Did You Know Richard Wagner Almost Brought His Antisemitism to the US?
Six years ago — on the 200th anniversary of his birth — Richard Wagner was still in the news, due to never-ending controversies over whether his music should be played by Israeli symphony orchestras. Probably not a day has gone by since Wagner’s death that his enmity towards the Jews has not been debated.
Wagner was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, Germany in 1813. His mother abandoned her husband to take up with the actor Ludwig Geyer. Some allege that Wagner was forever haunted by the thought that his real father could have been a Jew.
Like the protagonist of his opera The Flying Dutchman (based on the legend of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew cursed by Jesus, one of many antisemitic tropes in Wagner’s operas), the young Wagner was a peripatetic traveler, sometimes on the run from creditors. Penniless and desperate, he moved to Paris in 1839. There, he was befriended by the Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, who produced Wagner’s first opera, of whom Wagner later wrote, “this operatic master, who had done me so much harm.”
Wagner’s life-long obsession with a Jewish world conspiracy was born in Paris. Wagner first expressed it anonymously in 1850, in a venomous essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”).
Antisemitism — the term invented in the 1870s by German polemicist Wilhelm Marr — was the ideological glue that bound Wagner to his second wife Cosima (also with Jewish ancestry), who vented Jew hatred on every third page of her 5,000 page diary.
In 1880, Cosima wrote, “Again and again he [Wagner] keeps coming back to America, says it is the only place on the whole map which he can gaze upon with any pleasure.”
Among Wagner’s admirers was an American dentist who worked with him to draw up a plan for raising one million dollars to resettle Wagner in the “favorable climate” of America.
In return, all the proceeds from Wagner’s opera Parsifal would go to an American trust. Contemplating the might-have-been new home of Minneapolis, Wagner wrote: “Thus would America have bought me from Europe for all time.”
Wagner composed “The American Centennial March” to celebrate America’s 100th birthday. Luckily, he was never able to truly spew his antisemitism here.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).