Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich is demanding that Los Angeles Opera overhaul the Ring Festival L.A. planned for next year, calling Richard Wagner a, “Nazi composer.”
He is, of course, wrong. The Nazi’s may have used Wagner, but Wagner was already long dead. Yet, the issue remains, Wagner held rather despicable anti-semitic views (along with the majority of his contemporaries) – should we listen to his music today?
“Great geniuses are parts of the times; they themselves are the time; and possess an correspondent coloring,” wrote Herman Melville in 1850. Creative artists are not exempt from the prejudices of their age, nor are they necessarily good and moral people. Accusations of anti-semitism – not always unfounded – have been leveled at Shakespeare, Luther, Voltaire, Chopin, and Dickens, among many others. Other artists have been notorious misogynists – in fact one of the first recorded uses of the word described Euripides, the famous tragedian of classical Athens. Yet, I doubt anyone would challenge a theater festival centered around Euripides the way Los Angeles County Supervisor Antonovich has done with the 2010 Ring Festival Los Angeles.
We cannot demand of our ancestors the enlightened tolerance of our present. Nor should we identify a late-date interpretation of a work with the intentions of its author: while the Nazis’ use of Wagner’s music associated it, for later generations, with their acts, the music itself bears no anti-Semitic message. And even the clearly anti-semitic language in Wagner’s notorious essay “Judaism in Music” never envisioned or in any way implied the Holocaust – if anything the essay was a personal attack on rival composers couched in populist anti-semitic terms. Despicable, but not a reason to deprive today’s audiences from music that rises far above the petty prejudices of its creator.
It is not music that causes atrocities, but men driven by political interests. They may use art to boost the grandiosity of their dangerous ideologies (as Hitler did) or to score minor political points as Mike Antonovich is doing today, but fortunately for all of us the sublime beauty and drama of Wagner’s music survives in spite of them – to give us hope and faith in the face of petty politics and bloody history.