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A Knight at the Opera: Heine, Herzl, Peretz, and the Legacy of Der Tannhäuser, by Leah Garrett. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2011. 147 pp. $39.95.
Garrett examines the influence of the German Tannhäuser legend on four artists: the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (“Der Tannhäuser,” 1836), the father of modern political Zionism Theodor Herzl (Der Judenstaat, 1897), the Yiddish writer Isaac Leyb Peretz (Mesires-nefesh, 1904), and the notoriously antisemitic German composer Richard Wagner (Tannhäuser, 1845). Each artist chapter begins with biographical information, before exploring his use of the legend. In her introduction, Garrett recounts Daniel Barenboim’s controversial but successful performance of excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the 2001 Israeli Music Festival in Jerusalem, leading the Berlin Staatskapelle. This apparent change in attitudes towards Wagner performances in Israel (after years of an unofficial ban) sets the stage for her focus on the use of the Tannhäuser legend by both German nationalists and Jewish culture builders. Garrett justifies her work because “this hidden story of Tannhäuser has never been told before in book form” (p. 1).
Chapter 1 concerns the 1515 version of the Tannhäuser ballad, the source for Heine’s rewrite. She traces the popularity of the legend with the German Romantics and observes that “whether or not the ballad has German origins,” it is most important that historians “sought to claim it as a foundation myth of medieval Germany” (p. 10). Garrett discusses Heine as a writer supposedly “subversive to the ideals of Germanic culture” (p. 11) in Chapter 2. His Tannhäuser poem was written as a challenge to Prussian repression following revolutionary struggles of the 1820s and 1830s (p. 12). She ties the poem to Heine’s personal crises while living in Paris, his obsessive relationship with the “uneducated and coarse” Mathilde (p. 22), and his dabbling in the sensualist cult of St. Simonianism. He transplants the knight into modern Germany and expresses a “complicated melding of love and rage” for his native land (p. 24). In Ch. 3 Garrett analyzes Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser and his fusing of the legend (based largely on Heine’s version) with the tale of a singing contest. She discusses Wagner’s antisemitism and scholarly views of its relationship to his music and critical reception. She labels Wagner’s opera a “love letter” to Germany and Heine’s poem a “bitter indictment” of it (p. 48).
Chapter 4 is devoted to Herzl and Der Judenstaat. As the Paris correspondent of the assimilationist Viennese paper the Neue Freie Presse, he attended nightly performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser while developing his ideas for the creation of a Jewish state. As with Heine and Peretz, Herzl’s attachment to his Jewish roots increased as antisemitism became more virulent in Europe (he covered the Dreyfus trial in Paris in 1894). He was particularly drawn to the spectacle of the opera, which “offered a tool to inspire the Jewish masses” to follow his Zionist plan (p. 82). On the controversy over whether Herzl’s and Adolf Hitler’s love of Wagner’s music links Zionism with Nazism, she states that both movements were “rooted in nineteenth-century European Romanticism,” but emerged from different branches: nationalism influenced the former and Social Darwinism/racial antisemitism the latter (pp. 85–86). Herzl opened the Second Zionist Congress to the music of the Tannhäuser overture, which Garrett characterizes as an insider’s joke: “using the work of a German nationalist to inspire Jewish nationalism” (p. 90). The final chapter traces the influence of Wagner’s Tannhäuser on Peretz’s Mesires-nefesh. Peretz transformed Tannhäuser into a “young Jewish man in premodern Israel” and Judaized the opera such that it became a “morality tale about how to live an ethical Jewish life” (p. 96). His Tannhäuser (Chananiah) does not sing an immoral song but uses his knowledge of the Torah to show off, the temptress Venus is transformed into Chananiah’s doting mother and a teacher who imparted “egotistical knowledge” (p. 109), and his Elizabeth (Miriam) sacrifices herself for Chananiah but outwits the heavenly hosts and returns to life. In this “modernist reworking” of the tale, Garrett asserts that real power lies “not in the heavens” but “on earth in the actions of brave humans” (p. 111). She convincingly argues that Peretz adapted Wagner’s Tannhäuser, not Heine’s, because of the difference in tone and the use of elements like Chananiah’s public humiliation and the budding staff, found in Wagner but not Heine (Peretz is also known to have attended a performance of Tannhäuser). Garrett asserts that Peretz probably did not consciously subvert Wagner’s version but that this subversion helped to build Jewish culture and fight antisemitism, while challenging the idea that “originality is the key factor in his construction of modern Jewish culture” (pp. 118–119).
In her conclusion Garrett argues that Tannhäuser has been repeatedly transformed and has also transformed those with whom he came into contact. Heine, Herzl, and Peretz turned to the story while developing a new artistic style after experiencing some sort of “individual or communal Jewish trauma” (p. 129). Although it seems strange that Wagner influenced Jewish culture builders, she argues that this history of a “two-way dialogue between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds” is important, and that by ignoring this cultural interaction Jewish thinkers are “unfairly denied their heritage” (pp. 132–133). She does not wish to assert that Wagner should be played in Israel, but hopes that Israeli orchestras will not fear appropriating or subverting Wagner “to reflect their own vision” (p. 134). I found Garrett’s book to be a fascinating and detailed study of a complex topic. As someone who studies the composer Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), another Jewish artist strongly influenced by Wagner, Garrett’s book has deepened my understanding of the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish culture in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. She raises important questions, such as whether any art should be considered taboo. I support her assertion that an artwork should not be studied in isolation from the artist and its historical context. Doing so only limits our understanding and knowledge.