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The King made Me Do It: Richard Wagner and the Rabbi's Son

Updated on January 30, 2015

Wagner and King Ludwig: the background

I had previously written, about the 19th Century German opera composer, Richard Wagner and his Jewish friends. I had mentioned only in passing about the most complex of these relationships, namely one of the leading German orchestra conductors of his day, Hermann Levi.

Levi’s extraordinary talent for music at a very young age resulted in his family’s emphasis on musical training, to the neglect of religious instruction. Though Hermann was not religious himself, he was very close to his father, Rabbi Benedict Levi, and he spoke with pride of the fourteen rabbis in the previous 10 generations of his family.

Our focus here will be the six years between 1876, the first performances, in Bayreuth, Germany, of Wagner’s four opera epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, and 1882, the premiere performance of Parsifal, likewise in Bayreuth. That is the period during which all of the correspondence between the king and Wagner centered on that opera took place.

Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, is a Christian opera, based on Christian legends, including the Holy Grail and the Holy Spear that pierced the body of Christ as he lay upon the cross. It is set in the legendary Castle of Monsalvat in Spain, home of the Knights of the Grail. It is also one of resoundingly beautiful music.

One of the hardest choices faced by Wagner in any new opera was the selection of a conductor. So who did Wagner select to take this highly important role in the depiction of the holiest legends of Christianity?

He chose the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. Wagner was already working closely with many Jewish friends and admirers, as detailed in my previous essay “Richard Wagner’s Jewish Friends.” They included, among many others, Heinrich Porges, Josef Rubenstein and Angelo Neumann. Carl Tausig, a young man, long a friend of the composer, died suddenly at age 29. None of these relationships caused much controversy.

But the idea of a Jewish conductor, albeit of extraordinary talent, conducting this Christian opera, caused a flurry of letters and articles of angry responses. Why, in the face of Wagner’s publicly proclaimed anti-Semitic writings, does he select a Jew to conduct this holy opera? Unfortunately Wagner himself, in all probability, gave his continuing line of enemies a ready explanation. To all of those who questioned him, there was undoubtedly a ready answer: “The king made me do it.”

Wagner needed the Munich orchestra for the premiere, and it has become part of the accepted lore that the King made Levi part of the deal, and that if Wagner would not accept its conductor, Levi, the Munich orchestra would not be available. It was accepted even by many friends and acquaintances of Wagner. One of the very few to question it was Alan David Aberbach, a late 20th Century historian and opera expert. In his 1998 The Ideas of Richard Wagner, he wrote that Wagner was not forced to accept Levi; and that Wagner’s decision was made almost three years before the performance. However, he continued, “As a ploy and a way out of an embarrassing predicament, Wagner would have enjoyed the popular rumor that it was Levi or no Munich Orchestra.”

If anyone else has happened upon that insight, there does not seem to be any evidence of it. This is unfortunate as the material that can confirm or falsify Wagner’s self-serving excuse, is readily at hand and available.

Two sources are of prime importance. One is the six volumes of letters, averaging about 220 pages each, between Richard Wagner, living in Bayreuth, and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, living in Munich, about 150 miles away. It was, with one minor exception the only means they had for communication with each other during the relevant period.

The other source is the diaries of his second wife, Cosima. The two volumes of over a thousand pages each cover the last 14 years of his life, with an entry for each day. They deal almost entirely with Richard, his conversations with her and others, a daily account of the affairs, problems, and vicissitudes he faced on a continuing basis. What does all of this material tell us about Wagner’s excuse? Did the king really make him do it?

First, let us dispose of the negative evidence. There is not a word in any of the various letters of the six volumes of correspondence between the king and Wagner that reveals the slightest interest of the king in who or what Wagner wanted for the production of Parsifal. His only determination was to hear the opera. It is all in writing. The original contract between the king and Wagner in 1878 specified that the Munich Opera would be the location for the performance; that the personnel would be the members of the Munich opera, and that Wagner “shall be at liberty to supplement the Munich forces from outside quarters as he may think fit.” There were two conductors at the time, Levi, who was Jewish and Franz Fischer, who was Christian. So even without that last grant of privilege to Wagner to supplement personnel, he could by this contract have used Fischer, the Christian.

