Date April 18, 2022
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Brown music historian weighs in on racism, Russia and Wagner’s legacy

Michael Steinberg, a professor of music and history at Brown, has curated a new exhibition on Richard Wagner, one of the 19th century’s most influential and problematic cultural figures, in Berlin.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Nearly 140 years after his death, the German composer Richard Wagner’s name is still splashed across newspaper front pages. 

In recent weeks, members of the Wagner Group, a Russian network of private security contractors, have been linked to indiscriminate killings of civilians in Ukraine, according to German foreign intelligence. The mercenaries are rumored to have engaged in fighting on the Kremlin’s behalf. And the group’s leader, Dmitry Utkin, is reportedly an avowed neo-Nazi who uses the call sign Wagner in reference to Adolf Hitler’s favorite opera composer.

The Wagner Group’s rise to prominence is reigniting some generations-old questions: Was Richard Wagner anti-Semitic, and would he have been a Nazi sympathizer? If so, is it possible to separate his art from his views?

Michael Steinberg headshot
Michael Steinberg is a professor of history and music at Brown.

Those are questions that Michael Steinberg, a professor of history and music at Brown University, has long pondered. Like many scholars of European music, he is one of Wagner’s biggest fans and biggest critics — a tough tightrope to walk in a world where hot takes and 280-character tweets reign supreme. For decades, he has investigated how the most revered musician of the 19th century, and possibly one of the most influential cultural figures of all time, became an idol for racists and an often taboo topic in countries such as Germany and Israel.

Steinberg’s latest project invites the world to ponder those questions alongside him. He recently worked with Berlin’s German Historical Museum to curate “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling,” an exhibition that explores how Wagner’s emotionally moving music and socially relevant plots and characters fueled a kind of national pride that sometimes bred hatred and resentment of outsiders.

The exhibition, some of which is available to explore online, opened in April and continues through Sept. 11. Following its opening, Steinberg answered questions about his relationship to Wagner’s work, the composer’s responsibility for the atrocities of World War II and more.

Q: How did you first learn about Wagner? 

My parents were born in Germany, and because they were Jewish, they had to leave with their families during the Nazi rise to power. I grew up in the United States, in a family with a deep affinity for German culture but where the language was rarely spoken, I suppose because they wanted to move on from the past.

I can’t tell you why I grafted onto opera when I was a kid, but I did. I started going to the opera all the time when I was 13, and by 15, I was a passionate Wagnerian. My parents probably thought, “This is a bit weird, but it’s a phase and it’ll pass.” It didn’t.

I came to Brown in 2005 to teach history and music. Integrating those two subjects feels very natural to me; I tend to approach my music classes through a historical lens and to work music into my history classes. I’ve taught a number of courses on Wagner and opera here, alongside other courses on European cultural and intellectual history. In 2018, I wrote a book called “The Trouble With Wagner.” Over the years, this simultaneous sense of loving Wagner’s work while hating certain parts of it has become more and more integrated into my work. I just got increasingly more committed to finding ways to approach the deep reality of his work: It’s so flawed and so important at the same time. 

And thus begins the story of how an American Jew ended up curating an exhibit about Wagner in Berlin!

Q: Why does Wagner remain such a cultural force today?

There are two answers to that question, and both are equally important. Let’s start by acknowledging that you can’t separate the great Wagner from the bad Wagner. You can’t separate the genius artist from the anti-Semite.

The first answer is that his compositions not only shaped 19th century culture but also still shape what music sounds like today, particularly the music of blockbuster entertainment. You can hear his influence in John Williams’ “Star Wars” themes and in pretty much every other big-ticket movie franchise. He created that hallmark large, overwhelming, over-the-top orchestral sound that you hear in movies today. The sounds we associate with certain emotions, like despair and triumph, are sounds that come from Wagner. 

“ The fact that the greatest composer of the 19th century, and possibly one of the greatest cultural figures of all time, has found himself at the center of modern anti-Semitism and modern racism scares people away from his music, as it should. But for me, that’s where it gets really interesting. ”

Michael Steinberg Professor of History and Music

The second answer is much more dark and complex. Wagner didn’t just teach audiences how to feel emotions, he also taught them how to feel German. Scholars say that in the past, Germans went to see Wagner’s operas to figure out who they were as a nation. He used operas to hold a mirror up to German society, as Sophocles and Euripides once did in Greece. 

In the early 19th century, today’s Germany was divided into 300 different political entities, and there was no central political organization. At first, nationalist movements had a strong liberal core: It was all about creating a modern society by organizing a central representative government. But all these questions arose about where people come from and where they belong, which bred increasing xenophobia. That combination of views translated to very powerful cultural divides, made worse by increasing divides between Protestants and Catholics. Wagner navigated these divides very cleverly. He knew that to be successful, to create something that would unite Germans, he needed a message that would overcome other forms of cultural division. Unfortunately, that message was xenophobia and anti-Semitism — which he spread not only through his operas but also through books and essays.

