Wagner’s Influence on Vienna’s Jewish Composers

Caricature of Wagner with big nose

On the 16th of January, I shall be giving a talk at Vienna’s Jewish museum on the subject of Wagner’s influence on Vienna’s Jewish composers. This is such a broad subject, I wasn’t sure how to cover it – worse, I wasn’t even sure how to start. But the Museum has offered me the whole evening, sound equipment and a beamer, meaning I can illustrate both visually and musically as I wade through what is a complex and multi-layered subject.

The first thing to do was to avoid discussing Wagner’s anti-Semitism beyond what necessity demands. It would be too simple to confuse an already complex subject by taking a detour via Wagner’s anti-Semitism. My talk will focus on quite specific influences, both as a composer and as an aesthetic, cultural and social phenomenon. By adding the specific element of ‘Jewish’ composers (The museum chose the subject), I can’t really go into the work and influence on the likes of Franz Schmidt, or Richard Strauss. And even if I don’t try to spend too much time on Wagner’s anti-Semitism, I imply the paradox that comes from Jewish composers taking him as their model. Why they would do such a thing is complex and has as much to do with the self-perception of Jewish Vienna, its music, its culture and the fin de siècle as it does with Wagner. Indeed, the question arises as to whether Wagner created the decadence of fin de siècle Vienna, or fin de siècle Vienna reacted to the decadence of Richard Wagner?

But a more intriguing point, is who was in the forefront of progressive German music upon the death of Wagner in 1883? It’s hard to come up with names. There was of course Liszt who died in 1886; but with the death of Wagner, German opera seems to have slid back into a pool of conventional mediocrity. Before Wagner, there was Marschner, Flotow and Lortzing along with a few other worthies – Meyerbeer, until his death in 1864, was certainly Germany’s greatest opera composer, but it comes as no coincidence that he, like Offenbach, chose to live in France. After Wagner, there was if anything, an even greater degree of stifling worthiness. Just as Marschner, Flotow and Lortzing could not really compare with Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini, neither could Ignaz Brüll, Robert Fuchs, Ferdinand Hiller or even Anton Rubinstein compare with Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo – or indeed Massenet, Gounod, or SaintSaëns. It would be Puccini’s final scene in act I of Madama Butterfly, that came closest to musically representing the lovemaking found in act II of Tristan: a wait of 39 years – and composed by an Italian. Of course there was the vulgar ejaculation of Octavian in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, but this was deliberately cocking a snoot (if this is the best expression) at Wagner’s redemptive vision of love, sex and death. Wagner – like Beethoven – was quite simply an original, dressed up as a revolutionary. There was nothing like him before he penned his greatest works and upon his departure, he left an even emptier vacuum.

  Karl Goldmark

Karl Goldmark’s opera The Queen of Sheba, premiered in 1875, is described in a prominent German opera guide as, ‘a mix between Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.’ Frankly, I would not wish to embarrass Goldmark by comparing The Queen of Sheba with Bizet’s Carmen premiered in the same year, or indeed Tannhäuser. In my lecture I am certainly less dismissive of Goldmark who serves as a missing link prior to Mahler.


Mahler, who arrived as opera director in 1897 (the year that Brahms died), may have had a great sense for music theatre, but composed no operas. In any case, he held to the ascetic, spiritual Romanticism of Jean Paul, Goethe and Rückert – one need only read the diaries of Alma Mahler to understand how unsuited he must have been as husband to her healthily voracious sexual appetites. Mahler certainly used many of Wagner’s compositional innovations, such as the endless melody and the motif that reminds of what we had already heard. Adorno even writes of his use of ‘musical prose’, another Wagnerian innovation; and no doubt Mahler would employ Wagner’s ‘Expressive Tonality’ by which tension was  raised or lowed by chromatic or even full step modulations. But the many dramatic devices that Wagner created and developed, such as the Leitmotif; Directional Tonality which offers a dual tonic in order to relate simultaneously to another dramatic reference; ‘Poetic-Musical Periods’ which is similar to the leitmotif but uses longer musical sequences, and so on, are roundly ignored by Mahler. It’s not as if he didn’t rate them. These devices, along with many more, are unique to the declaimed narrative and meant as memory prods to the text. It could be argued that Mahler used this or that interval or motif to represent a specific feeling or a thought, but these are not the same as colouring in a character, object or a dramatic event with its own motif – the ‘leitmotif’. So Mahler, despite his genius, was a bit of a prude and would have no part in the ‘Decadent’ movement that is associated with Wagner.  ‘Decadence’, similar to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, presents us with a similar question: did Wagner merely have the key to release a pre-existing monster, or did he create the monster himself? His ego combined with his brilliance at polemic, probably meant that he simply gave voice to what was already there, which to him, was the same as claiming them as his own progeny.tristan and isolde 008

