Wagner - Can We Separate a Man From His Art?

Starling Arts 

Wednesday May 22nd 2013 

On Wagner's 200th birthday, Emily asks 'Can we separate a man from his art?' 

My mum loves Wagner’s music. Her idea of heaven is to sit through the 14.5 hours of The Ring Cycle, barely surfacing for breath. My mum loves Wagner’s music so much that she can often be found crying just hearing the final scenes of Tristan und Isolde, made an inconsolable wreck by the music. 

Today, on Wagner’s 200th birthday, praise for the composer’s work fills my social media timelines. But although I can be deeply moved by his music, his politics always mar my enjoyment of his work. 

A portrait of Richard Wagner, by Caesar Willich

Sadly, one of the most infamous tyrants in history, Adolf Hitler, also loved Wagner. Hitler adored Wagner’s music, but the composer’s politics also became a powerful source of inspiration. Wagner’s very public, published, tirades against Jewish people, and suggestions of anti-semitic themes and characters displayed in Wagner’s musical work were almost certainly part of the pull for Hitler. Wagner is often credited with changing the face of modern classical music, but considering Hitler’s near obsession with his politics, you could argue that Wagner’s legacy had a strong hand in the fate of the Jewish population in the early 20th century, and the tragic resulting events that came to pass. 

Wagner died in 1883, and we’ll never know how he would have responded to the rise of the Nazi party. The composer will almost certainly have a permanent association with Hitler, despite dying several years before Hitler's birth. Consequently, Wagner's music has since been outlawed in modern Israel, where his operas have never been performed and the few public instrumental performances have caused protest. Yet many high profile figure-heads, including the founder of modern day Zionism, Theodor Herzl, have professed admiration of Wagner’s musical prowess, regardless of their feelings on anti-semitism. At the time of Wagner’s work, Hermann Levi, a practicing Jew and son of a Rabbi, conducted the debut production of Wagner’s final opera Parsifal, despite the writer’s initial objections on the ground’s of his religion. Levi was such a fan of Wagner’s music that he became a pallbearer at the composer’s funeral, clearly putting aside any discrimination he had faced. During the first Wagner performance in Israel, holocaust survivor Mendi Rodan conducted the Siegfried Idyll in 2000. Israeli audiences were no doubt divided by the choice to perform the work, but I can’t help but wondering (and I know I'm not the first) - if a holocaust survivor can prioritize art over the moral storm surrounding Wagner, why can’t I?  

Today, a parallel music/moral dilemma engulfs Chris Brown, whose notorious violence towards his partner Rihanna in 2009 have caused ripples in his music career. While here it is a singers’s actions rather than his beliefs at question, protests have stalked Brown throughout the world ahead of his live concerts, including displays of police image taken of Rihanna’s injuries in banners plastered across Sweden and the singer pulling out of an appearance in Guyana due to pressure from women’s rights groups. A scathing review of Chris Brown’s album by writer Chloe Papas makes clear that we should avoid musicians with questionable morals:

Regardless of whether Chris Brown has any musical talent (he doesn't) or whether this album is any good (it isn't), the man recently brutally assaulted a woman, and is still regularly invited back to award shows and worshipped by 'Breezy' fans worldwide... Final words: don't buy this album.

A quick scan through various forums, and many Chris and RiRi fans seem to argue that if Rihanna can forgive, we should too; a man shouldn’t forever be judged by his actions. I’m still not sure where I stand, but then I don’t love Chris Brown’s music enough to be persuaded that his violent history is worth blotting out for my own musical enjoyment. The overpowering feeling I have about Chris Brown is anger. If I loved his music, maybe my love of his art would surpass the negative feelings. 

As many music fans still refuse to listen to Chris Brown’s music, do the same rules apply to a writer who died more than 100 years ago? Perhaps when we refuse to play a Wagner melody, we are taking a stand against the thought of music promoting evil - something Hitler did with devastating results. Music can be incredibly powerful and not always for good; perhaps when the morality of the artist hits us hard, we fear that more than just a melody will be heard. In short, we fear that music can also carry harmful moral messages, a belief strongly attached to the idea that artist and art are intricately intertwined. But should we find a way to put politics aside, and if so, how? 

My mum started listening to Wagner when she was 10 or 11 years old, long before she knew of the darker side to the composer. She learnt to appreciate his musical world, outside of the moral debates. Now, as a musician and music lover, she sees two separate Wagners - an artist and the man outside of the music. In enforcing this divide, her appreciation of his musical talents can be enjoyed, largely untainted by his legacy’s shadow. Stephen Fry explores just this tension in his documentary ‘Wagner and Me‘ - watch the trailer here:

Should we separate art and the artist’s personal life? Let us know your thoughts

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Emily Cook