Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


Multilayered Interpretation: Music and

German Culture

by William Rozycki

Marc Weiner brings a half dozen disciplines to bear in his research of German culture and considers himself fortunate to do so. “I was lucky,” says Weiner—a professor of Germanic studies, director of the Institute of German Studies, and Finkelstein Fellow in Germanic studies at Indiana University Bloomington—“to come into the field just when a paradigm shift in the eighties brought a new conception of what literary studies could be.” Weiner’s most recent book, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, draws from the fields of musicology, Jewish studies, anthropology, folklore, and art history, as well as from German studies, to recover a layer of symbolism in Wagner’s operas. The work won the Eugene M. Kayden National University Press Book Award for the best book in the humanities published in 1995.

This image is from Wagner’s Ring cycle, a work infused, Weiner argues, with images of Jews and Germans. Here, Wagner’s hope for a Germany free of Jews perishes at the hands of Hagen, child of an interracial union. Weiner discusses these and related issues in his book Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, which won a Eugene M. Kayden National University Press Book Award for best book in the humanities.

Weiner’s interest in music first led him to German studies and has continued to propel much of his professional research. “As a 16-year-old high school student, fascinated with music,” he recalls, “I had to pick a language to study from among French, Spanish, Latin, Russian, and German. Because of the rich musical-cultural history of German-speaking Europe, German seemed the right choice.” The adolescent Weiner simultaneously developed an intellectual fascination with the ideas of certain writers: Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Ranier Maria Rilke, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, among others. When he entered college, he kept up both interests, majoring in German and minoring in music.

Two separate years spent at German universities, one in his junior year of college and the other as a graduate student, allowed Weiner to acquaint himself directly with German literary and musical culture and to hone his language skills“There are ways to access a culture and to interpret profound ideas without using the native language,” Weiner explains. “But knowing the original language allows a greater conjunction with how those ideas are constructed and expressed.” Weiner adds that direct access also makes one sensitive to the differing nuances of meaning invariably lost in translation, and that it advances the interpretation and teaching of a foreign literature and cultural material in a way not available to those who work through mediated forms such as translations.

In his doctoral research at Stanford University, Weiner found a topic that brought together his interests in music and German literature: he chose to study how one turn-of-the-century Austrian writer, Arthur Schnitzler, treated thecultural connotations of certain composers as symbols of societal values. Weiner applied ideas from Theodore W. Adorno’s sociology of music and music aesthetics to an analysis of turn-of-the-century Vienna in general, and of Schnitzler’s literature in particular.

The dissertation was published as Arthur Schnitzler and the Crisis of Musical Culture shortly after Weiner joined the faculty at Indiana University in 1985. Of his decision to come to IU, Weiner relates, “Other places at which I interviewed asked either for a presentation of some aspect of my research, or asked that I teach a sample class lecture. Only Indiana required both, making it clear that here, both research and teaching are valued. That impressed me.” Since coming to the Department of Germanic Studies, Weiner remains satisfied with his choice. “This is a department that tolerates a plurality of methodologies,” he says, “and the department has always allowed me to develop courses that dovetailed with my research.” Another aspect that pleases Weiner is the encouragement of team pedagogy at IU. “I have team-taught courses with the chairs of comparative literature and philosophy, and I’ve also benefited from the diverse student body, on both the undergraduate and graduate levels, that such interdisciplinary work has attracted.”

One course, a graduate colloquium on music in German literature, prompted ideas that led Weiner to a year of research at Harvard as a Mellon Fellow at the Center for Cultural and Literary Studies. From this came his second book, Undertones of Insurrection: Music, Politics, and the Social Sphere in the Modern German Narrative. Following an opening chapter on several debates concerning music in the twentieth century—all of which Weiner showed as harboring political and social issues (nationalism, support of monarchy versus democracy, a fear of the growing women’s movement)—the remainder of the book analyzed the means by which diverse authors developed subtle narrative devices based on an often-unconscious association between political and musical traditions. Hermann Hesse, for example, in Steppenwolf, openly and deliberately exploited the social connotations of jazz (which to many of his German readers meant social inferiority, foreignness, racial difference, sexual danger, etc.) by juxtaposing it to Mozart’s compositions, which evoked and reinforced specific European traditions. The protagonist of Steppenwolf, after suffering a nervous breakdown, abandons the rigidities of his heritage and ultimately comes to view the two types of music as equally legitimate. Later in the book, Weiner detailed how other writers, such as Schnitzler and Thomas Mann, used musical symbols covertly as ciphers for political or social ideas, leaving the reader to react in accordance with the values and political nuances assigned to that music. Weiner’s research in this area of artistic expression was a reaction to a more traditional way of looking at the relationship between music and literature that was particularly widespread in German departments.

“Traditionally,” Weiner explains, “German studies of music have been close readings of the scores and literary texts, generating comparative, new-critical readings and studies with titles such as ‘The Figure of the Musician in German Literature’.” Weiner’s pursuit of extra-musical meaning within a musical text has shaken up that comfortable tradition, presenting a broader analysis of musical references within German literature and offering encouragement to those scholars willing to venture into multidisciplinary studies of text and context.

