Several years ago, I saw a performance of Act III of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” that was memorable in many ways. Yet the only conversations I heard afterward, as the audience filed out of the Tanglewood music shed near Lenox, Mass., were about Hans Sachs’s final address: a hymn to the purity of German art warning against the dangers of “a false, foreign rule” that, using “evil tricks,” could cause the state to “one day decay.” The speech can disconcert a modern audience, and, sure enough, the people around me who had been unfamiliar with the work were discussing but one thing: Was Wagner referring to the Jews?

Though he died in 1883, Wagner will forever suffer the taint of association with Hitler and Goebbels, who championed the composer as the supreme German prophet. As odious an anti-Semite as Wagner was, however, his experiments in the realms of sonority and harmony were hugely influential. And his epic music dramas — brilliant fusions of myth, poetry, music and philosophy — remain unequaled in Western art. The distinguished Wagner commentator M. Owen Lee has summed up the Wagner paradox this way: “How is it that a man some regard as morally corrupt could produce works of art that are, to many people of good conscience, indispensable?”

As Martin Geck, a prominent Wagner scholar and professor at Germany’s Technical University of Dortmund, notes in his new study of the composer’s music, Wagner was particularly abusive toward Jewish musicians: Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, the conductor Hermann Levi and the pianist Josef Rubinstein (whose apparent inability to properly interpret Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata , Wagner believed, was a direct result of his religion). Some of Wagner’s nastiest assertions — though not necessarily uncharacteristic of 19th-century Europe, with its pervasive anti-Semitism — appeared in his 1850 essay “Jews in Music.” It is because of such public statements, as well as numerous private ones, that a menacing undercurrent seems to run through “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin,” for example, their texts proclaiming the superiority of German history, virtues and culture.

A larger question remains: Is Wagner’s music anti-Semitic? Do the operas themselves caricaturize or demean Jewish people? Is the character Alberich — who steals the Rheingold at the outset of the Ring cycle, thus setting in motion the decline and fall of an entire mythical universe — a Jewish stereotype, as many critics have asserted?

Geck does not think so, explaining that this depiction of “Alberich as a downtrodden Jew . . . gained currency only after [Wagner’s] death.” Indeed, when Alberich curses love in Act I of “Das Rheingold,” “we hear the renunciation motif, which in the subsequent course of the Ring is repeatedly heard at moments of what we might call ‘noble’ renunciation, notably, when Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde: this is music that indiscriminately humanizes every form of anguish.” Geck is excellent at this sort of analysis; less appealing is the repetitive, academic tone in a book that assumes, despite the author’s attempt to write for the general reader, a familiarity with Wagner’s life, not to mention the history, politics and philosophical movements of 19th-century Germany.

‘Richard Wagner: A Life in Music’ by Martin Geck. (Univ. Of Chicago)

The fact remains: Nothing in the composer’s writings suggests that any of his characters were anti-Semitic creations. Not even Beckmesser in “Meistersinger,” whose grossly disfigured third-act song is yet another moment of comedy in the sunniest of Wagner’s operas. “It is . . . conceivable,” Geck writes, “that when Wagner wrote Beckmesser’s garbled serenade, he could hear in his mind’s ear the sort of synagogue chanting that he roundly dismisses in his essay ‘Jews in Music.’ . . . And yet it would have made no sense in the context of the plot of the opera to have made Beckmesser — highly regarded in Nuremberg through his office as town clerk — a Jew.” In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, the conductor Daniel Barenboim concurred that Beckmesser’s position of state scribe was simply unavailable to Jews in early 16th-century Germany; his song may be a parody, but it is “not a racist attack.”

Still, Geck admits to feeling “both fascination and horror in equal measure” when confronted with Wagner’s texts. He urges us, therefore, to “refuse to engage with the ethical conflicts that these works explore but enjoy the aesthetic solution that is suggested by the music.” After all, Geck writes, “in Wagner’s eyes, there could be no such thing as political music.” Wagner’s music is inviolable: the lush sonorities, the long, anguished lines, the ecstatic world of sound and sensation opened up by “Tristan und Isolde” and “Parsifal” and the Ring cycle. All this has nothing to do with politics.

But can we simply close our eyes and let the sonorities and harmonies wash over us? Not if we know that the composer himself viewed his entire creative output as a gesamtkunstwerk, or universal art work — text, music, stage action, life and art inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is no solution to the Wagner paradox. His troubling masterpieces are full of contradiction, containing moments of profound ugliness, perhaps, but so much beauty, too.

Bose is the managing editor and fiction editor of the American Scholar.


A Life in Music

By Martin Geck

Translated from German by Stewart Spencer

Univ. of Chicago. 444 pp. $35