Wagner 1868

Portrait of Wagner by Joseph Bernhardt (detail), Munich 1868, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

An old question newly revisited.


The music of Richard Wagner is constantly being heard, on recordings, on radio, and live in the theatre. International groupies travel the world in pursuit of live performances of his opera cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelung". This constant exposure is due to the intrinsic appeal of the music, the craft employed in its orchestration, the effectiveness of his operas as music theatre, and its consequently usefulness to music organisations who can always rely on performances of Wagner's music to bring financial reward. Another consequence of this exposure, is that Wagner also remains a controversial figure, not because of his music, but because of its political associations with the Nazis before and during World War 2, and also because of Wagner's own anti-semitic writings in pamphlets published during his lifetime.

If, as happened in my case, your initial approach Wagner is through his music, it then comes as a great shock to read his anti-semitic rantings, mainly in his infamous tract "Judaism in Music" written in 1850 to which he wrote an appendix in 1869. Although couched in the form of musical critique, there are passages in the text which overstep the bounds of artistic comment, and which can only be described as personal abuse. What is even more disturbing is that, in their emotive and irrational aspects, Wagner's prose reads like a prototype of later Nazi propaganda.

The ban on public performances if his music in Israel gives rise, from time to time, to articles and letters on the topic in mainstream papers here in Australia, no doubt as elsewhere, reviving the "Wagner controversy". One correspondent here in Sydney, Australia, pointed out that the ban is informal, rather than mandatory, and is maintained out of respect to the survivors of the Holocaust who were subjected to Wagner's music heard constantly on radio, at public rallies, and also, most offensively, in concentration camps. This same correspondent also pointed out that the ban does not extend to recordings of Wagner's music, which are available in record stores, as they are in all democratic countries.

As a composer, I find all of this troubling, since the music of Wagner as is inescapable as the music of other musical geniuses of the 19th century, and to ignore it totally is to ignore not only the music itself, but the seminal changes which Wagner wrought in the nature of music, its composition and its performance.

To compound the irony, Wagner's influence is to be found in the work of many fine Jewish composers of the early twentieth century, including those who suffered persecution under the Nazis, and whose work is currently being re-discovered, performed and recorded, notably in the Decca Records "Entartete Musik" series. Wagner's influence is also to be heard in the work of the many accomplished Jewish composers who escaped from Europe, many of whom went to America to work in Hollywood, in the film industry. Wagner effectively "invented" many of the devices which found pertinent application in the creation of the great symphonic film scores of the 1930s, and the decades following. The controversy is not going to die quietly, and, as part of my own process of coming to terms with Wagner, I wish to explore further aspects of the various issues which arise in considering the place of Wagner's music in world culture.

One aspect of Wagner's life keeps being mentioned, in passing, by writers and commentators, but it is always in passing, often literally in a footnote by biographers, and I have come to think that it deserves much more serious attention. The question arises: was Wagner Jewish ? Or, to be more accurate in terms of the facts, did Wagner think he might be Jewish? Or, to be even more specific, did Wagner think he might be of Jewish descent? From which arises the even more germane question, was Wagner afraid that he might be thought to be Jewish? While the probable answer to the latter question is "yes", a definite answer to questions relating to his parentage could only be provided by conducting a DNA testing, were this possible, on both Wagner himself, and his step-father, the successful actor and painter Ludwig Geyer (or on their descendants?)

Here again, the psychological issue is still not whether Wagner was of Jewish descent, but whether or not Wagner thought he might be, since writers differ on the question of whether or not Geyer himself was Jewish. British writer James Beswick Whitehead, with whom I have discussed the matter, writes:

Cosima Wagner & Richard, 1872, Photo by Fritz Luckhardt, from "The Real Wagner", by Rudolph Sabor, publ. Andre Deutsch, 1987,

Wagner's possible Jewish ancestry would be a delicious irony. It certainly appears more than likely that Geyer was his father but was Geyer Jewish? John Chancellor, in his 1978 biography of the composer, states bluntly that he was not. "He could claim the same sturdy descent as the Wagners. His pedigree also went back to the middle of the seventeenth century and his forefathers were also, for the most part, organists in small Thuringian towns and villages". Chancellor blames Nietzsche for raising the question of Geyer's Judaism as an extra seasoning to his charge of illegitimacy, when he had fallen out with Wagner. But, in his book "Wagner & Nietzsche", Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau appears to accept that Geyer was Jewish. The famous singer draws on Robert Gutman to suggest that Richard and Cosima egged each other on in their anti-semitism, because both had Jewish roots to deny. Cosima was the daughter of Liszt and the Comtesse d'Agoult whose maternal grandfather was a Jewish banker from Frankfurt.

(Cosima's first husband was the conductor Hans von Bulow, whom she married in 1857 and with whom she had two daughters, Daniela and Blandine. She left him for Richard Wagner in 1864, and bore Wagner three children, Isolde, Eva and Siegfried, before marrying him in 1970.)