Nietzsche hated Wagner’s obsession with redemption. The idea that ‘love’ leads to the union that leads to life, that in turn ends in death, meant that love and death were two sides of the same coin. As a result, death must follow love, and only through death could love be redeemed. Such nihilistic thinking could only come at a time when the world was puritanically obsessed. A social climate that hid piano legs as being too titillating inevitably resulted in sexually healthy females becoming ‘hysterics’. It’s all the more remarkable that Wagner could in 1865 get away with painting sexual love in the intoxicating sounds of Tristan’s second act duet; but it is in  the question of Musical intoxication that Nietzsche and Eduard Hanslick agree. Wagner’s genius was too powerful. His music ‘bullied the senses’, and overwhelmed the listener. Hanslick felt the sensuality of Tristan to be pornographic. In such an environment, it must come as no surprise that cultural ‘Decadence’ should take hold. As Stephen Downs writes in Music and Decadence in European Modernism: ‘Decadence is usually associated with themes of despair, deviance, decay, degeneration and death. Its artistic styles are characteristically described as excessive, epicurean, artificial, darkly comic or esoteric, and its structural strategies commonly understood as based upon processes of fragmentation, dissolution, deformation and ornamentation.’ All of these fit Nietzsche’s description of Wagner’s music and would have prepared the ground for such complicated fin de siècle ‘decadents’ as the nihilistic Jewish homosexual, Otto Weininger with his hatred of women and Jews.


Mahler did represent one Wagnerian trait that would be passed on to future generations of Vienna’s Jewish composers: he was not a performer on the piano or violin, or indeed, any instrument. Wagner resented the fact that all of the prominent Jewish composers of his day happened to be virtuosi: Meyerbeer, Hiller, Mendelssohn and Rubinstein dazzled as pianists. Indeed, it was the only means by which a Jewish composer could be noticed. Neither Mahler, Schoenberg or Schreker claimed to be more than competent on any particular keyboard or stringed instrument. Zemlinsky was a marvellous pianist but this was not his means of establishing his compositional credibility. This sea change is important as all of these composers developed a uniquely fine ear for the ‘distant sound’ that defined fin de siècle musical Vienna.

What puzzles and intrigues me, however, is how the decadent aesthetic of love and death moves from Wagner, yet skips a full two generations before being picked up again by Schoenberg in his Gurrelieder? Of course Tove must die after the love-making of Part I of Gurrelieder, and despite the violence of what follows, the rising sun in the work’s final moments offers redemption. The beauty of this work is its intrinsic decadence. Zemlinsky offers another take on this idea in his Florentine Tragedy, in which husband and wife can only love one another after the husband has killed his wife’s aristocratic suitor. Love, death and redemption form the holy trinity of Wagnerian philosophy-made-music. Or, as he wrote in ‘Beethoven and the German Nation’ from 1870, ‘Ersichtlich gewordene Taten der Musik’, with the ‘Taten’ (deeds) being Wagner’s own philosophy. His trinity of love-death-redemption was picked up and exploited by any number of composers from the opening decades of the 20th century – and of course, not just Jewish ones.