But just a few months later Wagner wrote the king that he could not bear the thought of producing Parsifal any place but in Bayreuth. Without more ado the king then annulled the first contract and a single paragraph was substituted by the king, stipulating that the “orchestra and chorus of my court theater shall be at the disposal of Bayreuth” for the productions of Parsifal in the first year of their performances and each year thereafter. Further the General Director and the Secretary of the theater were to come to agreement with the Bayreuth Patrons Group concerning the time of the performances and settlement of costs. There were no conditions as to who was to be the conductor or of any other matters. The orchestra and chorus were “at the disposal of Bayreuth.” No requirement and, no conditions.

Wagner did not begin his work on Parsifal, or have much correspondence with the king about it until after the premiere performances of The Ring beginning in late July 1876. Ludwig attended the performances in Bayreuth in early August. It was the only occasion on which he went to that town, for that or any other reason. On April 28th, 1880, came the first reference we have to Levi as conductor of the Parsifal premiere. Cosima’s dairy quotes her husband, speaking of Levi, “I cannot allow him to conduct Parsifal unbaptized, but I shall baptize them both and we shall take Communion together.” The “both” included Rubenstein, the pianist who had been living in Wagner’s home for 5 years. Wagner also included himself, conscious of never having been baptized. None of the three were ever baptized.

There was in fact only one, very half-hearted attempt to persuade Levi. On January 19th, 1881, Levi, while visiting Wagner in the composer’s Bayreuth home, was surprised to hear that Wagner had chosen him to conduct Parsifal. But Wagner had another surprise: “Beforehand, we shall go through a ceremonial act with you. I hope I shall succeed in finding a formula which will make you one of us.” Cosima then notes that their “friend’s face darkened,” whereupon Richard changed the subject. As far as any record shows, it was never brought up again.

The other item of negative evidence is the total absence of any mention, direct or indirect in the diaries of Cosima of any hint of a demand by the king that Levi must conduct the premiere of Parsifal. There is not any mention of even an expression of the king wanting it. However matters of far less importance were the subject of extended discussions.

Let us turn to some more positive evidence. As conductor of the opera in Karlsruhe, Levi insisted over the objections of the management in performing the entire four hour opera, Die Meistersinger, without cuts. The performance on February 5th, 1870 was by all accounts an exceedingly fine production. Word of it inevitably got to Wagner.

In April, following a very friendly exchange of letter between Wagner and Levi on an unrelated matter, Wagner gratuitously included this: “I am happy to have this opportunity to tell you of my delight at having heard only praise for your performances of my Meistersinger. . . How salutary it is for me to be able to welcome a real man of talent as conductor of a German opera-house.” He ended the letter “Assuring you of my very great respect, I remain, your very devoted servant.”

The only time at which King Ludwig laid eyes on Wagner after 1876 was on November 12, 1880, when Wagner, returning from a vacation in Naples with his family, stopped in Munich for 17 days. Wagner conducted at the Royal Court Theater in Munich, for the king’s benefit, a performance of the prelude he had written for Parsifal. Most of his time, however, was spent with Levi, then the conductor of the Munich Opera.

(To be continued on second capsule)

Richard Wagner and the Rabbi's Son

(continued from capsule 1)

Levi had prepared for Wagner, in Munich and returning from a vacation, a number of concerts of Wagner’s favorites, including selections by Mozart and Beethoven and Wagner’s own Tristan and Isolde, and The Flying Dutchman. The performance of Dutchman brought the composer to tears for its excellence. The performance of Tristan, in Wagner’s own words, made him feel with every character. . “He feels he is each of them.” According to one of Levi’s biographers, Frithjof Haas, it was during this visit that Wagner had clearly seen that Levi could serve very well as director for Parsifal, and that there was hardly anyone better. The Wagners left Munich for Bayreuth on November 17th, and as we have seen, it was about two months later, January 19th that Wagner told Levi he wanted him to conduct Parsifal.

Five months later, on June 29th. 1881 Levi was in Bayreuth planning to spend a week rehearsing for the opera. A misunderstanding between Wagner and his conductor arose, the details of which are not relevant to our issue. Levi, miffed, fled to nearby Bamberg and sent Wagner a letter of resignation. Wagner’s telegram downplaying the controversy was not successful in persuading Levi to return.

