Wagner Reclaimed: A Review of “The Ring of Truth” by Roger Scruton, Part 1

Roger Scruton is Britain’s (many would say the world’s) leading conservative philosopher and intellectual. His prolific output includes books on philosophy, politics, art, architecture, music and aesthetics. Scruton, who was knighted in 2016, writes with unusual clarity and fluency and is a model for how to combine analytical rigor with lucidity and accessibility. His critiques of leftist thought are, however, ultimately hamstrung by his unwillingness to stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought. Scruton has assiduously avoided straying into the forbidden fields of race realism or an honest discussion of the Jewish Question.

Despite his timid and ultimately ineffectual brand of intellectual conservatism, Scruton has much to offer readers on the Alt-Right. He has a profound knowledge of European high culture and particularly the Western musical tradition. His analyses of the German composer Richard Wagner are always insightful, and his 2016 book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung is no exception. It offers readers a rich account of Wagner’s masterpiece though an examination of its drama, music, symbolism and philosophy. Scruton’s goal is to interpret one of the supreme works of the European imagination to “show its relevance to the world in which we live.”

Wagner’s Ring cycle is enormous in every way. Performed over four evenings, and made up of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, it lasts some fifteen hours. Its composition began in 1848, a year when Europe was torn by nationalist and democratic revolutions, but not finished until 26 years later. The final product is widely considered the finest piece of musical theatre ever written, and even critics of Wagner grudgingly acknowledge the magnitude and importance  of his achievement, agreeing with Tchaikovsky’s assessment that: “Whatever one might think of Wagner’s titanic work, no one can deny the monumental nature of the task he set himself, and which he has fulfilled; nor the heroic inner strength needed to complete the task. It was truly one of the greatest artistic endeavors which the human mind has ever conceived.”[1] The German critic Wilhelm Mohr, who had originally dismissed Bayreuth as “cloud-cuckoo land,” left the 1876 premiere of The Ring comparing Wagner to the “two masters of all masters, Shakespeare and Beethoven.”[2]

The Ring began life as a single drama, devoted to the story of Siegfried’s death as Wagner had extracted and embellished it from his reading of the old German Nibelungenlied and the Icelandic Völsunga saga. The original is a far cry from the masterpiece that Wagner eventually composed from its useable fragments. He looked for a subject that would provide a suitably large-scale vehicle for his vision of contemporary German society and destiny. The result, notes Scruton, while “far from authentic as an account of Viking theology,” is nevertheless “a remarkable attempt to give coherence and meaning to the pagan narratives.”[3] The final product, which Wagner intended to “involve all life” encompasses an emotional spectrum wider than any other opera, from superhuman rage and self-annihilating heroism to the meanest of base emotions.

The opera revolves around a ring, fashioned in gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens by the dwarf Alberich — a ring that grants its possessor the power to rule the world. Alberich is tricked out of the ring by the god Wotan who uses to it pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building Valhalla. It is subsequently hoarded by Fafner, then won by Wotan’s grandson Siegfried who slays Fafner (who has magically transformed himself into a dragon). Siegfried and his betrothed Brunnhilde later foil Alberich’s son Hagen’s plan to acquire the ring, which is finally returned to the Rhinemaidens when Siegfried is killed by Hagen as the old world is destroyed by fire and water. Certain themes recur throughout the tetralogy: the abuse of power, the immutability of fate, the need for atonement and redemption, and the status of love as the “final true and knowing redeemer.”

Many of these themes will be familiar to readers of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien who unconvincingly denied he had been influenced by Wagner. As the composer intermittently worked on the dramatic poem and music over a quarter of a century, it was reconceived as a quasi-religious festival, with the Oresteia of Aeschylus in mind. It was to unfold “a world-embracing myth, through intimate human dramas.”[4]  Its characters were conceived both as believable people and symbols of universal powers. By following their fate the audience would be led by natural sympathy towards a vision of redemption in which human beings stand higher than the gods.

Sir Roger Scruton

The essence of Wagnerian opera lies in the music which deepens and subtilizes the overt meaning of the storyline. Profound, far-reaching psychic changes are accomplished through the music with little or no help from the words, and The Ring includes some of the most powerful scenes in all opera: the opening which conjures up the Rhine in a single, extended and elaborated chord; the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla at the end of Rheingold; the Ride of Valkyries and Magic Fire Music in the third act of Die Walküre; or Siegfried’s funeral march from Götterdämmerung.

