In 1984 Rina Litwin and Hezi Shelah published a book under the title Who’s
Afraid of Richard Wagner.
The background to the publication of this book,
which is a compilation of articles on various aspects of Wagner’s controversial
personality and the boycott of his music in Israel, was a concert performed by
the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on October 15, 1981, in which Maestro Zubin
Mehta decided to play the overture to Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as an
encore. All hell broke loose, and Litwin, who had attended the concert, wrote in
the forward to the book how she was torn between the magnificence of the music,
and the cries of anguish of the Holocaust survivors and their
Though Mehta has frequently expressed his revulsion at
Wagner’s infamous anti-Semitism, his justification for trying to introduce
Wagner into the repertoire of the IPO is the composer’s significant contribution
to classical music in general, and opera in particular.
Mehta is also one
of those who argue that one must separate between Wagner’s personality and
views, and his music. His position is shared by numerous Jewish and Israeli
musicians, including Daniel Barenboim, who regularly conducts Wagner operas, and
was involved in several related scandals in Israel. The most widely reported of
these incidents occurred on July 7, 2001, when at the end of a concert held
within the framework of the Israel Festival in Jerusalem, Barenboim announced
that he would like to play Wagner as an encore, and asked the audience whether
After a stormy debate a few people left the hall, while the
rest remained to hear the Tristan and Isolde overture, which was received with
enthusiastic applause. Following this incident, the Knesset’s Education and
Culture Committee declared Barenboim persona non grata.
WAGNER HAS been
boycotted in Israel since 1938.
His music was originally part of the
repertoire of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (which was later renamed the
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), but on November 12, 1938, the conductor Eugen
Schenkar decided to delete the overture to Wagner’s opera Lohengrin from the
program as a protest against Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, that
had occurred three days earlier.
Why was Wagner, who died in 1883,
singled out among all the German composers, many of whom were known for their
anti-Semitism? The main reason is that Wagner had been pronounced by Hitler and
Goebbels to be one of three grand composers “who represent good German music”
(the other two being Beethoven and Bruckner), and was known to be Hitler’s
In addition, there are many who argue that Wagner’s music, and
the texts to his operas, reflect the Nazi ideology – a claim that all serious
musicologists consider to be without foundation. In fact, the Nazis themselves
censored various sections of Wagner’s musical works.
Finally, there is
the claim that the German inmates of Dachau were forced to listen to Wagner as
part of their “re-education,” and that Wagner was played in the background as
Jews were led to the gas chambers in the concentration camps. Both stories are
apparently urban legends, though there are many who still believe in their
IN CONNECTION with the claim that Wagner’s music reflects
Nazi ideology, an embarrassing piece of information brought to light by
Professor Leah Garrett in A Knight at the Opera is that Theodor Herzl, who was
an avid Wagner fan – especially of his opera Tannhäuser – viewed “Wagner’s opera
as a lesson in propaganda: how to manipulate people through art.”
as it may, it is known that Herzl attended the performance of Tannhäuser in
Paris numerous times in the course of writing Der Jundenstaat. Furthermore, a
portrait of Herzl, painted by his friend the Hungarian portraitist Baron Jószef
Arpád Koppay von Drétoma in 1899, which hangs at the entrance to the bureau of
the Knesset Speaker, depicts Herzl as Tannhäuser.
The issue of the
boycott of Wagner has come up several times in the courts and Knesset
While the courts have avoided taking a stance, the Knesset’s
Education and Culture Committee adopted, on several occasions, a very careful
and balanced position.
Thus, in a deliberation held on January 12, 1994,
the committee expressed the position that since the Knesset recognizes the
supremacy of the freedom of expression it should not intervene by any means in
artistic content, including the playing and broadcasting of music by Richard
Strauss and Wagner. However, it also directed an emotional appeal to all those
engaged in artistic activity to avoid playing the works of these composers, if
this might hurt the feelings of certain groups in the public.
the accepted principle in Israel with regard to Wagner is that while there is no
official prohibition on playing his music in public, orchestras that receive
public financing are expected to refrain from playing it, and it should not be
played in subscription concerts, in which the audience is captive, so to
It was against this background that the Israeli Wagner Society,
established in 2010, decided to hold a privately financed concert of Wagner
music, to be conducted by Asher Fisch, and played by an orchestra especially
assembled from among musicians willing to play Wagner.
concert, which was to be held on June 18, was finally cancelled after Tel Aviv
University, under pressure from the Holocaust Survivors’ Center, backed down
from its agreement for the concert to be held at its Smolarz
For the head of the Wagner Society, attorney Jonathan Livne –
the son of a Holocaust survivor who continued to revere Wagner’s music to his
dying day – the whole episode was the cause of great aggravation and heartbreak,
especially since he viewed the concert as a sort of tribute to his late
In fact, the aggressive position adopted by the Holocaust
Survivors’ Center does not reflect the feelings of all the survivors, quite a
few of whom are/were actually Wagner fans, as Livne’s father was.
least some of the energy that has gone into Wagner’s boycott would go into
dealing with greater sensitivity with the economic, physical and mental needs of
the survivors in Israel – everyone would be better off.