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A Knight at the Opera: Heine, Wagner, Herzl, Peretz and the Legacy of Der Tannhäuser

Leah Garrett
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  • Book Info
    A Knight at the Opera
    Book Description:

    A Knight at the Opera examines the remarkable and unknown role that the medieval legend (and Wagner opera) Tannhäuser played in Jewish cultural life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book analyzes how three of the greatest Jewish thinkers of that era, Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, and I. L. Peretz, used this central myth of Germany to strengthen Jewish culture and to attack anti-Semitism. In the original medieval myth, a Christian knight lives in sin with the seductive pagan goddess Venus in the Venusberg. He escapes her clutches and makes his way to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope. The Pope does not pardon Tannhäuser and he returns to the Venusberg. During the course of A Knight at the Opera, readers will see how Tannhäuser evolves from a medieval knight, to Heine’s German scoundrel in early modern Europe, to Wagner’s idealized German male, and finally to Peretz’s pious Jewish scholar in the Land of Israel. Venus herself also undergoes major changes from a pagan goddess, to a lusty housewife, to an overbearing Jewish mother. The book also discusses how the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was so inspired by Wagner’s opera that he wrote The Jewish State while attending performances of it, and he even had the Second Zionist Congress open to the music of Tannhäuser’s overture. A Knight at the Opera uses Tannhäuser as a way to examine the changing relationship between Jews and the broader world during the advent of the modern era, and to question if any art, even that of a prominent anti-Semite, should be considered taboo.

    eISBN: 978-1-61249-153-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Music, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    In July 2001, the well-known Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim, leading the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra, asked his audience at the Israeli Music Festival in Jerusalem if they would like to hear some of Richard Wagner’s music during the encore. Wagner had been unofficially banned in Palestine since 1938 in response to Kristallnacht. His music was condemned for two reasons: first, because he was one of the most outspoken and prominent anti-Semites of the nineteenth century, and second, because Hitler was obsessed with Wagner and many Israelis believed that Hitler played his music at the death camps.¹ At the 2001 performance, Barenboim...

  2. Chapter One The Original Tannhäuser Ballad
    (pp. 8-10)

    The Tannhäuser legend that influenced Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner (and therein Theodor Herzl and I. L. Peretz), is a 1515 version from Nuremberg.¹ There is much disagreement about whether the knight discussed in the ballad was a historical thirteenth-centuryMinnesängerwho is only known by the poems he created, a knight who partook in the crusades, or was a wholly invented figure.

    The 1515 version of the legend does not give any background information on Tannhäuser (called Danuser in some versions), perhaps assuming that since there were so many copies of the ballad circulating at the time the audience...

  3. Chapter Two Heinrich Heine
    (pp. 11-39)

    In the November 5, 1981 edition ofThe New York Review of Books, the American literary critic, Alfred Kazin, told the troubling story of how “Hitler, flushed with triumph when he occupied Paris, ordered that Heine’s grave in Montmartre be destroyed.” Heinrich Heine (1797 or 1798-1856), whose poem, “Der Tannhäuser” would in large part inspire Richard Wagner to create his opera, was a writer whose poetry was seen as so subversive to the ideals of Germanic culture that apparently Hitler made it his top priority upon invading Paris to have his troops smash to rubble his final resting spot.¹


  4. Chapter Three Richard Wagner
    (pp. 40-69)

    In April 1842, a decrepit horse and buggy was travelling through the Wartburg valley in Thüringia, Germany. Inside the carriage were Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and his first wife, Minna, returning from two-and-a-half years in Paris. The air was cold and damp and they shivered in their inadequate clothing.

    The couple was glad to be finally coming home. Wagner’s stay in Paris had been difficult to say the least. While in France, Wagner had been stifled in his attempts to put on his works, faced serious money problems, and constantly fought with his wife. He had, however, met some of the...

  5. Chapter Four Theodor Herzl
    (pp. 70-94)

    On the evening of May 11, 1895, the crowd was seated and nervously waiting for the curtain at the Académie de Musique, better known as the Paris Opera; it was an invited audience of political luminaries, journalists, and artists at the dress rehearsal for Richard Wagner’s opera,Tannhäuser.

    The audience was anxious, because whenTannhäuserhad first been performed in the City of Light in March 1861 it had been an infamous disaster discussed in the previous chapter. When Wagner heard of the failure of the third production he realized that the best thing to do was to pull the...

  6. Chapter Five I. L. Peretz
    (pp. 95-124)

    In October 1899, the first snow of winter was falling in the courtyard of the Citadel prison in Warsaw. The jail housed the usual motley crew of a Tsarist prison: thieves, murderers, army deserters, anarchists, socialists, revolutionaries, and poets. The political prisoners, who received comforts denied the others, were allowed fifteen-minute nightly turns around the frigid prison yard.¹ Two of the men walked together and talked with chattering teeth as they were pummeled by the snow: the Yiddish storyteller Isaac Leyb Peretz (1852-1915) and his friend and fellow writer Mordechai Spektor (1858-1925).² Though Peretz was a nervous type who normally...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 125-135)

    The medieval knight Tannhäuser has been on a remarkable journey in the course of this book, during which he has come into contact with, and been transformed by, three of the most important figures in the construction of Jewish culture in modern Europe. While he himself has changed, he has also been a tool for change that has been used to transform those with whom he comes into contact. Heine, Herzl, and Peretz all used the knight to further their cultural work, whether to challenge the prevalent rhetoric of German nationalism, to strengthen Jewish cohesiveness, or to offer a lesson...