Weiner’s most successful, and most controversial work, is his recent one on Wagner and anti-Semitism. “In the spring of 1990,” Weiner recalls, “I co-taught an undergraduate course with Paul Eisenberg on Nietzsche and Wagner. Some questions raised there got me started on the research.” Weiner’s efforts culminated in publication five years later of a book demonstrating that the mid-nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner used symbols deriving from an anti-Semitic tradition in his representation of villains and anti-heroic characters.

“There is no question,” Weiner says, “that outside the sphere of his musical production, Wagner was an anti-Semite. His published essays virulently attack Jews.” Except for the exploratory musings of a few modern critics, however, scholars believed anti-Semitism was absent from Wagner’s operas. Weiner examined the themes and symbols deployed by Wagner in his operas and compared them to the anti-Semitic themes and preconceptions then running through the popular culture. Weiner discovered a startling match.

In Wagner’s time, as Weiner shows, the voices of Jews were considered and represented as tonally different from those of Germans. Weiner cites references in the popular press and in anti-Semitic essays of the time that described the Jewish voice as nasal and high pitched. Wagner’s sonic representation of, for example, the Nibelungs in the Ring cycle, is an artistic use of that stereotype. Though Wagner never stated overtly that the anti-heroic Nibelungs of the Ring cycle, the brothers Alberich and Mime, were Jews, he assigned them musical material that lies much higher within their vocal registers than those of his Teutonic heroes. Wagner conceived their voices to have a bleating and screeching tone, as opposed to the deeper and more resonant sounds he associated with his heroic tenors and bass-baritones. And though Wagner never uses the term “Jew” in his stage notes, Weiner discovered that Wagner’s music for Alberich and Mime was remarkably similar in vocal treatment to that of “Two Jews, One Rich, One Poor: Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a work of the same period in which specific vocal characteristics were associated with figures overtly identified as Jews.

Moreover, Weiner maintains, Wagner capitalized on a stereotype linking Jews and stench that dated back at least to the Middle Ages. This theme was present in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher ardently admired by Wagner. Schopenhauer specifically used terms such as Judenpech [Jew’s pitch (odor)] and foetor judäicus [odor of the Jews]. Thus, when Wagner in his stage notes and libretto assigns the stink of pitch to Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he did so, Weiner maintains, in full awareness of the anti-Semitic resonance it would strike with the audiences of his time.

In addition to the chapters on the iconographies of voice and smell, Weiner also examines the motif of the German versus the Jewish gait in Wagner’s works for the stage (a theme found throughout representations of the Jew since the Middle Ages) and of the Jew’s purported sexual difference, also alluded to in Wagner’s artworks.

Weiner’s book garnered the prestigious Kayden Award in 1996 and will be published in German this year. Yet, some critics who savaged it maintain that Weiner, by suggesting an anti-Semitic interpretation of Wagner’s symbolism, is attempting to destroy a canon of operatic art. “The difficulty for some supporters of Wagnerian opera,” Weiner explains, “is their belief that if Wagner used this anti-Semitic symbolism, then, as one of my critics put it, ‘we could no longer in good conscience’ listen to the operas. I disagree completely.”

Weiner, who is Jewish, believes reconstructing that lost level of symbolism actually cements Wagner’s artistic standing. “In a sense,” Weiner offers in explanation, “Wagner’s use of anti-Semitic symbols both results from his specific historical and cultural situation and, ironically, is also part of what makes his works so complex. He could stir his contemporary audiences by skillful use of popular themes, and yet he generated art that is both fueled by his racism and also is larger than it. Often, his art even seems to contradict his racist intentions.” Wagner saw the Jew as a symbol of all the failings of the modern age and as a threat to his own national-cultural heritage. Yet, when Wagner represented characteristics he thought of as Jewish on stage, he created some of his most subtle, moving, and wonderfully ambiguous, multilayered artistic creations. “If we refuse to recognize the anti-Semitism encoded within these figures, we rob the works of their complexity and ambiguity,” Weiner explains.

Weiner’s critics accuse him of reducing the operas to mere anti-Semitic propaganda. “The popular themes of anti-Semitism in the operas are not the only interpretation that the works offer,” Weiner points out. “And even in Wagner’s time, they could be interpreted in a variety of other ways. To say that Wagner could not have possibly used anti-Semitic stereotypes in his work is to reduce Wagner’s art. Wagner’s works are unusual precisely because they speak to audiences in many ways, at many layers of comprehension.”

For Weiner’s next big project, a study how opera is portrayed in film, he has won a Humboldt Foundation grant to pursue research in Bonn. “My research and my teaching are essentially about cultural history, so it is interdisciplinary by nature,” he explains. Weiner is proud that his teaching also leads students into new areas of interest. His course on opera and German culture brought several students majoring in German language to a new appreciation of opera and turned them into steady opera-goers. “I’m also pleased that students from the School of Music are gaining an interest in German language and literature,” Weiner reports.

One such student, majoring in voice, took German language courses to improve his pronunciation of lyrics and his general knowledge of the language in which he hopes to pursue his career. The student found German studies so fascinating that he took more courses, pursued graduate work as a fellow in Weiner’s Institute of German Studies, and now, while remaining in the School of Music, is an associate instructor in an undergraduate German language course. Weiner is delighted to play a part in extending knowledge beyond the boundaries of a single discipline. “Inquiry is more productive,” he says, “when we broaden our scope.”

Return to Table of Contents