The composer and the dictator
21 Feb 2007
Margaret von Klemperer
JUDGE Christopher Nicholson has already written two books: Permanent Removal, which deals with the disappearance and murder of the Cradock Four, and Papwa Sewgolum, a biography of the South African Indian golfer. But his third book, which is about to be published in Israel, is something completely different. Richard and Adolf is an investigation into whether composer Richard Wagner incited Adolf Hitler to his “final solution” - the murder of six million Jews.
So what set Nicholson off on this track? “I'm an opera lover,” he says. “I started with Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, and then on to Wagner - the best and the most difficult.”
Nicholson went to Bayreuth in Germany in 1991 for the annual Wagner Festival - the first time he watched the entire 16-and-a-half hours of the Ring Cycle - and read a biography of the composer.
“I saw the anti-Semitism, the political writing. And I said then that I would like to write a book about whether the world's greatest composer incited the world's greatest criminal to commit the world's most terrible crime.”
In fact Nicholson wrote a play, which he describes as “a disaster”. In almost Wagnerian style, it had 45 characters and it never reached the stage. But he wrote a prologue to it that dealt with the links between composer and dictator, and it is this that provided the basis for the book.
“It really is a hell of a story. I think it would make a great movie,” he says.
People get protective about their favourite musicians, but I have to ask: is Wagner really the world's greatest composer?
“Yes,” says Nicholson. “I really think he is. But he doesn't deserve to be liked.”
He admits that you cannot entirely divorce the music from the man and that the theme of the Wandering Jew and attendant anti-Semitism permeates the operas.
“But he gave his best music to his Jewish caricatures, you know,” he says. “Their music is stunning.”
Nicholson describes the effect of Wagner's music as almost visceral, something that enters and consumes the listener.
“You can see how Hitler became a disciple. I found that when I loved Wagner, I almost didn't like the other composers any more.” But, as Nicholson reiterates, Wagner the man still doesn't deserve to be liked.
In Israel, Wagner's music is banned from public concert platforms, something Nicholson deals with extensively in the book, although he does not say whether he thinks it is a right or wrong decision.
“Who am I to say what they should do?” he says. “Although obviously freedom of expression is a very important freedom.”
Wagner's music is played over the radio and on cable television, and the CDs are available in shops, but on the odd occasion when an orchestra has tried to play it as an encore, it has caused an outcry.
“Maybe the government should just not subsidise Wagner concerts with public money,” he says.
“I'm quite nervous about going to the launch at the Jerusalem Book Fair,” says Nicholson, who has already done a lengthy interview over the phone for an Israeli paper. “I'm sure they are going to ask me a lot of questions. But I am hoping Israelis will welcome the book, if it helps them to know a little bit more about why Hitler did what he did. I'm surprised by how supportive they have been so far.”
The publisher allowed Nicholson to insert three small swastikas into the excerpt from Wagner's TannhÃ¤user that appears on the front cover. They are very small - until Nicholson points them out, I have missed them - but he wanted them there to illustrate the subconscious message of the music.
“My wife said to me: ‘Why put in all the sex bit?' ” The book discusses the sexuality of both Wagner and Hitler, in particular Hitler's perversions which, it seems, included asking women to urinate on him.
“Other biographers have left it out, but I feel strongly that you have to give a rounded picture of someone you write about. You can't tell a story if it's incomplete.”
You might think that being a judge would leave little time for writing and research, but Nicholson says this is his passion.
“Our children are off our hands and I write at the weekends. I get interested in something and order books off the Internet. Two weeks later, there they are. I read during the legal term and then take it further when I have the time.”
So where does the urge to write come from? Nicholson laughs. “I was chatting to my aunt,” he says. “She said she knew where it came from - Alan Paton's mother and my grandmother were sisters. So that's now my proudest boast.”
Now that Richard and Adolf is published, Nicholson admits he is playing with a project on left and right-handedness, and the left and right brain. As someone who writes with his right hand, but plays golf and cricket left-handed, it is something that interests him.
“I have such fun with these fanatical journeys,” he says. “It makes a nice break from the law - that's so rigorously logical and sequential.”
* Richard and Adolf is published by Gefen Publishers of Jerusalem and New York.