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Counterpoint

Is Wagner’s Nazi stigma fair?

About the author

Clemency Burton-Hill is a presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show, Review Show, and Radio 3 Weekend Breakfast. A published novelist, she writes for the FT Weekend, The Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian.

Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler

(Copyright: Corbis)

The world is celebrating 200 years since the birth of Richard Wagner – but not Israel, where his music is taboo. Is it fair that Wagner’s works are tainted by his anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ enthusiasm for them?

“Egoism, overweening ambition, opportunism, deceit, spite, jealousy, arrogance, philandering, profligacy and racism.” Such is the “formidable catalogue” of personal attributes, according to scholar Barry Millington, of which Richard Wagner stands accused.

Certainly there are few cultural figures as divisive as the composer, polemicist, dramatist and conductor born in Leipzig on 22 May 1813. Yet nobody, whatever their thoughts on the man, can overstate Wagner’s significance to music. The extremity and the force of his genius altered forever the course of the art form in a way that only a handful of others – Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg – have ever done.

Wagner’s output is already recognisable to millions who have no interest in classical music. This year it will be harder than ever to avoid not just the Ride of the Valkyries and the Bridal March, but everything else besides. From Sydney to London, New York to Berlin, Melbourne to Seattle, Milan to Bayreuth, his work – which is not exactly neglected in other years – is at the forefront of programming everywhere.

Brand new complete Ring Cycles, gala concerts, debates, discussions and documentaries are all scheduled, many with stellar casts. And operas such as Parsifal, the Mastersingers of Nuremberg, The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin will be presented countless times – along with the soaring five-hour epic Tristan and Isolde, whose evocation of sex, love and infatuation was so radical that Wagner once told his muse Mathilde Wesendonck that if the work were ever to be “performed well” he feared “it would be banned.”

One country that will not be partaking of the birthday celebrations is Israel, where Wagner’s music is, effectively, banned. The boycott has little to do with the searing psychological realism attained in Tristan and Isolde though, and everything to do with the fact that for many Israeli Jews, Wagner’s music carries irrevocably the taint of its association with and appropriation by the Nazis.

Guilty by association

The conflation of Wagner and Hitler has always posed difficulties for any principled listener, Jewish or otherwise. And with Wagner in everyone’s eyes and ears this year, a litany of vexing questions beckons. Can we listen to, watch or perform Wagner’s music with a clear conscience? Was Wagner’s music despicably perverted by the Nazis, or did their adulation merely expose its inherent perversions? And in what circumstances can Wagner conscionably be performed by or for Jews?

No easy answers ensue – but some facts stand. It is incontrovertible that, like many Germans of his day, Wagner was virulently and unapologetically anti-Semitic. If the 1873 stock market crash and attendant agricultural crisis of the mid-1870s further poisoned the climate against Jews and their supposed economic liberalism, Wagner had already made his monstrous sentiments clear, beginning with his infamous 1850 treatise On Jewishness in Music. Although the musicological and academic jury is still out as to whether the music dramas can themselves be described as anti-Semitic, there is little doubt as to their composer’s ideology.

But another fact is equally inescapable: Wagner was not, as we understand the term, a Nazi. “I am sure there are people in Israel who support the ban who think that Wagner was around in 1940,” comments the Israeli Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim, who will conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle in a complete Ring Cycle at this summer’s BBC Proms in London. Wagner died in 1883. Hitler was born in 1889.

‘Use, abuse and misuse’

Barenboim is also quick to point out that widespread recognition of Wagner’s anti-Semitism did not prevent his music from being performed by Jews even after Hitler came to power. In Tel Aviv in 1936, for example, the Palestine Philharmonic – precursor to today’s Israel Philharmonic – memorably performed the prelude to Act 1 and Act 3 of Lohengrin under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. “Nobody had a word to say about it,” Barenboim remarks. “Nobody criticised [Toscanini]; the orchestra was very happy to play it.”

A Jewish prohibition on playing Wagner only came into effect later due to what Barenboim describes as the “use, misuse and abuse” of his music by Hitler, who had related in Mein Kampf the experience of seeing Lohengrin as a 12-year-old: “In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth Master knew no bounds.”

Today, as Barenboim knows all too well, any attempt by a composer to perform Wagner in Israel invites outrage. In 2001, his considered decision to offer a piece of Wagner as an encore led to widespread condemnation – particularly regrettable, he says, because the audience had been asked beforehand, during a measured 40-minute discussion, if they would like to hear it. Those who did not were invited freely to leave; they were less than five per cent of the audience. “The idea this was a scandal was started the next day by people with a political agenda, not those in the concert hall,” he tells me, stressing his respect for “anybody’s right to choose not to listen to Wagner.” But, he says, “in a democratic society there should be no place for such taboos.”

The Wagner issue is particularly nettlesome for many listeners because invariably the music itself engenders precisely the opposite feelings. For overwhelming emotion, love, passion and humanity there is little comparable to Wagner. But perhaps this inherent contradiction is where the composer’s most radical value lies. Referring to the famous “Tristan Chord”, that paved the way for the great untethering of tonality in the 20th Century, Barenboim says: “A composer with less genius and with a poorer understanding of the mystery of music would assume that he must resolve the tension he has created. It is precisely the sensation caused by an only partial resolution, though, that allows Wagner to create more and more ambiguity and more and more tension as this process continues; each unresolved chord is a new beginning.”

As the birthday parties commence this month, expect the ambiguities and the tensions to rumble on.

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