The following is excerpted from "Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music" by Robert W. Gutman. In 1881 the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, had placed his court orchestra, chorus and conductor, Hermann Levi, at the disposal of Richard Wagner to perform the premiere of Wagner's opera, Parsifal. Wagner was forced by the liberal-minded King to accept the Jewish conductor despite Wagner's best efforts to rid himself of Levi.
Since King Ludwig had granted Wagner the use of the Munich orchestra and chorus, it was understood that the royal Kapellmeister, Hermann Levi, would conduct Parsifal. Through devotion to Wagner's works and extraordinary performances of them, this man had forged a strong and sympathetic relationship with Cosima Wagner. Her letters to him are among her warmest. The two new friends had become confidants on artistic and also on highly personal matters, despite the embarrassing fact that the gentleman was Hermann Levi, son of the Rabbi of Giessen. She considered him "a most excellent person, with real delicacy of feeling." He moved in the artistic circles congenial to her, for he had been an intimate of Anselm Feuerbach's and was close to Lenbach and Wilhelm Busch. Only illness had prevented Levi's accepting Cosima's fervid invitations to visit during the last Italian sojourn. She even felt constrained to interpret to him Wagner's latest racist writings and thus soften their blows, especially "Know Thyself, a rabidly anti-Semitic supplement to "Religion and Art." During the early years of their friendship Levi's charm drew from her an uncharacteristic charity.
Wagner had the highest opinion of the young conductor’s abilities. Weingartner remarked upon the spiritual nature of his interpretations and a baton technique so perfect that gestures were reduced to a minimum. (Weingartner's musical approach owed much to his example.) But although Wagner declared his respect for a Jew who clung to the Biblical Levi and did not change to Lowe or Lewy (a rather nasty glance at Lilli Lehmann's maternal name), this was about the extent of his enthusiasm for installing Israel in the Bayreuth pit; the conductor's Jewishness was a bitter pill for him. He even flew at King Ludwig for commenting that confessional differences were unimportant, considering the essential brotherhood of men, anger, as will be remarked, being reinforced by sudden awareness that Ludwig had rejected the racial message of the Parsifal poem. That he shared the Hohenzollerns' revulsion from anti-Semitism was infuriating. The nation was seething with the agitations awakened in the seventies by financial failures and swindles for which the Jew provided a scapegoat. The reference in "Know Thyself" to the Jew as "the darling of liberal princes" was not only Wagner's sneer at the protests of the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich and his wife, Princess Victoria of England, against this rabble-rousing movement but also an unfriendly jab at Ludwig and Levi. Bismarck had in him much of that traditional sympathy of Prussian officialdom for Jewish emancipation; his doltish tolerance of a decade before, Wagner was sure, would yet bring the Reich down in ruins. In "Know Thyself" Wagner expressed outrage that the Reichstag's bestowal of full citizenship upon Jews permitted them to "consider themselves in every conceivable respect to be Germans -- much as Negroes in Mexico were authorized through a carte blanche to look upon themselves as whites."
Ludwig's broad-mindedness, unlike the worldly Bismarck's, Wagner blamed on naiveté; the King was told that, lacking experience of Jews in everyday situations, he naturally could idealize them. Wagner blustered, but Munich stood firm. Since no artistic reason could be advanced to justify Levi's removal [Levi's substantial work performance was very good, as Dennis Race would say], Ludwig resolved that without his royal Kapellmeister there would be no royal orchestra, no royal chorus, and hence no Parsifal. It is a tribute to the young man's character that, like Nietzsche, he felt this point important enough to defy Wagner's tyranny.
And the latter had pushed matters to the point of crisis. During the preparations for Parsifal in 1881, Levi had on occasion journeyed to Bayreuth, where he resided in the Wagner's villa, Wahnfried. So offensive did Wagner's conduct toward his guest eventually become that Levi, his veneration of genius notwithstanding, had felt compelled late in June to flee the house and wrote Wagner asking to be relieved of conducting Parsifal. Not only had there been Wagner's tasteless efforts to persuade the Rabbi's son to undergo baptism so as not to profane the temple scenes of the opera, but during the summer Wahnfried had been thrown into turmoil by an anonymous letter to Wagner accusing Levi of being Cosima's lover. Did Wagner for a moment look at both his wife, almost a quarter of a century his junior, and her special friend, the handsome, soulful Jew, two years younger, and, remembering her vagabond nocturnal habits at Villa Pellet wonder whether he had finally been cast as a Hans von Bulow?
His behavior was compulsive, beyond control. With many Jews -- Tausig, Rubenstein, Levi, Lilli Lehmann and her mother, and Neumann (who was just entering his life) -- he could never disentangle genuine affection for the individual from a general, consuming hate in which sadism played an ugly part, a sadism calculated and raw in the case of Levi, a cruel ritual Theodor Adorno compared to a cat's play with a mouse. Despite the sham Christian piety of Parsifal, Wagner remained a nonbeliever to his death. Yet he delighted in tormenting Levi with plans for his baptism and even enjoyed painting the insolent picture of their going to Communion together! (In later years it hurt Weingartner to observe the contempt with which the Wagner family treated Levi behind the mask of friendship; the cats kept the mouse frisking.)
It was essential to coax Levi back to Bayreuth, for reports of Wagner's baiting would not be well received in Munich, and the conductor's absence would tend to confirm the gossip about Cosima. And, since Wagner's hatred of Levi's people did not exclude an admiration for his artistry [Levi was as close to the perfect conductor as it is possible to find!--as they would say at Akin Gump], while Levi's appreciation of Wagner's genius outweighed his disgust at the man's ill-breeding, a rapprochement was effected, Cosima no doubt contributing her diplomatic best. Levi admitted that he had become a Wagnerite "through long detours and after many inner battles," his letters from Bayreuth to his father revealing a struggle to forgive the composer his faults and to believe him essentially free of "petty prejudice" ("kleinliches Risches") in respect to individuals. However, what was written to calm the worried Rabbi does not agree with Levi's later confidences to Weingartner, to whom he remarked of Wahnfried, "It is easy enough for you in that house, Aryan that you are."
Though behind the scenes Wagner was doing his utmost to rid himself of Levi, he finally on September 19 felt it politic to write Ludwig that after all, he would accept the head of the Munich orchestra without asking his religion, a letter often naively trotted forth to demonstrate Wagner’s essential tolerance! In answer, on October 11, Ludwig made his remark about the brotherhood of man and voiced his opinion that racism was loathsome ("nichts ist widerlicher"). This was more than Wagner could stand. He realized how utterly he had failed with Ludwig. No longer able to control his rage, in a letter dated November 22, 1881 [mind you, that's November 1881 and not "early in the year" as wrongly believed in court circles], he read to the King that famous lecture on the Jews as the congenital enemies of humanity and all that is noble in it ("dass ich die juedische Race fuer den geborenen Feind der reinen Menschheit und alles Edlen in ihr halte"). And this foulness he vented on the King, who early in his reign (1866) had visited the synagogue in Fuerth and pledged to follow his father's example in working toward Jewish emancipation. To Wagner's outburst Ludwig made no reply until over two months later, when he subtly referred to the faithful Jews with whom the composer surrounded himself. It was too late to discuss openly and reasonably a subject on which Wagner was completely deranged. (Nietzsche had described him to Seydlitz as "an old, unchanging man.) In such an atmosphere of hate and rancor the "Christian" drama Parsifal was completed and prepared.