Richard Wagner (1813-83) was one of the greatest opera composers of all time, captivating Europe for decades and remaining one of the most performed composers today. Wagner continued the Romantic tradition of heightened emotion and stretched tonality in music. Classical music relies on a tonal center to which it returns often during a piece (“resolving”). In the Romantic era, chromaticism was the vessel for a heightened expression of emotion. Wagner took this to the next level; his opera Tristan und Isolde, expressing a romantic love approaching religious fervor, does not resolve until the very last chord of a five-hour opera.
The Ring Cycle is Wagner’s masterwork. The Ring is a set of four operas depicting the Teutonic myth of the Ring of the Nibelungen, a magical ring made from the gold of the River Rhine that gives its bearer power over the universe. The Ring Cycle begins with Das Rheingold (the making of the ring) and ends with Gotterdammerung (the downfall of the gods and ascendance of man). It is a musical epic, a nationalist saga, and, incidentally, a vehicle for anti-Semitism.
In the Ring, Wagner’s nationalism and anti-Semitism mesh perfectly with the Teutonic epic. In a grossly simplified explanation, the heroes of the Ring are the gods and their (traditionally blonde) demigod children. The “bad guys” are a couple of giants (one of whom turns into a dragon) and the dwarves. The hero Siegfried is raised by a dwarf, Mime, who adopted him as an infant and is trying to raise him to be a strong, crafty smith like himself, but whom Siegfried hates and abuses physically and verbally. Mime and the dwarves – hunched, grovelling, scheming, greedy, power-hungry, and deceitful – are generally taken to be Wagner’s Jews.
Not all Wagner is anti-Semitic. Tannhauser (which Theodor Herzl loved) is about redemption through love and through faith in God. The struggle in Tannhauser is between Christianity and the pagan Venus cult. There’s nothing about Jews in there. Tristan and Isolde is likewise a religious/romantic saga.
Check out this clip of the dwarves Mime and Alberich in Nibelheim (the land of the dwarves). You can see the words and the English translation here. Mime makes a helmet (the Tarnhelm) for his bossy brother Alberich which turns Alberich invisible – giving him the opportunity to beat Mime for laziness. Notice the use of anvils in the orchestra and the leitmotivs (musical themes, important to Wagner’s music) of the Tarnhelm and of Nibelheim. What makes Mime and Alberich Jewish caricatures? How do you feel about opera’s continued anti-Semitic depiction of these characters? Do directors have a choice?
Also check out this great article on Wagner on the Virtual Jewish Library.