BY VIC ALHADEFF
May 13, 2017
Richard Wagner: the name ignites animated debate ranging from anger to angst. The arguments about his musical genius collide with his virulent racism and the fact he was ardently embraced by Adolf Hitler.
Can one listen to Wagner with a clear conscience? Can a composer who died in 1883 — six years before Hitler was born — reasonably and damningly be identified with his country’s genocide of the Jewish people?
If the answer to that last question is in the affirmative, does it trump the insistence by music aficionados that no philharmonic orchestra that takes itself seriously — and no study of music — can be complete without including Wagner’s work?
These and other vexed issues are tackled vigorously in You Will Not Play Wagner by South African playwright Victor Gordon, showing at the Eternity Playhouse in Sydney’s inner-city Darlinghurst. And they underpin a controversy that remains unresolved in the music world and particularly in Israel, where an unofficial ban on Wagner’s music endures seven decades after the Nazi death camps were liberated.
So who was Wagner? He was described as “the most volcanically controversial figure in the history of music”, and his compositions were so seminal and so innovative that ignoring them renders any appreciation of classical music congenitally flawed. Or at least that is the universal wisdom.
Yet he has two incontrovertible strikes against him: he was viciously anti-Semitic, and his music and writings were absorbed by the leader of the Nazis as validation of his own grotesque world view. Hitler has been quoted as saying: “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner … Wagner’s line of thought is intimately familiar to me. At every stage of my life I come back to him.”
Wagner’s music was a feature of Nazi newsreels and big state occasions.
One of his vile statements — “The Jew is the plastic demon of the decline of mankind” — is included in the Nazi film The Eternal Jew, while an extract of Wagner’s The Mastersingers accompanies Nuremberg rallies in Leni Riefenstahl’s racist film Triumph of the Will. Hitler insisted that the rallies open with performances of The Mastersingers, in 1933 issuing 1000 tickets to Nazi officials — who mostly didn’t turn up — while an extract from Wagner’s Ring cycle was performed at many Nazi funerals. In addition, Hitler alluded to Wagner’s Parsifal in a chilling 1939 speech prophesying his planned destruction of the Jews, and he wrote in Mein Kampf: “At the age of 12, I saw … the first opera of my life, Lohengrin (by Wagner). In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds” — so much so that every summer from 1933 to 1939 he presided over the Bayreuth Festival (a Wagner celebration), greeting the audience from his balcony. The Wagner estate, Wahnfried, became his second home.
Wagner virulently attacked Jews in a pamphlet titled Jewishness in Music. Israel’s unofficial ban on his music predates the establishment of the state in 1948; in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in 1938 a member of the board of the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra — forerunner of the Israel Philharmonic — asked guest conductor Arturo Toscanini to remove The Mastersingers from the program. Since then, Wagner has been played on Israeli radio and television, but not in concert halls — with occasional contentious exceptions. About to perform an encore in 1981, Zubin Mehta invited those who wished to do so to leave the hall and conducted an extract from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Holocaust survivor Ben-Zion Leitner, who had fought in Israel’s wars, strode to the front, exposed his battle scars and shouted “Play Wagner over my body!”
Mehta has tried to play Wagner several times, while Daniel Barenboim, who has conducted at Bayreuth, elicited a similar outcry when he conducted the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, and an attempt by the Israel Wagner Society to hold a concert at Tel Aviv University saw the university withdrew permission, as did a city hotel.
Opponents of the ban point out that composers Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt and Mussorgsky all made comments that could be regarded as anti-Semitic, while Israelis generally have made peace with Germany, which is now a staunch ally, and many Israelis drive German cars. But discussion of Wagner cannot be reduced to the quality of his music; Holocaust survivor Uri Chanoch argues that Wagner provided ideological infrastructure for Hitler.
Ultimately, the issue is the power of the symbolism that intertwines and identifies Wagner with Hitler and his pivotal presence in the Nazi psyche. For that reason, the unofficial ban should endure.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. He will conduct a Q&A with playwright Victor Gordon at You Will Not Play Wagner at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney, tonight. The play runs until May 28.
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