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Israel’s Problems with Richard Wagner

August 13, 2013

His Music and Philosophy Should Not Be Conflated

by Robert Levine

images-2There is no denying the greatness of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) as a composer, regardless of his operas being seen by many as too long, too “heavy” (whatever that means), or too German, i.e., lacking in Italianate tunes. There is also no denying his anti-Semitism. But one must question his influence on the behavior of his countrymen and leaders between 1933 and 1945, and further, the reactions that his music — or the idea of his music — still elicits among the Jews of Israel, where it has been officially banned since 1938. (That year, in the wake of Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom in Nazi Germany, the Palestine Symphony led by Arturo Toscanini removed Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Prelude from its program.)

Wagner died fifty years before Hitler’s rise to power. In 1850, before true fame was his, Wagner published (under a pseudonym) a screed called Das Judenthum in der Musik, which translates as “Jewishness in Music.” Music by Jewish composers is cold and expressionless, a bunch of frivolous baloney, he wrote. Jews are devoid of the passion needed to create artistically; their goal is fame and monetary gain. Jewish composers are compared to worms feeding on the body of art. Their only redemption would be “self-annulment,” to “go under.” Wagner was the first to use the terms “final solution” and “Jewish problem,” with the specific suggestion of the evaporation of the Jews and their religion. Once one puts that information in one’s pipe, it is difficult to avoid the stench of the smoke.

Wagner’s 1850 tirade might be attributed to his own lack of success at that time; he was jealous of successful Jewish composers. However, in 1869, by which time he was the most famous German composer in the world, Wagner edited, republished and added to the 1850 work, this time under his own name. This seems gratuitously nasty for a man of his stature, who had King Ludwig doing his bidding — but one reason for the resurgence of Wagner’s Jew-hating might be the following: In 1868, his sister gave him their dead mother’s correspondence. Richard had been led to believe that his father died six months after he was born and that his mother married a family friend, an actor named Ludwig Geyer, who, in essence, raised Richard. But in the correspondence, which he soon burned, he learned that not only did Geyer never marry his mother, but that Geyer was his biological father and may have been Jewish. This — in addition to a desire to please his even more rabidly Jew-hating wife — may have rekindled Wagner’s already impressive anti-Semitism.

Who is to say? Throughout his life, Wagner also borrowed money he never returned, and walked away with other men’s wives. His narcissism was apparently boundless, and he was an all-around stinker. At the same time, he had Jewish friends, at least a pair of Jewish mistresses, and Jewish colleagues whom he adored, not least the conductor Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, who led the first performance of the composer’s last opera, “Parsifal”, in 1882.

Certainly we acknowledge that Hitler, Goebbels and their henchmen co-opted Wagner’s music as the theme song for Aryan superiority and domination — but where does that leave the Jews, and more specifically, the Jews of Israel, with regard to his music and philosophy? Is it possible not to conflate the two?

I recently interviewed the Jewish-American conductor Lorin Maazel. He is 84 and has been in the public eye since his eighth birthday (as a conductor). He was a star by 15 (as a violinist), and the youngest person and first American, at 30, to conduct at Wagner’s shrine-opera house in Bayreuth, Germany. Lorin Maazel is an Honorary Member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the Vienna Philharmonic; he clearly does not take sides.

After specific talk about music, I asked him: “Is there any way that someone in your position, which is to say you, could push the Israelis toward Wagner? It’s a thorny issue.”

“Well,” he said, “Jascha Heifetz played the Richard Strauss sonata in Israel in the 1950s and I think they started to throw bricks at him.” (Strauss acquiesced to the Nazis but, in fact, protected many Jews, had a Jewish daughter-in-law, and never joined the Nazi party.) “And Zubin [Mehta],” Maestro Maazel continued, “has conducted Wagner, and I know that Danny Barenboim . . . I just shake my head when it comes to this sort of thing, because there are issues involved, and I understand — I think if I had parents who were cooked in an oven in one of these concentration camps, I wouldn’t feel very enthusiastic. Because it’s irrational, okay, it’s emotional, which I appreciate. It’s visceral. It’s very well and good for us, who’ve never been involved in any of the horrors that took place during the Second World War, to be ‘objective.’ It’s quite hard for those who were involved or escaped from these camps, or had people in their family who lived through these horrible experiences, not to be very much involved and to be irrational . . .”

“I guess they’re permitted,” I said.

