Israeli Orchestra Breaks Cultural Taboo, Plays Wagner in Germany

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Israel Chamber Orchestra is set to perform a work by Adolf Hitler's favorite composer, Richard Wagner, in a taboo-breaking concert in Germany.

The concert in Wagner's hometown alongside the 100th annual Bayreuth opera festival on Tuesday will mark the first time an Israeli orchestra has played Wagner in Germany, Nicolaus Richter, the head of Bayreuth city's cultural affairs department, told the Associate Press Monday. Israel has observed an informal ban on Wagner's music because of its use in Nazi propaganda before and during World War II.

Leading the orchestra will be Roberto Paternostro, whose mother survived the Nazi genocide. He is a friend of Katharina Wagner, a great-granddaughter of Wagner and co-director of the Bayreuth festival.

Other conditions surround the concert. It is set to begin with Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," and will also feature music by Jewish composers banned by the Third Reich, including Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

In addition, the orchestra started rehearsing the Wagner piece, the Siegfrid Idyll, only upon their arrival in Germany Sunday due to the sensitivities in Israel. "They didn't rehearse it at home in order not to create any resistance," Richter told the AP.

Wagner was a fervent anti-Semite, a fact reflected in many of his writings. When Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a performance of an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem in 2001, dozens of audience members stormed out.

Ten years on, the Israeli concert is not part of the official Bayreuth Festival program but it has nonetheless set some tempers flaring. Elan Steinberg, deputy head of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, condemned the performance as a "disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner."

The Israeli Chamber Orchestra was invited to open the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, but after outrage spread last fall, Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter and festival head to withdraw the invitation. Later, the mayor of the city of Bayreuth invited the ICO to perform there, though not at the festival itself.

The Bayreuth festival is Germany's most important festival for classical music. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many other prominent personalities regularly visit the annual event, which was founded by Wagner himself in 1876.

Weigh in: What do you think? Is it okay for Israeli musicians to play Wagner?


More in:

Comments [12]

As an African-American I can very well undertsand and admire the tenacity of the Jews as to who is friend or foe and to Never Forget.
But what does this resolve?
We two, African and Jew, are cousins and have been pitted against each other, only to remember who we are to one another. WE win.
Wagner's music is unbelieveably beautiful and personally one of my favorites.
The Jewish superior aesthetic realizes and acknowledges this and is relenting. So be it.
Those people, that time, were all barbarians. The same with America and Americans during and after Slavery. Places and people representing White superiority, but we learned to cut the chaff, and love America nonetheless.
There should be tears and enjoyment and trumph during these performances.

Jul. 27 2011 08:11 PM
N Pyo from roslyn ny

Everytime it gives me a chill!

Jul. 27 2011 11:57 AM
Frank Feldman

Well, one notices that they're playing the most innocuous and domesticated of all of Wagner's works, the Siegfried Idyll. Why not play the finale of Meistersinger, the race mass from Parsifal, or some excerpts from the operas in which Jews are obviously caricatured, ridiculed, and even murdered? The filth is in the libretti and music itself. One cannot separate the music from the sometimes despicable impulses which inspired it. This from one who considers Wagner the greatest artist of the nineteenth century. To me, this event represents nothing, because the meat and potatoes hatred and anti-semitism is not remotely addressed in the repertoire choice. Big deal-Siegfried Idyll.

Jul. 26 2011 09:53 PM
Marion Berghahn from New York

It does not make any sense to hold Wagner responsible for events that would happen much later and long after his death. Judging artists by their political views is a slippery slope. Chopin was a terrible anti-Semite, as was quite common in the 19th century, but he did not articulate it in the way Wagner did and therefore has not been banned but in many ways was not any better than Wagner. So to ban Wagner seems rather arbitrary.

Jul. 26 2011 06:41 PM
Michael Meltzer

It would be wonderful if it were possible to always move forward and at the same time be always immune to criticism.
That is not the way the world is. If you want to always be blameless and be the judge, you have to stand still.
The irony here is that the critics will benefit from the outcome just as much as the musicians putting their reputations on the line.

Jul. 26 2011 03:00 PM
Neil Schnall

Eileen has said it as well as it could be said. We have the privilege of partaking of the art without the pain of dealing with the artists.

