Books that stand in witness of their times

Books as Objects as Well as Content


I’ve recently read two older Wagner books that lend insight not only into their subject topics, but into the times in which they were written.  These are Wagner’s Parsifal, by Maurice Kufferath (Henry Holt 1904), and The Racial Thinking of Richard Wagner, by Leon Stein (Philosophical Library 1950).

Maurice Kufferath was a Belgian music critic and later director of Théâtre de la Monnaie.  In his youth he was an acquaintance of Wagner.  The full title of his book (translated from the French by Louise M. Henermann) gives one a sense of the occasion of its release: The Parsifal of Richard Wagner with Accounts of the Perceval of Chretien de Troies and the Parzival of Woilfram von Eschenbach, With leading Motifs in Musical Notation and Illustrations of the Scenes of the Metropolitan Opera House.  As promised, the volume is an academically sound and quite thorough narrative of the two main literary sources of Wagner’s work, as well as a walk-through of the action of the play and its main motifs (accompanied by Von Wolzogen’s attributive “meanings.”

(Kufferath gives these names too much import, on the ground that Von Wolzogen’s studies were “written, in some sort, under the master’s inspiration, and they give the thematic catalogue of each score, as Wagner probably arranged it.”  As we now know, not so much.)

The book is a responsible and thorough companion for the audience member who seeks to prepare for, and debrief after, a performance of the work.  But the volume itself, and particularly its inclusion of photos of the Met Operas settings, was clearly brought out in English to coincide with the first production of the work outside Bayreuth.  So what we have here is an indication of the clamorous interest in attending this last work of Richard Wagner, an opportunity that had been withheld from the public for twenty years since its first performance at Bayreuth, and was now available in New York and soon around the world.  Thus, a book that might mesh unremarkably with any number of early 20th century Wagner studies aimed at the popular audience, assumes special interest because of its timing and its intended reader.

Leon Stein’s book also is redolent of its time.  Released only five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, it is an unremitting condemnation of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, drawing on a plethora of scholarly sources.  And why?

“It is the author’s belief that up to the present, Wagner’s racial tenets have not been clearly understood either in their content or their influence.  Since the implications of these tenets have been made manifest only within the past decade, any previous appraisal must necessarily prove wanting.

. . . . .

“To come directly to the point – Wagner’s racial thinking culminates and reaches its apogee in Hitler, Goebbels, Rosenberg and the Third Reich.  Under no circumstances is it suggested that Hitler and Nazi Germany owe their existence to Wagner.  But only in Fascist Germany and not until then, do the racial tenets of Wagner finally achieve their logical destination and conclusion.”

Stein then proceeds methodically to examine Wagner’s self-serving and provocative concept of the “Volk,” his cruel treatment of Felix Mendelssohn, his selective espousal of missionary Christianity, his disgust with Jews and what he perceived as the incapacity of Jews to create art, and some examples that Stein perceives as evidence of these tendencies in Wagner’s own compositions.

Almost 85 years after the outbreak of World War II, we are accustomed – perhaps even lackadaisical – about accusations of cultural connections between mid-19th century Wagner and mid-20th Century German fascism.  But in 1950, when witnesses reported with astonishment of the smoke  rising from the crematoria, and the scale of the murder of European Jews was still difficult for many to fathom, here was Stein setting it out like a prosecutor.

And, again, we have a book whose content is not unique but that is driven by a sense of urgency, timeliness, and moral necessity.  It is the object itself — the fact of it, not just what is in it — that makes it unique.

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By PeterP

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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