If you know absolutely nothing about opera, you still know Richard Wagner's name. His "Ring Cycle" of four operas based on Teutonic and Norse mythology was famously parodied by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, forever cementing his music into pop culture. His biggest fan was Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi regime's love of Wagner's music is legendary.
The irony is that you might never have heard about Wagner if not for a Jew, and one whom Wagner could be said to be directly responsible for almost erasing from modern repertoires despite being the most popular opera composer of the 19th century.
This week is the 147th anniversary of the death of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was born with the much more Jewish name of Jacob Liebmann Beer. His skill in youth was such that Muzio Clementi himself came out of retirement to teach the lad.
He started going by Giocomo while studying in Italy, and added "Meyer" to his last name as in order to fulfill a condition in great-grandfather Liebmann Meyer Wulf's will and become his sole heir.
By all accounts, Meyerbeer was talented and very wealthy. He was born rich, and through inheritance and the success of his grand, elaborate operas, became richer still. In fact, his detractors accused him of bribing critics, but all reliable evidence shows a portrait of a deeply spiritual man, serious musician, and generous spirit.
One of those who benefited from Meyerbeer's generosity was Richard Wagner. Meyerbeer was a huge influence on Wagner's early work, and aided the staging of Wagner's Rienzi through helpful contacts and financial support. Wagner was basically broke at the time, and the whopping success of Rienzi was a godsend.
It wasn't to last, however. Wagner was an enthusiastic leftist who participated in the May Uprising of 1848 in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. Saxon and Prussian troops quickly crushed the rebellion and Wagner fled with a warrant out for his arrest.
During his exile, Wagner lived hand to mouth while working on the Ring Cycle. Meanwhile, his old mentor and supporter continued to rise ever higher. Wagner turned from pupil to violently envious enemy as he wrung his hands against the corruption, as he saw it, of German opera.
Jealousy sent Wagner screaming over the edge of sanity, and after the Meyerbeer unleashed the blockbuster Le Prophete, Wagner turned around and wrote an essay called Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music).
One of the great landmarks of German anti-Semitism - if you want to call such a landmark great - Wagner's work was released under the pseudonym K. Freigedank to, he said, prevent the work from being reduced to petty personal insults from the Jews. The text's arguments against Jewish music include.
1. Other races' instinctive repellence of Jews limits the ability to enjoy their music.
2. Jews talk too funny to properly communicate in European languages.
3. That Jews as artist flourish only where true national spirit has become inauthentic.
4. That public acclaim of Meyerbeer's music can only be a symptom of the damage done by Judaism in Germany.
The oddest thing about Das Judenthum in der Musik is that Wagner (right), who was himself of Jewish descent, maintained many close Jewish friends and colleagues throughout his life.
His favorite conductor, Hermann Levi, was Jewish, as was his favorite pianist Carl Tausig. Therefore, it is really only possible to look at his essay as vendetta against Meyerbeer for having the audacity to be more successful than Wagner.
Once Meyerbeer died in 1864, he wasn't around to write record-setting operas any longer. There is a conventional reason his work began to decline in popularity posthumously - his work is extremely difficult to sing, and often called for elaborate sets that usually made very expensive to stage.
However, the Nazis' banning Meyerbeer's music, coupled with their worship of Wagner's anti-Semitic sentiments and Nordic-exalting music of Wagner, put the nail in the coffin for the man who was directly responsible for rising Wagner up in the first place.
Today, Meyerbeer's work is finally being revisited, and Wagner continues to be popular. Rightfully so, as his music is indeed phenomenal. It can be hard to watch, though, when you spend three hours remembering that petty jealousy helped give momentum to the movement that would culminate in World War II and the Holocaust.
And yet, Wagner's last performance was a set-up from his Jewish conductor friend Hermann Levi, who secretly handed the baton to Wagner in Act III of Parsifal so the composer could lead the conclusion of the opera. He died of a heart attack two months later.
The question of Wagner's hatred of the Jews remains a mystery, if indeed it extends at all beyond his obsession with one man whom he deemed unworthy to have the wealth he felt he was due as payment for his talent. That jealousy robbed the world of great music, and maybe more.
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