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Wagner: Race and Revolution Hardcover – September 10, 1992
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From the Back Cover
It has long been acknowledged that Richard Wagner was a virulent antisemite, yet the composer has also been characterized as an idealistic revolutionary. In this fascinating book, Paul Lawrence Rose argues that for Wagner, as for many other Germans, the idea of revolution always contained a racial and antisemitic core. He offers fresh and stimulating interpretations of Wagner's operas based on an analysis of their revolutionary and antisemitic elements. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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2 German political culture of the 19th century is inherently and ineluctably antisemitic. I'd accept "largely" antisemitic; but Rose wants to make an essentialist case, that you couldn't be a 19th century German radical without being antisemitic, and he fails to support that. Instead we get rhetoric, some of it as heated as Wagner's own.
3 Wagner was always antisemitic, even before 1850, when antisemitic references started to appear in his letters and articles. There it's safe to say that the evidence disproves Rose's case; see, for example, Jacob Katz's "Wagner: The Dark Side of Genius", a book which condemns Wagner's antisemitism on the basis of better research and less tenditiousness. Not only does Rose not actually make his case here, but he couldn't.
4 There is coded antisemitism in Wagner's operas. Here Rose abandons all pretence to academic standards and writes some very silly things. For example he argues that "Die Walku:re" is antisemitic because it depicts incest and adultery sympathetically; but adultery is against the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Commandments is a Jewish document. Wagner's, and "Die Walku:re"'s rejection of the 10 Commandments is therefore antisemitic. Where this leaves Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and every other opera librettist, poet and dramatist in human history is not clear. By reasoning like this they must all be antisemites. In "Der Fliegende Hollander", Rose argues, Senta's entire village is an antisemitic depiction, because they value money over other values; therefore they must be meant as Jewish. When someone starts looking for antisemitic depictions, and comes up with the idea of a Jewish fishing village in the middle of the Norwegian fiords... when arguments like that are seriously put forward, we know two things. First, that the writer has lost the plot. Second, that the people who should have read the book before publication and got rid of embarrassing silliness like that, weren't doing their job.
I don't know much about the history of 19th century antisemitism in Europe; but Rose's material on Wagner is so hopelessly unreliable and ill-thought-out that it calls into question the reliability of his other material.
There's another comment on this book, apparently written by a believing Marxist, that claims that Wagner made a mistake in making his gods and Nibelungs, in the "Ring", morally equivalent. No, that wasn't a mistake; that was Wagner's _point_. Both the Nibelungs and the gods are involved in a struggle between the values of love and the desire for power. Both the gods and Nibelungs choose power, not love. Wagner was on the side of love, and that is why he makes both sides fall.
Even though Wagner was a flawed human being (but a human being, not a monster; he had a kind and considerate side as well as a selfish and manipulative side), the "Ring" is one of the greatest works of art ever created. And its message is pacifist, pro-love and anti-power, and (ironically, given Wagner's own racism) anti-racist, in showing the moral equivalence of all the different struggling peoples in the "Ring".
The writer of the other comment is right to say that Wagner was a shallow and inconsistent political thinker. But that means that not all of his ideas are bad. His antisemitism shames Wagner's memory as much as the antisemitism of Marx, Bakunin, Proudhon, Schubert, JS Bach, Schumann, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Dostoevsky, TS Eliot and so on and so on, shames theirs. But Wagner's defence of love over power, in the "Ring", strikes me as politically, as well as artistically, not without merit.
Rose makes a mistake in reading antisemitism into works that don't contain it, and another mistake in not recognising that Wagner's works have some moral merit which should not be thrown away.