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Wagner and the Struggle Against Jewish Influence in Classical Music

HOW TRUE were the accusations made by Richard Wagner in his famous article “Judaism in Music”? Was the theory of disproportionate Jewish influence realistic? Or was it the myth that Jewish apologists would have us believe?

Ernest Newman’s four-volume biography of Wagner gives us some clues to the musical scene in mid-19th century Europe. In speaking of Wagner’s trip to Paris in 1860, Newman writes, “Even before he had made an open attempt to interest the French public in his music, Wagner had to contend with the enmity of the corrupt Paris press, which, it is no secret today, was handsomely taken care of by the rich Meyerbeer.” Meyerbeer was a second-rate Jewish talent, the Jerome Kern of his time, who had direct pipelines to the upper levels of French government. At the premières of the Wagnerian operas, Meyerbeer’s friends organized demonstrations and did everything they could to give them a bad reputation. Discussing the widely read Paris critic Fetis, Newman alleges he was reputed to have accepted bribes from Meyerbeer to attack Wagner. As a result of such hostility, the great composer, who had hoped to score a financial success in Paris, barely broke even.

Wagner later went to Vienna to mend his fortunes. Here he had to contend with the critic Eduard Hanslinck. About him, Newman had this to say:

There was hardly a contemporary work of genius or high talent in connection with which he did not demonstrate at some time or other in the course of his career the limitations not merely of his intellect, but of his taste — from Tristan to Aida, from Carmen to Die Fledermaus he was consistently wrong. But singers, instrumentalists, conductors all stood in awe of him; and even the opera management used to become apprehensive when it became known that Hanslinck was prejudiced against the composer of a new work. After beginning as an admirer of the early Wagner, Hanslinck for some reason of his own — perhaps not unconnected with “Judaism in Music” — had developed into one of his bitterest critics.

Hanslinck’s prejudice consequently dampened Wagner’s chances of success in Vienna. Later, when Wagner took a brief trip to England, he was castigated by the London Times for condemning composers such as Mendelssohn, then enjoying great popularity in Britain, for their Jewishness.

Earlier in the century, Jewish dominance in the musical publishing business was suggested by the letters of Frédéric Chopin, who, although known for his humanitarianism and kindness, wrote blisteringly against Jews in connection with the sale of some manuscripts:

“I did not expect that Pleyel [a well-known musician of the time] would Jew me; but, if so, please give him this letter. I think he won’t cause you any trouble about the Ballade and the Polonaise. But, in the opposite event, get 500 [francs] for the Ballade from Probst [a publisher] and then take it to Schlesinger. If I have got to deal with Jews, let them at least be Orthodox ones. Probst may swindle me even worse for he’s a sparrow whose tail you can’t salt. Schlesinger has always cheated me; but he has made a lot out of me and won’t want to refuse another profit; only be polite to him because the Jew likes to pass for somebody.”

Elsewhere in Europe such names as Mendelssohn, Mahler and Levi come to mind as musicians who became very prominent in the history of Western music. It may be significant that as conductors both Mendelssohn and Mahler were widely known for taking great liberties with the compositions of other musicians. Mendelssohn routinely altered tempos, while Mahler went so far as to rewrite and re-orchestrate compositions when he found the original score unsuited to his taste.

The conductor Hermann Levi had a fairly high reputation in Germany, having been invited to conduct at Bayreuth, despite the well-known racial attitudes of both Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima. It would seem, then, that since Jews were welcome at the Wagnerian holy of holies, they did not encounter the fierce resistance that philo-Semites complained of.

Russia, which in Czarist days offered more resistance to the Jewish ascendancy than most other European countries, was not immune to strong Jewish influence in its musical establishment. At the top of the musical pyramid in pre-revolutionary Russia were Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, who enjoyed worldwide reputations as both composers and performers.

After the turn of the century, Hanslinck’s successor in Vienna was Julius Korngold, who dictated the musical taste of Austria until the Anschluss in 1936. In Berlin, Alfred Einstein of the Berliner Tageblatt was the most prominent critic. In the Hitler and post-Hitler eras, Richard Strauss, who collaborated with Jewish librettists like Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Stefan Zweig, was never forgiven for not leaving his native Germany after the National Socialist takeover. It only takes one misstep for the minority intelligentsia to turn their powerful guns against even the most talented artists. Strauss, incidentally, would have made much more money by running to New York and joining the “fashionable” refugee set.

Underlying all this outside racial pressure on Western music was the all-encompassing power of the Rothschilds, which certainly contradicted the claim that anti-Semitism was as prevalent and irresistible as minorities like to pretend. The fact was that anti-Semitism was so weak that Jews moved easily into many of the highest positions in the European music world. Some of the finest non-Jewish composers, however, recognized the alien nature of the Jewish musicians, composers and critics. During the Dreyfus affair, for example, the conservatives in the French music world, such as D’indy and Saint-Saëns, as well as an avant-gardist like Debussy, had the courage to come out publicly against the Jewish spy. (Saint-Saëns was later accused of being of partial Jewish ancestry — but he was not.)

Originally appeared at: National Vanguard