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

(2 of 2)

And yet he was prevented. The episode does not speak well for Israeli claims of tolerance and democracy. A decade ago, Zubin Mehta, the Israel Philharmonic's music director, tried to perform a Wagner piece as an encore, but the music was shouted down by members of the audience. At that time, a poll of Philharmonic subscribers indicated that 86% wanted to hear Wagner. Just prior to the abortive Barenboim concert, the Philharmonic musicians voted 39 to 12, with nine abstentions, to break the ban.

Every major orchestra in the world performs Wagner, without whom nearly the entire history of 20th century music is incomprehensible, including the works of such great Jewish composers as Mahler and Schoenberg. Neither Mahler nor Schoenberg could be performed in Nazi Germany solely because they were Jews; should Wagner suffer, in principle, the same fate?

It is not as if Wagner cannot be heard in Israel; the Symphony of Rishon Lezion, a Tel Aviv suburb, violated the taboo two years ago, to little or no outcry. And it is not as if the Nazis didn't turn the works of other composers, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Liszt's Les Preludes, into political totems as well. Yet Wagner's unique resonance continues to sound, louder and more forcefully than that of the others.

Ultimately, the problem will solve itself. Israel's burgeoning Sephardic population and the recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are transforming Israeli society, while the number of camp survivors grows fewer each year. The grieving memories, of course, will persist. But some day soon, the Israel Philharmonic will join the community of orchestras and play The Ride of the Valkyries.

Still, the Case of Wagner (as Nietzsche dubbed it) remains open. We continue to honor the music -- its power and majesty -- even as we abhor aspects of the man. These aspects, however, are as dead as Wagner, buried with him behind Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth. It is the music that lives on. The whole world realizes this. The Israelis should too. They should see that the flame that still burns so brightly gives out light, not heat.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page