There does seem to be agreement, however, that Wagner himself had doubts about his own parentage, and from this doubt two factors emerge which would have had a profound influence on Wagner's development. The first factor is the effect of his doubts about paternity. The second factor is the nature of that paternity.

The first factor, doubt about paternity, has been explored in some depth in the case of George Bernard Shaw, whose situation was very similar to Wagner's. The man who became his step-father, and who was probably his biological father, Vandeleur Lee, was a also, like Geyer, a man of the theatre, who married Shaw's mother very soon after the death of Shaw's putative and legally registered father, George Carr Shaw, an alcoholic who was unable to to provide adequate material support for his family. For some years, Lee undertook this task himself. Shaw never resolved the issue in his own mind, because it was an issue which involved a moral question pertaining to his own mother, and it is thought that this unspoken mystery deeply influenced the pattern of Shaw's relationships with women throughout his life. The matter is fully explored in Michael Holroyd's 1988 biography on GBS. But no biography has provided an equivalent exploration of the almost identical family drama which dominated in Wagner's early life, which must have been equally influential in forming his character.

Coincidentally, Shaw himself was an ardent supporter of Wagner, and wrote a pamphlet titled "The Perfect Wagnerite", in which he interpreted "The Ring of the Nibelung" as a critique of capitalism. He also analysed Wagner's debt to the philosopher Schopenhauer, who was, by profession, a merchant, described by some as a banker: which would explain his pessimistic view of life as summed up by the aphorism: "All life is a debt. We spend our lives paying interest. The capital is repaid on death." Those familiar with a persistent theme in Wagner's libretti, will recognise a romanticised version of this philosophy in his metaphysical poetry exalting death as the ultimate fulfilment of love, a concept which reached its apogee in the libretto of "Tristan and Isolde".

But Shaw also recognised the inconsistencies in Wagner's character and wrote: "Wagner was not a Schopenhaurite every day of the week, nor even a Wagnerite. His mind changes as often as his mood ... Wagner can be quoted against himself almost without limit, much as Beethoven's adagios could be quoted against his scherzos if a dispute arose between two fools as to whether he was a melancholy man or a merry one". Dating from 1908, this quip is a typical Shaw sally, making light of a serious issue to draw attention to it. To what extent does Wagner's unpredictable nature and its bewildering inconsistencies of behaviour apply to his anti-semiticism? And how much of this can be attributed to the second factor arising from his doubts about his own paternity, in relation to his having spent his childhood bearing the name Geyer?


Giacomo Meyerbeer

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864); a lithograph, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47), as featured in The Golden Encyclopedia of Music by Norman Lloyd, Golden Press, New York, 1968

Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911) photo as featured in The Golden Encyclopedia of Music by Norman Lloyd, Golden Press, New York, 1968

Let us look at both sides of the coin. It is true that Wagner's anti-semitic rhetoric in his article "Judaism in Music", written in 1850, is pernicious; but it is also true that that its generalities were a mask to disguise its true specific purpose which was to attack firstly the Jewish composer Meyerbeer, and later, in an appendix added in 1869, Mendelssohn. This was an ignoble way to return Meyerbeer's earlier attempts to assist Wagner's career in Paris, which correspondence of the time suggests were sincere; but Wagner later felt that these attempts were only token gestures, since they did not bear fruit: and his failure to advance his career in Paris was a deeply felt humiliation. (Meyerbeer did, however, assist in arranging the premier of Wagner's opera "Rienzi" in Dresden on 20 October 1842.)

In the second diatribe, Wagner also delivered a slightly muted attack on Mendelssohn, calling him technically clever, and good at evoking "nature", but lacking "depth". I can recall this charge still being levelled against Mendelssohn until as late as the 1960s. Anyone who is sensitive to Mendelssohn's music knows that this is nonsense, and I only recently realised that the slur originated with Wagner, which is why we can discount it. Wagner's attack was tactical. He was trying to create a "place" for himself by attacking others - alas, a "normal" if odious tactic in the arts, still practised widely in Australia today, and which would be thought trivial in Wagner's case, were it not for the political context in which the attack was made.

The attacks were a preparation on Wagner's part, to carve out a politically correct role for himself as a German nationalist, writing music to this agenda, as distinct from (what he described as being) the synthetic, non-nationalist kind of music favoured by Jewish composers. As pointed out in the recent Thames & Hudson publication, "The Wagner Compendium" (2001, Ed. Barry Millington), there is some basis for Wagner's thesis, but the characteristic he condemned is not necessarily a bad one, and there is no question that Wagner was being mischievous by deriding what we describe today as an element of cultural "fusion" in music. Indeed, the ability to treat all ethnic musics with impartial interest, and to absorb their elements into original works of art music, and to create a new synthesis from disparate elements, as Mendelssohn did, is basic to the craft of composition; and, because of their exceptional ability in this regard, Jewish composers have been at the forefront of most advances in music in the 20th century. This is clearly so from the avant-garde of the New Viennese School which pioneered the use of atonality, to the adaptation of jazz to popular music, and its use in film music.

Erwin Schulhoff

Franz Schreker

Erwin Schulhoff (1894 - died 1941, internment camp of Wulzberg, Bavaria) Recommended listening, opera "Flammen", Decca 444-630-2, "Entartete Musik" series

Franz Schreker (1878 - 1934, died from a stroke after career blocked, 1934) Recommended listening, opera "Die Gezeichneten" (The Branded), Decca 444-442-2)

Eric Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), 1920, Private collection (left) Hollywood, 1941 (right). Photos as featured in notes for DG 2-CD set "Rendez-vous With Korngold" Anne Sophie-Otter 459 631-2, songs & chamber music. Recommended listening operas "Die Tode Stadt" (1921), "Das Wunder der Heliane" (1927); Music scores for Warner Bros films "The Sea Hawke", "Captain Blood", etc. (RCA Classic film scores)

Ironically, Wagner's music, in its time, offered a paradigm for this kind of evolution in his chosen area of work, music theatre, and among Jewish composers of the 1930s successfully applying his techniques in opera were Franz Schreker, Irwin Schulhoff and, before he settled in America, Eric Korngold. The Nazis condemned atonality and jazz as degenerate, but they could do nothing to prevent the flowering of Jewish musical talent in the area of music for film by a generation of Jewish composers, referred to above, who fled persecution in Europe to settle and find work in Hollywood. I personally consider their contribution to 20th century music to have been as significant as any other development in the evolution of music and it is again ironic that many of the techniques they used for this new form of music theatre called cinema, were based on Wagnerian theory and practise.

Hermann Levi

Hermann Levi, conductor of "Parsifal" at Bayreuth Festival, 1882/83. Photo scanned from "The Real Wagner", by Rudolph Sabor, publ.Andre Deutsch, 1987

Let us now look at the other side of the coin, for it is also true that Wagner's anti-semitic rhetoric was not matched by his behaviour. The Nazis denied Jewish musicians employment, imprisoned and killed them, but Wagner employed them in high positions of trust at Bayreuth. It is true that he made a nuisance of himself trying to convert them to Christianity, but it is also true that he inspired, in his colleagues, a degree of professional dedication unusual in the performing arts in any period. Conductor Hermann Levi, in letters to his father, a chief rabbi in the town of Giessen, writes of his time preparing for the first Bayreuth Festival: "Wagner is the best and noblest of men ... I thank God daily for the privilege to be close to such a man. It is the most beautiful experience of my life." (April, 1882) "The Wagners are so good to me that I am quite touched. I arrived here on June 12th and from that day until July 1st I have lunched and dined every day at Wahnfried. Frequently I called at 12 noon and left only at midnight."(July 1882) "...I refuse even to consider whether I deserve an order or any other kind of recognition for "Parsifal". As for my "prestige", I have plenty of that and I feel ... that I am far too well off as it is. Moreover, I have no idea what they could give me. The Order of merit is the appropriate award of the Bavarian Crown, but that might be rather awkward, considering my name is Levi".(November 1882).

As is widely acknowledged, anti-semiticism was ubiquitous in Europe at that, or any time, but it was not an attitude encouraged by the current wearer of the Bavarian Crown. Ludwig II wrote to Wagner: "It is good, beloved friend, that you are not going to discriminate between Gentiles and Jews when it comes to performing your exalted, sacred work (Parsifal). Nothing is more odious, more disagreeable than such antagonism. Whatever our religions may be, fundamentally, we are all human beings and as such we are brothers, are we not?" (October 1881)

Siegfried Wagner

Richard Wagner, 67 & son Siegfried, 11, photo 1880, by P. Biondi e Figlio. Photo scanned from "The Real Wagner", by Rudolph Sabor, publ.Andre Deutsch, 1987

Siegfried Wagner (1869 - 1930), photo 1924. Photo scanned from notes for CD Siegfried Wagner "Symphony in C" 1925, CPO 999 531-2.

It is true that some of Wagner's descendants consorted with the Nazis, and that one of the architects of racial theory, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, married into the Wagner family. But not all Wagners collaborated with racists, then or now. Wagner's son, Siegfried, also a composer, who died in 1930, refused a request to bar Jewish patrons and artists from Bayreuth. Writing in 1921 he reasoned thus: "We have a great number of loyal, honest and unselfish Jewish friends. They have frequently given us proof of their devotion. You demand that we should turn all these people from our doors for no other reason than that they are Jews? Is that human? Is that Christian? Is that German? Oh no! If we were really to consider such action, we Germans would first of all have to turn into quite different people .... It is a matter of complete indifference to us whether a human being is a Chinese, a Negro, an American, a Red Indian or a Jew. But we could well take lessons from the Jews in solidarity and in helping one another ... If the Jews are willing to support us, they deserve our particular appreciation, for my father attacked and offended them in his writings. They are entitled to hate Bayreuth, and yet, many of them revere my father's works with genuine enthusiasm, in spite of his attacks on them ..."

As I mentioned earlier, the Wagner problem only arises for the period following the horrors of World War 2, because his music has consistently made money for musicians and music institutions world wide. If his work had sunk into obscurity because of disinterest, there would be no controversy. But because it is such a money-spinner for for the entire music industry, he had to be re-instated, and this was achieved, initially, by attempts to whitewash his character, and downplay his politics. These attempts are still being made, and they are regrettable because truth is always more edifying than evasion, and repression of fact obscures other issues which merit attention - issues besides the uncomfortable fact of Richard Wagner's persistent indulgence in anti-semitic rhetoric during his lifetime.

In passing, it must be said that Wagner, generally, found stress relief in vociferous complaint, and few targets escaped attack, including Germany itself. In a letter to Franz Liszt, of September 1860, he wrote: "It is with horror that I contemplate Germany and my plans for the future there. May God forgive me, but all I can see in Germany is small-mindedness, boorish behaviour,. pretence and arrogance ... Believe me, Franz, we have no Fatherland! If I am a German, it is because Germany lives within me."

Johanna Rosine Wagner

Ludwig Geyer


Portrait of Wagner

Johanna Rosine Wagner (1774-1848) mother of Richard Wagner; portrait in oils by Ludwig Geyer, 1813, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

Ludwig Geyer (1779-1821), self-portrait in oils, detail, c. 1806, step-father of Richard Wagner, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

Portrait of Wagner, watercolour, detail, 1853, by Clementine Stockar-Escher, Zurich, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

And so we return to the question: Was Wagner Jewish? The most interesting, and least explored aspect of Richard Wagner's character lies in his relationship to his stepfather, the painter and actor Ludwig Geyer, from whom he acquired his love of theatre. Various commentators have affirmed that Wagner himself had doubts about his own paternity, but, as I have pointed out, none have explicitly explored the obvious inference, that he may have suspected that he was partly of Jewish descent, through Geyer, whose affair with Wagner's mother pre-dated the death of Wagner's presumed father, Friedrich Wagner, a Police Registrar, who was ill at the time young Richard was conceived, and who died six months after his birth. Soon after this, Wagner's mother, Johanna, married Ludwig Geyer. Richard Wagner himself, I have read, was known as Richard Geyer until, at the age of 14, he had his name legally changed to Wagner. He had apparently taken some abuse at school because of his name and it has always seemed to me that his later anti-semiticism may have been motivated, at least in part, by sensitivity to this abuse, and by a kind pre-emptive denial to prevent difficulties and suffering arising from prejudice.

Christian hostility to Jews throughout the centuries was only modified when Jews consented to convert to Christianity, and the history of music abounds in cases where musicians have had to convert in order to able to earn a living. Closer to our own time, Gustav Mahler had to convert in order to secure employment as a conductor at the Vienna Opera. The entire Mendelssohn family also converted and before them, the entire family of Mozart's great librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. Da Ponte was a picaresque individual, a notorious philanderer and adventurer, from Venice originally, where his Jewish father had converted to Christianity and been baptised together with his three sons. In a wonderful instance of pragmatism, they all took the surname of the Bishop who performed the ceremony.

In allowing performances of Mozart operas, the Nazis conveniently overlooked the fact that most of Mozart's libretti were written by a Jew, though the facts of Da Ponte's heritage cannot have been unknown to them. In contrast they were less lenient in their treatment of a living Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, whom Richard Strauss initially chose as his second opera librettist following the death of the Austrian poet Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, with whom he had had a long and fruitful collaboration. Joseph Goebbels allowed only one performance the opera Strauss wrote to Zweig's libretto "Die Schweigsame Frau", and then blocked further partnership, forbidding Strauss to give employment to a Jew. A letter from Strauss to Zweig criticising Goebbels' "interference" was intercepted by the authorities. Zweig escaped to Switzerland, and Strauss was obliged to work thereafter with the dull and unimaginative, but impeccably Aryan cultural historian Joseph Gregor. None of the operas Strauss wrote during World War 2 have stayed in the repertoire except "Capriccio", for which he ended up writing the libretto himself, with conductor Clemens Krauss, because Gregor's work on the idea was too plodding! The whole tangled story is well told in a biography of Strauss by Matthew Boyden (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999).


