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Hermann Levi's shame and Parsifal's guilt: A critique of essentialism in biography and criticism

  • Laurence Dreyfus

Two dissimilar subjects – Hermann Levi (1839–1900), a Jewish Wagnerian who conducted the Bayreuth première of Parsifal, and Parsifal itself – can be seen in a critical discourse that binds them together in a paradoxical relationship. In accounts of both Levi and the opera he conducted, certain historians and critics have made a point of stripping away a supposed veneer of aesthetic deception in order to expose the raw underbelly of historical truth. In these revisionist readings, Levi's enthusiasm for Wagner and his music amounts to a shameful form of Jewish ‘self-hatred’, while Parsifal, far from espousing a message of compassion and redemption, propagates ideas of an solidarity and racial supremacy. To advance these arguments is tantamount to claiming that moral and psychological categories such as shame and guilt are appropriate ways to describe a musician's life or the historical legacy of an opera; and these are views I find difficult to share. The slogan in my title should thus be understood as an ironic commentary, as well as a call to formulate the questions in a new way. Although I can only sketch the outlines of an alternative approach, I will suggest that critical accounts shaming Hermann Levi for his Wagnerism, and damning Parsifal for its anti-Semitism, are cut from the same cloth; they need to be revalued by a musicology that traffics in both an aesthetic understanding of art works and a critical assessment of the cultural framework in which this understanding is produced.

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1 Zelinsky, Hartmut, ‘Hermann Levi und Bayreuth oder Der Tod als Gralsgebiet’, Beiheft 6 Zum Jahrbuch des Instituts für Deutsche Geschichte der Universität Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv, 1984); Zelinsky, , ‘Der verschwiegene Gehalt des Parsifal Zu Martin Gregor-Delfins Wagner-Biographie’, and ‘Richard Wagners letzte Karte: Anmerkungen zum Gehalt des Bühnenweihspiels Parsifal’, in Richard Wagner: Parsifalo Texte, Materialien, Kommentare, ed. Csampi, A. and Holland, D. (Hamburg, 1984), 244–56; Zelinsky, , ‘Der Dirigent Hermann Levi: Anmerkungen zur verdrängten Geschichte des jüdischen Wagnerianers’, Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in Bayern, ed. Tremi, N. and Kirmew, J. (Munich, 1988), 411–30; Zelinsky, , ‘Die “Feuerkur” des Richard Wagner oder die “neue religion” der “Erlösung” durch “Vernichtung”’, in Richard Wagner. Wie antisemitisch darf ein Künstler sein?, ed. Metzger, Heinz-Klaus and Riehn, Rainer, Musik-Konzepte, 5 (1981), 79112; Gay, Peter, ‘Hermann Levi: A Study in Service and Self-Hatred’, in Freud, Jews, and other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (Oxford, 1978), 189230; Schneider, Rolf, Die Reise Zu Richard Wagner.: Ein Roman (Vienna, 1989); Rose, Paul Lawrence, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner (Princeton, 1990), 31–2, 358–80; and Rose, , Wagner.: Race and Revolution (New Haven, 1992).

2 Millington, Barry, for example, sums up the influence of this work when he writes in The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music (London, 1992), 164, that, as a result of their ‘self-hatred’, the ‘guilt-obsessed Jews came to Wagner for something resembling redemption’. ‘What attracted such people’, he continues, was ‘the sense of not belonging, of alienation … seasoned … with more than a hint of “blood and soil” ’. See also Millington, Barry, ‘Parsifal: Facing the Contradictions’, Musical Times, 124 (1983), 97–8, and Millington, , ‘“Parsifal”: A Wound Reopened’, Wagner, 8 (1987), 114–20.

