In love with Audi but not with Isolde

July 13, 2001

Israel has embraced much German culture, but the mere mention of Wagner still arouses sheer hatred, reports Adrian Mourby.

Daniel Barenboim turned to the audience at the end of the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra's performance of Stravinsky and Schumann at the annual Jerusalem Israel Festival on Saturday.

They wanted more. Barenboim had already conducted the scheduled encore, Tchaikovsky's Flower Waltz from the Nutcracker suite. Now he asked if they would like to hear some Wagner. His words caused uproar. Several people walked out, but Barenboim, having only weeks earlier bowed to pressure from the public, Jerusalem's mayor and the president of Israel to drop Wagner's Die Walküre from his original programme, took up his baton and the orchestra struck up the first chords of the Tristan Prelude .

Israel's press was outraged, but the conductor defended himself, saying:

"Wagner's music is too important to ignore." The fracas has once again drawn attention to the fact that, 120 years after his death, Wagner is still as good as banned in Israel.

Hanna Munitz, artistic director of the New Israeli Opera, says her country's response is emotional rather than logical. "We have embraced all aspects of German culture now. We happily drive German cars and this year's festival at Caesarea was actually sponsored by Audi. But Wagner is a symbol."

Munitz described a 1999 symposium in Tel Aviv on whether Wagner should be performed in Israel as "one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of my life". People were screaming and some rushed the stage during the symposium. It was not just Holocaust survivors who objected, she says. "There is a whole second generation of Israelis who do not wish to hear Wagner performed in Israel."

As the debate continues about whether Wagner, who blamed Judaism for the supposed moral decline of 19th-century Europe, can ever be forgiven for inculcating anti-Semitism, it also raises the vexed issue of whether it is possible to disagree with a man yet love his music.

There are those in Israel, such as political scientist Schlomo Avinieri, who believe that the distinction between man and music can now be made. "Israel is a sovereign state and, as such, we should interpret Wagner as we decide. Yes, we know who Wagner was, but we have outlived the Nazis. They are no longer here. But we are."

Alexander Knapp, lecturer in Jewish music at London University, says that although the kind of ideas Wagner expressed in his anti-Semitic tract Judaism in Music , first published anonymously in 1850, were not uncommon in the 19th century - Chopin, Liszt and Moussorgsky also made anti-Semitic comments and it was common for leftwing 19th-century revolutionaries, such as Marx, to be hostile to Judaism, which they held responsible for propping up bourgeois capitalism during the failed revolutions of 1848-50 - the combination of his views and his espousal by the Nazis has made him a special case.

Paul Lawrence Rose, professor of Jewish studies and European history at Pennsylvania State University, believes that Jews must make sure Wagner is neither forgiven nor forgotten.

"There was a Holocaust and Wagner's self-righteous ravings, sublimated into his music, were one of the most potent elements in creating the mentality that made such an enormity thinkable and performable. If time renders ridiculous the ban on Wagner, then the simple passage of time will also cause the Holocaust itself to fade into a distant memory."

He adds: "The only way to counter this abyss of forgetfulness is through ritual or institutional forms of remembrance. The Israeli ban on Wagner is a pre-eminent rite for warding off the dissolution of one of the core experiences of Jewish history."

Nevertheless, there have always been Jewish enthusiasts for Wagner, including Hermann Levi, the first conductor of Parsifal . Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israeli Philharmonic, has tried on four occasions to perform Wagner, but has always been dissuaded by the force of public anger. The current musical director of New Israeli Opera, Asher Fisch, has made no secret of the fact that he would like to hear Wagner performed in Israel. He accuses Israeli society of "taking the easy way out" because there is no money in music, unlike the cars and other German products widely accepted in Israel.

"No one suffers financially if we refuse to play Wagner or Beethoven. In Israel, we reject Germany only where it does not matter," he says.

But some argue that anti-Semitism underpins not only Wagner's philosophy, but his music too. Marc Weiner of Indiana University has traced anti-Semitic images throughout the Wagner canon. "They are integral to an understanding of his mature music dramas," Weiner says. "I have analysed 19th-century racist imagery in his dramatic works such as elevated, nasal voices, a hobbling gait, an ashen skin colour, the Foetor Judaicus (Jewish stench) and deviant sexuality reflected in the characters of Alberich, Mime and Hagen (in the Ring cycle), Beckmesser (in Die Meistersinger ) and Klingsor (in Parsifal )."

Given that Wagner blamed the Jews for the materialism and reactionary values that he saw as inhibiting Europe's spiritual development, it is perhaps not surprising that he drew on Jewish cliches to create these villains. Weiner, himself a Jew, does not condemn him. "Wagner's racism led him to create some of his most complex, rich and enigmatic dramatic figures, as well as some of his most haunting, iconoclastic and beautiful music," he says.

But Weiner is unusual in a politically correct era when the moral values behind a work often determine whether or not it can be judged an artistic success. In the view of John Deathridge, professor of music at King's College London, both Wagner's apologists and detractors miss the point.

"I think the admirers are in denial and the critics overplay the issue," he says. "Both responses are inadequate. In the end, neither position accounts fully for the obviously wide resonance Wagner's works still enjoy."

Deathridge believes the attention paid to Wagner's anti-Semitism is in danger of distorting our understanding of his music. "The cultural battle in Wagner's operas is, in my opinion, about the restoration of a lost age of innocence in a society that is more intellectually and emotionally aware of its destiny. Wagner's works are allegories of modernity that can't just be reduced to the anti-Semitic question. Wagner has raised the ethical stakes about modernity beyond the bounds of what was - and is - thought to be possible in works of art, not to mention music and opera in particular, and he did so in a highly sophisticated way. I think he has to be respected for that."

Deathridge also points to the new ending that Wagner added to Judaism in Music when it was republished in 1869.

"He actually addresses the Jews: 'Remember that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse which weighs upon you: the redemption of Ahasverus - destruction!' There are two things to bear in mind here: the first is the idea that Jews themselves, and not just society as a whole, need to be redeemed from Judaism. A similar idea was shared by Karl Marx. The second is that Wagner is using the word destruction ( Vernichtung ) dialectically - meaning that something is destroyed in order to preserve it at a 'higher' level. So what Wagner is suggesting is that Jews should rid themselves of their Judaism in order to become better, more worthy, more culturally productive members of society. This explains why Wagner offered to take Hermann Levi, the first conductor of Parsifal , to have him baptised a Christian. Wagner is not advocating murder. He can't be, otherwise why bother to suggest the idea of redemption at all?" No doubt the debate over Wagner's anti-Semitism will rumble on, particularly as preparations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1813 begin.

Weiner believes it is in Jews' own interest to stop boycotting Wagner. He acknowledges the link between his social theories and art, but argues that this adds to the appreciation of his works "as subtle, complex, ambiguous and often even contradictory aesthetic accomplishments".

"It would be naive to feel that we must whitewash the works in order to be able to enjoy them," he says, "for such an argument suggests that there is such a thing as an ideologically unproblematic work of art. On the other hand, it would be equally indefensible to censor the works altogether, even in Israel, for, ironically, to do so would mean that Wagner had won - that his works were indeed ideally suited and reserved for Germans, and that Jews had no place in their reception and enjoyment."

Weiner believes that Jews must reclaim Wagner for themselves. "What better revenge than for Jews to perform and enjoy his music dramas - albeit from a critical perspective? That may be our most ideologically satisfying 'redemption' from Wagner imaginable."

Knapp agrees: "I believe that the highest forms of art can function as a compensation for the flaws in the artist's personality, rather than necessarily as a reflection of them."

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