The Eternal Struggle over Wagner

by Michael Potemra


Stephen Fry is a national treasure over in the U.K. (He is a man of the Left and an outspoken atheist, but — I am assured by a rock-ribbed British conservative of my acquaintance — he is loved by Britons of all shades of opinion.) He has a new documentary coming out in the U.S. later this week, and I strongly recommend it. In Wagner & Me, Fry explores the immense musical achievement and the deeply troubling moral legacy of the composer Richard Wagner. How, Fry asks, can someone be Jewish (as Fry is) and even have lost family members in the Holocaust (as Fry did) and yet be a lover of the work of the most notorious anti-Semite in musical history?  Fry is right to reject the easy answer, that the composer’s character is completely irrelevant to the work — which is the easy answer I personally have relied on rather too much in the past. Yes, saying something is false or bad because the person who said it or did it is a bad person is the definition of an ad hominem argument — and thus inadmissible. But it is not a question here of saying baldly that Wagner’s works are “bad”; many people who rightly deplore Wagner recognize that his works include a remarkable number of masterpieces. The question, rather, is what should our attitude should be to the dicta and works of a person who has also been guilty of great evils.

Between celebration of a work and celebration of the person who created the work lies a very thin line. The Nazis did not “steal” Wagner; he did in fact share some of their worst views. His family aggressively courted Hitler even before the Nazis came to power — they clearly did not think that the Nazis were putting the music to a use its author would have considered inappropriate.

In one of the film’s last scenes, Fry interviews a Holocaust survivor who was forced by the Nazis to play the cello in a concentration camp (not, interestingly, Wagner; she says that to the best of her knowledge, Wagner was not part of the repertoire, probably because orchestral forces were necessarily limited). He asks her opinion about whether it’s okay for him to go to Wagner’s musical palace at Bayreuth for the annual festival. She hesitates to give him her view (though she eventually does); it is an especially interesting scene, akin to the presentation of a penitent asking for absolution.

The way I personally would phrase Fry’s view — which I adopt as my own — is that Wagner’s music itself needs no apology, because it is gorgeous, but – and this is a considerable “but” — enthusiasm for it does carry the need for an apology, lest it be understood as an endorsement of the man and his views. Fry speaks of the music as a glorious tapestry that has a disfiguring stain on it. But I think it’s worse than that: It’s easy to see that a tapestry is basically beautiful even when it has some centuries-old dirt on it. The stain we are talking about in this case is a bloodstain, one that requires our attention just as much as the quality of the music. Fry’s final word in the movie is “good” – in an assertion that Wagner’s music is good. That was a laudable decision on his part, because, over the previous 90 minutes, he has covered at length both why it is good, and why it remains so morally troublesome.

The film starts slowly and rather boringly, with Fry poking about behind the scenes at Bayreuth, but it very soon gets deeper, and wrestles with musical and moral questions in a way that repays the viewer’s attention.

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