In Berlin on February 18, 1934, concert by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Left to right: Friedrich-Christian Prince of Schaumburg-Lippe, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Richard Strauss, Franz Strauss & Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Emmerich Kalman (1882-1953), from composers' photo gallery, The Golden Age of Operetta, Readers Digest. Recommended listening operettas "Countess Maritza" "The Gypsy Princess"

The Nazis overlooked Strauss's politically incorrect indiscretions because his international fame made him a useful cultural ambassador for the Third Reich. In passing, it must be said that their selective application of prejudice does give some support to the thesis that the Holocaust was, in essence, organised theft, to which racial hatred gave a rationale. When convenient, the rationale was forgotten, or at least, set aside. A bizarre offer made to the Jewish composer Emmerich Kalman provides a case in point. Adolph Hitler himself admired the operettas of Kalman, and, in 1936, shortly after the Anchluss of Austria, conveyed an offer to the composer to make him an honorary Aryan. The offer was delivered by a general of the Third Reich who, in reply to Kalman's understandable concern about its genuineness replied: "I will guarantee it with my life." To which Kalman replied: "But who will guarantee your life?" Immediately following this incident, Kalman and his family hastily left Vienna for their native Hungary, where they were issued with Hungarian passports and travel visas. This enabled a trans-European exit, via Paris, to the USA. Shortly thereafter, the production of Kalman's works in the Greater Reich were forbidden, as had been the performance generally of works by Jewish composers since the advent to power of the Nazi Government in 1933.

It does no credit to Wagner's character to suppose that he may have adopted anti-semiticism as a mask to conceal any hint of Jewish heritage in his background. But the possibility is worth exploring, in the context of his life, his talent, and his creative aims. He was not born into a Jewish heritage, nor was he Jewish by religion, so the hypothesis we are exploring is not a normal case of denial, such as, for example, a youthful rebellion against parental authority. It is a case of pre-emptive denial of a possibility. We are not dealing with a certainty in Wagner's life, but with a question to which he could never be given a clear answer. In this context, he may have felt that being Jewish, or being thought to be Jewish, was not a burden that he wished to bear. The artistic aims he set for himself from an early age were enormously ambitious; indeed they were grandiose and, on the face of it, impossible to achieve. In the end, they were only achieved by a miracle, the timely support of an adolescent admirer, who ascended to the throne of Bavaria, and who became his patron, Ludwig II.

Ludwig II of Bavaria

Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-86); coloured photo presented by the king to Wagner, as featured in Wagner, A Documentary Study, Barth, Mach & Voss, Published Thames & Hudson 1975.

What were Wagner's aims? As they finally evolved they were to achieve a revolution in the art of opera, or, as he defined it, music drama. With Ludwig's help, he was largely successfully in a number of respects which it is worth summarising. He pioneered the dissolution of the classical system of harmony, and paved the way for many developments in music of the 20th century, including new techniques for giving music a narrative role in drama. He embraced the use of new systems for instruments and new instruments, especially in the brass sections of the orchestra allowing him to write innovative chromatic harmonies, of which other composers, such as Brahms and Schumann, strongly disapproved. Brahms refused to write for the new brass instruments.

Wagner also pioneered innovations in theatre design, which included hiding the orchestra in a pit below the stage, and blacking out the lights in the auditorium. He overcame enormous hostility and inertia to achieve these changes. It is possible to imagine that, in some private moments of reflection early in his life, he must have decided that such aims were difficult enough, without adding to them the burden of racial and cultural prejudice which came with being, or being thought to be, Jewish. Such fears could well have originated when he was an impressionable adolescent, if he had had early experience of prejudice, through being teased at school for being Jewish.

Such speculation is only interesting if there is to be found, in his creative work, any resonance of such an issue, any traces of cultural ambiguity. Music historians have been quick to point out anti-semitic elements in Wagner's libretti: the gold-loving Nibelung lord Alberich as a symbol of Jewish materialism; the jealous rival songsmith Beckmesser, in the Mastersingers of Nuremberg, incapable of original work, who steals the work of others, a symbol of the kind of Jewish creativity Wagner attacked in his polemic writing. But is there reverse side to this coin? Are there any symbols in his libretti, sympathetic to a Jewish heritage in European culture? Surprisingly, there are, but they are of an esoteric nature, and they are not reflective of orthodox Judaism any more than were Wagner's Christian references reflective of Christian orthodoxy.

To find our sources we must turn to what is often described as the "hidden stream" of Western culture, which is rich in the very lore on which Wagner drew for his libretti: lore which encompasses the fate of Jerusalem, the role of the Knights Templar, their connection to King Arthur and the Knights of the Holy Grail, and the related mythology of the Ring Lords of antiquity. These themes are being re-explored in a explosion of new writings which have emerged on the back of the discoveries by archeologists of ancient manuscripts pre-dating the establishment of Christian orthodoxy in the fourth to the seventh centuries. But these ideas were very much in vogue in the latter decades of the 19th century, where they infused much art of the time, from pre-Raphaelite painting to the work of Richard Wagner.