The Ring is notable for its 150 or so leitmotifs, musical phrases associated with an idea or character. Not simply accompanying the libretto, they reveal the subconscious feelings of the characters or anticipate what will happen later in the story. There is no one-for-one correspondence between a leitmotif and the concept, idea or emotion that is first attached to it. The leitmotif has a potential to develop — but to develop musically. Scruton observes how “by implanting the principal of musical development in the heart of the drama Wagner is able to lift the action out of the events portrayed on the stage, and to endow it with a universal, cosmic and religious significance.”[5]

The construction of Wagner as anti-Semitic moral defective

As I have previously discussed at length, a full appreciation of Wagner’s genius and remarkable artistic and intellectual legacy has, in recent decades, been occluded by the preoccupation of our Jewish-dominated intellectual establishment with Wagner’s “anti-Semitism” and his putative status as the intellectual and spiritual forerunner to Adolf Hitler. Even Scruton, while mostly dismissive of the aura of moral turpitude that now disfigures the composer’s memory, feels compelled to mildly validate the construction of Wagner as “anti-Semitic” moral defective. The task the author sets himself in The Ring of Truth — of conveying the intellectual and artistic meaning of Wagner’s great masterpiece — is made all the more difficult, he notes, by the fact that

enormous obstacles stand in the way of this endeavour, by no means the least of them being Richard Wagner, whose vast ambitions and titanic character have made him into a regular target of denigration in our anti-heroic age. From the point of view of his posthumous reputation, Wagner’s life was riddled with mistakes. He made no secret of his anti-Semitism, and broadcast it to the world in a notorious pamphlet. He provided the story and the characters that would, in their Nazi caricature, become the icons of German racism. …

Nor did his mistakes end with his death. Not only did he become Hitler’s favourite composer, but the Nazi caricature of the Jew was read back into Wagner’s villains. Alberich, Mime and Klingsor were regularly presented on the German stage as though imagined by Dr Goebbels, and his theatre in Bayreuth was used to turn Wagner into the founder and high priest of a new and sinister religion.[6]

The denigration of Wagner in the post-World War II era, spearheaded by Jewish musicologists and intellectuals (e.g., T.W. Adorno), established the pattern of treating his works as expressions of a deeply pathological personality, where the musicological task at hand was to “analyse them as exhibits in a medical case study, and to create the impression that we can best understand them not for what they say but for what they reveal about their creator.”[7] Wagner’s autobiography is regularly trawled for evidence of psychopathology and “for the proof — however fleeting and arcane — that in this or that respect he was just as ordinary as the rest of us, even though the mind revealed in the book is one of the most extraordinary and comprehensive that has ever existed.”[8]

This approach can be traced back to the late-nineteenth century when Nietzsche tried to break the spell Wagner had cast on him in The Case of Wagner (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1895). In these books the philosopher rejected Wagner’s moral vision which, he claimed, translated directly into aesthetic faults in music that corrupted listeners by encouraging surrender to a polluted ideal. Nietzsche insisted that Wagner’s music is disingenuous, only pretending to the emotion it proclaims. The noble music only serves to disguise the fact that the “heroic” characters seeking redemption in his operas are just analogues of the morally sick refuse of nineteenth century society. Nietzsche also repeatedly attacked Wagner for his personal “anti-Semitism.”

Wagner was surprised, but not displeased, by the backlash that resulted from the publication of his Judaism in Music. In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt he noted that “I seem to have struck home with terrible force, which suits my purpose admirably, since that is precisely the sort of shock I wanted to give them.”[9] In panicked response to Wagner’s cogent and incisive critique of Jewish influence on German art and culture, Jewish critics soon settled on the response of ascribing psychiatric disorders to the composer, and this has been the stock approach ever since. As early as 1872 the Jewish psychiatrist Theodor Puschmann, offered a psychological assessment of Wagner which was widely reported in the German press. He claimed Wagner was suffering from “chronic megalomania, paranoia … and moral derangement.”[10] Cesare Lombroso, the famous nineteenth-century Jewish Italian criminologist branded Wagner “a sexual psychopath.”[11]

Later, with the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis and expressionism in art and music, the habit arose of treating works of art as journeys into the inner life of their creator. Scruton observes:

From the first days of psychoanalysis, Wagner’s works were singled out as both confirming and demanding a psychoanalytic reading. Their super-saturated longing, their cry for redemption through sexual love, their exaltation of Women as the vehicle of purity and sacrifice — all these features have naturally suggested, to the psychoanalytic mind, incestuous childhood fantasies, involving a fixation on the mother as wife. Such is the interpretation maintained by [the Jewish psychoanalysts] Max Graf and Otto Rank, both writing in 1911. Thereafter the habit of reading the works in terms of the life became firmly established in the literature.[12]         

