“Effects without cause”: Wagner’s character assassination of Meyerbeer

By Henri van Nispen

Please allow me to begin with a question:  Do you, dear reader, think that allowing music from Jewish composers in the Bayreuth opera house in Germany can compensate for Richard Wagner’s character assassination of the Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer?

The Bayreuth opera house was built under strict guidance by Wagner and for one purpose only, the performance of the Ring des Nibelungen. Everything in the construction, particularly the acoustics, was specially designed for Wagner’s work. No works from other composers were played there, and that status has now come under discussion. Critics claim that works from other composers can and should be played in the Wagner opera house. Adjacent stages, simultaneous performances or other alternatives are no option. What do you think?

Should the Bayreuth opera house, which was specially constructed for the works of Wagner be opened to the works of other composers?

Today, Richard Wagner is counted among the giants of opera. He is famous for such works as Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde. However, early in his career the Leipzig-born composer (1813-1883) knew little to no success. A new kind of opera had just emerged: the grand opera. Grand, immersive, based on historical themes, and extraordinary costly, these larger-than-life musical spectacles blossomed in Europe from the 1830s onwards until the end of the 19th century. Top of the bill was Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), the composer who was character assassinated by Richard Wagner.

How did Wagner compose his fierce attack on Giacomo Meyerbeer?

Character assassination theory postulates five so-called pillars identifiable in character assassination: the attacker, the target, media, the audience, and context. How are these pillars recognizable in Wagner’s attack on Meyerbeer?  

Leipzig-born Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) knew little to no success while Giacomo Meyerbeer (5 September 1791- 2 May 1864) was the master of the grand opera. His Robert le diable (Robert the Devil) premiered in 1831 in Paris to set the standard for the genre. A few years later Meyerbeer reached his top when Les Huguenots became the first opera to see over a thousand reprises at the Paris Opéra. While in his glory days, Meyerbeer was approached by a young, impoverished composer seeking his advice: Richard Wagner.

Wagner had finished his opera Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the last Tribune) but the Paris opera showed no interest. He attributed his lack of success to the major newspapers and theaters of his day being controlled by Jews. Nevertheless, the Jewish Meyerbeer decided to help his younger colleague – and to great effect. In 1842 Wagner’s Rienzi premiered in Dresden, where he was appointed as Kapellmeister (conductor). A year later followed Der fliegende Holländer  (the flying Dutchman).

In the following decade Wagner’s views drastically developed to become rabidly antisemitic. Wagner turned on Meyerbeer. In the book Opera und Drama (Opera and Drama, 1868) he denigrated his colleague’s talents as a composer, qualifying his music as “effects without cause.” Whereas the book denigrates Meyerbeer’s qualities as composer with the infamous “effects without cause” qualification, the lampoon Judaism in Music focused on the composer’s Jewishness. Here one finds the character assassination.  The attack on Meyerbeer comes in chapter vi. Wagner leaves little doubt about his intentions: jealousy of Meyerbeer’s success. Contrary to Mendelssohn, who is gifted despite his Jewishness, Meyerbeer is ostentatiously not mentioned by name. He is referred to as a “celebrated Jewish music-setter” who exploits a bored audience without any taste. “The seats at these places of amusement are generally occupied by that portion of our middle-class society with whom ennui is the only reason for preferring one occupation to another.”

The anti-Jewish lampoon ‘Judaism in Music’ (1850/1869)

Meyerbeer’s success proved his mastery of cultivating the deceit of boredom, Wagner alleged. He was the “deceiver amongst composers,” who utilized the effects of catastrophes and emotional situations to the fullest, perfectly aware that only these features would satisfy the bored. Therefore, his operas could be played all over the world. “Oh, how he would like to produce works of art, but he cannot!” Wagner mocked his anonymous target. “In his emotional kitsch and laughable themes, we recognize the Judaism of this renowned composer.” In short, Meyerbeer was not only criticized for his supposed lack of musical talent but was also portrayed as a “typically Jewish” deceiver exploiting his audience.

Wagner initially received little recognition.  He attributed this to the media and theaters of his day being controlled by Jews. The little acknowledgement of his work greatly surprised Wagner given the general European context of what he thought to be the “popular dislike of the Jewish character.”  Therefore, the art world must be incapacitated and the audience outright stupid. 

Yet Wagner’s fame soon eclipsed Meyerbeer’s.  Nowadays, Wagner’s towering fame is best exemplified by the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, the opera house that the composer himself designed exclusively for the performance of his Ring des Nibelungen cycle, which takes up four days. No works from other composers have ever been played there.

What do you think, dear reader? If the music of Jewish composers like Meyerbeer could be performed at this venue, would that begin to compensate for Richard Wagner’s rampant antisemitism and his character assassination of Giacomo Meyerbeer?

Le Prophète (the Prophet)

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