What’s the deal with Richard Wagner?

While Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a brilliant musician, he’s also classical music’s most problematic and controversial composer.

His 1850 essay entitled Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music) was deeply anti-Semitic, as were a variety of his other writings. Wagner was a prominent public figure at the time, and his influence had a major impact – even reaching to Adolf Hitler, who venerated Wagner as his favourite composer, and allegedly claimed that “there is only one legitimate predecessor to National Socialism: Wagner”.

Today, most Israeli orchestras and radio stations refrain from playing Wagner’s music entirely, though his music is still regularly played throughout the rest of the world. Here at Symphony Nova Scotia, we still perform music by Wagner on occasion, but our current position is that performances should be accompanied with acknowledgement and condemnation of Wagner’s extremely problematic personal views.

Here are a few more perspectives discussing Wagner’s life and influence:

  • CBC Music: Richard Wagner: beautiful music, terrible human
    “Richard Wagner was the worst. I mean, the worst. In all likelihood, nobody is ever going to take the title of ‘most horrible person ever to write renowned classical music’ away from this guy.”
  • The Conversation: Why we must keep talking about Wagner and antisemitism
    “Richard Wagner is perhaps the most controversial composer in the history of Western art and his music and ideas have provided plenty of fodder for both public and scholarly debate.”
  • Der Spiegel: Wagner’s Dark Shadow: can we separate the man from his works?
    “Born 200 years ago, Germany’s most controversial composer’s music is cherished around the world, though it will always be clouded by his anti-Semitism and posthumous association with Adolf Hitler. Richard Wagner’s legacy prompts the question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?”
  • The Guardian (2001): Barenboim stirs up Israeli storm by playing Wagner
    “The Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim, provoked an outcry in Israel at the weekend by defying the country’s informal ban on playing Wagner, the favourite composer of the Nazis.”

At Symphony Nova Scotia, we continue to carefully consider and debate the “Wagner question”, and we welcome your feedback. Share your thoughts at concerts, on social media, or at info@symphonyns.ca.