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Performances of Wagner’s music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?

David P. Goldman
August 17, 2011
 Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images
 Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Richard Wagner, the most repugnant of musical nationalists, has become an unlikely poster child for culturally progressive Israelis. The recurring controversy over the public performance of work by the Nazi Party’s favorite composer erupted again in late July when the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, led by the Austrian conductor Roberto Paternostro, performed a much-publicized Wagner program at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, Wagner’s self-erected shrine and a pillar of the Nazi movement well before Hitler took power. (Paternostro received a standing ovation from the largely German audience, which understandably liked the idea of Jews playing Wagner.) Morbid ethnocentrism with overtones of nationalist extremism is acceptable to the Israeli left, it seems, as long as it isn’t Jewish.

Every so often a prominent musician makes a point of sneaking Wagner into a public concert in Israel. Zubin Mehta, the Indian-born conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, played a Wagner excerpt as an encore to a 1981 concert; Daniel Barenboim, conducting a German ensemble, did it again at the 2001 Jerusalem Festival. And in each case public opprobrium put Wagner’s scores back on the shelf. At the Bayreuth concert, some of the Israeli musicians explained that they never would perform Wagner in Israel but felt free to do so elsewhere. Performance of Wagner’s music is unofficially—but effectively—banned in Israel. But should it be? Mark Twain quipped that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. By the same token, banning Wagner’s music is a better idea than it sounds. Suppressing the performance of important musical works is not a small matter, though, and deserves careful thought rather than emotional reflex.

Barenboim is Wagner’s most passionate apostle with an Israeli passport (though the conductor also claims citizenship in “Palestine”). For years Barenboim has linked Israel’s informal ban on Wagner performance to the occupation of the West Bank, which he likens to the Nazi occupation of Europe. In a January 2005 speech at Columbia University titled “Wagner, Israel, and Palestine,” Barenboim excoriated the Zionist impulse that leads Israel to defend itself against cultural as well as military foes, arguing that peace will come only when Israel drops its defenses against both. The speech was a memorial to the late Edward Said, the Palestinian rejectionist who had arranged for Barenboim’s “Palestinian” identity papers. In Barenboim’s view, Israel should embrace the composer who wrote the theme music for the Third Reich, just as it should embrace Arab extremists who learned their anti-Semitism from the grand mufti of Jerusalem’s pro-Hitler wartime broadcasts from Berlin.

The fact that some Israeli Wagnerites are repugnant, though, doesn’t justify banning Wagner’s music. Their politics aside, the Wagnerites have a point: Why shouldn’t a free country allow musicians to play whatever music they like? The “Horst Wessel Song” might be banned, but why exclude the music of a composer who died half a century before Hitler came to power?

Barenboim is arguably the most talented musician of his generation, if not always the canniest interpreter. But as a Wagnerite, he is no Wilhelm Furtwängler, the great mid-century maestro who in 1944 conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin under an enormous swastika on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday: Furtwängler’s live recording of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle remains the definitive interpretation to this day. The excellent Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, Barenboim’s student, told me that he travels with that recording in his iPod. A Wagner specialist, Fisch has conducted “Ring” cycles from Adelaide, Australia, to Seattle, without, of course, having the opportunity to pursue his main career interest at home in Israel.

The case of Richard Wagner is trickier than it seems at first sight. Contrary to the headlines about the Israelis at Bayreuth, Wagner was not “Hitler’s favorite composer.” That dubious honor accords to Wagner’s acolyte Anton Bruckner, the unassuming Austrian church organist who was championed by anti-Semitic parties but who never had much to say about Jews one way or the other. To announce Hitler’s death, German radio played the Adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, not “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic in Hitler’s favorite piece in 2007 at Lincoln Center without a murmur from the Israeli media. As a Jewish musician, I couldn’t perform it; I can barely stand to listen to it. Hitler loved Wagner, to be sure, but after Stalingrad, he had understandable misgivings about a twilight of the gods—the subject of the concluding opera in Wagner’s four-part “Ring” cycle. Why not prohibit Bruckner as well? And if anti-Semitism is a criterion for performance in Israel, why not ban Tchaikovsky, who hated Jews as much as Wagner did?

Wagner did more than hate Jews, however: He proposed to cast them out of European culture in his infamous 1850 pamphlet “Jewishness in Music,” which denounced the sublime Felix Mendelssohn and the great poet Heinrich Heine as uncreative imitators. His hatred of Jews seems to have had less to do with 19th-century racial theories than with the anxiety of influence. Wagner ripped off the scenario for his opera “The Flying Dutchman” from Heine and knocked off Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” overture in the “Dutchman’s” evocation of the sea. Wagner tried to cover his guilty tracks by denouncing Jewish composers he emulated, including Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Wagner was not just a Jew-hater, then, but a backstabbing self-promoter who defamed the Jewish artists he emulated and who (in Meyerbeer’s case) had advanced his career. He hired Jewish musicians when they served his purposes, for example Hermann Levi, who conducted the premiere of his last opera, “Parsifal.”

Privately, Wagner conceded that Mendelssohn was a genius. At home in Bayreuth, he played four-hand arrangements of Mendelssohn overtures with his wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt. Robert Schumann had thrown Liszt out of his Dresden home at an 1848 dinner party after Liszt made disparaging remarks about Mendelssohn. Liszt hated Jews as much as Wagner did, but, unlike his son-in-law, he wasn’t smart enough to steal material from them. His music never became important to the Nazis, in part because it is less compelling than Wagner’s. Cosima lived until 1930, long enough to play den mother to the nascent Nazi movement. She sent care packages to Hitler’s prison cell in 1923 after the Munich beer hall putsch attempt, and she sat her grandchildren on Hitler’s lap. In the midst of so many musical anti-Semites, why single out Wagner?

