Wrong notes in Wagner musical drama

By Norman Lebrecht, June 21, 2012
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The latest attempt to perform Richard Wagner’s music in Israel has ended in farce, deceit and discredit to art and nation. A concert arranged by the Israeli Wagner Society at Tel Aviv University was banned after the university governors claimed the organisers concealed their identity when booking.

The event was moved to the Tel Aviv Hilton only for the hotel to cancel it for unexplained reasons. “Everything was agreed upon with the Hilton’s management,” claimed Wagner Society founder Yonathan Livny. A contract was signed, a 100-piece orchestra booked and advertisements placed in local media.”

Livni, a Jerusalem lawyer who lost family members in the Holocaust, accepts that Wagner was “a horrible man” but insists that Israelis should have the right to hear his music. Uri Hanoch, of the Holocaust Survivors Society, argues that listening to Wagner amounts to “emotional torture” for Hitler’s victims.

Both men have a legitimate case, but this is an issue where emotion defeats reason and the law remains stubbornly mute.

It is not, and never has been, illegal to perform Wagner’s music in Israel. The founding concerts of what is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra featured Wagner’s music, conducted by Toscanini at a time, the 1930s, when all Israel knew that Hitler had demagogically hitched that music to his antisemitic agenda.

Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim have argued that an orchestra which does not play Wagner cannot grasp the syntax of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, some of which are infused with Wagner’s more palatable ideals. In 2001, Barenboim gave sections of Tristan and Isolde in Jerusalem. A year earlier, Mendi Rodan, a camp survivor, conducted the Siegfried Idyll in Rishon Lezion. There seemed, for a while, to be an easing of the taboo.

So the idea by Asher Fisch, chief conductor of the Israel Opera, to give a semi-private performance of Wagner arias to members of Livni’s society should not have aroused a public furore. Most Israelis have not heard of Wagner and many of the younger ones are hazy about the Holocaust. But, in the absence of law, the power of lobbies becomes overwhelming.

Leaders of the ban-Wagner bandwagon maintain that his music was performed in the concentration camps as a mocking backdrop to mass murder. In fact, the music played by inmate bands was likely to be Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar; there is little evidence that Wagner was the soundtrack to the Holocaust.

But, though Wagner was the not the first German antisemite of modern times, he was the first — in the bilious 1850 essay, Das Judenthum in die Musik — to advocate the removal of Jews from German culture. Hitler used this rhetoric as a blueprint for the “purification” of German arts.

In doing so, he ignored Wagner’s continued reliance on such indispensable Jewish assistants as Josef Rubinstein and Hermann Levi. Wagner never banned Jews from Bayreuth or advocated genocide. Many who died in the camps were avid Wagnerians.

Barenboim touched on this paradox this week in an interview with Der Spiegel. “I have the greatest respect for Holocaust survivors,” he said. “We can’t begin to imagine what they went through. But they hold different views. My friend, (Nobel-winning author) Imre Kertesz, for example. We’d only known each other two weeks and he said to me: ‘can you get me tickets to Bayreuth?’”

Some say the second language at Bayreuth these days is Hebrew, such is the Israeli influx. Back home, there is a bill to pay. Tel Aviv University stands accused of violating academic freedom and the Hilton Hotel of showing bad faith. Both may be sued. Wagner is not worth the backlash.

Last updated: 3:11pm, June 21 2012