3 The quotation is from Peter Gay's subtitle to his essay on Levi. The most recent work on Jewish self-hatred (which does not, however, mention Levi) is Gilman's, Sander L.Jewish Self-hatred. Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore, 1986). Earlier works treating this subject, such as Lessing's, TheodorDer jüdische Selbsthaβ (Berlin, 1930; Munich, 1984) and Lewin's, Kurt ‘Self-Hatred among Jews’, Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Grace Dynamics, ed. Lewin, (New York, 1941), though much cited in the literature, are patently tendentious studies that now need to be treated as historical documents rather than as theoretical authorities.

4 ‘Bemerkungen von Hermann Levi zu den an ihn gerichteten 40 Briefen Richard Wagners enthalten in der von seiner Hand abgeschriebenen Briefsammlung (im Besitz seiner Familie)’. Translations from the German that follow are my own unless otherwise cited. I am grateful to the director of the Archive, Dr Manfred Eger, and to its librarian, Herr Günter Fischer, for their help in locating these and other letters and materials, and in making them freely accessible to me. I also wish to express my gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided me with a Travel Grant in 1990 to visit the Bayreuth archives, and to Mr Elliott Brill (New York) whom I consulted about Jewish religious observances. Finally, I would like to offer my warmest thanks to Ms Irene Auerbach of the Music Department at King's College London, who provided me with transcriptions of Levi's correspondence from photocopies of the originals and helped me with the translations.

5 Cosima Wagner's Diaries, ed. Gregor-Dellin, Martin and Mack, Dietrich, trans. Skelton, Geoffrey, 2 vols (London, 1977), II, 681–2.

6 Bayreuther Blätte, 24 (1901), 32; an English version is in Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, trans. and ed. Spencer, Stewart and Millington, Barry (London, 1987), 918.

7 A letter from Levi received on 28 April 1880 evokes the remark from Wagner: “I cannot allow him to conduct Parsifal unbaptised.”Colima Wagner's Diaries, II, 471.

8 Ettlinger, Anna, Lebenserinnerungen für ihre Familie verfaβt (Leipzig, [c. 1920]), 123.

9 Spencer, and Millington, , Selected Letters, 918.

10 Der Kampf zjveier Welten um das Bayreuther Erbe: Julius Knieses Tagebuchblätter aus dem Jahre 1883 (Leipzig, 1931). The conductor Felix Weingauner, a protégé of Levi's and someone who genuinely venerated his artistic legacy, also reports this story, in his Lebens-Erinnerungen of 1928, although Weingarmer did not begin to assist at Bayreuth until 1886, several years after the event in question.

11 Newman, Ernest, The Life of Wagner, 4 vols (1946; rpt. Cambridge, 1976), IV, 578.

12 Newman, , IV, 637.

13 Cosimo Wagner's Diaries, II, 205.

14 Cosima Wagner's Diaries, II, 601–2. On 14 April 1881 Levi wrote to his father: ‘That I am to direct the work is no longer a secret’ (Daβ ich das Werk leite, ist nun kein Geheimriss mehr). A selection of Levi's correspondence with his father was published as ‘Hermann Levi an seinen Vater’, in ‘“Parsifal” Programm’, Bayreuther Festspiele 1959 (Bayreuth, 1959), 623, 56.

15 The letter, dated 20 April 1882, begins: ‘Dear alter Ego! So: I don't know whether my wife has already written to you: in any case – even if this is a repeat performance – I am writing you as well’ (Liebes alter Ego! Also! Ich weiβ nicht, ob Ihnen meine Frau schon geschrieben hat: jedenfalls – selbst zum Überfluβ! – schreibe ich Ihnen auch). This part of the letter was excised from the published correspondence in the Bayreuther Blätter, 24 (1901).

