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Richard Wagner's Jewish Friends

Updated on September 1, 2014

A strange Anti-Semitism

Richard Wagner, the 19th Century German composer of opera, has long been noted for his strident expressions of anti-Semitism. The most opprobrious of these has been his infamous Judaism in Music, an essay published in 1850 at the age of 37. Apart from the racist tone, it states in essence that Jews were capable of neither creating nor appreciating great art. It is with justification that he is today deemed a racist, thorough and through, with the bulk of his contempt directed at the Jews as a sub-population in his native German land.

Little noted by modern writers however is the fact that his racism seems exactly the opposite of the modern variety. Post Hitler almost no one admits to harboring such tendencies, even the many exhibiting obvious racial or religious prejudice in their daily lives. It was the opposite with Wagner. He expressed in speech and writing his overt animosity toward many groups, most explicitly toward the Jews, whom he seemed to target as a group, like some amorphous entity. Strange to say, but a fact nonetheless, in his dealings with individuals, he judged by only one attribute, namely whether the individual supported him in his life’s work, or opposed him. What ultimately mattered to him was not race or religion, but the realization of his artistic goals, his concept of art. Good and bad, right and wrong, were judged by that one criterion. With many of his close associates, including many Jews, he developed warm, close, and empathetic relationships.

We might begin with one young Jewish man named Samuel Lehrs, a struggling philologist. Lehrs was one of three of Wagner’s close friends during the composer’s two year sojourn in Paris as a young man, beginning almost ten years before his infamous essay. He, like his three friends was battling for recognition and even for basic survival. Wagner, hopelessly in debt, and earning next to nothing, was helped by the labors of his wife Minna. But his empathy for his very sickly friend, Lehrs, was boundless. In April 1842, Wagner and his wife left Paris for Dresden, but his concern for his friends centered most on Lehrs, whom he felt he would not see again. In his autobiography, written about 30 years later, in his mid-50s, he credited Lehrs with his own introduction to and absorption with philosophy, and in large part with his interest in medieval poetry. It was also Lehrs who had furnished him with source material for two of his early operas.

He continued to correspond haltingly with Lehrs, and with his other Paris friends, to whom he eagerly sought news about Lehrs and his condition, chiding them when they sent what he felt to be insufficient information. He ended one of his letters with “I don’t want to know anything about you, only about Lehrs.” He finally heard again from Lehrs directly about a year after leaving Paris. Wagner responded “Be of good courage, my dear brother. Sooner or later we must be together again… enjoy the beautiful spring air which will bring you strength.” Lehrs died a few days after receiving the letter, and Wagner wrote his younger sister that the news left him dumb, speechless for almost 8 days. It was “heartbreaking… This brave wonderful and so unfortunate man will to me be eternally unforgettable.” In his autobiography, begun at age 55, he said his relationship with Lehrs “was one of the most beautiful relationships of my life.”

Another of Wagner’s unforgettable relationships began in May 1858. The 45 year old composer was living in Zurich as a fugitive from Saxony, having participated in an unsuccessful uprising. The new friend was a 16 year old Polish Jewish lad, a student of Wagner’s friend, Franz Liszt, and an extraordinarily talented pianist. His name was Karl Tausig, and he bore a letter of introduction from Liszt. He exhibited to Wagner his virtuosity on the piano. That meeting came 8 years after his infamous essay about the Jews.

Wagner was almost literally swept off his feet by what he heard. The childless composer took not only an immediate deep interested in the youth for his musical skills, but also a surprising paternal interest. He assisted in finding him nearby living quarters. The boy was a frequent visitor in Wagner’s home where they took many meals together, and together they often made mountain hikes in the towering Alps that abounded in the Swiss countryside. In letters to his wife, then living temporarily in a hospital, as well as to Liszt in Weimar, Wagner waxed most eloquently about the virtues of his new friend. They parted in August when Wagner left for Venice alone. The stark incompatibility between him and his wife, surfaced again after her release from the hospital, and finally resulted in separation.

