The trouble with Wagner

Richard Wagner

Reading Stephen Pollard’s article about anti-Semitism and social media in the Telegraph last week gave me a jolt. According to Pollard, figures from the Community Security Trust which monitors anti-Semitic incidents with the police, “show that in 2016 there was a 36% rise in incidents of Jew-hate over the figure for 2015 – and a 29% increase in violent assaults on Jews.”

It gave me a jolt because in my own daily life I never encounter it (though I have read of problems with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party). It seems such a strange and abstract crime, if an ancient one: hating a whole people simply because they come from a particular race or religion.

Interestingly though, I have come across anti-Semitism twice in the comment box when I have blogged: once, when I wrote about the Tridentine Mass and remarked that a Jewish convert who attended the Extraordinary Form had been upset by certain anti-Semitic remarks she had heard; and a second time when I wrote about a book called The Crime and the Silence: confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Poland by Anna Bikont. On both occasions I was taken aback by some of the comments.

Apart from Pollard’s article my thoughts on the subject have been roused by reading Simon Callow’s Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will (its subtitle eerily echoing Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious film about the dark glamour of the Nazi Party in its early days.) Callow, a lifelong devotee of Wagner’s musical dramas, does not gloss over the more unpleasant features of the composer’s personality – in particular, his virulent anti-Semitism.

Callow writes that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was “more than a bizarre peccadillo, beyond a prejudice: it was an obsession, a monomania, a full-blown neurosis.” Being a fully paid-up genius does not excuse Wagner, any more than it excuses those who take to the social media in our times to publicise their deeply unpleasant prejudices.

Callow also remarks, “[Wagner’s] music is banned, for goodness’ sake. We understand why.” I asked a friend, a music-lover and philosophy teacher, what he thought of Israel’s long-standing ban on Wagner’s music. He was not in favour of it, commenting, “Are Catholics to decline to listen to the remarkable Gesualdo, seeing that he murdered his wife? Wagner-as-a-thinker is not to be taken seriously.” Rationally this makes sense, but it fails to take account of the power the emotions have over our decision-making.

It seems to me that to be a Catholic and an anti-Semite is a contradiction in terms. As recent Popes have taught, the Jews are to be seen as our “elder brothers” – or as Archbishop Roncalli (later John XXIII) said to the Chief Rabbi of Paris when they were about to enter a room, “Please, the Old Testament first.”