Throughout history, nationalism has affected the music of many composers. Defined as “devotion and loyalty to one’s own country,” nationalism takes on many guises in music. While some composers use folk songs from their native lands, some may write music to reflect the visual images of their homeland. A pride in one’s homeland can also convey itself in negative ways. One such example we will discuss today, the German-nationalistic Richard Wagner, and the anti-Semitism result.
In addition to his musical output, Richard Wagner is known for his writings. Throughout his life, Wagner wrote many essays on subjects ranging from music, literature, drama, politics, and morality. A true German nationalist, Wagner believed that German art was pure and true and only people who shared ethnicity could be part of a nation. Jews, he believed, could not be German because Hebrew (a dead language) was their real language. He claimed the Jewish people mimicked other European nations in speaking their languages as foreigners.
In his 1850 essay Judaism in Music, Wagner attacks the Jewish people, specifically his former friend and influence, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Though Meyerbeer had helped Wagner get his start, this anti-Semitic writing attacks the Jewish composer, claiming that because of his Jewish heritage, he is weak and lacks a nationalistic style. According to musicologists, this writing was sparked when a critic wrote that Wagner’s music had Meyerbeer influences, a statement that offended the independent composer. Wagner also went on to attack Mendelssohn’s Jewish roots although, like Meyerbeer, Wagner once admired his work.
During the 20th-century, Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings gained popularity among the Nazis and Hitler. His views supporting Hitler’s own, Wagner became his favorite composer.
Next time, join me as I continue looking at Wagner’s anti-Semitism by exploring where it appears in his music.