The Case of Wagner -- Again

Israelis still protest the issues of his anti-Semitism and Nazi overtones, but his works live on and should be heard

  • Share
  • Read Later

What is it about Richard Wagner that so ignites the passions? Since the mid- 19th century, the man, his mind and his music have been among Western culture's brightest flames, firing the imagination and illuminating the inner reaches of the human spirit. Yet his intellect had a destructive side as well: a deep-rooted, Germanic hostility to the Mediterranean wellsprings of European culture and in particular to the Jews. "Wagner is one of the most complex phenomena in the history of art and intellect, and one of the most fascinating," wrote Thomas Mann in 1940, "because he offers the most profound challenge to one's conscience."

The latest confrontation with that challenge came late last month in Israel when conductor Daniel Barenboim proposed to defy an unwritten ban on Wagner's works by performing excerpts from two operas at a special, nonsubscription concert with the Israel Philharmonic. The idea met with such fervid opposition that it has had to be at least temporarily abandoned. The reason had little to do with the music and a lot to do with the composer and the anti-Semitic intellectual company he kept, both while he was alive and after his death: Father Jahn, Count Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Alfred Rosenberg and Adolf Hitler.

Wagner was, in every sense, a man of his century. Besides being a composer, librettist and conductor, he was a tireless writer and proselytizer on subjects as disparate as revolutionary politics, vivisection and racialism. The little man from Leipzig was one of the leading anti-Semitic theorists of his day, venting his views in such pamphlets as Jewry in Music and Heroism and Christianity. Like other prominent anti-Semites, Wagner blamed the Jews for ) most of society's (and his own) ills and offered a solution. "Bear in mind," he exhorted Jews, "that there is but one redemption from the curse weighing upon you: self-destruction."

Fighting words in any language. Still, Wagner should not be blamed for Hitler's final solution, even though it is true that the Fuhrer -- who saw himself as a Siegfried-like embodiment of the Wagnerian Teutonic ideal -- was lionized annually at the Bayreuth festival and Wagner's music sometimes sounded in the death camps. That says more about Hitler than Wagner -- who had by then been dead for a half-century and was not responsible for the misuse of his works by the Nazis.

When Barenboim (an Israeli citizen born in Argentina) announced his plans, the most immediate outcry rose from a small but vocal minority of Jews for whom the names of Wagner and Hitler are inextricably linked. "Like it or not, Wagner is a symbol of Nazism, as sure as the swastika is," said Avram Melamed, a violinist with the Israel Philharmonic. Commented Barenboim at a post-cancellation press conference: "I can't help feeling that there are a lot of people in Israel who still think Wagner lived in Berlin in 1942 and was a personal friend of Hitler's. We have to understand those who make deep and horrible associations with Wagner, but no one has the right to prevent us."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2