Meistersinger rehabilitated

Wagner’s comedy is sometimes accused of being antisemitic. But does the evidence stack up?

Jonathan Gaisman

As well as being one of the longest, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is one of the sanest operas ever composed. This may seem a curious choice of adjective to describe any production of the frequently paranoid mind of Richard Wagner, but it fits. As is well known, the Ring project had become temporarily stranded in 1857 on the shoals of his probably unconsummated love affair with Mathilde von Wesendonck. He was thus in no mental condition to create the music for the blazing encounter between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the point which he had reached in the libretto already written. The imminent consummation with which Siegfried ends would have to wait for another 12 years, when Wagner’s emotional rescue at the hands of Cosima von Bülow was completed by her presentation to him of a son, inevitably christened Siegfried.

Wagner turned instead to the composition of Tristan und Isolde. This project, exploring in musical terms the lineaments of unfulfillable desire, led him into depths which made it even harder for him to imagine the bright affirmation of requited love. Some form of therapy was required, and Wagner characteristically administered it to himself. Robert Gutman believes that the aesthetic crisis of Tristan resolved in Meistersinger was essentially musical: “a strong dose of diatonism restored a patient weakened by chromatic fever.” Yet the music of Meistersinger is not as far from Tristan as is sometimes supposed: even in the prelude to act 1 of the later work, one can hear figurations similar to those which accompany Isolde’s Liebestod. It is rather in the subject-matter of Meistersinger that Wagner took up a new and curative direction, embracing—for the only time in his mature work—exclusively human pre-occupations. Having dogmatically assured his disciples in his theoretical writings that myth alone could provide themes worthy of the German stage, Wagner located Meistersinger in real time, in an identifiable place with historical characters.

The opera pays homage both to the traditions of 16th-century Nuremberg and also to the contrapuntalism of Bach. Indeed, the glory of Meistersinger is its music. From the moment when the prelude begins with a richly upholstered falling fourth—the solid interval which encapsulates the middle-class virtues of the mastersingers—one feels a sense of well-being. There is exceptional ripeness and beauty in the score, whether in the lyricism of the aristocratic Walther von Stolzing’s new music, the delicate evocation of a mid-summer evening, Hans Sachs’ soliloquy as he contemplates with melancholy events past and to come, or the chorale sung in his honour at the prize ceremony. The work directs affectionate fun at the parochial pre-occupations of people who live ordinary lives, whilst at the same time conducting an elevated aesthetic debate about artistic values, and continuing in a more muted register than in Tristan the composer’s meditation on Schopenhauer’s ethic of renunciation. Sunny and life-affirming, it is for many Wagnerians their favourite of his music dramas. 

Unfortunately, its admirers included Hitler. This fact (though most senior Nazis could not stand Wagner’s work), combined with the growth in Holocaust studies in the last 50 years, has put Meistersinger under the critical microscope. Two particular, connected points are highlighted in this context: Sachs’s closing paean to “holy German art” and, more serious yet, the supposedly antisemitic elements in the character of Sixtus Beckmesser. Both of these issues, especially the latter, have recently spawned a vast, often passionate literature. To those who know the opera but who are unfamiliar with this controversy, it may come as a surprise. It would be difficult to find anything antisemitic in the work if one did not have prior knowledge of Wagner’s notorious views on the subject. Nor does such knowledge on its own reveal the shadow which is said to lie over the work: like his other creations, it is universal by design and intent, and most alert opera-goers will not discern any taint in the characterisation, plot or music. To gain further insight, if such it be, one needs to dip a toe into the reams of articles, papers and academic exchanges on the topic. Thereafter, it is hard to regain a prelapsarian innocence about this apparently most genial of compositions.   

