Commentary Magazine


Breaking the Taboo on Wagner

In a decision that has shocked some Holocaust survivors and their descendants, the Israel Chamber Orchestra has announced it will play music by the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner during an upcoming performance. The orchestra will play Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” at a concert at Bayreuth during the annual music festival devoted to his work in the theater that he designed.

Israeli orchestras have long eschewed the playing of any of Wagner’s work in deference to the sensibilities of survivors who associate his music with the crimes of his most famous fan–Adolf Hitler. But despite the fact Wagner was an undoubted Jew-hater, the decision to play his music in Bayreuth, of all places, is the right thing to do.

The question of whether or not it is appropriate to perform Wagner’s music is a complex one. There is no doubt he was an anti-Semite. His essays about the supposed role Jews had in undermining higher art and music are utterly despicable. They are even worse when you consider that far more people were exposed to them in print than probably heard live performances of Wagner’s music during his lifetime. To say he inspired a subsequent generation of Germans (the composer died in 1883) to think ill of Jews is probably an understatement. But that is not quite the same thing as saying he was a Nazi. The same cannot be said for his widow, children and grandchildren, some of whom allowed Hitler and his followers to hijack the Bayreuth Festival and turn it into a prop of the Nazi regime.

Yet to assert, as some do, that Wagner’s operas are anti-Semitic is simply not true. While Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds are today read only by scholars, his life-affirming music dramas continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world who know little or nothing of his politics. Those who seek to project the composer’s racial and political opinions onto the broad canvas of his myth-based theater works are inevitably reduced to strained analogies and symbolism that never holds up to scrutiny. Attempts to classify any music as intrinsically good or evil always fail.

It is understandable that those who lived in Germany during the 1930s might think there was something about Wagner’s compositions that inspired mass murder. But the power of music is ethically neutral. As evidence, I would note that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was himself a great supporter of Wagner’s music. Herzl confided to his diary during the period when he was planning to write The Jewish State, “Only on those nights when no Wagner was performed [at the Paris Opera] did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea.” He later insisted that music from Wagner’s “Tannhauser” be played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

No one should be forced to listen to music that conjures up terrible associations with the Shoah for them, and it is likely the informal ban on the performance of Wagner in Israel itself will continue for a while. But this is not a restriction that can last. Those who have blasted the Israel Chamber Orchestra for this decision are being unfair. Wagner is not the only great artist who can be credibly labeled an anti-Semite. So long as the work itself is not something that promotes hatred (as can be said of a play such as The Merchant of Venice even though we do not ban Shakespeare in the Jewish community), those who love music must separate the man from his art.

As for those who still harbor bitter feelings about Bayreuth and its Nazi past, what could be sweeter revenge for the Jews than to have an Israeli ensemble play at this venue? Wagner and his Nazi relatives must be spinning in their graves at the mere thought of it!