16 An example of the excisions is the opening of the following letter from Wagner to Levi on 27 February 1879: ‘Dear Friend! My wife will not stop recounting your charming behaviour towards her, so I must resort to giving you an autograph, which you can then copy for your collection. at I have to say to you with this [gift] will not amount to much unless you value this expression of my great joy in you.’ (Lieber Freund! Meine Frau wird nicht fertig damit, von Ihrem liebenswürdigen Benehmen gegen sie zu erzählen, so daβ ich zu einem Autographen für Sie greifen muβ, welchen Sie sich ja dann für Ihre Sammlung kopiren können. Was ich Ihnen darin zu sagen habe, wird nicht viel heiβen, es wäre denn, daβ Ihnen der Ausdruck meiner groβen Freude über Sie für etwas gelten könnte.) The autograph snippet was entitled ‘Field- and Meadow-Music’ and was a composing sketch for music from the Good Friday Spell.

17 Letter dated 9 February 1879, published in König Lugwig II und Richard Wagner: Brieechsel, ed. Strobel, Otto, 4 vols (Karlsruhe, 1936–9), cited in Rose, , Wagner. Race and Revolution, 225; trans. in Spencer, and Millington, , Selected Letters, 890. Wolzogen, the long–standing editor of the Bayreuther Blätter, was certainly aware of his own conferred status as ‘alter ego’ and is possibly responsible for excising the texts of Wagner's letters to Levi.Stern, Josef, ‘Hermann Levi und seine jüdische Welt’, Zeitschrift für die Geschichte der Juden, 7 (1970), 20, reports a plausible anecdote which I have thus far been unable to confirm. Stern describes a scene with Levi standing with his father at a reception after the Parsifal performance where he received the thanks of the society members. Wagner understood this gesture [Anspielung] very well, but nonetheless shook the rabbi's hand with great cordiality and after some humorous formalities said to Dr Levi: As my alter ego, your Hermann should actually go by the name Wagner.’ If the anecdote has some basis in fact, the allusion would be to Levi's Jewishness and his pride in it, even given that he had just directed a performance of Wagner's Christian drama of redemption. The story is not all that implausible, given Dr Levi's ecumenical propensities. A Protestant minister in Gieβen had spoken at the funeral of Hennann's mother, and two Christian clergymen addressed the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr Levi's ascent to the rabbinate in Gieβen (see Schneider, [n. 1], 40 and 42).

18 Another, less serious reference to a Jewish alter ego occurs three months before the letter to Levi, in connection with Angelo Neumann, a leading opera producer and impresario who took the Ring on tour around Europe. In a conversation with Wagner reported in Cosima Wagner's Diaries, II, 597–8 (12 01 1881), Cosima writes: In the evening [Richard says], “I am glad that I shall not need to go to America, Ich-Neumann will be going.” “Your alter ego,” I cry, and we laugh heartily over R's notion.’ The following sentence makes clear that what the Wagners found funny in the idea was not only the pun pointed out by the editors of the diaries (‘ichneumon’ is the generic name for ‘wasplike insects) but that Neumann was a Jew: ‘A pamphlet against the Jews by Prof. Dg is truly dreadful on account of its style’.

19 Gay, (see n. 1), 201–2. On pp. 194–5, Gay defines this ‘generic word’ as ‘the frantic urge to escape the burden of one's Jewishness not merely by renouncing but by denouncing Judaism’.

20 According to Ettlinger, Anna, Lebenserinnerungen, 123–4, Brahms used to go so far as to joke with Levi that he ‘boasted' of his Jewishness.

21 Possart, Ernst von, Erinnerungen an Hermann Levi (1900; Munich, 1901).

22 Letter of 9 November 1865, cited in Litzmann, Berthold, Clara Schumann: Ein Künstlerleben nach Tagebüchern und Briefen, 3 vols (Leipzig, 1923), III, 184.

23 Kirschner, Emanuel, ‘Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben, Streben und Wirken’, Leo Baeck Institute, Ms. M. E. 361 (19331938), pp. 4850. I am grateful to the librarians at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York for making these memoirs available to me. Levi's letter to his father of 14 June reports on his visit to the synagogue and notes, amusingly, how his ‘walls reverberate with l'cho Jodi [the Friday evening song welcoming the Sabbath]’ from the visits of the prospective cantonal candidates.