We’ve since seen leaders all over the world use that same tactic of creating a national identity by excluding people on the margins. The most obvious example is Adolph Hitler, who, inspired in part by Wagner’s words, envisioned an Aryan nation and tried to cast out all who weren’t part of the “master race.” Today, we see politicians here following a similar, albeit less extreme, script — for example, drumming up support from white voters by targeting immigrants from non-European countries.

The fact that the greatest composer of the 19th century, and possibly one of the greatest cultural figures of all time, has found himself at the center of modern anti-Semitism and modern racism scares people away from his music, as it should. But for me, that’s where it gets really interesting.

Q: How does the new exhibition in Berlin, which you curated, address Wagner’s complex legacy?

I wanted to figure out a way to create an exhibition that was mostly historical — that is, mostly focused on Wagner as a cultural phenomenon — but that didn’t ignore the music and the emotion. So the exhibition is called “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling,” and it has four parts that examine how Wagner perceived different emotional conditions of society and reacted to them in his music.

people looking at paintings, books and musical instruments inside a museum
The exhibition Steinberg curated includes original documents, paintings, musical instruments, costumes and more from Wagner's lifetime. Photo: David von Becker/German Historical Museum

The four parts are alienation, Eros, belonging and disgust. “Alienation” examines Wagner’s concern with what Germany might lose artistically from becoming an industrial-capitalist society. “Eros” focuses on Wagner’s greatest and least political opera, “Tristan und Isolde,” which is an incredibly powerful love story that has provided the basis for so much film music. “Belonging” is about how Wagner explored the idea of belonging to a strong national community in his music. And “Disgust” is where we explore the ways in which Wagner expressed racism and anti-Semitism by creating characters who were physically unattractive and morally repugnant.

These four spaces are both thematic and more or less chronological. There are lots of paintings, manuscripts and letters from or related to Wagner, and there are also objects from popular culture, which you might now call “kitsch” — Wagner-branded chocolate bars, children’s books based on his operas. Each of the themes includes a kind of opera space where people can watch original performances of excerpts from key pieces of his music from two of the world’s leading Wagner interpreters. We wanted to contextualize his music, because Wagner always said he considered the music, the text and the stage to be equally important.

My ultimate goal was to present a complex story that teaches us all about the last 200 years and how complicated they are. I hope the exhibition teaches us about ourselves, about how we are complex beings with complex loyalties. Wagner was a genius in music and drama; he made entertainment that really grabs the emotions, and there’s enormous pleasure in getting lost in it. It’s very moving and very rich, but also very disturbing. Pleasures are complex.

Q: How do you think Wagner would react to being the namesake of a Russian paramilitary organization that’s now taken part in the fighting in Ukraine?

It’s not the first time Wagner has been appropriated like this. He died in 1883, but ideologically, he was a very powerful tool for Nazi Germany many decades later. And that’s because much of his thinking and writing is very anti-Semitic. It’s clear from his essay “Judaism in Music” that Wagner believed Jews were lesser people. He expressed racism in the purest sense: By arguing that Jews’ inferiority is located in the body rather than in the mind, and thus it cannot be “corrected” through education or any other process. 

But Wagner always exists on two sides. He was anti-Semitic, but he also strongly identified with outsiders. Many of his more sympathetic characters identify as people who were persecuted, and some even appear to be Jewish. The fact that he apparently both hated and identified with Jews might stem from his own insecurities: He felt threatened by two other popular composers, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, who were born Jewish, and he worried that his stepfather had Jewish ancestry, which he believed would reflect badly on him.

So it’s hard to know what Wagner would have thought of the Nazi movement, or of organizations like the Wagner Group who may have anti-Semitic views. For one thing, Wagner’s own views were complex and confusing; for another, he had no inkling of an impending Nazi movement when he died. Nevertheless, I think of him as an enabler of certain views that made their way into the Nazi ideology very easily. 

Q: Is it possible to separate the artist from the man? Can people appreciate his music while ignoring his racist views?

I don’t buy the narrative that Wagner’s writings are awful but his work is innocent. Wagner scholars often debate about whether his racism also comes through in his compositions, and my view is that it does. There are no explicit Jewish characters in any of his operas, but many of his villains — people who cannot speak or sing, people who are ugly, men who lack traditional masculinity — are understood to be Jewish because they adhere with common stereotypes: they’re hyper-nervous, for example. 

So no, I don’t think it’s possible to ignore Wagner’s racism. Yet I also don’t think that means it’s impossible to appreciate his music. Every year, there are so many thoughtful productions of Wagner’s operas being mounted all over the world that prove that these two truths can exist simultaneously. People like Barrie Kosky, a Jewish director, are putting Wagner’s work on the stage in interpretations that balance deep respect and deep criticism. 

But the question remains: What responsibility does Wagner have for some the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries, for anti-Semitism, racism, Nazism and, ultimately, the genocides of World War II? On the one hand, he has not directly participated in or been responsible for violent actions. On the other, he’s not innocent as far as this ideology is concerned. That’s a debate that will continue forever, I imagine.