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Bayreuth, Wagner and anti-Semitism: a timeline

Editorial Staff

Yevgeny Nikitin – Russian bass-baritone and former heavy metal musician – withdrew from the Bayreuth Festival production of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman this past weekend because of the swastika and other Nazi symbols tattooed on his chest.

Nikitin, scheduled to sing the lead role, describes the tattoos as a regrettable folly of his youth; the offensive tats have been partially covered by more recent ink. In their ongoing determination to purge the festival of the regrettable follies of its own past, Bayreuth organizers, including descendants of Wagner himself, have pledged to reject Nazi ideology in any form. Thus, Nikitin’s withdrawal.

This most recent episode in the long-running story of Wagner and anti-Semitism invites us to confront the role a composer’s, performer’s or even dictator’s beliefs play in music, its composition, its performance and the political purpose it may serve, long after the composer’s death.

A quick retrospective will provide some context: Wagner, like much of European society from at least the Middle Ages onward, was clearly and unashamedly anti-Semitic, despite having many Jewish friends. Here’s a brief, if incomplete, timeline of Bayreuth, Wagner and anti-Semitism.

1850: Wagner writes the now-famous tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), in which he lambasts Jews in general, and composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer in particular. According to Wagner, Jewish music is bereft of all expression, making a confused heap of forms and styles. Apologists for his views chalk them up to Wagner’s jealousy of these uber-successful Jewish composers; others point to the fact that Wagner simply expressed the views of most (non-Jewish) members of his society. Both explanations are true, but they don’t excuse his or his society’s opinions and later actions.

1868: Wagner writes Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik (German Art and German Politics), in which he speaks of the "harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation.

1901: Adolf Hitler, age 12, sees Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Hitler later writes in Mein Kampf, “In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth Master knew no bounds."

1933: Hitler is appointed chancellor of Germany. In January of this year, he invites the widow of Siegfried Wagner (Wagner’s son), Winifred, and her son Wieland to be guests of honour at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Wagner’s death. Many of the themes of Wagner’s operas – or music dramas, as he preferred to call them – held a deep attraction for the Fuhrer and indeed for those caught up in the volcanic nationalism of the early 20th century.

1938: After the devastation of Kristallnacht, the violent rampage against Jews in Germany and parts of both Austria and German-occupied Czechoslovakia on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, public performances of Wagner’s music are unofficially banned in Israel (then British Palestine). Worth noting: the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an avid Wagnerite.

1951: Wieland Wagner becomes director of the Bayreuth Festival, devoted to performances of Wagner’s works since “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria built the composer his very own theatre in Bayreuth in the 1870s. Not considered to be a great director, Wieland nevertheless is credited with stripping away the most obvious references to Wagner’s Teutonic heritage, relying instead on bare sets and lighting. This is the first of many efforts to divorce Wagner’s music from its historical implications, and to disassociate the town of Bayreuth from its Nazi past.

Nazi leaders often visited the festival (Hitler attended yearly during the Third Reich), and Bayreuth was intended to be a model Nazi town. During the war, prisoners of a subcamp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp based in Bayreuth participated in physical experiments. Wieland was the deputy civilian director at the subcamp in 1944-45.

1952: Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great-grandson, co-founds the Post-Holocaust Dialogue Group, and begins travelling internationally and writing extensively on the effects of Wagner’s anti-Semitism on German politics and culture. Gottfried is disowned by the Wagner family and under constant threat from neo-Nazi groups.

1995: Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, composed in 1841, airs on Israeli radio during prime time, partially breaking the taboo against playing Wagner in Israel.

2001: Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim makes the controversial decision to conduct the Prelude and Liebestod (Love-Death) from Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde in Tel Aviv. The work is played as an encore, and only after a 40-minute discussion of the very thorny implications of performing Wagner in Israel. Twenty or 30 people walk out of the performance – not half or more of the audience, as is commonly reported. Most previous and indeed subsequent attempts to perform Wagner in Israel are cancelled due to protest.

Presumably for Barenboim, the quality of the music, but also its ability to force people to think about issues of race and power and political belief – not to mention love and compassion – overrode the offensive beliefs of the composer and the horrific actions of his most despicable fan. Still, Barenboim saw fit to engage in public debate rather than proceed with no acknowledgment of the sensitivity of the situation (or not to proceed at all).

2012: Finally, back to present-day Bayreuth, and Nikitin’s withdrawal. Without a doubt, the presence of Nazi symbols in modern-day Bayreuth would be hugely problematic, opening a wound that has not fully healed. Still, it is worth considering the implications of Nikitin’s decision.

According to Nikitin, he has never belonged to a political party and was unaware of the pain the symbols can inflict. In a statement released through the festival, the singer expressed his regret over the tattoos.

With all said and done, should a regretful decision, made years ago, forever ban Nikitin from reaching the zenith of Wagner stardom through performance at Bayreuth? In what way does a now covered, but publicly acknowledged tattoo, however offensive, affect the performance of the music, or our perception of it?

The case of the Nazi tattoo at Bayreuth reveals the shadows cast by the past on the present, the pain of wounds that will never heal. While music can appear seductively abstract, it’s important to question the oftentimes more difficult concrete context of its creation and reproduction. In short, we must never lose sight of the human element, in all its glory and all its ugliness, of music-making.