24 Kirschner, , 76.

25 Gay, , 222.

26 Examples of such citations are Kohut's, AdolphBerühmte israelitische Männer und Frauen in der Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit (Leipzig–Reudnitz, 1901), I, 141; or Wininger's, S.Groβe. Jüdische National–Biographie (Czernowitz, 1925).

27 Reich, Nanry B., Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca, NY, 1985), 217.

28 Letter of 4 June 1880, quoted in Litzmann, , III, 409n.

29 Cited in a letter from Levi to Clara Schumann from 27 December 1871, quoted in Litzmann, , III, 267. The intimate relation with the Schumann family of the 1860s is chronicled in charming detail in Schumann, Eugenie, Erinnerungen (1925; rpt. Stuttgart, 1948), translated as Schumann, Eugenie, The Memoirs of Eugenie Schumann (1927; rpt. London, 1985).

30 Brahms's own inability to respect Levi's move to Wagner was probably based on his unresolved envy of Wagner as much as his jealous conviction – not far from the truth – that Hermann had transferred his affections. The intimate, passionate friendship between Levi and Brahms had contained more than a passing moment of erotic attraction, as shown in the lines Levi wrote to Brahms on a lonely Christmas Eve in 1874; ‘I wished that you once again lay in my bed and I sat before you and could stroke your forehead – I have an awful yearning [abscheuliche Sehnsucht] to see you again … I think of you in tender love’. Johannes Brahms im Brieeschsel mit Hermann Levi, Friedrich Gernsheim, sowie den Familien Hecht and Fellinger (1910; rpt. Tutzing, 1974): Brahms-Briefwechsel, VII, 178–9, cited in Haas, Frithjof, ‘Johannes Brahms and Hermann Levi’, Johannes Brahms in Baden-Baden and Karlsruhe, Ausstellungskatalog (Karlsruhe, 1983), 78. See also Haas, , pp. 7981. The break-up of this friendship was painful for both men, and, according to Anna Ettlinger – a mutual friend – in her Lebenserinnerungen, 110, Levi continued to hope for many years that Brahms would eventually come to respect (if not to sanction) his new-found enthusiasm and would renew their friendship. A recently discovered ‘picture-book’ by the Ettlinger sisters (referred to by Anna in her memoirs), which sheds further light on the Brahms-Levi relationship, is discussed by Geiringer, Karl in ‘Das Bilderbuch der Geschwister Ettlinger: Zur Jugendgeschichte Hermann Levis and seiner Freunde Johannes Brahms and Julius Allgeyer’, Musik in Bayern, 37 (1988), 4168. My thanks to David Brodbeck for supplying me with this reference.

31 Levi did not believe, however, in futurism at all costs, since he never overcame his antipathy to the music of Liszt, which he considered sloppy, poorly wrought and self-indulgent. In the very same letter to his father from 13 April 1882, he juxtaposes his view of Wagner with that of Liszt: ‘The most beautiful thing that I have experienced in my life is that is was granted to me to come close to such a man, and I thank God daily for this. So you go ahead and like him too! [Also sei nun auch Du ihm von Herzen gut.] But I will not defend Liszt. He is an old chatterbox and comedian and Wagner himself feels nothing for him, only owes him thanks for having been the first to recognise his (Wagner's) importance.’

32 Haas, , 59.

33 When Anna Ettinger – whom Levi had proposed in the 1860s as a possible librettist for Brahms – asked Brahms why he had never composed an opera, he responded ‘After Wagner this is impossible’ (‘Neben Wagner ist dies unmöglich’); Ettlinger, Anna, Lebenserinnerungen, 67.

34 Possart, (see n. 21), 47.

35 See Haas, , 80.

36 Gay, , 223 and 230, claims that ‘Levi's suffering was not assuaged by the triumph of Parsifa1’, that ‘he left the best of himself’ in Richard Wagner's grave.