The art can allow us to transcend as well, if only we allow ourselves to. Some never will, but that is not the fault of the art.

Jul. 26 2011 02:03 PM
EileenCG from Katonah, NY

Art transcends the individuals who created it.

There is difficulty reconciling a vile personality with the beautiful work he or she created, but the work stands on its own merit.

Wagner wrote masterpieces of music, rich and beautiful in every way. I delight in listening to them and acknowledging his genius. But as far as admiring him as a human being, I don't.

Jul. 26 2011 01:25 PM
Neil Schnall

[Following are a couple of paragraphs copied from Wikipedia articles, the first on Secular Jewish Music, the second from Wagner Controversies:]

Regarding Wagner himself, it often seems ironic to some that many of the most influential and popular interpreters of his work have been Jewish conductors such as the aforementioned Mahler and Bernstein, as well as Daniel Barenboim, Arthur Fiedler, Asher Fisch, Otto Klemperer, Erich Leinsdorf, James Levine, Hermann Levi (who was chosen by Wagner to conduct the premiere of Parsifal) Lorin Maazel, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, Sir George Solti, George Szell and Bruno Walter. It has been noted that there is a "love of contemporary Jewish conductors for Wagner". While much has been written about Wagner's anti-Semitism in his writings and music, and the Nazi appropriation of his music, research in recent years has analyzed the possibility that Wagner was himself of Jewish ancestry, and explored Wagner's interaction with and attitude towards the Jews through a multi-sided perspective.

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the Leipzig police service and Johanna Rosine Wagner. Wagner's father died of typhus six months after Richard's birth, by which time Wagner's mother was living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer in the Brühl, at that time the Jewish quarter of Leipzig. Johanna and Geyer married in August 1814, and for the first 14 years of his life, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer. Wagner in his later years discovered letters from Geyer to his mother which led him to suspect that Geyer was in fact his biological father, and furthermore speculated that Geyer was Jewish. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of Wagner's closest acolytes, and proof-read Wagner's autobiography Mein Leben. It may have been this closeness that led Nietzsche to claim in his 1888 book Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner) that Wagner's father was Geyer, and to make the pun that "Ein Geyer ist beinahe schon ein Adler" (A vulture is almost an eagle) —Geyer also being the German word for a vulture and Adler being a very common Jewish surname. Despite these conjectures on the part of Wagner and Nietzsche, there is no evidence that Geyer was Jewish, and the question of Wagner's paternity is unlikely to be settled without DNA evidence.

Jul. 26 2011 12:04 PM
Concetta Nardone from Elmont, NY

Wagner did not commit these horrible crimes that were also done to gentiles. Enough sorrow going around. A time to mourn and a time to sing and enjoy life. Not all the great composers were nice people. Enjoy the music and be healed.

Jul. 26 2011 10:21 AM
David from Flushing

There is no question that Wagner was not a very nice man in several ways, but he was not involved in the Nazi movement in Germany. The same cannot be said for Carl Orff whose music has escaped censure. At what point do we divide music from the composer's political views?

Jul. 26 2011 09:27 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I think it's not only O.K., I think it's essential that one of the most influential 19th Century composer's music --- even if only for his influence on the development of brass instruments --- be played in Israel, and anywhere else, despite how despicable his political and ethnic views were and are. I also think that if music lovers were to be selective based not upon their predilection and inclination towards the music but towards the composers' personal and moral views, there would be precious little repertory from which to choose, sad to say. Certainly, let those who cannot bear listening to Wagner because of the connection to the Holocaust abstain from attending anytime and anywhere. I can't think of a more anodyne work by Wagner than "Siegfried Idyll." That, plus the "Wesendonck Lieder," perhaps, insofar as the music is concerned, if not parts of the text. I also think that Maestros Mehta and Barenboim are correct and courageous in their advocacy of performing Wagner in Israel.

Jul. 26 2011 06:54 AM
Michael Meltzer

Considering the very special relationship that has evolved between these two countries since the holocaust (& the West German Olympics), with no doubt more introspection on both sides than ever before in history, and despite my own personal heritage, I have to consider myself an outsider here with only limited understanding.
I'm not sure whether what is planned is right or wrong, but I think that only good can come of it!

Jul. 26 2011 02:23 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.