Idyll and Agon — performing Wagner in the 21st century

By Daniel Orsen

Daniel Orsen is an SPCO violist and Wagner’s Nightmare co-creator.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s concerts this week and next feature Richard Wagner’s lone work for chamber orchestra, Siegfried Idyll, which was written as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner (an astonishing character — please do read about her). Siegfried Idyll draws upon music from his opera Siegfried, particularly the Act III love duet between Siegfried and Brünhilde. It is Wagner at his most tender and intimate.

Wagner is of course at least as famous for the controversies surrounding him as for the music itself, so it is appropriate to share a few words about Wagner’s antisemitism, the historical reception of his music — particularly in Israel where it has been most problematic — and point you to more resources and writing on the subject. It is appropriate for another reason; for Wagner, more so than perhaps any other composer, context and history add depth and meaning to the listening experience.

Wagner was antisemitic, and he was not merely a product of his times. Wagner was, indeed, “canceled” after the publication of his 1850 essay Judaism in Music, in which he claimed 1) Jewish people could learn to only imitate German art and culture and 2) these imitations would infect and dilute German culture. Wagner’s antisemitism was, uncomfortably for the lovers of his music, an important part of his artistic process. Wagner was an artist who always needed to be in conflict with something, and that something was often Jewish people – particularly the German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn — who was the glaring, unavoidable exception to all of his antisemitic theories.

Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer, and Wagner’s widow, the same Cosima for whom Siegfried Idyll was written, became very close to and even nurtured Hitler. It was, however, the inspiring power of Wagner’s music and his German nationalism that most appealed to Hitler and predated his antisemitism. Wagner’s writings were not ideologically consistent, and his ethic of “compassion” did not sit well with Nazi leadership, who increasingly balked at Hitler’s obsession with Wagner.

Theodor Herzl, the father of the modern political Zionism movement and author of The Jewish State, loved Wagner as well, and was similarly inspired by his music. Herzl said about the writing of The Jewish State: “Heine says that he heard an eagle’s wings rustling over his head while he was writing down certain verses. I, too, imagined something like a rustling over my head while I was writing the book. I worked on it every day until I was completely exhausted; my only rest in the evening was listening to Wagner’s music, particularly to Tannhäuser, an opera that I went to hear as often as it was given. Only on the evenings when no opera was performed did I doubt the rightness of my ideas.”

Arturo Toscanini, the most acclaimed anti-fascist musician of his era, was the first non-German to conduct at Bayreuth in 1930, but he withdrew from the 1933 festival because of Nazi persecution of Jewish musicians. In 1936, Toscanini conducted the first concerts of the Palestine Philharmonic, which in 1948, upon the creation of the state of Israel, would become the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1938, a few days before Kristellnacht, Toscanini obstinately led a performance of Wagner with the Palestine Philharmonic because he felt that if the Nazis were going to relegate Wagner to propaganda and use his music for evil, someone had to fight to reclaim Wagner’s music as art and use it for good; Wagner could not be music only for Germany, but for the whole world, and it was the responsibility of artists not to let the narrative of Wagner’s music be dictated by the Nazis or even by its antisemitic composer.

After Kristellnacht, an unofficial ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel began. That ban was first broken by Zubin Mehta and the IPO in 1981, and musicians have since periodically attempted to play Wagner in Israel, always setting off impassioned protests. Na’ama Sheffi’s book, “The Ring of Myths: The Israels, Wagner, and the Nazis,” gives an account of those performances and the socio-political history of Wagner in Israel. The Israeli conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim has also led multiple performances of Wagner in Israel, and has written eloquently on his decision to do so. 

Alex Ross’s book, “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music” must be commended. It is a study of Wagner’s influence on music, art, theater, film, literature, philosophy and politics — an influence so extensive this book doubles as a cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ross wrote that “writing this book has been the greatest education of my life.” Ross’s study of Wagnerism is comprehensive, and he spends considerable time addressing what, if any, culpability Wagner has for Hitler, and Wagner’s place in Third Reich culture. A passage from Ross’s postlude sums up Wagner’s “contradictory tendencies” and his unavoidable presence in our cultural heritage, which every artist must confront.

“[Wagner] played an essential part in the rapid evolution of the modernist arts, from Baudelair to Mallarmé, from Cézanne to Kandinsky, from Cather to Woolf. He revolutionized theatrical architecture and practice, showing a way beyond naturalism. He mobilized forces across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, and if the latter ultimately made the more persuasive claim on him it is a result that can always be contested. Under the protective darkness of Bayreuth, he nurtured dreams of future freedom among oppressed members of the population, even as he emboldened their oppressors. In no way do all these contradictory tendencies cancel one another out. Each has its own obdurate reality. The eternal agon with the old sorcerer — the undergoing of his influence, then the overcoming of it — means that his image is continuously dissolving into rival artistic selves.”

Please join us for this week’s concerts, as they are a rare opportunity to hear the SPCO enter into “the eternal agon with the old sorcerer” and perform some of his most exquisite music.

Daniel Orsen is a violist in The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He is the co-creator of Wagner’s Nightmare, a tongue-in-cheek cultural retrospective on Wagner/album of music Wagner would not like. His writing on Wagner has been published in CREATED, The Anglican Way and The Journal of the American Viola Society.

* Wagner’s Nightmare, has a segment addressing Wagner’s antisemitism, consisting of an informative video, an essay by Lied-pianist Pierre-Nicolas Colombat (DMA, Boston University) and a music video of Wagner’s setting of a poem by the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine.