It's always cause for dismay when someone with an otherwise clearly first-rate mind utters in earnest the most patent sort of rubbish, and cause for dismay as well as extreme distress when that rubbish reveals that mind working in the same mode as that of an ignorant redneck, or, worse, a desperate, politically correct academic in search of something new to come up with that will gain him the attention and approbation of his colleagues.
Daniel Leeson — former IBM executive, professional classical musician, and one of the world's acknowledged scholarly authorities on all things Mozartian — in answer to a question posed to him on one of the classical music lists concerning the blaming of Richard Wagner for the evils of the Third Reich, had this to say on the subject of Wagner's operas (music-dramas):
I am afraid that you may not be aware of the issues involved. No one is blaming Wagner for anything (except perhaps his maniacal attitude on the subject [of race]). The issue is not one of blame but one of content of at least six or more of his operas where his attitudes became part and parcel of the plot and are woven into the warp and woof of the opera.
Of the Ring, three of the four operas contain specific and repulsive antisemitic [sic] content, as does Parsifal and, to a much lesser degree, the Flying Dutchman. The most unnerving of his operas is, for me, Meistersinger[!], which contains vicious medieval slanders in almost every scene, though before I became aware of the subtleties of the stage action and plot line, it was one of my favorite works, one that I always enjoyed playing because it is a magnificent musical statement.
I am not blaming Wagner for the actions of 1939-1945. I am blaming him for placing his disgusting racist ideas into the very fabric of his operas. And it is for these reasons that I neither play Wagner, listen to him, or go to any performances that contain his music.
To a great extent I feel the same way about Ezra Pound, except that he was mentally unstable and his repulsive writings may be understood and excused for that. Wagner was not unstable, he was simply a monster, though I would not be in this position solely for that. Anyone can think what they wish. But his art contains his personal hatreds and that I cannot tolerate.
Leeson then went on to detail in a separate post the "vicious medieval slanders [against Jews] in almost every scene of Die Meistersinger[!]." Leeson's position on this matter is, unhappily, not unique, nor is his in-error thinking concerning Wagner's "racist anti-Semitism," as he put it. The same sort of tendentious, delusional thinking can be found today in a majority of academia's humanities departments, and in the works of such writers as Robert Gutman, a Wagner biographer and the fons et origo of this sort of modern-day Wagner-bashing; Barry Millington; Marc Weiner; and in the lunatic ravings of the hate-besotted Paul Lawrence Rose (who invents his own facts when he can find none to support his absurd theories) and Joachim Köhler, which ravings in their poisonous expressions of hatred for Wagner and all things Wagnerian must surely be without modern parallel in scholarly writings.
While the charge that Wagner was an anti-Semite is indisputable, the charge that he was a racist anti-Semite is insupportable. Those two evils marched side by side, arms inseparably linked, in the Third Reich, but not within Wagner's thinking. His anti-Semitism was principally cultural, not racial. That surely makes it no less contemptible, but one ought to be more careful — lots more careful — with one's taxonomy in a matter such as this.
But to return to Leeson's remarks concerning Die Meistersinger, let me attempt to put the matter in more sober perspective by approaching it from a different direction (an approach that would be valid for all Wagner's operas).
It seems to me the very first question that needs asking is: Even if, as Leeson alleges, such racist anti-Semitic "coding" exists in Die Meistersinger, does it in any way vitiate or intrude upon the artwork itself? Answer: Clearly it does not — is virtually invisible in that respect — as Leeson himself unwittingly all but admits ("...though before I became aware of the subtleties of the stage action and plot line [of Die Meistersinger], it was one of my favorite works, one that I always enjoyed playing because it is a magnificent musical statement").
It's also clear that those "subtleties" of which Leeson became aware would never have been perceived by him as racist anti-Semitic coding had he not worked backwards from his knowledge of the popular association of Wagner's name with Hitler and the Nazis, his knowledge of Wagner's notorious and justified reputation as a rabid anti-Semite (but not, as I've noted, a racist anti-Semite; a distinction clearly lost on Leeson), and his knowledge of Wagner's virulent anti-Semitic prose writings, an anti-Semitism most repulsively prominent in Wagner's twice-published article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music). If some other composer had written Die Meistersinger using the very same text the entire imbecile anti-Semitic coding business would never have been so much as even imagined — not by Leeson, not by even the fevered brain of the most devout PC academic.
Can one find anti-Semitic overtones and references in the text and characterizations in Die Meistersinger, or in any other of Wagner's operas (music-dramas), for that matter? If one is so disposed, one most assuredly can. One can find pretty much anything one is looking for in Wagner's stage works, an ineluctable consequence of their at-bottom archetypal nature. Archetypes are essentially empty matrices that can be filled-in and fleshed-out in their particulars in multiple ways and at multiple levels by the filler-in-ers and flesher-out-ers, and so if one is determined to find anti-Semitic content in one's own filling-in and fleshing-out, one can be absolutely assured of not being disappointed. That archetypal quality is not a flaw in Wagner's stage works but their very genius, and a principal source of their timelessness, universality, and astonishing resonant power.
Well, no point belaboring this, and so I'll not go into certain other problematic considerations of this racist anti-Semitic coding theory such as, but not by any means limited to, how to explain Wagner — Wagner of all people! who carried on at Wagnerian length in word and print about every detail of what he intended in his works; the Wagner who held the absurd belief that nothing even remotely Jewish should ever be represented onstage — making no mention of it anywhere nor to anyone at any time, not even privately to Cosima, his most intimate confidant and a more rabid anti-Semite than he, who would unfailingly have made note of it in her diaries had he done so?
Soberly considered, Leeson's and certain others' "analysis" of the alleged racist anti-Semitic coding in Die Meistersinger as well as other of Wagner's stage works adds up to nothing more than a manifest and classic case of the obscenity being in the mind of the beholder not the beheld which is itself guilty only of being too deep and too rich for its own good. The proof of that is that it required the assiduous "researches" of a small band of Wagner-hating zealots to "discover" the nefarious and pernicious coding in Die Meistersinger, and this not until after almost 150 years of the opera's constant public exposure, prior to which time the supposed evil coding was not even so much as suspected.
The bottom-line question then becomes: If such coding really does exist, for whom, and to what purpose, was it intended? Should a satisfactory and verifiably correct answer to that question ever be found, then we can all put some faith in this theory of racist anti-Semitic coding in Wagner's operas. Until such time, however, such a theory can be looked upon only as the product of the tendentious, febrile imaginings of zealous professional Wagner-bashers and therefore safely dismissed as the arrant rubbish it all but unquestionably is.