Wagner’s Liebestod and Antisemitism

Blog Entry #2: "Wagner’s Liebestod and Antisemitism" 

I cannot define beauty. Plato, Aquinas, Adorno, and many others far more qualified than I have addressed the question. But I know what the experience of beauty feels like, and it is a powerful one. A few pieces of music provide this experience, including Der Abschied from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the second movements of more than one Beethoven symphony. But the most sensual, beguiling, voluptuous piece of music I have heard is the Liebestod at the end of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. At the same time, it is a deeply troubling and perverse work of art that raises profound questions.

When words are associated with music, as they almost always are in Wagner, they alter the experience; one is not merely apprehending sounds, but associating them with text. According to Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, words corrupt and detract from the pure contemplation of musical form. I don’t agree. The words of the Liebestod are a reflection upon death. The music is rapturous. Together, they make a statement mirroring and expanding upon the Romantic aesthetic of Wagner’s time: It is because we are mortal that we are capable of perceiving beauty. If I may paraphrase Wallace Stevens (who was at heart a romantic), how can there be a heaven, if all life in heaven is immortal? How can we enjoy the taste of an orange in a realm where ripe fruit never falls? 

What is troubling about the Liebestod is that Wagner follows this concept to its limit. Rather than being content to say that the inevitability of death adds value to our existence, he goes further, thoroughly identifying love and beauty with death. The logical correlative is contempt for life. This contempt for life placed Wagner at odds with mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition and fed his antisemitism.

On the face of it, Wagner’s anti-semitism was rooted in nationalism and crushing financial and psychological debt (the usual suspects!) This is not the place to discuss Wagner’s nationalism, except to point out that it developed at a threshold moment in German history, in the context of the emergence of the modern German state, when ethnic, religious, and linguistic purity seemed essential to many. As for his debt, Wagner felt he owed his career to Giacomo Meyerbeer, the highly successful though inferior Jewish composer who championed Wagner when Wagner was destitute in Paris. Wagner’s towering ego could not abide this debt.

Despite his fierce anti-semitic views, Wagner worked closely with Jewish musicians throughout his life. As late as 1882, he hired Hermann Levi to conduct the premier of Parsifal in Bayreuth. The previous year, he had refused to be associated with an anti-semitic political tract, stating that the Jewish problem could not be solved politically. I do not intend to whitewash Wagner; he was a sick, miserable, and in many ways loathsome human being. But consistent, he was not. In any case, I would not allow the deficiencies of his character to deprive me of the pleasure of his music.

The Liebestod provides insight into an ideological, unconscious source of Wagner’s antisemitism, deeper than his nationalism or rankling indebtedness. Contemplating Tristan’s physical death and spiritual transfiguration, Isolde experiences the consummation of their love. Wave upon wave of a dark and mysterious euphoria washes over her and her audience as she yields to the overwhelming power of extinction, ravishment, and unification. The climax, as Isolde enters the world beyond, comes as close to musical orgasm as anything ever composed.

Musically, Wagner announces another kind of death. The extreme tonal ambiguity of Tristan und Isolde marks a turning point in musical history, the dying gasp of the classical age. In its place, Wagner bequeathes to us a highly chromatic, less deterministic musical language.

In Wagner’s equation of beauty and love with death, the Jewish tradition – which celebrates life and locates human aspirations firmly in this world – is turned inside-out. Moving beyond the balance of Christianity, which mandates ethical behavior in this world while promising reward in the next, Wagner embraces what he considered to be a Buddhist ideal of disdain for this world, placing all possibility of fulfillment beyond the bounds of life.

His aesthetic, crystallized in the Liebestod, negates the essential message of rabbinic (non-kabbalistic) Judaism: that whatever lies beyond, what matters for us in this world is this world. This powerful opposition to Judaism’s essential message constitutes the intellectual core of Wagner’s anti-semitism. In the Liebestod, Wagner demonstrates that his argument is artistically valid. That is not to say that the this-life-centered message of mainstream Judaism is invalid, but that paradox lies at the heart of existence.

For a brilliant performance of the Liebestod, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvRlZndM70Q Use. a great pair of headphones and prepare to be bouleversé. If you are human, Waltraud Meier's glamour, acting, and mezzo-soprano/soprano voice, supported by Zubin Mehta's nuanced and eloquent baton, will move you to tears.

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