“Absolutely,” he replied, “and I respect and honor that.”

The Mehta and Barenboim situations that Maazel referenced tell a great deal. In 1981 — that’s thirty-two years ago — having worked with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since 1969 and as music director since 1977, Zubin Mehta was awarded the title of Music Director for Life, an achievement as much about trust as about talent. At the close of a concert that year, he turned to the audience and announced that there was to be an encore: the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” He spoke of Israel as a democracy in which all music could be heard. There was a tumult, and he suggested that those who might be offended could leave. (Only two of the players in the orchestra had asked not to participate.) Some of the audience’s older members left; some stayed to shout; but the piece was played.

By 1992, the orchestra had taken a poll among its subscribers, and 70 percent said they had no problem with Wagner’s music. Then, in 2001, when the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra was playing at the Israel Festival (itself an amazing move forward), Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim asked the audience at the close of a concert if they would like to hear the “Tristan” prelude as an encore. A lively, at times name-calling, debate took place, but the majority won, the Wagner piece was played, and both the orchestra and Barenboim received a standing ovation. Or was it Wagner for whom the audience stood?

Gottfried Wagner, the composer’s great-grandson (born 1947), claims not to be able to separate his famous progenitor’s music from his philosophy, and although he thinks “Tristan und Isolde” is a work of genius, he will not play Wagner’s music in his own home. Gottfried has lectured in Israel. He may, in the context of his family’s history, be seen as a “good guy,” but in fact, he is not doing anyone any good. He is not healing or soothing; he is agreeing with the censorship of great music despite the lack of proof that that music is capable of creating racist emotions. High passions, yes; specific racism, no. (Gottfried, by the way, has been disowned by his family.)

If we agree that closing ourselves off to the masterpieces of literature, music and art that were created by anti-Semites is destructive to the very act of learning and appreciating, then banning Wagner in Israel is simply an invitation to ignorance. Wagner is not simply any anti-Semite, however — Voltaire disliked Jews and so did Chopin, and nobody has suggested banning their works. No, Wagner seems to be in a category of his own.

Double standards abound. Throughout World War II, Carl Orff, whose “Carmina Burana” is as frequently heard, played and recognized as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” was a proud, card-carrying Nazi. “Carmina Burana,” dating from 1937, was commissioned by some of the Reich’s leaders, and, when the deranged Goebbels and Goering were searcIhing for a composer to write music based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream so that (the Jewish) Felix Mendelssohn’s very popular version might be stricken from the records and forgotten, Richard Strauss refused and Orff agreed. (At any rate, the project was dropped.) Still, nobody objects to the music of Orff being played in Israel. Wagner remains the archetypal villain, while those who were specifically guilty are excused.

Censorship of any materials that do not incite to violence is absurd, and the Jews, a people for whom the gathering of knowledge has always been paramount, must not shut themselves off to the greatness and importance of this wretched man. Wagner was a musical revolutionary whose harmonic and theatrical inventiveness cleared a path for every composer who has followed. We should not allow feelings to overcome learning, not to mention great pleasure and satisfaction, once the mind is opened. As we have seen, the strictures against Wagner are loosening, but the debate roars on as if it actually mattered — as if not playing Wagner will bring back Jews, undo the years between 1933 and 1945, and somehow put an end to Jew-hating.

In fact, anyone responsible for the wartime atrocities is likely dead, and, sadly, so are 90 percent of the victims who survived. If you are to ask a survivor what his or her worst experience during the war was, I suspect that nobody would say, “The Prelude to ‘Lohengrin.’” Still, Wagner remains a big and symbolic target: Wagner equals Jew-hating equals Hitler equals extermination equals a refusal to listen to his music. Do you see a breakdown in reasoning here? I do. It is not the same as the collective reaction to the introduction of the Volkswagen into America during my childhood. In that case, people were being specifically reminded of German engineering and might even have disliked the name, “People’s Car,” since many recalled not being considered “people” by the Reich.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini, a fervent anti-fascist during the war (he refused to conduct anywhere near Mussolini) famously said, “To [Richard] Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.” Ladies and gentlemen, don’t wear hats in the concert hall; just sit back and let the music — which is an absolute and can easily live outside of its context — wash over you.

Robert Levine is the author of Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera (2011) and Maria Callas: A Musical Biography, among others. He is senior editor at, a regular expert for the Metropolitan Opera intermission listener quizzes, and offers audio-visual lectures on opera appreciation.