Wagner Revisited
by Milton Brener
Westwood Books Publishing LLC

"I see Wagner as one who bounced back and forth between free will and fate..."

In-depth research and well-considered opinion contribute to this study by Brener, author of an earlier treatise, Richard Wagner and the Jews. Brener’s new perspective again puts the public face of the great composer’s infamous anti-Semitism under the microscope of assiduous investigation, while further expressing some more personal, balanced ideas regarding that aspect of Wagner’s personality. There can be no doubt that Wagner had an aversion to Semitic people; he penned a derogatory diatribe, "Judaism in Music," often cited as clear proof of his racist vitriol. But Brener then concentrates on some important Jewish people in Wagner’s circle. Two Jewish acquaintances, in particular, were part of Wagner’s life, even of his household: Joseph Rubenstein, a Russian Jew who was a devoted admirer and served as Wagner’s scribe, and Hermann Levi, a renowned Jewish conductor. These and other private relationships might seem to belie, or at least confute, the idea of Wagner’s public anti-Semitism.

Brener lays out the facts, well-researched, without forcing any conclusion on his readers. In examining Wagner’s personal philosophy, Brener cites long portions of the Ring operas to again allow the reader to decide whether the great man believed in free will or fate, as his musical works would seem to make both cases quite well. And as to women, Wagner was a free spirit whose first marriage to Minna suffered from his refusal to pay his debts or accede to the dictates of others, leaving her to pick up the pieces. His second wife, Cosima, was, Brener states, his “secretary, social secretary, diplomat, advisor, confidante, and hostess” and shared his views of German superiority while tolerating his Jewish acquaintances as it served their mutual purpose.

Brener, a retired attorney with a broad variety of interests, is clearly absorbed in the totality of Wagner’s life and operatic works. He states that he has attended the performance of The Ring of the Nibelung, which takes four consecutive nights, at least 40 times. His exploration of Wagner’s probable morality as gleaned from this magnificent work of art is notable, as is his treatise on the artist’s relationship with women, beginning with his sisters and mother. His writing reveals him at times as a scholar, building an intelligent, credible narrative establishing his study of diaries, letters, and other factual materials. At other times, he acts as a casual observer, as when he humorously speculates that Fricka, “the shrill demanding wife of Wotan” in the Ring, was modeled after Wagner’s long-suffering, hard-working, financially supportive wife Minna: “Wagner…obviously considered her a shrew, and if she was, she had good cause.”

Brener’s latest offering will enthrall those who share his interest in Wagner and his musical creations. But in another, equally salient vein, it is a complex portrait of an artistic genius who could publicly and viciously dismiss an entire race of people as worthy only of assimilation and death and yet care for and respect a few members of that race as individuals, drawn to them by their talents and their willingness to support him in developing his work. This essential philosophical paradox—the conflict between saying and doing—fascinates and disturbs and may attract a general readership.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Return to USR Home