It was only, however, after World War II that the notion that Wagner’s music dramas contained implicit fascism and “anti-Semitism” gained traction. Frankfurt School intellectual Theodor Adorno led the assault, condemning Wagner as a symbol of all that was hateful in the culture of nineteenth-century Germany. Scruton notes how Adorno’s criticisms of Wagner were deeply influenced by “the Holocaust and all that it meant concerning the roots of German nationalism.”[13]

Theodor Adorno

Adorno attacked Wagner as a purveyor of “phantasmagoria” whose aim and effect is to falsify reality, and likened Wagner’s system of leitmotifs to advertising jingles in the way they imprinted themselves on the memory. Adorno detected a sinister agenda behind Wagner’s stated purpose regarding The Ring that: “I shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the emotional — not the critical — understanding of the spectators.” Adorno here echoed Nietzsche in dismissing the Wagnerian magic as a kind of manipulation. Wagner’s musical innovations (ironically later imitated by Hollywood) intoxicated audiences, leaving them dangerously susceptible to political indoctrination. In every crowd applauding a Wagnerian work, Adorno insisted, “lurked the virulent old evil” of “demagogy.” Elizabeth Whitcombe points out how

Adorno believed that Wagner’s work is “proselytizing” and “collective-narcissistic.” Adorno’s complaint about the “collective-narcissistic” quality of Wagner’s music is really a complaint that Wagner’s music appeals to deep emotions of group cohesion. Like the Germanic myths that his music was often based on, Wagner’s music evokes the deepest passions of ethnic collectivism and ethnic pride. In Adorno’s view, such emotions are nothing more than collective narcissistic, at least partly because a strong sense of German ethnic pride tends to view Jews as outsiders — as the “other.” It is also not surprising that Adorno, as a self-consciously Jewish intellectual, would find such music abhorrent.[14]

Adorno set the template for a generation of Jewish intellectuals and musicologists, including Robert Gutman who, in his egregious 1968 book Richard Wagner: The Man, The Mind and His Music, portrayed his subject as a racist, psychopathic, proto-Nazi monster. Gutman’s scholarship was questioned at the time, but this did not prevent his widely reviewed and promoted book from becoming a best-seller. One source notes how “An entire generation of students has been encouraged to accept Gutman’s caricature of Richard Wagner. Even intelligent people, who have never read Wagner’s writings or tried to penetrate them and failed … have read Gutman’s book and accepted his opinions as facts.”[15] The long-time Jewish music critic for the New York Times, Harold Schonberg, was one of them, describing Wagner in his Lives of the Great Composers as “amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with the gospels of the superman … and the superiority of the German race…; he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character.”[16]  

Gutman’s characterization was obsessively reinforced by Marc A. Wiener in his 1995 polemic Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Putting Wagner on the psychoanalyst’s couch, Wiener insisted that “Wagner’s vehement hatred of Jews was based on a model or projection involving a deep-seated fear of precisely those features of the Self (diminutive stature, nervous demeanor and avarice, as well as lascivious nature) that are projected upon and then recognized and stigmatized in the hated Other.”[17] Modern audiences have been encouraged by the likes of Gutman and Wiener to read into Wagner’s operas latent signs of “anti-Semitism,” where, for instance, the gold-loving Nibelung lord Alberich in Siegfried is a symbol of Jewish materialism.


For Jewish music writer Larry Solomon, Alberich is clearly “the greedy merchant Jew, who becomes the power-crazed goblin-demon lusting after Aryan maidens, attempting to contaminate their blood, and who sacrifices his lust in order to acquire the gold.” Declaring that virulent racism “permeates all aspects of his music dramas through metaphorical suggestion,” Solomon insists that Wagner is always “just a step away from actually calling his evil characters ‘Jews,’ even though it was obvious to his contemporaries.” According to this analysis, Wagner’s operas are unquestionably “tools of racist, proto-Nazi hate propaganda, written for the purpose of redeeming the German race from Jewish contamination, and for expelling the Jews from Germany.” Moreover, Wagner’s malign influence continues insofar as “the subtext of racist metaphors has not diminished in Wagner’s operas, so they will continue to exert a subliminal influence.”[18]

