A cycle of death: JCCSF talk parses the legacy of Wagners Ring

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He warned of the “harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the [German] nation,” and that “the Jew has no true passion to impel him to artistic creation.”

That wasn’t Hitler at some torch-lit Nuremberg rally. It was composer Richard Wagner, writing 80 years before the advent of Nazism.


Richard Wagner

No artist stirs up as much Jewish unease as Wagner. To this day, the very thought of his music causes some Jews, especially Holocaust survivors, intense stress.


Yet Wagner was by all reckoning one of the great creative geniuses of all time.

With next month’s opening of the San Francisco Opera’s production of the Ring cycle — the epic four-part, 15-hour “Der Ring des Nibelungen” — the sturm und drang over Wagner will get an airing at a Thursday, May 26 panel discussion at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Titled “Wagner Through a Jewish Lens: The Enigma of Wagner’s Genius and Anti-Semitism,” the discussion features historian Deborah Lipstadt, former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen and moderator Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The problem is deceptively simple,” says Kosman of the panel’s topic. “[Wagner] left this unbelievable artistic legacy that cannot and should not be denied, and which has enriched the cultural world for 150 years.”

But, he adds, “he also had a host of amoral political and personal views that many would find repugnant today. Furthermore, his ideas then came to a certain ugly fruition after he was dead.”

That “ugly fruition” was, of course, the Nazi co-option of Wagner’s music as the soundtrack to a reborn Teutonic nationalism, subsequently perverted into the Holocaust.

For Hitler’s Germany, the ride of the Valkyries went right past the smokestacks of Auschwitz.

With the Ring, Wagner invented what he called the music drama, an outsized blend of theater, music, singing and spectacle. Its influence on all subsequent music and opera cannot be denied, yet the use of his music by the image-conscious Nazis twisted it into an aural symbol of genocide.

Kosman notes that for Holocaust-era Jews, “Wagner’s music was used as a symbol for terror. It’s a musical swastika, a totem for a very specific historical event. But it doesn’t follow from that that Wagner was a Nazi before his time or that we can blame the crimes of Hitler on Wagner. Certainly not on Wagner’s music.”

Former New York Times ethics columnist Cohen has pondered the ethical dilemma surrounding Wagner. It comes down to this: Can one separate the art from the artist? Or, in Wagner’s case, do the artist’s vile beliefs taint the music itself?

“The librettos themselves contain symbols that were understood to be anti-Semitic,” Cohen says of the four operas that make up the Ring cycle. “There can’t be anti-Semitic math. There can’t be anti-Semitic physics. But when it comes to opera, the answer is yes, there can be.”

Many scholars agree that the loathsome dwarfish race of the Nibelung depicted in the Ring represent the Jews.

On the other hand, Cohen concedes that Wagner was a product of his times, which in the case of 19th century Germany meant a period of virulent anti-Jewish hatred. Similarly, 20th century German composers such as Richard Strauss and Carl Orff openly worked for or belonged to the Nazi Party.

Yet nobody calls for boycotts of Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

“Must you forswear participating in a work [of art] if the creator of that work is a truly vile person? “ Cohen asks. “I believe the answer is no, but it is a reasonable question. What moral standing must you give to people who have a close connection to the Holocaust? [Wagner’s] music is so imbued with suffering and death and tragedy.”

While fully acknowledging the dark side of Wagner, both the man and the music, critic Kosman can’t help but love the aesthetic power of the Ring.

“The more I get to know Wagner and the cycle, the more I am in awe of it,” he says, “of its majesty and depth and great theatrical fervor. It is long, yes, but there is no flab, nothing in the Ring you could cut.”

“Wagner Through a Jewish Lens: The Enigma of Wagner’s Genius and Anti-Semitism” takes place 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $17-$25. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.jccsf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.