Richard Wagner is one the greatest classical composers of all time. In terms of music, he was a giant; his compositions have captivated audiences for two hundred years. Of all the great musicians to come out of Europe, perhaps nobody stands taller than Wagner. To listen to Tristan and Isolde is to hear to the greatest height of human emotion.
But Wagner is controversial. First, Hitler was a fan of his. And secondly, Wagner hated Judaism. So I decided to give his most famous essay a read: “Judaism in Music.” How valid were his claims? What point was he trying to make?
These are the major points of the article:
Jews are Ugly People; Therefore, their Art is Ugly
Wagner believes that Jews are unable to make great music because they’re an ugly people.
The Jew — we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that…a man whose appearance we must hold unfitted for artistic treatment — not merely in this or that personality, but according to his kind in general — neither can we hold him capable of any sort of artistic utterance of his [inner] essence.
Are Jewish musicians ugly? Well, two Jewish musicians came to mind immediately:
I’m 50/50 on this one. Some Jews do have unpleasant physical characteristics (like big noses, for example). But I’m not sure it’s universal enough to give 100%. Bob Dylan looks like a coyote, but Adam Levine could be a model. So I’m not sold on this point by Wagner.
Jewish Language is Garbled; Therefore, their Music is Garbled
Wagner argues that the Jewish language is aesthetically distasteful; therefore, it can never produce a high form of music.
In particular does the purely physical aspect of the Jewish mode of speech repel us… The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant, in the Jew’s production of the voice-sounds, is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle (4)
He goes on to say that the Jewish foundation of music is in the synagogue, and that this music is unappealing on a visceral level:
Who has not been seized with a feeling of the greatest revulsion, of horror mingled with the absurd, at hearing that sense-and-sound-confounding gurgle, yodel and cackle, which no intentional caricature can make more repugnant than as offered here in full, in naive seriousness? (p. 7).
I agree with Wagner’s statement here. I grew up around Jewish people, and Yiddish is an aesthetically distasteful language. Many times, it sounds like somebody is clearing phlegm from their throat: “eck,” “dreck,” and bleck,” etc.
Most Americans have never heard Jews speaking in their native tongue. So they are unaware of how unpleasant Yiddish, in particular, actually sounds. For a listen, click the following link and be the judge: Sounds of Yiddish
Jewish Musicians Must Rearrange the Work of Non-Jews in Order to Receive Fame
Wagner believed that the Jewish composer/musician was not capable of creating original works of high greatness. So instead, they rearrange the work of great Christian composers. He points to Mendelssohn as an example:
Mendelssohn…was obliged quite openly to snatch at every formal detail that had served as characteristic token of the individuality of this or that forerunner whom he chose out for his model…he gave the preference to our old master BACH, as special pattern for his inexpressive modern tongue to copy (p. 8)
I am no expert on classical music. However, I tend to believe in what Wagner was saying here. Jews were always the minority in a European majority. So it only makes sense that they would copy the popular culture in order to gain success.
For a modern example, I thought of Bob Dylan again (Jewish, born Robert Zimmerman). Now I like Dylan’s music, but let’s be real – Dylan is widely known to have stolen his style from Woody Guthrie. So Wagner’s point is true in this regard. The Jewish artist will often reappropriate the style of the native Christians.
“Judaism in Music” is a solid read. Overall, I found most of his points to be true; in particular, that the Jewish languages are not euphonious. And secondly, that Jews tend to copy the works of Christian artists. Wagner deals with these topics in a way that’s heated, direct, and honest. In short, I have a feeling that his words will remain relevant for many years to come.
See Related Article: Article Review: “The Metaphysics of Love” by Arnold Schopenhauer