Perhaps it was all part of the arduous process of reintegrating sex back into the human story. The absurd prudishness of the 19th century’s middle-classes had led to hypocrisy becoming not just a life-style, but the law of the land. Sex certainly existed and prostitution was rife and available to every student with a bit of pocket money. One simply did not speak about it. Yet human sexuality was inevitably more volcanic than society’s conceited venire could contain. The eruption was gradual, with the grudging acknowledgement of sexual desire being conceded first. Of course, such desires were still deemed unwholesome, inevitably ending in death if experienced outside of the sacrament of marriage. Waldemar and Isolde were married. It followed therefore that Tove and Tristan must die. In Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, the protagonists don’t even touch one another. They only think about it. This alone condemns them to death and their 30 minute redemption duet as they float blissfully into Heaven would seem to imply that such joy as love can offer, is only to be found in death. Heliane too was married. Nevertheless, recognising the strength and indeed purity of ‘unfaithful’ love was a starting point.


Franz and Maria Schreker

This makes Franz Schreker all the more remarkable. His operas offer the full panoply of human sexual emotion while using every compositional device that Wagner made available. Just listen to how he creates tension while overwhelming the senses in this scene from Die Gezeichneten, during which Carlotte seduces the ugly Count Alviano. One hears in this lengthy passage everything from its opening ‘musical prose’ to its ‘endless melody’ all spiked with any number of musical markers from elsewhere in the drama.

Indeed, one understands the arguments of the Frankfurt critic Paul Bekker who pronounced Schreker as the only possible heir to Wagner in 1918. His conclusion was not just based on the technical compositional aspects such as use of Leitmotiv, musical prose, endless melody, the poetic-musical-periods, expressive, associative and directional tonalities, but also Schreker’s own talent as librettist. Setting his own texts expanded the Wagnerian remit to his use of ‘Stabreim’ or alliteration and assonance. Regardless of Wagner and Schreker’s gifts as poets, setting their own texts freed them musically in a way that was not the case with Richard Strauss whose collaborations with even the greatest writers resulted in numerous compromises.

Cruel, heartless and even sadistic heroines were certainly popular during these early decades of the 20th century, but Schreker’s female protagonist go one further. They are sexually confident in a way that is not matched by even Salome or Lulu, both of whom remain early versions of Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’.  The women in Schreker’s operas were not sexually precocious children. Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck comes closest, and Berg was much influenced by Schreker. Inevitably, it would be Maria Schreker, who would provide her husband with his most intimate feminine insights. I cannot believe that her various affairs with other women did not shape Schreker’s characters. Though it may seem in retrospect that Berlin’s most beautiful women in the 1920s were obliged to conduct lesbian affairs, in the case of Maria, her sexual preferences were no trendy statement of social rebellion as described by Stefan Zweig in World of Yesterday. Such feminine self-confidence can only have influenced Schreker, and it surprises me that so few opera directors appear capable of communicating this aspect without resorting to whips and fishnet stockings. Unlike Wagner, death in Schreker’s operas was not redemptive but tragic and violent.

I end my lecture by discussing the Jewish composers from the Korngold generation, (a generation younger than Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schreker) who rejected Wagner. They seem to have done so for very different reasons. Hans Gál simply kept to the Mendelssohnian school of composition and was too indebted to Brahms to go wandering down the chromatic by-ways of Wagnerian decadence. Ernst Toch was traumatised by the change in world-order after the First World War and along with Paul Hindemith, led the march into a starkly sobering aesthetic that was the very opposite to Wagnerian intoxication. And Hanns Eisler would have rejected Wagner as a political renegade – a self-proclaimed ‘communist’ whose music exerted a control over the emotions of his listeners. In addition, he rejected the concept of l’art pour l’art and hated the overblown, escapist nonsense of his youth, when he and his brother and sister played out the roles of the Nibelungen. If Wagner was the godfather of film music, and indeed his techniques were certainly essential in cinema, Eisler applied them in a counter-intuitive manner.

Yet perhaps the strangest of all Wagnerian paradoxes is the fact that the organisation founded in 1861 by Franz Liszt and Franz Brendel, (he who published Wagner’s Das Judenthum und die Musik), ‘der Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein’ or ADMV  should have been led by a team of three Austrian composers in 1933: Hans Gál, Ernst Toch and Alban Berg. Brendel and Liszt founded the ADMV specifically to promote the New German School of music as represented by Liszt and Wagner. The Nazis closed it down in 1937 as being ‘culturally Bolshevistic’ and too Jewish.