'Jewishness in Music' by Richard Wagner (1850)


A selection from Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music or Judaism in Music) by Richard Wanger, 1850 (later revised and re-published it in 1869).


The immediate cause of this article seems to have been a falling out with his patron, whose support he earnestly solicited, the famous Jewish composer Meyerbeer. In a letter he wrote to Schumann in 1848, Wagner criticized Meyerbeer's work as a "striving after superficial popularity" and elsewhere described it as lacking in any real depth. Although the original edition, published anonymously, does not mention Meyerbeer by name, the revised version, published under the authors name and after Meyerbeer's death, does.




...we have 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 recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof. Even to-day we only purposely belie ourselves, in this regard, when we think necessary to hold immoral and taboo all open proclamation of our natural repugnance against the Jewish nature. Only in quite the latest times do we seem to have reached an insight, that it is more rational (vern├╝nftiger) to rid ourselves of that strenuous self-deception, so as quite soberly instead to view the object of our violent sympathy and bring ourselves to understand a repugnance still abiding with us in spite of all our Liberal bedazzlements.


The Jew speaks the language of the nation in whose midst he dwells from generation to generation, but he speaks it always as an alien. [...] ...the general circumstance that the Jew talks 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. A language, with its expression and its evolution, is not the work of scattered units, but of an historical community: only he who has unconsciously grown up within the bond of this community [volk], takes also any share in its creations. But the Jew has stood outside the pale of any such community, stood solitarily with his Jehova in a splintered, soilless stock, to which all self-sprung evolution must stay denied, just as even the peculiar (Hebra├»c) language of that stock has been preserved for him merely as a thing defunct. Now, to make poetry in a foreign tongue has hitherto been impossible, even to geniuses of highest rank. Our whole European art and civilisation, however, have remained to the Jew a foreign tongue; for, just as he has taken no part in the evolution of the one, so has he taken none in that of the other; but at most the homeless wight [Old English, creature, thing, being, person] has been a cold, nay more, a hostile looker-on. In this Speech, this Art, the Jew can only after-speak and after-patch—not truly make a poem of his words, an artwork of his doings.


The Jews could never take possession of this art, until that was to be exposed in it which they now demonstrably have brought to light— its inner incapacity for life. So long as the separate art of Music had a real organic life-need in it, down to the epochs of Mozart and Beethoven, there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer: it was impossible for an element entirely foreign to that living organism to take part in the formative stages of that life. Only when a body's inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgment in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then indeed that body's flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect-life: but who, in looking on that body's self would hold it still for living? The spirit, that is: the life, has fled from out that body, has sped to kindred other bodies; and this is all that makes out Life. In genuine Life alone can we, too, find again the ghost of Art, and not within its worm-befretted carcase.


The Jews have never produced a true poet. Heinrich Heine reached the point where he duped himself into a poet, and was rewarded by his versified lies being set to music by our own composers. He was the conscience of Judaism, just as Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern civilization [recall Marx's description, in his On the Jewish Question, of the mythic figure which the Jew cuts in the imaginative landscapes of Europe: "a personification of his priestly nature"].