The best sentence ever uttered on the composer’s hostility to the Jewish race was written by Bryan Magee: “The repulsive nature of Wagner’s antisemitism is not a licence to misrepresent it.” For Magee, the only question that matters when considering the works is whether they in some demonstrable sense contain antisemitic material. If they do not (as he concludes), we may quickly find ourselves in deep waters if we are over-fastidious about the opinions of their begetter. Confining ourselves to this particular defect, should we change the way in which we read Virginia Woolf, or listen to Chopin, or look at Degas? Luther’s scatological loathing of the Jews is more repellent even than Wagner’s antipathy, but are Germans for that reason to look askance at their foundational Bible? Antisemitism has come, for justified reasons, to be seen as a hatred in a class of its own, but it was not always thus. Odious as it is, unacted-on prejudice is not the worst possible human transgression. Is there some reason why we should eschew Caravaggio because he may have been a murderer? Must we audit the cast of a classic film before watching it, to ensure that we are not unconsciously polluted? If we are to learn anything from the regrettable eagerness of universities to dislodge Rhodes or “cancel” Hume, it is that people are a mixture of good and bad, and that if we judge everyone at their worst, “who shall ’scape whipping?”

One group of critics asserts that there is an absolute division between Wagner the man and Wagner the composer of operas and libretti. Typical of these is Dieter Borchmeyer:

To foist [Wagner’s] anti-Jewish ideology onto his artistic oeuvre was as remote from his field of interest as it was beneath him as an artist. There are no Jewish characters in his music dramas, still less any antisemitic tendencies. His hatred of the Jews was excluded from the inner sanctum of his artistic personality.

Magee and Roger Scruton are in this camp too. Magee points to Wagner’s explicit denial of the possibility of ever representing a Jew on stage, and to the fact that, in all his volumes of self-explanation, the composer (whose essay “Jewishness in Music” he published not once but twice, in 1850 and 1869) never gave a hint that he intended to represent any of his characters in such a light. Scruton pointedly relegates discussion of the topic in his books on the Ring and Parsifal to the introductions; for him, this is just not what the works are about.

In the other corner, there are some who express themselves in language so intemperate that it can scarcely be taken seriously by anyone who has attended a performance of Meistersinger. Hartmut Zelinsky has claimed that “the Jewish theme” was at bottom Wagner’s “only theme”; Marc Weiner that his operas are “documents of hatred”. Paul Lawrence Rose has managed to detect a “fundamental anti-Jewish message” underlying, of all works, Tristan. If it were shown that Meistersinger invited our complicity in antisemitism, this would necessarily temper our attitude to it. We would still enjoy its other life-enhancing features, since it is evident to all except the most closed minds that, even if the charge were made good, this is not the opera’s principal subject-matter. But is it made good? Are there moments in the piece—Beckmesser’s act 2 serenade to Eva or his failed rendition of the prize song in act 3—where we ought to wince, not merely at the character’s humiliation, but because Wagner is summoning up the ancient, totemic hatred?

The case against an innocent reading of Meistersinger has been most formidably put, in terms less outspoken than those quoted above, by Barry Millington. His thesis is a subtle one (too much so for musicologist Charles Rosen—the two of them took part in a vigorous joust in the New York Review of Books in 1993). He does not claim that Wagner intended Beckmesser to be understood as a Jewish caricature, but rather that his representation nonetheless incorporates unmistakable antisemitic characteristics. As such, antisemitism is “woven into the ideological fabric of the opera”. This metaphor, like most, obscures the real question at issue: what is there in the text, characters or music, if anything, which is antisemitic, and was the work or any part of it understood or intended to be understood in this spirit?

It is convenient to start at the end, with Sachs’s concluding admonition on keeping German art pure against foreign influences, though the Holy Roman Empire might one day dissolve. (The historical Sachs died in 1576.) Unless one asserts a priori that there is no crossover between Wagner’s essays and his operas, one has to accept the possibility that there are relevant links between the two. Here, one might naturally think that Sachs is inveighing against French contamination; as Magee says, this is what the text strongly implies. It is true that, contemporaneously with the composition of Meistersinger, Wagner was writing “What is German?”, an essay which deplored the invasion of German culture by “an utterly alien element”, namely the Jews, who offered “a repugnant caricature of the German spirit”. However, French cultural dominance is vilified in this essay too, and there are insufficient grounds for detecting anything sinister in Sachs’s warning, given that he refers to the dangers of foreign “rule” (Majestät)—an inapt term to use for Jews, and more properly applied to the nation whose leader had, as 19th-century audiences would remember, indeed rolled up the German Empire.