Had Wagner really not wanted to have Levi conduct, here was the perfect opportunity to tell the king what had happened, and that he would now have to get another conductor. Instead, Wagner wrote to Levi, demanding and begging him to return. The letter was addressed “Dear best friend.” Said Wagner: “I have the greatest respect for your feelings, though you are not making things easy for yourself or for us!” He then continues in that vein, blaming Levi’s sensitivity for the rupture. “For God’s sake come back,” he demanded and “Do not lose any of your faith, but have the courage to go on with it . . . but in any case - you are my conductor for Parsifal. Now come on! Come on!”

Levi did return, and to celebrate, Wagner ordered “Hebrew wine.” In an exchange of correspondence a few months later, Wagner wrote “For all musical preparation for next year’s Parsifal performances, you are my plenipotentiary, my alter ego.” If Wagner ever gave any other conductor or anyone else such authority, it does not show up in any record. On the contrary, he seemed always determined to keep within his control even the smallest details.

Suppose, for the moment that the king had demanded that Levi conduct. What would Wagner’s reaction be? Wagner had showed repeatedly that he would rather not have his work produced at all if not with his approval of personnel and all details. We have a splendid example.

Thirteen years before the episode with the slanderous letter, the king, upset by a show of impertinence by the conductor, chosen by Wagner to conduct one of his operas in Munich, dismissed him. The king tried to get other conductors when Wagner refused to do so. Most others refused to conduct without Wagner’s approval, something Wagner would not give. However, one, Franz Wüllner, agreed.

Wagner immediately wrote to this king’s choice a rather uncomplimentary letter. It began “Hands off my score, sir, or the devil take you!” In more modern jargon, “go to hell.” The next few sentences refer to the addressee as a mere ‘time beater,’ and compares Wüllner to the general director of the Munich opera, one about whom Wagner had publicly said many unkind things; Wagner ended this letter to Wüllner, “You two gentlemen will need a lot of instruction from a man like me, before you learn that you understand nothing.” But Wüllner did conduct and the Wagner/Ludwig relationship, after a short break, continued as before.

Four months before the performances began, Levi received a letter from his father, Rabbi Benedict Levi. He was obviously proud of his son, But apparently the rabbi also said “if only I could like Richard Wagner,” or words to that effect.

Answering that part of the letter, Hermann responded: “You certainly can and you should. He is the best and noblest of men.” After offering the best face for some of Wagner’s more pointed anti-Semitic pronouncements, the conductor continued, “That he harbors no petty anti-Semitism like some country squire or bigot is shown by his behavior toward me, toward Josef Rubenstein, and by his former relationship with Carl Tausig, whom he loved dearly. The most beautiful thing I have experienced in my life is that I was permitted to be close to such a man, and I thank God for it every day.”

There were 16 performances of Parsifal that summer of 1882, most conducted by Levi, and to the complete satisfaction of Wagner, a rarity in the life of this demanding taskmaster. After the first performance Wagner rushed to the conductor who was speaking to his father. He shook hands with Benedict and paid Hermann high compliments. The friendship continued, but Wagner’s days were numbered.

He and his family, accompanied by Rubenstein went to Venice to rest. He was visited by many friends, past and present. Levi visited twice. Notation of each of his arrivals was preceded by Cosima’s comments in her diary that they were all glad to see him, the only instances of such comments by her.

The second visit was on February 4th, 1883. Wagner was ill for part of it, but soon recovered. By then however Levi was not entirely well and was confined to bed. When he felt well enough to travel, Wagner accompanied him to the stairs, kissed him repeatedly, and, wrote Levi, “I was very moved-and twenty four hours later!!”

What had happened twenty four hours later? Wagner had suffered a massive heart attack. He called for his wife and the doctor but it was too late. He died in Cosima’s arms.

Levi wrote to his father two days later: “In my terrible indescribable pain I think about you with love. Later generations will measure what the world possessed in him and what it has lost.” Among the 12 pallbearers at the funeral were Levi and Porges, two of his closest friends.

Quite apart from the evidence, there is the general atmosphere that pervaded the friendship of these two men. Could Levi have been unaware of any desire on the part of Wagner to ditch him because of religion or anything else? No one with human instincts, knowledge of the history, and without deep animosity, could think it possible. The entire milieu speaks louder than any evidentiary analysis.


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