In Paris, he also had a very close and friendly relationship with the Jewish composer Jacques Halévy, a composer, 14 years his elder. Wagner tells us in his autobiography that he had a very high opinion of his “masterly talent,” and that he enjoyed his many talks with the “peculiarly good hearted and unassuming man.” He also explained that it was Halévy’s candor, in assessing the worth or lack of it in contemporary music that “justifies the participation of all Jews in our artistic concerns.” While writing for a musical journal in Paris, Wagner’s essays were filled with laudatory comments about Halévy’s operas.

Wagner again met Tausig in May 1861in Vienna, Wagner’s residence for the next three years. In Vienna, as in Paris, he had also had three close friends, two of whom, this time, were Jewish. One was the 26 year old Heinrich Porges, a musician of some talent, but whose greater talent seemed to be writing about musical matters. The other was Tausig, at 19, no longer merely boyish but, in many respects, more an equal of his famous composer friend. Tausig soon introduced him to Peter Cornelius, the only non-Jewish member of the new triumvirate. Cornelius was then 38 and had his own plans to write opera.

About Tausig, Wagner wrote to Minna that “the confounded boy” was just as amusing as ever, but not so insolent. He wrote a little later to her that “Little Tausig… helps me now and then to a playful smile.” About a year later the three friends gave a three concert series of his music in Prague. Wagner laughingly told Porges that this was the first money he earned from his compositions.

In 1864, Wagner’s fortunes changed dramatically. One of his most ardent admirers, Ludwig II ascended to the throne as King of Bavaria upon the death of his father. Ludwig was willing, even eager to help the increasingly frustrated composer, finances being one of the means of doing so. Tausig, at this time, was heavily engaged with other matters, both artistic and romantic, but Wagner quickly wrote to both Porges and Cornelius asking them to come to Munich where he had relocated, and cast their respective lots with him. To Porges he made a generous offer of money (from the Bavarian treasury) and living quarters of his choice. His duties were to be those of secretary and copying of business matters, manuscripts, and musical arrangements, which, he wrote, would not be burdensome and would be better than the “dreary business” of giving lessons, which he was now doing. His letter to Porges, his Jewish friend, read in part: “If you accept you will make me very happy! You know of course that the secretary is merely an excuse for having my friend here with me. If you wish to bind your life to mine... you will, I hope, never have cause to regret it. And how important, how splendid, and how reassuring it will be for me to have my witty and friendly companion here beside me!”

Porges, at that time refused the offer, but shortly thereafter spent so much of his time working so closely with the composer for the balance of Wagner’s life that he might as well have.

The biggest and most daunting challenge was the production of Wagner’s grandly conceive “Ring of the Nibelung,” a four opera series, requiring the building of a new theater, and would make extraordinary demands on the artists, and on the necessary scenery. It could not be paid in its entirety by the Bavarian treasury. Financing was perhaps the most important challenge.

Wagner turned to Tausig. His young friend’s ideas for raising funds, new at the time, included the formation of “Wagner Clubs” throughout Europe and America. He worked out the idea and the details of a guarantee fund to be paid by patrons through the sale of “patron certificates,” offering free seats for all the performances. In one of his letters, Wagner described Tausig as the “life and soul of the project.” But, as happened all too frequently, in that as in earlier centuries, illness struck suddenly and lethally. In Tausig’s case it was typhus. He died in July 1871 at age 29.

Wagner was devastated. He complained to his second wife, Cosima, about the “stupidity of fate, snatching Tausig away” when he had so much to live for. That night, he dreamed about Tausig. A week later he spoke to her about the melancholy of nature and himself. “Since Tausig’s death I have no will for anything except business matters and the children’s lessons. I just cannot manage to write personal letters.” A year later he wrote a short poem as an epitaph placed on Tausig’s tombstone. It lamented his so premature death and paid tribute to his courage. In May 1873 came a 19 page report to the patrons of the Festival Theater then under construction in Bayreuth. He acknowledged the help and support of many friends and acquaintances, but only one did he mention by name: “The exceptionally talented and energetic Karl Tausig embraced the matter as a task peculiarly falling to himself.” The short poem Wagner had written for his friend’s tombstone was repeated in the report.