Most of Millington’s other contentions focus on Beckmesser himself. He identifies the “startling fact” that the antisemitic traits in the part were absent in the composer’s original 1845 sketch and only introduced in the early 1860s, subsequent to the obsessive campaign “initiated” in “Jewishness in Music”. This argument presupposes both that the features introduced are indeed antisemitic, which is the question at issue, and also implies that Wagner’s prejudice post-dates 1845, which seems unlikely, given that it was so inflamed by his disastrous Paris years which ended in 1842.   

A stage design for “Meistersinger”, c.1865-1870, based on a drawing by Theodor Pixis (© INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo)

Another point made by some on behalf of the prosecution (though actually disavowed by Millington) finds significance in the fact that Wagner originally named the character Hanslich, a petulant allusion to the part-Jewish critic Hanslick, who had offended Wagner by an unenthusiastic review of Lohengrin in 1858. By the time he republished “Jewishness” shortly after the 1868 premiere of Meistersinger, Wagner had in his sights a cabal of Jewish critics, and he expanded the essay in order to attack not just—as before—Jewish musicians (their inability to compose without being counterfeit or absurd) but now also the Jewish press, Hanslick in particular. (Hanslick had reviewed the new opera in wounding terms.) One of the roles assumed by Beckmesser is to criticise Walther’s first attempt at a song in conformity with the guild’s rules. Later, it is Beckmesser’s own musical efforts which are ridiculed. There is thus an echo of both of the principal targets of the revised essay in these aspects of the part. However, this argument not only begs the same question as before, but also depends on Wagner having known that Hanslick was Jewish when composing Meistersinger. There is no evidence of this. Indeed, Gutman, who detects antisemitism almost everywhere in Wagner (for example regarding Parsifal as a barely encoded proto-Nazi “moral collapse”), notably omits to identify Beckmesser as incorporating Jewish characteristics.

As regards Beckmesser’s personality more generally, Millington identifies a huge  range of negative properties all of which were apparently recognisable antisemitic signifiers for a 19th-century German audience. Thus, he is scheming, argumentative, untrustworthy, thieving, pedantic, self-defensive, socially ambitious. He conforms to the persona of the schlemiel, a Jewish stereotype who falsely believes that he is in control, and who may harbour unrealistic sexual ambitions. His hysterical behaviour alludes to a supposed tendency of Jews to neurasthenia. Even his “intense fury” is a pointer in the same direction. And just as Jews (according to Wagner) speak Yiddish as a repugnant caricature of pure German and can produce no true art, so Beckmesser mangles the words and cannot sing the music of the stolen prize song.

Even if one sets on one side the independent derivation of several aspects of Beckmesser from the stock dottore of the commedia dell’ arte, there is a tendency to false logic in this argument. Unless, like Adorno, one starts from the question-begging premise that “All the rejects of Wagner’s works are caricatures of Jews”, there is a danger in reasoning that because elements in contemporary society ascribed all sorts of negative properties to Jews, and because a given persona possesses some of those properties (difficult not to, given their number), it therefore follows that the character carries an antisemitic message. This is especially so with attributes as universal as anger or a desire to get on in society. If Beckmesser’s paranoid tendencies are a Jewish trope, what about Wagner’s? The fallacy here is that exposed by Gustav Freytag, who in 1869 lampooned Wagner’s poisonous essay by demonstrating that by its own lights Wagner was “the greatest Jew of them all”. How else to explain his “exaggerated nervous unrest”, his “delight in the unusual and the contrived”, his “experimenting frame of mind that seeks satisfaction in the grotesque”, and so forth? As for Beckmesser’s inability to make sense of Walther’s free-spirited art, this is common to all the mastersingers in act 1 except Sachs, and it is doubtful whether they would have acquitted themselves any better in performing Walther’s song in act 3. It is simply in the interests of advancing the comedy that Beckmesser is placed at the extreme end of the mastersingers’ failure to understand Walther’s music, not because he is an enciphered Jew.

