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Undoubtedly, Richard Wagner was one of the most influential composers to grace the Earth with his presence. His music continues to inspire and evoke nearly 150 years after his death, and as it is still performed by symphony productions, opera companies and chamber orchestras, this is likely never to change. However, many listeners take in his music with the context of what is considered a very dark side of a man depicted through his writings as small, weak, cowardly, bigoted and nasty. The fact that he was adored by the tyrant Adolf Hitler does not help his image, and neither does a particularly disgusting article which will be covered subsequently. “Judaism in Music,” more accurately translated as “Jewishness in Music” (this connotation only serves to darken), is the epitome of anti-Semitic idealism. It is an argument that searches for and ultimately fails to find a tangible reason to hate Jewish people and to justify said hatred.
The article is structured as such that it starts with the very basest and broadest of arguments, winding its way through justifications and eventually reaching art, finally music, and ending with a pair of passages regarding literature and poetry. The meaning behind the opening statements are summarized in this quote: “We have to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews.” In essence, Wagner is saying in these passages that anti-Semitism is literally natural for common folk, and that these feelings are too deeply engrained in people and culture to even try to be rid of it. Instead, he says, we should attempt to emancipate ourselves from “Jewishness.” He does not mention a method, but it is not difficult to imagine who may have taken this and ran with it.
He continues his argument with an absurd explanation for why Jews are so repellent. There is nothing lost from the argument over the next paragraph if one simply condenses it to a three word sentence: “Jews look ugly.” The quote: “The Jew… in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality.” He never directly mentions the word “ugly,” or any similar word, but he does imply it by writing that their appearance is “disagreeably foreign.” How, then, can one sink any lower than this? His next premise: “By far more weighty, nay, of quite decisive weight for our inquiry, is the effect the Jew produces on us through his speech.” Or, in layman’s terms, “Jews sound ugly.” Again, while he never uses the descriptive word in this premise, it is implied through his speech, and this premise appears to be of particular importance to him due to the fact that, apparently, one must be able to sing if one wishes to create music, the subject of the paper as Judaism relates to it.
The rest is a blur of bad argumentation that grows out of the idea of the intrinsic anti-Semitism in culture. He goes on to muse on why Jews were able to enter the artistic world, the plasticity of their artisanship through their stereotypical money-grabbing ways, and he makes special mention of Felix Mendelsohn, a famous Jewish composer, in a negative light as well. As stated before, he finishes his argument by spotlighting literary and poetic Jews, bashing the latter for the above reasons and lauding the former for un-Jewing himself. There is little more to be said on what exactly Wagner was saying in his article, as it all boils down to the essence of anti-Semitism.
Upon reading the article, it is clear Wagner has a gigantic, inflated bias against Jewish people. Throughout the article he is trying to find a real reason why one should be allowed to hate Jews, and the result is some of the most childish, immature, desperate and racist premises for anti-Semitism this student has ever read. To informalize for a moment: seriously? They’re ugly? That’s the best you’ve got, Wagner? Wow. Reformalizing: in reality, there is no effective excuse for anti-Semitism, and because there is no excuse, Wagner found naught but his statements on their appearance and the sound of their voice. These are drawn from the base premise stated earlier, that we must be liberated from Jewishness because we cannot find it in ourselves to overcome our natural hatred of Jews, which is in itself just an excuse not to even attempt a reformation of our very unnatural racism. Because of this, Wagner’s ideas and failed attempts to find decent premises not only hinder, but destroy his own argument.
It is unknown why Wagner decided he felt he should write about what the title so accurately and yet so misleadingly hints at, Judaism in music. Surely he was qualified to write about many things relating to music, as he is a musician and a composer. He was likely qualified to write about political affairs, as well as religion as it related to Christianity. But Judaism? One wonders, because anyone well educated on Jewish culture would know that it is just that: a culture. They are still the same human beings, the same living, breathing organisms. And yet to Wagner, they were second class citizens, off-putting in every way, shape and form. But he did not know what he was talking about, which is why he moved to claim that anti-Semitism was intrinsic, natural, in anyone who was not a Jew. However, that ventures into the realm of psychology, about which Wagner is clearly not qualified to write. This further contributes to the above statement that there is no real argument for anti-Semitism, because as one moves from one subject to the next in an attempt to justify it, one finds nothing of value. The best way to explain anti-Semitism is that it was simply popular to be bigoted.
There is almost no end to what can be said in refutation to Wagner’s article, so it would be best now to move on to the subject of the translation. While Wagner is perfectly clear when he writes in the German language, with even more clarity for those who have no trouble understanding it before the language evolved to its more modern version as English has, the translation into English is surprising to say the least. There is the consideration that German and English are actually very similar languages, sharing many words and meanings. It is strange, then, when an English translation of a German work is so shoddy. If punctuation is taken alone, then some words are capitalized when they should not be, and sentences run on and on, separated by numerous semicolons. Words often appear to be left out completely without explanation, while other word choices baffle and confuse rather than enlighten, as is the intention of the article. What is left is still rather arcane, clearly a 19th century piece that is unclear to the modern student. While the necessity for the comment on clarity is questionable, it is relevant to the topic of the paper, not as a biased opinion against the article, but simply as a discussion.
It is clear now why this article is frankly a horrible piece of anti-Semitic writing, not just for the position it takes against Jews, but also for the fact that it is completely unsuccessful in its attempt to convey its message through childish excuses for premises. There is no way to know if Hitler ever read this article, but if he did, he would likely have felt that his position, which may also have come from immature hatefulness, was just as justified as Wagner probably felt he was in his writing. It is a shame that these beliefs were vindicated. If not, maybe we could have avoided one of the greatest criminal genocides the world has ever known.
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