Scruton notes how such interpretations have strongly influenced the discussion of Wagner’s works, where “revenge on Wagner” has for some time been “an almost obligatory part of the intellectual’s apprenticeship.”[19] Books like Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s Wagner Androgyne and Joachim Kohler’s Richard Wagner: Last of the Titans continue a now venerable tradition in regarding “anti-Semitism as the meaning and Oedipal confusion as the cause of just about everything the master composed.” Even the respected British musicologist Barry Millington frequently writes “as though anti-Semitism is somewhere near the top of Wagner’s musical and intellectual agenda.”[20]

The invidious construction of Wagner as “anti-Semitic” moral pariah, and the psychoanalytical interpretation of his works to confirm this tendentious preconception, continues despite the discredited status of Freudian psychoanalysis, and despite Wagner scholars Michael Tanner and Brian Magee having offered powerful rebuttals of this approach. Wagner explicitly stated in Judaism in Music that what makes Jews such unsatisfactory characters in real life also makes them unsuitable for representation in art, including dramatic art.

In ordinary life the Jew, who as we know possesses a God of his own, strikes us first by his outward appearance which, whatever European nationality we belong to, has something unpleasantly foreign to that nationality. We instinctively feel we have nothing in common with a man who looks like that. … Ignoring the moral aspect of this unpleasant freak of nature, and considering only the aesthetic, we will merely point out that to us this exterior could never be acceptable as a subject for a painting; if a portrait painter has to portray a Jew, he usually takes his model from his imagination, and wisely transforms or else completely omits everything that in real life characterizes the Jew’s appearance. One never sees a Jew on the stage: the exceptions are so rare that they serve to confirm this rule. We can conceive of no character, historical or modern, hero or lover, being played by a Jew, without instinctively feeling the absurdity of such an idea. This is very important: a race whose general appearance we cannot consider suitable for aesthetic purposes is by the same token incapable of any artistic presentation of its nature.[21]         

In this passage (first published in 1850 and then again unchanged in 1869), Wagner totally rejects the idea of Jews playing characters and characters playing Jews on stage, stating categorically that the Jewish race is “incapable of any artistic presentation of his nature,” and leading in to this statement with the words: “This is very important.” Magee observes that here “Wagner positively and actively repudiates the idea of trying to present Jews on the stage; and if we seek an explanation of why he never did so, here we have it.”[22] Wagner would not, contrary to the wishes of many of his friends (and his own professional and pecuniary interests) have gone out of his way to publish this again in 1869, if, as widely alleged, he had just done the opposite and made Beckmesser a Jewish character in his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which had premiered the previous year.

Richard Wagner

Wagner produced thousands of pages of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, his operas, and his opinions on Jews (and innumerable other topics); and yet the purported Jewish characterizations identified by Gutman, Wiener and others are never mentioned; nor are there any references to them in Cosima Wagner’s copious diaries. It can hardly be argued that Wagner was hiding his true feelings for he took great pride in speaking out vociferously on the Jews, and did not care whom he offended — famously labelling them “the plastic demon of decomposition.” Moreover, none of Wagner’s supposedly obvious characterizations were ever used in the propaganda of the Third Reich. Accordingly, to identify such characters as Beckmesser, Alberich, Mime, Klingsor and Kundry as Jewish caricatures is entirely speculative.

Even Nietzsche, who attacked Wagner on numerous occasions for his personal hostility to Jews, never alleged there was “anti-Semitism” in the operas. Furthermore, the audiences that flocked to Wagner’s works all over the world did not perceive their supposedly obvious anti-Jewish subtexts for, as Magee points out, “in the huge literature we have on the subject, unpublished as well as published, the question arises rarely until the middle of the twentieth century.”[23] Magee observes that many critics (especially the Jewish ones) are “simply swept forward by the momentum of their own anger” into alleging the omnipresence of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas. He notes that “to a number of them it comes easily anyway, for they are adept at finding anti-Semitism in places where no one had detected it before. … At the root of it all is an unforgiving rage at the mega-outrage of anti-Semitism — and at the root of that in the modern world is the Holocaust.”[24]

Wagner was the first artistic giant who was an avowed German (and later White) nationalist. After reading Gobineau’s bestselling An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, he declared that “we should have no History of Man at all, had there been no movements, creations, and achievements of the White man.”[25]  As a man genuinely committed to prioritizing the interests of his own people, it was inevitable Wagner would confront the Jewish Question. In 1878 he confessed that “it is distressing for me always to come back to theme of the Jews, but one cannot escape it as one looks to the future.”[26] For the hyperbolic Larry Solomon, no other composer had a greater impact on history than Richard Wagner, and “his devastating political legacy is second only to Hitler.”[27] Despite the paucity of evidence for Wagner having exercised the high level of intellectual influence on Hitler that is often alleged, for the Jewish music critic David Goldman, Wagner is eminently worthy of execration on the basis that he “mixed the compost heap in which the flowers of the 20th-century’s greatest evil took root.” For Goldman, “The Jewish people have had no enemy more dedicated and more dangerous, precisely because of his enormous talent.”[28]