Harry Kupfer has pointed out that Beckmesser is hardly an outsider like Alberich or Klingsor. He plays an integral part in the community; he is the town clerk and the highest police authority; he is a serious candidate to become Eva’s husband, and is favoured by her father. He therefore has prestige within the city, and his unrivalled knowledge of the mastersingers’ regulations has elevated him to the position of “marker”. As another commentator puts it, he is simply “the epitome of a kind of musician we all know who is clever, knowledgeable and exacting but at the deepest level uncomprehending, because unable to liberate himself from the past and from the rulebook, so that he never rises above the schoolmasterly.” He is a warning of what happens if theory becomes separated from inspiration.

It is true that in the sadistic dénouement of the opera, Beckmesser disappears among the crowd after his public failure, and thus the comedic conventions are denied: there is no reconciliation, no hope for amendment; a bitter taste is left in the mouth. But this is not a case, as Millingon argues, of Wagner creating a character so shallow, one-dimensional and without redeeming features that for once the composer “loses his sure dramatic touch”, still less are we witnessing the sublimated public execution imagined by Weiner. What, one may ask, is likeable about Malvolio, who has similar amatory pretensions and suffers an even crueller fate, in a play that also leaves us uneasy at its conclusion, and is not thought the less of for that reason? Moreover, we should expect Beckmesser, a subsidiary character compared with Sachs and Walther, to cede the stage to them at the end. Whatever one thinks of the contest between traditional bourgeois art and Walther’s radical recasting of it (Walther of course being Wagner in thin disguise), Beckmesser, like the other reactionary members of the guild, could have no part to play in its resolution.

Millington’s argument then turns to the music. His key point here is that Beckmesser’s serenade is a deliberate parody of the Jewish cantorial style. He concedes that this allegation is “surprising” at first blush, but says that this is the only way to explain the “disjointed rhythms and seemingly endless melismata”, the frequent disruption of the rhythmic flow, the antiphony between singer and accompaniment, all of which imitate a synagogue chant. Millington raises the reader’s eyebrows further by pointing to the high tessitura of Beckmesser’s part, and argues that the intended screeching delivery of certain passages makes “subliminal suggestions [that] having undergone ritual circumcision, Beckmesser has been symbolically castrated [and that] he is likewise impotent as an artist”. 

Many commentators just cannot hear the basic correspondence which Millington detects, to say nothing of his far-fetched and anatomically confused extrapolation. In Egon Voss’s view, the serenade is simply intended to satirise Italian coloratura style. Its laughable chains of fourths surely symbolise a dry over-attention to the mastersingers’ compositional rules. Moreover, it is unclear whether Wagner was sufficiently familiar with Jewish liturgical music to be able to parody it. It is true that in “Jewishness” he wrote:

Who has not been convinced that the musical divine service in a popular synagogue is a mere caricature? Who has not had feelings of repulsion, horror and amusement on hearing that nonsensical gurgling, yodelling and cackling which no attempt at caricature can render more absurd than it is?

Of course, different people hear different things in a piece of music, and if one sets out with this quotation in mind to look for nonsensical yodelling in what may simply be a depiction of absurdity, one may find it. To sufficiently attuned antennae, no doubt even Alberich’s falling semitone may sound antisemitic.

Millington’s next point, however, is one which even some of those unsympathetic to his thesis find harder to dismiss. Originally identified by Adorno, it concerns the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale of the Jew in the thorn bush, who at one point in the story listens to a song bird and, being Jewish, desires to possess it. This appalling story not only parallels in its mise-en-scène certain aspects of the opera, but more “clinching” still, arguably finds its way into the text: Walther makes two seemingly gratuitous references to a thorn bush as he clashes with Beckmesser in act 1. In one of these, he sings of how “In a thorn-hedge, consumed with jealousy and grief, winter, grimly armed, had to hide himself away: with dry leaves rustling about him he lies in wait and plans how he might harm this joyful singing.” The German word grimmbewehrt—“grimly armed”—is a homonym for “authenticated by Grimm” (Grimmbewährt), and (says Millington) “no one familiar with Wagner’s literary style can seriously suggest that the pun is a coincidence”.

