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Dissertation: Wagner in Jewish-German context
By Irad Atir

Irad Atir, a musician, musicologist, pianist, composer, Performer and conductor. Studied Ph.D at the departement of music of Bar-Ilan Univerity, and got His M.A. in musicology from Tel Aviv University. His dissertation "Judaism and Germanism in Richard Wagner's Art was praised by "Yad Vashem" in 2012.Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/irad.hasarut e-mail: irad_atir@hotmail.com   

In this dissertation I argue that Wagner integrated into his operas his socio-political view concerning the place of the Jews in the modern German society. The ideological aspect of Wagner’s operas has been long recognized by analysts, but the place of the Jews and Jewishness within this ideology has not yet been explored. Since few characters are defined as Jewish by Wagner in an unequivocal manner, most studies do not regard the Jewish question as part of the operas at all. Studies that mention Jews do it in a cursory manner regarding the Jewish issue marginal the message of Wagner’s dramas.

The starting point of this study is the assertion that Wagner conceived of certain characters in his operas as being Jewish, and that the Jewishness of these characters is not incidental but worked into the web of the dramaturgy. How do we know who is “Jewish” among Wagner’s operatic characters? First, in some cases, Wagner himself specifies figures as being Jewish. Second, and equally important, certain characters exhibit, in their actions, speaking and singing style, those characteristics which Wagner describes as being Jewish. These characteristics, then, are exactly those which we can observe in connection with those dramatic figures which Wagner himself defined as Jewish.

Wagner had no need to state that certain dramatic figures were Jewish. In the contemporary social and cultural context, when stereotypes about Jews were known to everyone, such concretization was not necessary. In fact, it would have been injurious to his message as it would have been regarded by many as lacking good taste. Pointing a finger to an ethnic group – in this case: the Jews - was not an accepted behavior in cultured circles; covert references, however, were in fashion. Wagner’s public had always regarded these set of figures as being Jewish. The prevalence of a common interpretation does not in itself prove Wagner’s intention, but it certainly signals the existence of a consensus. Yet most interpreters of Wagner’s music disregard the Jewishness of the theatrical characters because it is difficult to prove and, furthermore, might provoke a politically charged discussion.

It is significant, nevertheless, that whenever the question of Jewishness is dealt with, there is complete agreement as to which characters might be regarded Jewish and which are not. This is clearly a sign that Wagner's characterizations were, and have been ever since, well aimed.

The central argument of this thesis, however, is not merely to argue the Jewishness of certain characters. Rather this work is an attempt to offer an additional layer of interpretation for Wagner’s operas and, by doing so, arrive at a deeper and more multifaceted understanding of his social ideology. The basic dramatic layer of Wagner’s operas has been amply analyzed and this work will change little in this regard. What this work attempts, however, is to add another layer to these interpretations: an interpretations that regards the dramatic situations in terms of Wagner’s conceptualization of Jews and Germans in modern society.

I argue that this added layer has crucial importance. I claim that in his dramas Wagner intended to present how the relationship between Jews and Germans plays itself out in the social sphere and what the positive and negative impact of these segments would be on modern German society. Furthermore, I argue that this Wagnerian view of the German-Jewish relation is neither simplistic, nor it is necessarily anti-Semitic. To be sure, at the basis of the characterizations of most Jewish roles, one can find well-known stereotypes. But Wagner goes further than simply reiterating stereotypes. He creates a complex society of Jews and a complex society of Germans – each with its internal tensions and negative and positive aspects – and, on this basis, he produces an intricate web of dramatic interactions.

It is an important aspect of this German-Jewish dramatic layer that it does not view Jews as necessarily negative and Germans as necessarily positive. On the contrary, if we look at the dramatic situations closely, we realize that some Jewish characters are fundamentally positive while numerous German characters are negative, even repellent. In my view, the German-Jewish layer of the drama is an important aspect also of Wagner’s social “pessimism” that characterizes especially the Ring: the whole of the – German and Jewish – society has to disappear in order for something better be born.

I will argue these points through the re-interpretation of the dramatic situations playing close attention to the exact wording. The focus of the dissertation, however, will be the exploration of the above points through musical analysis. I will attempt to show that it is often the musical aspects (motives, harmonies, tonalities, singing styles, orchestration, etc.) that explain most clearly Wagner’s conception of his characters and their
fates. For the proper understanding of the message of the music, one has to consider also the contemporary musical context, that is, the meaning of certain styles and the borrowings of themes from other composers.

A most significant aspect of Wagner’s borrowings regards themes taken from the works of the Jewish composer, Felix Mendelssohn. As it is well known, for Wagner, Mendelssohn was the Jewish composer par excellence; in his famous writing about “Judaism in Music”, Mendelssohn exemplified the incapacity of Jews to create true art.
Yet this same Wagner uses major themes from Mendelssohn’s best-known works prominently, that is: themes which were easily identifiable by the contemporary audience.

Wagner’s borrowings from Mendelssohn are not incidental.
They always have dramatic function and meaning: it is not an accident which theme and from which work Wagner quotes and how he re-interprets its message for his drama.

The dissertation consists of three major parts: chapter 2 discusses the achievements of the reasearches about Wagner till today , chapter 3 summarizes Wagner's writings and statements that are relevant to the research about Jews and Germans; because I find this important to be familiar with his opinions and ideals.

The main chapter is chapter 4, where I analyze the musical dramas of Wagner in Jewish-German context, each individual plot and music.

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About Irad Atir

Related Links:

  • Richard Wagner's Operas
  • Richard-Wagner Jubilee Bayreuth 2013
  • Bayreuth Festival
  • The Nation Archives of the Richard-Wagner-Foundation Bayreuth
  • The Controversy Over Richard Wagner

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  • Irad Atir

    Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

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