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Germany reckons with Wagner: Cultural jewel, or national shame?
A new exhibition at the country’s national history museum examines the strong feelings stirred by its most famous 19th-century composer.

by Ben Miller

BERLIN.- Few composers inspire such a mix of appreciation and disgust as Richard Wagner. Especially in Germany — where Wagner’s work is understood as a combination of national cultural jewel and national political embarrassment — the composer’s work is laden with meaning and interpretation.

Along with his music dramas, Wagner’s legacy includes his antisemitic and nationalist political writings, and the Nazi dictatorship celebrated his musical works as a symbol of the pure German culture they hoped to promote. Hitler was a regular at the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, where he was welcomed warmly by the composer’s descendants, and the regime used Wagner’s music in rallies and at official events.

“You can’t have a naive and beautiful production of a Wagner opera in Germany,” said Michael P. Steinberg, a cultural historian at Brown University who, along with Katherina J. Schneider, co-curated an upcoming exhibition on the composer at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. “It’s impossible.”

That show, “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling,” opened Saturday and runs through September. The first exhibition dedicated to a composer at Germany’s national history museum, it explores the relationship between Wagner’s politics and his artistic output and influence.

“If Wagner had only written his 3,000 pages of prose, he would be remembered as a kook, a second-rate maniacal thinker,” Steinberg said.

Instead, Steinberg added, he is mostly remembered for the opus of music dramas that made him “without doubt the most transformational composer of the mid-19th century, without whom one cannot understand European art music after him.”

Wagner was a “technician of emotions,” he said, who orchestrated collective experiences of feeling that embedded his ideas in his art. That means the music and the poisoned politics can’t be separated, Steinberg said. “The ideas come out on the stage in subliminal ways,” he added, “through worlds of feeling that are transmitted through music and text.”

For this reason, he and Schneider have organized the show according to a series of emotions through which they argue the composer’s legacy can be understood: from the alienation Wagner felt as an 1840s revolutionary; to the sense of belonging as he began to be institutionally accepted; to the eros that characterizes the seductiveness of his work; and, finally, the disgust and loathing that animated the composer’s prejudices.

These feelings, the curators argue, were “national” ones because the popularity of Wagner’s music helped embed them in the German national consciousness, especially after the unification of Germany in 1871.

To support their case, they have assembled objects lent from collections across Europe, as well as artifacts from the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s own collection, combined with video clips from performances and stagings, and interviews with notable Wagnerian artists.

The curators also commissioned a new audio installation from Barrie Kosky, the director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, whose Jewishness is a major part of his artistic identity. He has spent the past few years pursuing what he calls a “public cultural exorcism” of his own Wagner demons, exploring the composer’s antisemitism through a series of acclaimed productions that culminated with a staging of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” at Bayreuth, which ended with the composer literally on trial.

His point of departure for the installation, he said, was Wagner’s infamous essay “Jewishness in Music.” The essay, an antisemitic screed that argues Jewish composers could only imitate, and never truly create, also lingers on the composer’s visceral hatred for the Jewish “voice.” Arguing that art music arose from race-based folk cultures, Wagner describes Jewish folk music as a “sense-and-sound confounding gurgle, yodel, and cackle.”

Kosky said he heard echoes of those hated sounds in the music for Wagner characters who embody antisemitic archetypes: the pedantic critic in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” for instance, or the gold-hungry dwarves in the “Ring” cycle.

Kosky’s sound installation plays out in a small dark room at the museum. Visitors hear jumbled-together recordings of synagogue music, excerpts from old recordings featuring the “Jewish” Wagner characters and sentences from “Jewishness in Music,” read by a woman, in Yiddish. Kosky called the effect “deliberately nauseating.”

Kosky said he would continue to direct the composer’s music dramas, even though there was antisemitism in them. Having completed his “exorcism,” he added, he felt personally and artistically free to approach the composer’s work from new perspectives.

“It’s the combination of things: the music, text, and cultural specificity of what he is using that makes Wagner’s work, to me, so deeply problematic and fascinating,” Kosky said.

Mark Berry, who leads the music department at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has published widely on politics and religion in Wagner’s work, said Wagner had become something of a scapegoat in German attempts to come to terms with the country’s past. It was, he added, as if guilt about the murderous consequences of German antisemitism could be outsourced to one man who died long before the Nazis came to power.

“Clearly there are romantic nationalist elements in Wagner’s thought,” he said, “as there were in just about any German artist of that time. If one looks at his theoretical writing, however, he is adamant that the time of national characteristics in art is over, that this is to be an age of artistic universalism.”

Yes, Berry said, there were antisemitic tropes in Wagner’s music dramas, and antisemitic politics in his essays. But, he added, that doesn’t make the music itself antisemitic, and Wagner wasn’t the main conduit by which antisemitism became prominent in the German national mood, and the basis of genocidal state policy.

Daniel Barenboim, one of the most prominent Jewish figures in classical music in Germany and the music director of the Berlin State Opera, has written that Wagner can hardly be held “accountable for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and world views.” He declined to be interviewed, but in an article on his website, he describes Wagner as “a virulent anti-Semite of the worst kind whose statements are unforgivable.”

In that article, Barenboim, who will conduct a new “Ring” in Berlin in October, asks: why allow Hitler to have the last word on Wagner when so many Jewish artists — singers, conductors, directors — have made careers from the composer’s work, and his work has inspired so many Jewish composers?

That same essay opens with a meditation on the storm scene that opens Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre,” with Barenboim laying out the precise, almost mathematical structure through which Wagner sketches the feeling of being in a forest and a snowstorm, and the emotions of an alienated outsider on the run. The phrases swell and recede before an explosion in the winds and brass and an abrupt roll of the timpani. In the audience, your heart skips a beat. These are the techniques by which Wagner manipulates emotion — on the scale of a phrase, or a melody, or an opera, or a nation.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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