that as their speech was “intolerably jumbled blabber,” they could never communicate true passion; he wrote, “Only those artists who abandoned their Jewish roots - were that possible - could at all express themselves artistically.” In a highly influential passage, Wagner warned “So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it . . . there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer.... Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it—yet merely to destroy it.” In a word, German music had to be protected from the Jews.

Wagner first published these horrifying slurs anonymously, as a pamphlet (which promptly sank like a stone), but he published an expanded version under his own name while under Ludwig’s patronage, and continued to assail the Jewish people in essays and newspaper articles until his death. Incredibly, he at the same time had many Jewish friends and acquaintances, including his favorite conductor, Hermann Levi.

The entrance to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, near Munich in Bavaria.

It’s debated whether or not Hitler and his associates ever read Judaism and Music – the essay was rarely reprinted, and was largely regarded as an embarrassment by progressive Wagnerites. Nevertheless, Wagner became closely identified with the Nazi movement. Hitler once claimed that "there is only one legitimate predecessor to National Socialism: Wagner.” The composer’s music was played at Nazi rallies, and the Nazi hierarchy often attended performances of his operas. Indeed, Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, was an outspoken admirer of Hitler and ran the Bayreuth Festival from the death of her husband (Siegfried – surprise!) until the end of World War II, when she was unceremoniously given the boot. The identification was so complete that no Wagner opera has been performed in Israel to this day; in 2001, when the Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim began a performance of the overture to Tristan and Isolde in Jerusalem, there was a major outcry, and some audience members stormed out.

How are we to take, then, Natalie Kippelbaum, the nice, affectionately-stereotyped Jewish lady (and close cousin of Rudnick's film-reviewing alter ego, Libby Gelman-Waxner) who marches through Ludwig’s castles at the end of Valhalla on “Temple Beth Shalom’s Whirlwind European Adventure Castles of Bavaria plus Wine Tasting and Wienerschitzel Potpourri Tour”? Rather pointedly, Natalie even finds herself drawn to Ludwig because of music – “gorgeous, operatic music” – i.e., Wagner – that stops her cold in a suicide attempt. “And I think,” Natalie asks herself at that terrible moment, “where is that music coming from, I mean, where was it born?” Well, it was born in the mind of an anti-Semite - who, years after the fact, inadvertently has saved Natalie's life.

Paul Rudnick – a gay playwright raised in a Reform Jewish household – is here brazenly playing with some very controversial ideas: a Jewish matron in love with Wagner, and dancing the gavotte in the homeland of Hitler himself. But can the Holocaust be forgotten, if not forgiven, before the beauty of Wagner’s music and the eccentric innocence of Ludwig (who protested the composer's anti-Semitic views)? Or can Wagner's music simply be denatured of its hateful legacy?

Or is Paul Rudnick not so much attempting to challenge his audience as tease it into accepting that with the passage of time, Natalie’s attitudes may become commonplace? In a way, in fact, Mrs. Kippelbaum may represent the final triumph over Wagner’s lunatic prejudice – after all, what better way for a nice Jewish lady to refute Judaism and Music than to fall in love with Wagner's own stuff?

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