There were other close friendly relationships with Jews in this period, some of them spanning Wagner’s entire life. Among them should be mentioned the Lehmann women, Marie the mother of Lilli Lehmann, who made her mark in the world of music as a Wagnerian soprano, and of her other daughter, also named Marie, who was distinguished from her mother by the nickname Riezl. Wagner was friends with all three women, but his favorite was Lilli. Both sisters sang in the first “Ring” performances in the Bayreuth Theater in the summer of 1876. They were two of the three legendary Rhinemaidens in the first and last operas, and two of the Valkyries in the second opera. Lilli also sang the offstage role of the Woodbird in the third opera.

Wagner was well, and justifiably, known for being brutally frank in his expressed opinions about artistic performances, particularly in his own works, and seemed constitutionally unable to give more praise than he felt was justified. For Hans Richter, the conductor of the performances who earned much praise from others, for one example, Wagner had none, and several years later described in writing his disappointment in Richter’s performance. But to his Jewish soprano Lilli Lehman he wrote: “Oh, Lilli, Lilli! You were the most beautiful of all – and you are right, dear child, it will never come again. That was the magic of it all – my Rhinemaidens … Greetings to Marie, she is so good. Great God, how good both of you were…Farewell, dear good child! Lilli!” In 1886, three years after Wagner’s death she sang the lead female role at the Metropolitan Opera House in the first American performance of Tristan and Isolde.

In Munich, Wagner continued his efforts to enlist Porges in his various ventures, particularly after the talented writer turned his efforts in preparing for King Ludwig a comprehensive psychological analysis of Wagner’s very new and powerful Tristan and Isolde, completed in 1859, but not performed until 1865 in Munich. Wagner tried diligently to find gainful employment for his friend. He offered Porges a position as one of the administrative offices, or “artistic business leader” for first production of the recently completed operatic comedy, The Mastersingers. That projected performance did not occur. But through his efforts Porges was appointed editor of the arts pages of the South German Press, a publicly subsidized newspaper formed to propagate Wagner’s works.When a new music school was completed by Ludwig in the same year, with emphasis on German opera, meaning Wagnerian, Porges declined Wagner’s attempt to get him to join the faculty. The following year Wagner wrote a lengthy letter to Ludwig bemoaning the reluctance of Porges to join his circle of friends in Munich: “He almost alone fully understands me and my truest intentions. Yet he stays aloof.” He wrote that he would not consider the school “completely finished if Porges will not take a meaningful part in it.”

Wagner was successful in having Porges appointed music director in Munich. In February 1872 he conducted Wagner’s Lohengrin in that city. A few days later Hans Richter wrote to Wagner that Porges had conducted the opera so badly that he would not conduct again. Wagner’s reply: “I can never forget it when someone has behaved well toward me. It was he who arranged the concert in Prague for me, and in the evil days in Vienna he was the only one to whom I could turn. So he can go on sinning for quite a while before I strike him off my good books.”

There is much more to Wagner’s relationship with individual Jewish friends and admirers which will be dealt with in one or more successive hubs. In addition to more on Porges, there is Josef Rubenstein, a difficult but gifted piano virtuoso, who begged to be allowed to help Wagner in the preparation for his Ring operas and ultimately did so, not only for those operas, but for Wagner’s final opera Parsifal. For about ten years he lived in the Wagner family home as a welcome, but difficult member of the family. There is, also yet to be discussed, Angelo Neumann, the Jewish impresario, to whom Wagner gave exclusive rights to produce the Ring operas all over Europe; and there is Hermann Levi, son of a rabbi, with 12 rabbis in his previous ten generations. He was selected by Wagner to conduct Parsifal , Wagner’s final opera, and based on Christian legends. The composer insisted he would have no one but Levi, and resisted all objections based on religion or any other matter. All of these will be treated in some detail in later hubs. The material is to be found in my book Richard Wagner and the Jews.


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    • miltonbrener profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York, NY


      thanks for writing. I'm glad you enjoyed it.



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