The deeper problem may lie with Wagner’s Israeli interpreters and defenders. Wagner knew perfectly well that his public disparagement of Jewish musicians was humbug. Not so Daniel Barenboim. In his 2005 Columbia lecture, he said, “Wagner recognized that Jews were separated from society, spoke German with ugly accents and couldn’t speak German music to the German Geist. … Wagner’s acceptance of the fact that the Jews were different from the Germans and [Theodor] Herzl’s recognition of the fact was said with a sense of relief, but both recognized the Jews were a distinct and foreign group in Europe.”

That is manifestly false; during Wagner’s youth, the premier composer and poet in the land of music and poetry both were Jews, and Wagner borrowed liberally from both of them. It would be harder to explain why Barenboim repeated an anti-Semitic caricature that Wagner knew to be false if he had not also repeated an anti-Zionist caricature that Edward Said knew to be false. Barenboim himself apparently believes that these caricatures are true.

No one disputes Wagner’s repulsive beliefs and behavior, and few dispute his importance as a composer. Is it possible “to divide the man from his art,” as conductor Pasternostro told Israeli television in July? The bifurcation seems odd, for art is a mode of human interchange, not an emotionally neutral variety of tonal mathematics. Audiences still pack opera houses to hear Wagner in order to be stirred by the man communicating through his music. Wagner’s attack on the classical form had a broader agenda, in which he linked classical form to the tyranny of convention and the despised biblical God. Classical form focuses the ear on a goal and subordinates all the elements of music to the motion toward this goal. It creates a sense of the future, which makes it possible to evoke suspense, surprise, and humor through musical means. Form is simply a means to create expectations, and without expectations there can be no surprise.

But Wagner was after something more radical: He proposed to do away with the covenantal order of traditional society. Nietzsche had him pegged. At first intoxicated with Wagner, he awoke with a hangover and wrote: “Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? … From customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests.”

He went on: “Wagner’s heroines, once they have been divested of their heroic husks, are indistinguishable from Madame Bovary.” But Wagner offers more than Emma Bovary with a soundtrack. The provincial French adulteress is a paragon of virtue next to Wagner’s protagonists. In “Die Walküre,” the second installment of his “Ring” cycle (presented last season at the Metropolitan Opera in a brilliant new production by Robert LePage), his lovers are twin siblings. With explicit reference to the legend of Narcissus, they fall in love with the person that they most resemble, namely each other.

If the covenant of marriage is the fundamental unit of covenantal society, Wagner proposed instead a transgressive regime of pure impulse. The purest and least complicated love, in Wagner’s view, is love of self. His contemporaries found this exhilarating and built a cult around the composer.

Wagner was obsessed with overthrowing the Jewish God of Covenants. He did not so much hate Jews as individuals as hate everything the Jewish people represented. “The popes knew well what they were doing when they withdrew the Bible from the Folk,” he wrote. “For the Old Testament in particular, so bound up with the New, might distort the pure idea of Christ to such a point that any nonsense and every deed of violence could claim its sanction. … We must view it as a grave misfortune that Luther had no other weapon of authority against the degenerate Roman Church, than just this Bible.”

That is what made Wagner the defining culture figure of Europe in its decay. In a 1943 dinner-table conversation, Hitler himself observed: “At the beginning of this century there were people called Wagnerians. Other people had no special name.”

Without his music, to be sure, Wagner would have been one more obscure frog in the moral swamp whence the Nazis emerged. But he invented a new musical language to embody the narcissistic impulse. What he accomplished was masterful, turning the tools of classical composition against their original purpose. If Wagner was evil, he was not in any way mediocre. His musical sleight-of-hand involves no more magic than a Penn & Teller show; I showed how some of his musical machinery operates in a 2009 essay for First Things magazine. That is a complex subject and requires careful study, but at bottom Wagner’s musical devices are a special sort of prestidigitation.

Whether Wagner was a premature Nazi or the musical sweetheart of a gang of tone-deaf thugs is beside the point. Wagner mixed the compost heap in which the flowers of the 20th century’s greatest evil took root. The old regime of covenants in which humanity accepts a higher law died out, not only because it had become sclerotic but because it was replaced by an alternative religion that offered the full sensuous experience of personal liberation. The Nazis embraced Wagner not by accident or opportunism but because they recognized in him the cultural trailblazer of the world they set out to rule.

It should not be the business of any state to impose moral criteria on artists; in that case one might ban Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which Beethoven thought immoral. Music students need to study Wagner. Students of cultural history need to hear Wagner, which means live performances with first-rate singers. The first two installments of the Met “Ring” last season may have set a new world standard for Wagner interpretation and should not be missed by anyone who wants to understand what happened to Western culture.

Art, nonetheless, does not reside in the clouds of Mount Parnassus. It has consequences in the real world in which ordinary humans live and suffer, and society in extreme cases must draw a line. Wagner may not have been the only anti-Semite among the composers of the 19th century, nor even the worst, but he did more than anyone else to mold the culture in which Nazism flourished. The Jewish people have had no enemy more dedicated and more dangerous, precisely because of his enormous talent. In a Jewish state, the public has a right to ask Jewish musicians to be Jews first and musicians second. With reluctance, and in cognizance of all the ambiguities, I think the Israelis are right to silence him.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.