The Jewish obsession with Wagner shows no signs of abating almost two decades into the twenty-first century. A new play by the Jewish playwright Victor Gordon entitled You Will Not Play Wagner revolves around the fact that “since the Holocaust, performing works by the composer Richard Wagner has been taboo in Israel.” This play, soon to be premiered in Sydney, is set in contemporary Tel Aviv, where a young Israeli conductor “causes a storm” by performing Wagner, “whose anti-Semitism and the use of his music by the Nazis are well known,” in the finals of an international competition for conductors. His decision brings him “into conflict with Esther, Holocaust survivor and competition patron who has her own tragic connection with Wagner’s music.”

Promotional banner for You Will Not Play Wagner

While keen to move beyond this Jewish construction of Wagner as proto-Nazi embodiment of evil, Scruton does single out the famous forging scene from Siegfried as one that is “uncomfortably near the bone for those sensitive to the ‘blond beast’ interpretation of Wagner.”[29] Here the fearless Siegfried files, smelts, casts and hardens the steel of his father Siegmund’s shattered sword while the malevolent Mime, the hateful, sycophantic dwarf who has raised Siegfried (and is ultimately killed by him), exults in the background over his prospective future as lord of the Ring. For Solomon, Mime is here depicted by Wagner “as a stinking ghetto Jew,” while “Siegfried represents the conscience-free, fearless Teuton, he feels no remorse. … He is glorified as the warrior hero of the Ring, the archetype proto-Nazi.”[30] Scruton calls the scene “a musical and dramatic triumph” and notes that whether Wagner used stereotypically Jewish elements in his characterization of Mime is unknowable and ultimately irrelevant because the composer’s artistry transcends the elements of which it is made.

In offering politically incorrect assessments like these, and for being insufficiently deferential to the orthodox conception of Wagner as proto-Nazi anti-Semitic monster, Scruton incurred the disapproval of one reviewer of The Ring of Truth who protested that:

Sir Roger is not always so attuned to historical and philosophical context. Take his discussion of anti-Semitism, which looms large in the popular understanding of Wagner. Scholars enjoy mining the operas for evidence of how anti-Jewish Wagner “really” was (Alberich, the money-grabbing dwarf, is a particularly controversial character). But in Sir Roger’s view, these critics’ single-minded focus on Wagner’s anti-Semitism means that they fail to understand the many other ideas explored in the operas. While this has some truth, in his own analysis he overcompensates, choosing to ignore the anti-Semitism theme almost entirely. It is a bizarre choice, which leaves the discussion incomplete.

The Jewish dominated cultural-Marxist establishment’s success in pathologizing Wagner is reflected in how Wagner and his works are discussed in university courses, in popular culture and in the media. It is also reflected in productions of the operas. The result, according to Scruton: “The antagonism has made it almost impossible now to experience these works as their creator intended, since they are regularly produced in such a way as to satirize or deny their inner meaning.” No work of Wagner’s has suffered more from this type of creative censorship that The Ring of the Nibelung, which tells the story of civilization from beginning to end.

Go to Part 2.

[1] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 195.

[2] Matthew Boyden, The Rough Guide to Opera (London: Penguin, 2002), 269.

[3] Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 28.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 352.

[10] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany, Ibid.

[11] Christopher Nicholson, Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2007), 131.

[12] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 2.

[13] Ibid., 300.

[14] Elisabeth Whitcombe, “Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music,” The Occidental Observer, August 28, 2009.

[15] Monsalvat website, “Parsifal and Race: Wagner’s Last Card,” Undated. http://www.monsalvat.no/racism.htm

[16][16] Harold Schonberg, Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 268.

[17] Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 6.

[18] Larry Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, (Online article: 2002) http://solomonsmusic.net/WagHit.htm

[19] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 3.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Richard Wagner, “Judaism in Music,” trans. By Bryan Magee, In: Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 375.

[22] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, Ibid., 375-76.

[23] Ibid., 374.

[24] Ibid., 373; 380.

[25] Richard Wagner, “Hero-dom and Christianity,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 275-84.

[26] Richard Wagner, “Religion and Art,” trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 211-52.

[27] Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, Ibid.

[28] David P. Goldman, “Muted: Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?” Tablet, August 17, 2011.

[29] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 102.

[30] Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, Ibid.

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