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Nuremberg Trial: Is there anti-semitism in Die Meistersinger?

  • Barry Millington

From time to time the question has been raised: ‘Is the character of Beckmesser an embodiment of Wagner's notorious anti-semitism?’ Theodor Adorno, who stated with reference to Beckmesser, Alberich and Mime that ‘all the rejects of Wagner's works are caricatures of Jews’, is frequently invoked, but the question is generally brushed aside, or answered summarily in the negative. Yet neither Adorno nor, to my knowledge, anyone else has examined the question in the depth it deserves. A fuller investigation of the evidence leads, I submit, to the conclusions that anti-semitism is woven into the ideological fabric of Die Meister-singer, and that the representation of Beckmesser incorporates unmistakable antisemitic characteristics. If this is indeed the case, then the implications for our understanding of the opera are profound.

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1 An earlier version of this essay was read at a symposium on Die Meistersinger organised by the Seattle Opera Association and held in August 1989. The proceedings are to be published by Washington University Press.

2 Versuch über Wagner, trans. Livingstone, Rodney as In Search of Wagner (London, 1981), 23.

3 The second prose draft probably dates from 14–16 November; the third, containing minor revisions, was prepared on the 18th for Schott.

4 The political background to Die Meistersinger, and the epistolary relationship with Constantin Frantz, are treated at length in Rose's, Paul Lawrence masterly study Wagner: Revolution and Race (New Haven and London, forthcoming). I am much obliged to Professor Rose for drawing the relevant chapters to my attention, and gratefully acknowledge the debt of the present paper to his work.

5 Was ist deutsch?, in Gesammelte Schriften, 4th edn (Leipzig, 1907), X, 37.

6 Was ist deutsch?, 43.

7 Was ist deutsch?, 44. This passage was one of several rewritten when Was ist deutsch? was eventually published in 1878. The 1865 version, which originated in a series of diary entries written for King Ludwig II, contains some robustly expressed anti-Semitic sentiments that were subsequently suppressed.

8 Was ist deutsch?, 51.

9 Frantz, Constantin, Briefe, ed. Sautter, Udo and Onnau, Hans Elmar (Wiesbaden, 1974), 54–6.

10 Deutsche Kunst and deutsche Politik, in Gesammelte Schriften (see n. 5), VIII, 30.

11 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Réflexions sur la Question Juive, trans. Becker, George J. as Anti-Semite and Jew (New York, 1965), 130.

12 Wagner, Cosima, Diaries, trans. Skelton, Geoffrey (New York, 1978); entry for 14 April 1870.

13 Jewish emancipation was enshrined in a law passed in July 1869 in the North German Confederation.

14 Das Judentum in der Musik, Gesammelte Schriften (see n. 5), V, 6685. An English translation of the complete essay appears in Wagner, 9 (1988), 2033. The following extracts are taken (slightly amended) from that translation.

15 Voss, Egon, ‘Wagners Meistersinger als Oper des deutschen Bürgertums’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ed. Csampai, A. and Holland, D. (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1981), 27. This article appears in English translation in Wagner, 11 (1990), 3962.

16 It is, I believe, mistaken to regard the eccentrically irregular phrase lengths and disjunct melodic line as in any way stylistically ‘advanced’. The pantomime of Beckmesser in Sachs's workshop (Act III scene 3), on the other hand, is an example of progressive tone-painting.

17 The example is a transcription of a recording of Gershon Sirota singing the Retzai. I am grateful to Ingrid Grimes for her faithful transcription. Inevitably, however, the comparison is less striking on paper.

18 Voss, (see n. 15), 22–4 and 53–4.

19 Das Judentum (see n. 14), 71.

20 Interestingly, the new preoccupations are hinted at in Wagner's résumé of the story in Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde of 1851, i.e., the year following Das Judentum. There the Marker's choice of an unsuitable tune that quite distorts the poetry is emphasised.

21 Gilman, Sander L., Jewish Self-hatred: Anti-semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore and London, 1986).

28 Gilman, (see n. 21), 112.

29 ‘Er wird von den verdrießlichsten Erinnerungen and Vorstellungen gepeinigt … er beginnt, sich den Schweiß von der Stirn zu wischen … Als ob er von allen Seiten verfolgt wäre, taumelt er fliehend hin and her. Wie um nicht umzusinken, hält er sich an dem Werktisch, zu dem er hingeschwankt war …’

30 ‘… tritt unsicher and schwankt.’ ‘Er wackelt wieder sehr.’ ‘… ihm schwindelt, Angstschweiß bricht aus.’

31 Voss, (see n. 15), 25–6 (trans., 56).

32 ‘Der Grimme’ is the personification of winter in German folk-song.

33 This and various other parallels were pointed out to me by Konrad Bund, to whom I am indebted.

34 Wagner, Cosima, Diaries (see n. 12); entry for 14 04 1869.

35 The Diary of Richard Wagner 18651882: The Brown Book, ed. Bergfeld, Joachim, trans. Bird, George (London, 1980), 167.

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Cambridge Opera Journal
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