I want to hate Wagner.
I mean, his music can be tough to play and occasionally painful to sit through. And, you know, there’s also that whole racism/antisemitism thing.
Which, for me, is a big deal.
Wagner doesn’t get a pass for having written some pretty decent music. He wasn’t a nice man. He had plenty of nasty things to say about how composers such as Mendelssohn were “bad” for Germany (Mendelssohn was Jewish). Hitler was a fan of Wagner, which should tell you something right there.
So what, then, should we do with Wagner’s music? Do we stop listening, on principle? Do I refuse to play it when it’s on the program for one of my concerts? Should opera houses stop performing his operas (especially the ones with overt antisemitic sentiments)? Do his personal beliefs only matter if they aren’t apparent in his music, or if the music has no words and therefore one might not know if there are undertones?
The orchestra with which I play is performing the overture to Wagner’s opera Rienzi at our first concert this fall. (The irony that we’re also performing a piece by Mendelssohn is not lost on me.) Honestly, I’m torn. I like the piece. It’s fun to play, just the right degree of challenge for an amateur musician. Musically, it’s good. It’s one of Wagner’s earlier works, from an era of which I am particularly fond. All in all, it’s an enjoyable experience.
Except for that nagging feeling of discomfort.
In truth, I don’t have the answers. Part of me feels that I’m guilty of ignoring something important and participating in the marginalization of people. I am quite sure that Wagner’s sensibilities won’t be a topic of conversation at the pre-concert lecture, which means that for many, his ideologies will remain unknown. On the other hand, the man has been dead for nearly 130 years. He isn’t here to continue to spout his opinions. We can, perhaps, enjoy the music for itself at this point.
What do you think? What are the ethics of appreciating art created by someone with harmful personal beliefs?