Who’s afraid of Richard Wagner?

In 1984 Rina Litwin and Hezi Shelah published a book under title Who’s Afraid of Richard Wagner.

(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 spokesmen.
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 it consented.
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 favorite.
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 authenticity.
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.”
Be that 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 debates.
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.
IN GENERAL, 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 speak.
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.
However, the 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 Auditorium.
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 father.
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.
If at 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.