I was intrigued by a recent essay by Wolfgang Schneider on Sign and Sight, “Mann and his Musical Demons.” The following is a quotation from Schneider’s essay:
“Nazism used the dominant Wagnerian culture as a gateway into the educated bourgeois classes. Thomas Mann's major essay "The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner" was an attempt to offer an alternative to the official Bayreuth version of Wagner – as "patron saint of the what-is-German solipsism." Mann tried to take an artistic, psychological, cosmopolitan view of the composer.
“Words like "dilettantism" were enough to shake up the Wagner establishment. In March 1933, there was a "Protest of the Wagner City Munich" in which Thomas Mann was accused of muddying the reputation of "upright German cultural giants." It was initiated by Bruno Walter's successor Hans Knappertsbuch and was signed – among others – by Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. It was Munich's cultural bourgeois and not the Nazi authorities that drove Thomas Mann out of Germany (and that in the name of Wagner!) The Nazis praise the "folk's will" with sardonic joy. The "national Ex-communication" was a mortifying trauma, the worst that the writer ever experienced from the German public, and, like the story of Bruno Walter, a significant motivation for "Doctor Faustus," the novel on the connection between music and politics.
“Music, more than any other art form, served the cultural image of the Nazis. The Bayreuth Festival was a showcase for the Third Reich. Concerts by Wilhelm Furtwängler reached listeners all over the world. Even Thomas Mann the emigrant clung to his radio although not without qualms: "we shouldn't have listened, shouldn't have loaned our ears to the swindle," he wrote in his journal after a broadcast of "Lohengrin" in 1936. For him, Wilhelm Furtwängler was the most powerful example of an artist who thought he could maintain his culture in a political vacuum. And the embodiment of German musical arrogance, expressed in comments such as "a real symphony" has "never been written by a non-German."”
The addendum I would add is this. While music (Wagner in particular) and culture may be inextricably linked for German culture, at least through the Nazi era, as Mann is essentially arguing, though he seems to want that to not be the case, the same need not be and is not true for others.
For Germans in the 1930s and 1940s, Wagner may well have been inextricably tied to a whole slew of associations now viewed as unpalatable by most (and viewed so by at least some Germans like Mann at the time), but as something with its own objective qualities that can be experienced in any number of sociohistorical contexts (and so independently of any specific context), art is not determined forever by a specific context of its creation (the mid-to-late19th century for Wagner) and/or use (the Nazi use of Wagner).
I’m aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, aware of Nazism’s primitivism and use of Wagner, Orff, and other composers’ music to help ground an aural image of German nationality, aware of the potential for the Nibelungen to serve as a cipher for Jews, but my awareness of these things is an awareness of the historical contexts of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century Germany. They’re not part of my experiential repertoire when experiencing the Ring operas, but more something I’m aware of at an historical distance.
For me, or for anyone else without the direct cultural ties of Wagner’s era or the Nazi era, it’s a story about a ring, love, heroes, redemption, and dwarves with a weakness for gold and power. These are things that are not inherently anti-Semitic or inherently fascist. For example, all these things are pretty similarly presented in Tolkien’s Ring series.
It’s one thing to say that Wagner clearly intended the Nibelungen to serve as cipher for Jews (or that the Nazis utilized certain musical works in effective ways to present and ground certain conceptions of the nation). It’s quite another to say that the Nibelungen are clearly a cipher for Jews (or that the music of Wagner, Orff, Strauss, etc., is inevitably tied to fascist conceptions of the nation). I see no reason to allow Wagner (much less the Nazis) to determine the ultimate meaning of the operas just because he wrote them. Once created, a work of art has a concrete existence as independent of its creator as of any other individual. Wagner was a brilliant composer, but otherwise a repulsive individual with repulsive views not worth being taken seriously.
Ironically, to insist too hard on the anti-Semitism of the Ring operas is to unwittingly slip into anti-Semitism in the guise of combating it. It’s worth remembering that the Nibelungen could serve as cipher for Jews in certain cultural and historical contexts, as well as the other unsavory associations with Wagner’s music that held in certain specific contexts. But for any variety of other contexts, the only way it can be clearly the case that the Nibelungen are a stand-in for Jews and that the Ring is anti-Semitic is by assuming that Jews really are driven by lust for gold and power.