We start with an early opera,"The Flying Dutchman". This figure is synonymous with that of the "Wandering Jew", in fact the two are linked in meaning: later interpretations of the "Dutchman" legend attributed his curse to demonic punishment; but behind the same curse of endless journeying is also a symbol of the Jewish Diaspora. Interestingly, when the Dutchman does come to shore in Wagner's libretti, it is the Gentile father of Senta, the beloved, who displays greed for material wealth, whereas the Dutchman's needs are spiritual.

Spanning the Ring cycle are Wagner's two Grail operas, "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal". The Grail Knights are, according to neo-Gnostic interpretations, custodians of the family tree of Jesus (Joshua) and Mary (Magdalene), whose heirs were the Merovingian monarchs of Southern France, until deposed in the 7th century by machinations and assassinations arranged by the Roman church. The politics of that period are quite fascinating, and are too complex to elaborate on here. Suffice to say that if the Merovingian blood line was Jewish, and of Royal descent, the heretical details were a threat to the newly established Carolingian dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. The facts had to be suppressed, belief in them declared a heresy, and, to ensure suppression, such heresy had to be punishable by death.

The facts of a usurped Royal, Jewish line went underground, and re-surfaced in esoteric form, in the Grail legends, and in fairy stories of Princes and Princesses deprived of their inheritance, such as Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty. Whether or not Wagner knew of these references, it is to these legends he turned for the content of his operas.

In terms of his opera "Lohengrin", the Knight Lohengrin magically appears to restore Elsa to her rightful place on the throne, of which she has been deprived by trickery. The condition of his help is that she should never ask his name or from whence he came. To those who understood the riddle, there is here, the unspoken inference that Lohengrin himself is of the Jewish blood line, information which he cannot disclose, either in fact or in name, or else he will have to "return from whence he came". Could there possibly be, in this and in the Dutchman story, an subjective echo of Wagner's own feared identity as a Jew? If so, this would co-exist as a buried sub-text buried within the wider meanings.

Since Wagner read widely, and studied deeply in such matters, it is probable that he was acquainted with Gnostic interpretations of the Grail mythology, particularly as he is known to have visited the mysterious village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the South of France before writing "Parsifal". This otherwise normal country town purports to be where the treasure of the Knights Templar was hidden by the Cathars after the 13th century Albigensian Crusade against them instigated by the Catholic Church, and could be construed to be in the area of the actual location of the events of "Parsifal", that is, the location of the castle of the Grail, Montsalvat, which the libretto describes as being "in the country in the character of the northern mountains of Gothic Spain". The treasure was two-fold, encompassing both the material treasure rescued from the Temple of Jerusalem, in 70AD, but was also supposed to include the Grail itself, which is no doubt what drew Wagner to visit Rennes-le-Chateau.

Whatever else Wagner may have known about the Grail legend, he already had his own conception of what it meant to him before making this visit. "Parsifal", his last opera, was written in 1878, but in an essay written in 1849 (titled "Die Wibelungen") he saw it as a relic originating in India, the birthplace of the original Aryan civilisation, and one which embodied a transcendent and transforming power, pre-dating Christianity itself. There is no historical justification for such a supposition, except in the sense that the Grail has always embodied an idea in the form of a vessel, and many of the cultural values underlying Western thought do have their origins in the East (as brilliantly shown by English writer Stephen Oppenheimer in his exhaustive 500 page study "Eden In The East", published by Phoenix, 1999 ).

The symbolism in "Parsifal" is sufficiently elastic to allow a number of interpretations, including racist ones. What sin or condition, exactly, is being redeemed and healed in "Parsifal" ? Is it a moral one? A cultural one? A racial one? It must be said that Wagner deliberately leaves that question open to interpretation, and there are no shortage of interpretations. However, the traditional version has the Grail Knights as proto-Teutonic Knights defending a pure Christian-Aryan heritage, and defending it against incursions by the alien, pagan threat of the magician Klingsor, who seeks to divert them from their quest through the wiles of his captive Flower Maidens, embodiments of sensual gratification. The ailing leader, Amfortas, has been compromised by temptation, and some commentators find, in the leader's "wound which will not heal", a sexual malady. Parsifal is the "wise fool" who can retain his innocence, resist temptation and thus bring redemption to the community of the Grail.

The Nazis, of course, characterised Klingsor as a Jew, but a re-casting of the same story could produce an inversion of racial roles, and it is precisely such a re-casting which has been embraced by a direct descendant of Richard Wagner, the composer Adrian Wagner, who lives in the United Kingdom; at least that is the inference one must draw from his association with writer Laurence Gardner, author of "Bloodline of the Holy Grail", "Genesis of the Grail Kings" and "Realm of the Ring Lords", all published since 1996. Adrian Wagner has written companion musical suites to two of these volumes and has released these on CD. The reader may access these CDs, and Gardner's books through Adrian Wagner's website: http://www.mediaquest.co.uk/awggk.html

Laurence Gardner's thesis enlarges on themes brought to public notice in the 1982 best seller by Baignent, Leigh & Lincoln "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail", a work which draws on many sources including the apocryphal scriptures and Gnostic writings which have emerged from archeological discovers over the past two centuries.