In Hans Rudolf Vaget’s balanced essay “The Beckmesser Controversy Revisited”, he concludes that “it is a mistake to distil from the polyvalent and equivocal language of the music dramas a message as narrow and simplistic as the hatred of Jews”. However, in relation to this point, he concedes the existence of a “strong intertextual link” and argues instead that Millington has exaggerated the degree of Wagner’s conscious intent. Thomas Grey finds “the allusion too tenuous to suppose that Wagner could have expected his audience to register it”. This is not the same as denying the connection altogether, but on either view the esoteric Grimm reference falls short of imparting to the opera itself a discernibly antisemitic quality. As Rosen sarcastically says, Wagner did not make his intentions clear, “and he is indebted to Millington, who came along at last to help him succeed”.

Finally, Millington raises the possibility that audiences at early performances of Meistersinger in Vienna and Berlin may have been alive to the antisemitic aspects which it contained. Cosima Wagner’s March 1870 diary refers to “the J[ews] spreading a story around that “Beckmesser’s song” is an old Jewish song which R. was trying to ridicule. In consequence, some hissing in the second act.” Cosima, who was at least as virulent an antisemite as her husband, ascribed this reaction to Jewish elements in the audience. This is a somewhat equivocal clue; Millington refers to it as “tantalising”. The truth is complicated, for by now Wagner’s antisemitism was famous (all the more so after the re-publication of “Jewishness”) and was the focus of various parodies of Meistersinger which appeared soon after its first performances. The first of these featured four Jewish composers (including “Felix Mandelbaum”) who mock the Wagner/Walther figure (“Richard von Wahnsing”); far from being Jewish, Beckmesser appears as an Italian musician (called Werda) who is costumed as a troubadour and sings a ditty to the tune of “La donna è mobile”. In later parodies, Beckmesser’s role is to expose Walther himself as a Jew, revealed in one case to be Walther Isidor Goldzink of Goldzink & Son, suppliers of goose fat. The public’s perception of Wagner and his ludicrous opinions was therefore multi-faceted; and there is no clear indication that early audiences picked up on what was at most a private sub-text, rather than an overt portrayal.

None of these arguments perhaps clinches the case for either side, but the burden is on those who seek to persuade us that
Meistersinger has darker elements than originally thought. They have not succeeded. Moreover, perhaps the most telling point in the whole debate is that if, as Millington says, Beckmesser’s characterisation conformed to “a common stock of antisemitic stereotypes”, it is striking that there is no record of Nazis, many of whom venerated and paid the greatest attention to Meistersinger, having ever detected the allusion. David Dennis has trawled the sources exhaustively and, while he grants that one cannot plumb Wagner’s innermost intentions, he directly challenges the Millington thesis, concluding that there is “no evidence that Nazi cultural politicians or their volkish forbears and associates referred to Beckmesser as Jewish”, despite “having no reservations about antisemitic diatribes within their treatments of Wagner”. This dimension of Meistersinger just formed no part of their cultural vocabulary.

Four concluding remarks may be made. First, the case that Meistersinger actually contains antisemitism (whether intentionally or otherwise) is not made out, and indeed Millington does not really advance it. Those who love this warm-hearted opera can therefore listen to it with a clear conscience after all. Secondly, the well-springs of a composer’s inspiration are complex and unfathomable, and it is always hard to prove a negative. Millington’s claim that antisemitism inspired aspects of the opera may at some level be justified (and even Rosen acknowledges a grain of truth in the argument), but it does not rise to the surface, and Millington therefore exaggerates in characterising the opera as “richly problematical”. Thirdly, what matters in the end about Wagner is the music which he composed. Had it not been for this, he would not have impinged on the consciousness of subsequent generations to the vast extent that he has. Ernst Bloch was right to say that “the music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Meister-singer, but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they deserve credit for nothing else, and no more can or should be given to them”.

Lastly, and even if these conclusions are rejected, it is salutary to remember what Magee rightly calls “the most moving expression from a Jew of . . . the right way of looking at these things”. This was Abraham Sabor, who lent Wagner money and was not repaid:

I have given him a lot of money. He hardly said thank you. I told him I couldn’t help being a Jew, and he called me Shylock. You see, my friends, the world is full of people who borrow and don’t repay; and steal other men’s wives, daughters and sweethearts. But only one of them wrote Tristan and Isolde . . . I only hope my children and their children will not listen to me when old age may make me bitter, but will listen to his music.   

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