37 Biographisches Jahrbuch und Deutscher Nekrohg, ed. Bettelheim, Anton (Berlin, 1903), V, 117.

38 See Schuh, Willi, Richard Strauss: A Chronicle of the Early Years, 1869–1898 (Cambridge, 1982).

39 Ettlinger, , Lebenserinnerungen, 161, notes that ‘one thing [Levi] never understood’ was how to take care of his health.

40 In 1896 Levi marred Mary Fiedler, whose father was Jewish. Mary, the widow of Conrad Fiedler, a Wagnerian and art historian, was herself an avid Wagnerian. Apparently Rabbi Levi had no objection to this marriage and speaks warmly of Mary in his letters to Hermann from 1898. After Hermann's death in 1900, Mary ended up marrying another Bayreuth conductor of Parsifal, Michael Balling, who, it seems, was brought to her attention by Cosima Wagner.

41 Rose, , Wagner: Race and Revolution, 223.

42 See, however, Bather's, L. J.Reading Wagner (Baton Rouge, 1990), 275–89 and 304–15, which rejects Hitlerian readings of Parsifal and dwells, for example, on the fundamental distinctions between Wagner's notions of race and the subsequent Hitlerian version of racial supremacy and purity.

43 Rose, , Wagner: Race and Revolution, 191.

44 Arendt, Hannah, Men in Dark Times (New York, 1965), 211–18. For this reason, Arendt, 218, writes that ‘there is no surer way to make a fool of oneself than to draw up a code of behaviour for poets, though quite a number of serious and respectable men have done it. Luckily for us and for the poets, we don't have to go to this absurd trouble, nor do we have to rely on our everyday standards of judgement. A poet is to be judged by his poetry, and while much is permitted him … the worst that can happen to a poet is that he should cease to be a poet’.

45 From a letter to Peter Gast dated 21 January 1878, quoted in The Nietzsche–Wagner Correspondence, ed. Foerster-Nietzsche, Elizabeth (New York, 1949), 304–5.

46 I am aware that this position is fraught with dangers and can be taken to extremes, as exemplified by the comic indifference to the stage action displayed by Anton Bruckner, who was seen to have kept his eyes shut tightly during a Bayreuth performance of the Ring and later asked, ‘Why do they burn Brünnhilde at the end of Walküre?’ see Hartford, Robert, Bayreuth: The Early Years (Cambridge, 1980), 175.

47 The Wagner Handbook, ed. Müller, Ulrich and Wapnewski, Peter; English trans. ed. Deathridge, John (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), xiii.

48 Rose, , Wagner: Race and Revolution, 192.

49 In an interesting note in Cosima Wagner's Diaries, II, 910, there is mention of the Wagnerites' supposed preference for Tristan and Isolde, even over Parsifal. ‘Richard says: “Oh what do they know? One might say that Kundry already experienced Isolde's Liebestod a hundred times in her various incarnations”’. This statement suggests that Wagner's representation of Kundry as pure femininity was in certain respects wholly detached from the Jewish question.

50 The musical motif is sometimes called the ‘maidens’ lament' or ‘Mädchenklage’.

51 Ettlinger, , Lebenserinnerungen, 124, writes: ‘Levi knew himself to be in agreement with Richard Wagner in viewing Parsfal not as a denominationally Christian drama but as a supra-denominational human drama in which both the Christian and the Indian traditions serve artistic purposes’.

52 The Wagner Handbook, 223.

53 Corima Wagner's Diaries, II, 158.

54 ibid., II, 131.

55 Mann, Thomas, ‘Der Künstler und die Gesellschaft’ (1952), Altes und Neues (Frankfurt am Main, 1953), cited in Deutscher Geist Ein Lesebuch aus Zwei Jahrhunderten, ed. Loerhe, Oskar and Suhrkamp, Peter (Frankfurt am Main, 1969), II, 711.

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