A summary below explains how this agenda discovers a "Jewish bloodline" context in the Grail legend, supplanting the orthodox Christian one, and, by inference, allows a similar context in the Wagnerian Grail operas supplanting the traditional "Teutonic Knights" context with its overtones of German nationalism, and Aryan racial purity.

An entry in Cosima Wagner's diary of December 2, 1887, confirms the composer's ambivalence about the opera's meaning for him, at the time of its composition, when he says to her: "I shall still write Parsifal for my wife, but I wouldn't say it's a sign of faith in the German spirit any longer". It is quite likely that this remark reflects Wagner's disenchantment with the German public, which, by then, he had come to feel had given him insufficient support and backing in the creation of the Bayreuth Festival. The first Festpielhaus lost money, and six years elapsed before it could reopen, in 1882, by which time Wagner was exhausted and disenchanted by the response to his embrace of German nationalism. His anti-semiticism had been a calculated part of that posture, and, despite it, support from Jewish musicians in the Festival, and from Berlin Jews of the Festival were significant factors in its survival. Wagner lived to see Parsifal produced in the 1882 Festival, but died the next year.

Richard Wagner, age 58, photo 1871 by Franz Hanfstaengl, from "The Real Wagner", by Rudolph Sabor, publ. Andre Deutsch, 1987,.

The word 'Grail' has other meanings beside the one Wagner attributed to it. Was he aware of them? In the Gnostic tradition the word has a double meaning: on the one hand it is said to be a contraction of San(g-Real) - which means, in French, Royal Blood, and, in code, means, in turn, that the Grail is a document which provides proof of the line of descent of "royal blood": the blood being that of David and Solomon, through Joshua, or Jesus, and his wife, Mariam, or Mary Magdalene, Joshua having been an heir to the throne of Jerusalem by direct descent, as was his brother, James. (To clarify, 'Jesus' is the Greek version of the Hebrew name 'Joshua' or 'Yeshua' and came into circulation when the New Testament Gospels were translated into Greek from the original Aramaic). In addition, the concept of the Grail as a vessel has the esoteric meaning of "the womb which carries the Holy Blood", and is a reverential symbol of Mary Magdalene, who, to this day, is still the subject of cult worship in areas in the South of France, that is, in the former lands of the Merovingian monarchs.

The traditional meaning of the Grail as the cup which carried the blood of Jesus shed when on the Cross is a compatible, or at least an analogous meaning, and it is, of course, the meaning Wagner illustrated in "Parsifal", composing music of extraordinary power to portray the wondrous, healing properties of the Grail. The belief that blood itself has magical properties is one of great antiquity. Wagner drew on it for the rites portrayed in the final scenes of "Parsifal"; scenes which have as much affinity with the earlier religion of Mithras as they do with orthodox Christian worship; and the rituals observed in Parsifal are also related to rites of Freemasonry, as might be expected considering the links between the Knights Templar and Masonry.

Whatever Wagner's acquaintance with such diverse aspects of Grail lore, he only took what he needed for "Parsifal", a selective process he also used in deriving material from legend his other operas. It's worth mentioning, at this point, that "Parsifal" also revisits a theme which Wagner dealt with in an earlier opera, that of the conflict between flesh and spirit. That other opera is "Tanhauser", another work in which Wagner, while paying lip service to orthodoxy, displays dissent. The dissent occurs during the scene where Tanhauser has returned from his futile trip to Rome to beg forgiveness for his sexual sins, committed during his sojourn in Venusberg. The Pope withholds forgiveness, and Tanhauser bitterly refers to his rejection in a German phrase of ambivalent meaning, sometimes translated as "I saw him who is God's messenger", and sometimes as "I saw him who claims to represent God". Lost in the garment of piety with which Wagner otherwise clothed his libretto, this Gnostic barb was overlooked, and Wagner was accused of having written a pro-Catholic opera by those to whom it mattered, whose sectarian interests he was thought to have betrayed.

Is it possible to sum up the foregoing? All one can say is that ironies abound. Despite Wagner's anti-semitic rhetoric there is consistent evidence of his interaction with Jewish artists throughout his life, both on a personal basis, and professionally, after the establishment of Bayreuth: and there was a persistent groundswell of support for his innovations from Jewish people in Berlin, in the early years of the Festival, which continued despite the hurtful re-publication of his earlier tracts. Much of the information used in this survey comes from a recent book by a Jewish writer Paul Lawrence Rose, 'Wagner: Race & Revolution' published by Faber & Faber in 1992, and other information and quotations from correspondence come from A Documentary Study by Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack and Egon Voss, published by Thames & Hudson in 1975, and "The Real Wagner" by Rudolph Sabor, published by Andre Deutsch in 1987, and further quotations from books I have not yet read are included courtesy of James Whitehead.

