I recently watched Stephen Fry's documentary about Wagner's music. It serves as a history of his opera and Fry's love affair with it grandeur and cathartic qualities. In it, Fry questions whether as someone of Jewish heritage, he should feel guilty for being so passionately in love with Wagner's music. Wagner himself was deeply antisemitic, as were most non-Jews of his day, and even wrote an essay "Judaism in Music" which attacks Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and represents Jews as being evil and alien to German culture and therefore incapable of producing music which represented the German spirit. Wagner's music also carries the taint of Nazism, as Hitler was a greatly influenced by his music and stage production.
This question of can the artist be separated from the work has troubled me for sometime. I've always thought Miles Davis's "It Never Entered My Mind" was one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. When the raspy, plaintive trumpet plays over the quietly melancholy piano, it just moves me. But then I am troubled by Davis's habit of beating Cicely Tyson and then writing songs about it. Should I, as a feminist, feel guilty for enjoying Davis's music? This problem is explored in the play "Mad at Miles" by Allison Ray, but as I've never read or seen the play, I've never come to any satisfactory conclusion.
I did come to some clarity on the situation when Fry interviewed an Auschwitz survivor who was saved from being exterminated by the Nazis because of her talent with the cello. As Fry asks her if he should feel guilty as a Jew for playing Wagner's music, she answers "I think that is is something that everyone has to work out for themselves. What does it do to you?" That question of what the music moves in you, is in itself an answer to the question of guilt. "It Never Entered My Mind" now brings up feelings of compassion for both Tyson and Miles himself. Surely both were tormented, her by him and him by his inner demons. His pain is clear in both the music he writes and the pain he inflicted on the woman he was supposed to love. I don't think there is anything to feel guilty about in that recognition. And ultimately, as Fry concludes, the music is bigger than the man.