Das Judenthum in der Musik

From Academic Kids

Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music or Jewishness in Music) is an anti-Semitic article which was published in the Neue Zeitschrift. It was written by Richard Wagner who settled in Zürich in 1849, but originally it bore the pen-name "K. Freigedenk" ("free thought"). It was written, Wagner says,

"to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof".

The article did not at first attract much attention, except a protest from eleven masters of the Leipzig Conservatorium to Brendel, the editor of the Zeitschrift.

The essay called Jews "freaks of nature":

The Jew—who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself—in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that. ... Passing over the moral side, in the effect of this in itself unpleasant freak of Nature, and coming to its bearings upon Art, we here will merely observe that to us this exterior can never be thinkable as a subject for the art of representment.

Wagner held that Jews were unable to speak European languages:

In the first place, then, the general circumstance that the Jew talk the modern European languages merely as learnt, and not as mother tongues, must necessarily debar him from all capability of therein expressing himself idiomatically, independently and conformably to his nature.

He claimed that Jewish speech took the character of an "intolerably jumbled blabber", a "ceaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle", and that Jews were egoistically devoted to profit and incapable of expressing passion when speaking to non-Jews. From this he concluded that Jews would be even less capable of expressing themselves in music, and only those artists who stripped off their Jewish roots could at all express themselves:

Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his fathers' stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they shew an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.

He claimed that the music produced by Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn was "sweet and tinkling without depth". In his major theoretical statement, Oper und Drama (1852), he made the same protest against Meyerbeer. When the article was republished under Wagner's name it drew forth numerous replies, among which may be mentioned: Joseph Engel, "Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music, a Defense" ("Richard Wagner, das Judentum in Musik, ein Abwehr"); E. M. Oettinger, "An Open Love-Letter to Richard Wagner" ("Offenes Billetdoux an Richard Wagner", Dresden, 1869); and A. Truhart, "Open Letter to Richard Wagner" ("Offener Brief an Richard Wagner" St. Petersburg, 1869).

Wagner's "Judaism in Music" states that (page references are to William Ashton Ellis' English translation of Richard Wagner's Prose Works, which follows the 1869 revision):

  • Jews are hateful (passim);
  • Judaism is rotten at the core; a religion of hatred (PW3 p90-1);
  • Jewish composers are comparable to worms feeding on the body of art (PW3 p99);
  • Jews are hostile to European civilisation (PW3 p84-5);
  • Jews rule the world through money (PW3 p81);
  • The cultured Jew is "the most heartless of all human beings" (PW3 p87);
  • The Jews should, like the "Wandering Jew" Ahasuerus, "go under" in order to achieve "redemption" by absorption into national culture (PW3 p100)

During this time nationalism was a trend that was sweeping the classical music world. In a number of nations, Germany among them, some composers were trying to get down to their musical roots in folk-music, and cast out all foreign music. At the time, many Germans considered Jews to be a "foreign" influence. In this regard Wagner's views were not unique. Notwithstanding his public utterances against Jewish influence in music, Wagner had some Jewish friends; his favorite choirmaster in later life was Herman Levi.

The combination of anti-Semitism in Wagner's writings and German themes in his music appealed to Adolf Hitler, who glorified Wagner's music, stating that "there is only one legitimate predecessor to national socialism: Wagner". Wagner's music was frequently played during Nazi rallies. Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, was a close friend of Adolf Hitler's and ran the Bayreuth Festival of Wagner's music from the death of her husband, Siegfried, in 1930 until the end of World War II, when she was ousted.

Because of these factors, performances of Wagner's works in the modern state of Israel did not occur during the twentieth century, as per communal consensus. However, in recent years many Israelis have argued that it may be possible to appreciate his musical talents, without implying acceptance of his beliefs. As such there was a public performance in 2001 of a work by Wagner, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, by conductor Daniel Barenboim, to which the audience was largely receptive.

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