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The Wagner Group Explained

John Mauceri—

Among the many confusions about the private Russian army known as the Wagner Group is how to pronounce its name. Reporters and pundits seem to vacillate between “Wag-ner” and “Vog-ner.” Alas, it’s the latter because it is apparently named for the German composer, Richard Wagner.

Let me state this as simply as I can: Russia, invoking memories of the German invasion in 1941, has an internal and separately funded army named for an icon of their arch enemy, Adolf Hitler. It is an army that is currently fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine, a country whose president is a Russian-speaking Jew. You may need to read that again.

If Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell had a cabin at the MacDowell Colony they might come up with this explanation, but only after a great deal of drinking.

If this is not head-spinning enough, the Wagner Group apparently was founded in 2013 by Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the Russian military-intelligence agency. Utkin has not been seen in public since 2016, but is a real-life Ukrainian neo-Nazi, the very thing the Wagner Group is presumably fighting. However, on September 26, 2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that it was he who had founded the Wagner Group, specifically to support Russian forces—the “little green men”—in the war in Donbas, in May 2014. Why Prigozhin named his army after Richard Wagner, however, remains a mystery. Perhaps, he is an opera fan—one who unfortunately slept through the last half hour of Götterdämmerung.

If a private army were created to stamp out Nazis, then it might be called the Churchill Group or the Eisenhowers. The Russians had their Supreme Commander Marshal Georgy Zhukov lead Stalin’s army,  which successfully put an end to Hitler’s terror in Eastern Europe. After World War II, however, instead of lionizing him, Josef Stalin saw him as too popular, famous, and powerful. (He led the army!) He had Zhukov demoted for being disrespectful of his military colleagues and politically untrustworthy—something that might sound familiar to the current situation between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin.

If a Russian army of mercenaries meant to wipe out 21st century Nazis had to be named for a composer of classical music, it might have been named for one of its two most famous World War II composers, Serge Prokofiev or Dimitri Shostakovich, but their names do not translate into “power,” like Wagner’s does. Khachaturian and Kabalevsky were celebrated for composing precisely the kind of music Stalin wanted: uplifting and tuneful, and therefore not descriptive of the kind of toxic masculinity for an army culled from Russia’s prisons. Of course, Igor Stravinsky had composed the perfect vehicle of unrepentant violence, his 1913 Rite of Spring. But that would be awkward since he was outlawed in Russia for a half century and died an American citizen after he lived for decades in West Hollywood. Perhaps the army’s nom de guerre could have been found in Russia’s earlier musical history. The 1812 Overture by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a world-famous description of Russia’s military victory over Napoleon. Perhaps, The Tchaikovsky Group! Alas, Tchaikovsky was gay, so nyet. The profoundly non-European and pro-Russian—and perhaps straight—Mussorgsky, was an alcoholic (not necessarily disqualifying) but his “Great Gate of Kiev” could create confusion. I mean, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The fact that every few minutes the name of Richard Wagner is said on national and international media continues to disturb this writer. Yes, Wagner was an outspoken anti-Semite. He did not invent it. Yes, he was the greatest musical genius of his time, but so were Mozart and Beethoven in their respective times. The unique history of how Wagner and his music have fared shines a light on politics and music, and the lasting power of his musical genius.

In the run up to America’s entry into World War I, the Metropolitan Opera banned his operas because they were thought to contain the essence of the Hun. It would take a few years—and the arrival of Wagner’s son, Siegfried, in New York City—to return his operas to the stage.

In World War II, Hitler supported the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth as a frequent and very welcome visitor. One would think that the taint of that association would condemn Wagner’s music once more. But no! Wagner’s operas continued to be played at the Met, though casting occasionally proved challenging. Even more fascinating is that the world’s most famous anti-fascist maestro, Arturo Toscanini, frequently programmed excerpts from Wagner’s operas, which were regularly broadcast nationally on NBC radio.

At the same time, refugee Jewish composers in Hollywood continued their admiration for Wagner and adapted his techniques of synchronization, tone painting, and the use of little melodic phrases to individual characters and objects—the so-called leitmotif that can be heard in Wagner’s Ring cycle, as well as Gone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Bride of Frankenstein. The refugee Jewish conductors simultaneously became the greatest interpreters of Wagner’s music—Reiner, Klemperer, Walter, Solti, Szell.

Germany had to de-Nazify Wagner’s reputation, even though he had died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born. When it re-opened the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, they played it safe with a performance of not Wagner, but of Beethoven’s eternal palate cleanser, his Ninth Symphony. The Symphony was directed by Hitler’s favorite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, in a manic performance that can be heard on an easily available archival recording.

Beethoven’s Ninth would continue to heal the world, as when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth Symphony after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Its “Ode to Joy” is the anthem for all of Europe. While Vladimir Putin now describes his military action in terms of Russia fighting the West—whatever that is, since he likes to talk about symphonies, operas, and ballets being cancelled, which are not exactly Russian inventions—rather than the Jewish Nazi government of Ukraine, we currently have a wandering and leaderless Russian army of 50,000 men, named for the Western European composer, Richard Wagner.

In case you were wondering. It’s “Vog-ner.”

John Mauceri is a world-renowned conductor and musical scholar. He has conducted most of the world’s greatest orchestras and opera companies and served on the Yale University faculty for fifteen years. Mauceri is the author of The War on Music, an LA Times Best Seller and one of The Financial Times of London’s Best Summer Reads of 2022.

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