Wagner's music is here to stay. But can he himself be forgiven? I discussed these matters in recent emails with a long-time Jewish friend in London, a connection maintained since our days together at Cambridge University in England in the 1950s. I suggested that the difference between Adolph Hitler and Richard Wagner was this. Hitler, who wished to be a painter, gave up art for politics, and, in his impotent and vengeful frustration, refused Jews employment and then murdered millions. Wagner never gave up on art, and though he voiced complaints about Jewry, never refused a Jew employment, and never committed homicide. My friend was kind enough to say that, as an anti-semite, Wagner was an amateur. The painter was a professional. That is probably about the best one can say for Richard Wagner, the man. The music is speaks for itself.

But as for the question: was Wagner of Jewish heritage? If that DNA testing I mentioned earlier could be done, and if it turned out that this was true, then the question would arise - Could Richard Wagner be acclaimed in history as one of the great Jewish composers of the nineteenth century? Such a verdict would please as many people as it would annoy. But it would be a final, fitting irony, in the career of a man in whose life ironies abound.


In the aftermath of World War 2, the main problem facing those in the music industry who wished to "reinstate" the music of Richard Wagner was its posthumous use for political purposes by the Nazis. A thesis needs to be written about music as polemic. Most of the hijacks have been completely inappropriate. The Labor party in Australia have "adopted' the Jupiter theme from Holst' Planets Suite for their theme song - to assume nobility of purpose for themselves. This embrace is by a political party formed largely by Irish revolutionary socialists who still despise the British! The "British" national anthem is a German tune, which was still doing the round of German states at the time of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The Jubel-Overture by Swiss composer Joachim Raff (who taught Liszt how to orchestrate) sounds as if it uses "God Save The King" as its main theme, but in fact the piece was written shortly after the aforementioned jubilee to celebrate the 25th year of the reign of Adolf, Duke of Nassau! My essay "Variations on a racist theme" documents the embrace of the tune by the United States, to new words, and titled "America". In that form, for a hundred years, it rivalled the "Star Spangled banner" as America's official national anthem, despite its association with England, with whom the colonist had fought a war.

The German national anthem in use during the Nazi era is based on the theme from the slow movement of Haydn's "Emperor" String Quartet, but the ignominy to which the tune was subjected has not resulted in prohibition of performance of that work, nor has it deterred Protestants the world over from singing the hymn set to its melody "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken".

It is the peculiar quality of music that it provides a simulacrum in sound for "events" creating by the human central nervous system, "events" called "emotions" and these "events" can be directed for political purposes. Thus "pride" feels the same, whoever feels it, but the object of pride can change according to the social context which inspires it.

I have read one commentary on the Nazi use of Wagner's music which points out how stupid it was of the Nazi hierarchy to take on board the Nordic gods as their heroes, since the demise of the gods was specifically prophesied by Wagner in the "Ring" cycle. I realise this kind of commentary does not assuage the distress of people who were there in Germany during the 1930s hearing the 'Rienzi' overture played at the start of Nazis rallies, following by public speeches threatening and denouncing them because of their race and cultural heritage.

Perhaps it is best to allow Wagner to speak for himself on these matters, quoting directlly from his own writings. Prophetically he wrote: "Is the German already tottering to his fall? ... Woe to us and to the world if the nation itself were saved and the German folk remained but the German spirit had taken flight for the sake of power".

Did he anticipate Hitler? "The German folk does not want demagogues ... Do we ever see a conqueror, a forcible ursurper, whether folk or individual, that does not seek to found his wilful annexation on religious, mythical or other trumped-up covenants?"

The author of the cautionary tale about misuse of the Ring of world power also wrote: "To conquer without ever considering how they are to be won over! Never to ask oneself how Holland, Switzerland, and so forth are to be converted into friends! Only for the army ... It is not the Jews we have to complain about, for each organism tried to further its own interests."

The development of scientific weapons of war alarmed him: "It can but arouse our apprehension to see the progress of the art of war departing from the springs of moral force and turning more and more to the mechanical: here the rawest forces of the lower nature powers are brought into artificial play ... Already a grim and ghastly sight is offered by the armored Monitors, against which the stately sailing ship avails no more: dumb serving-men, no longer with the looks of men, attend these monsters. Art invents torpedoes for the sea, and dynamite cartouches, or the like, for everywhere else." And again: "It is thinkable that all this, wiith art and science, valour, point of honour, life and chattels should one day fly into the air through some incalculable accident ... Then it might really look "as if God had made the world that the devil might take it."

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You can email me at dstrahan@revolve.com.au

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