How Do You Celebrate the Birthday of a Great Composer Who Inspired Hitler?

Germany grapples with the bicentennial of Richard Wagner's birth.
DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

How do you celebrate the bicentenary of a great composer who also happened to be an anti-Semite, who posthumously inspired Hitler, and whose works featured prominently in the cultural life of the Third Reich? That’s the question Richard Wagner’s Jubiläumsjahr, or “jubilee year,” poses for Germany.

In the run-up to Wagner’s birthday, on May 22, the German media have been continuously covering this year’s many Wagner concerts, lectures, biographies, recordings—and debates. Wagner, of course, is still a sensitive topic in Germany (as he is in Israel, where his compositions are taboo in concert halls). As if to highlight the fraught context, his Götterdämmerung was used in a neo-Nazi march in Magdeburg in January, just as anniversary festivities were getting under way.

“Are Wagner the musician and Wagner the anti-Semite two different people?” a German tabloid asked the conductor Christian Thielemann. “Completely! They barely know one another!” he responded. In a Berliner Morgenpost interview, the Berlin Philharmonic violist Wilfried Strehle argued that the music—“bold and boundless,” with “a hope in freedom and humanity”—was at odds with the man: “His egomania, his social envy (for example of Mendelssohn), his racism, his behavior with women and friends alienate me. But are all great musicians also good people?”

Not that everyone agrees about even the music. Writing in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, the critic Ralf Döring compared Wagner’s four-opera Ring cycle to “fourteen hours of heavy metal.” Those who attend, he wrote, “earn either sympathy or jealousy from their fellow humans.” There’s no middle ground with Wagner, Döring continued. “People either deify him or curse him.”

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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