The first version of the article appeared in the NZM under the pseudonym of K. Freigedank ("K. Freethought"). In an April 1851 letter to Franz Liszt, Wagner gave the excuse that he used a pseudonym "to prevent the question being dragged down by the Jews to a purely personal level".
At the time Wagner was living in exile in Zurich, on the run after his role in the 1849 revolution in Dresden. His article followed a series of essays in the NZM by his disciple Theodor Uhlig, attacking the music of Meyerbeer’s opera Le prophète. Wagner was particularly enraged by the success of Le prophète in Paris, all the more so because he had earlier been a slavish admirer of Meyerbeer, who had given him financial support and used his influence to get Wagner’s early opera Rienzi, his first real success, staged in Dresden in 1841.
Wagner was also emboldened by the death of Mendelssohn in 1847, the popularity of whose conservative style he felt was cramping the potential of German music. Although Wagner had shown virtually no sign of anti-Jewish prejudice previously (despite the claims by Rose in his book Wagner, Race and Revolution, and others), he was determined to build on Uhlig’s articles and prepare a broadside that would attack his artistic enemies, embedded in what he took to be a populist Judaeophobic context.
explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.
Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his fathers' stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they shew an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.
So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it […] there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer.... Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then, indeed, that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect life: but who in looking on that body’s self, would hold it still for living?
Reception of the 1850 article