Wagner antisémite. Un problème historique, sémiologique et esthétique by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (review)
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Wagner antisémite. Un problème historique, sémiologique et esthétique. By Jean-Jacques Nattiez. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2015. [716p. ISBN 9782267029031 (paperback), €28.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

The subject of Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s new book—which simultaneously relies upon and significantly contributes to social history—is one that touches upon Wagner past, present, and future. In sixteen extensively-argued and exhaustively-researched chapters, ranging from the question of the principally-offending essay itself (Das Judenthum in der Musik) to the question of whether one ought to continue to perform and listen to Wagner, Wagner antisémite presents what is without doubt the most comprehensive disquisition in the French language on the darker side of the genius who composed Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Equally well known for his work on musical semiotics as on Wagner, Nattiez is especially well placed to enter this debate—which in recent years has been carried forth by John Deathridge, Thomas Grey, Barry Millington, Paul Lawrence Rose, Hans Rudolf Vaget, and Marc Weiner (to mention some of those writing in English who are perhaps most familiar to readers of this journal)—because he understands the history, the culture, the music, the language; because he has read almost everything (which, in the Land of Wagner, is a considerable undertaking; the bibliography here encompasses 31 pages); and because he is conspicuously concerned with the significance of words.

Of this deeply reflective book (Nattiez limits himself to seven hundred pages), a brief review can do very little justice. Let me attempt to shine light upon three issues, thoroughly dissected here, that other scholars have lately attempted to see with what one might wish to call contemporary objectivity. First, upon the crucial word “Untergang,” the final word of what is the most crucial document of Wagner’s antisemitism, Das Judenthum in der Music, that terrifying essay which appeared in September 1850 in two issues of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and again in 1869 in a separate, revised brochure of which we learn here (p. 506) the Nazis, in 1933, distributed 250,000 copies to German libraries and schools. In the best English translation, published in the British journal Wagner, Stewart Spencer rendered the title as “Judaism in Music” (Wagner 9, no. 1 [ January 1988]: 20–33). (Others have opted for “Jewishness,” “Jewry,” and even “Jewdom,” the latter etymologically neutral but, to an American ear, grotesque.) Nattiez and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Benoit-Otis (who provides new French translations of that essay and five others) render it as “La judéité dans la musique.” For “Untergang,” Spencer chose “destruction”: “But bear in mind that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse that weighs upon you,” writes Wagner, addressing the Jews: “the redemption of Ahasuerus: Destruction! ” (Spencer, 33). To the post-Holocaust listener, “destruction” sounds identical to what we have come to know as Hitler’s “final solution.” But the word “Untergang” is highly ambiguous and can refer to the destruction of a person, religion, nation, or way of thinking, i.e., of a cultural phenomenon (p. 215):

The least one can say is that among its critics, shortly after the appearance of the pamphlet, Johann Christian Lobe, in an article of 25 January 1851, gives to the word “Untergang” the meaning of the “Vernich tung” (anéntissement) [annihilation] of the Jews, just as does, today, Hartmut Zelinsky.

(My translation, p. 216)

Zelinsky was one of the many German scholars, with Udo Bermbach, Dieter Borchmeier, Jens Malte Fischer, and Saul Friedländer, who in recent decades have seriously concerned themselves with this issue.

After extensive reflection, Nattiez rather chooses “engloutissement.” The word, [End Page 730] which in English would be “swallowing up” or “devouring,” resonates with the “swallowing up” of the Dutchman’s vessel at the end of Der fliegende Holländer—the opera conceived at precisely the time, in the early 1840s, that Wagner came under the influence of the perniciously judeophobic Karl Gutzkow (1811–1878); and it suggests the autodéjudaïsation, or “self-de-Judification,” that Wagner exhorts the Jews to undergo (p. 214). By using “engloutissement,” then, Nattiez proffers something of...