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Excited over Wagner: The Israel Chamber Orchestra
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-10-11 08:05:05
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I love Israel, and yet – I am an outsider among you.  And the view of an outsider is: Play Wagner and Strauss.
Conductor Igor Markevitch, noted in Ma’ariv, 25 Nov 1952

It seems to be a permanent bone of contention, but broaching the topic of Israel’s relationship with Richard Wagner is a dangerous pastime.  The composer’s great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, cancelled a trip to Israel when news of it was leaked to the Israeli press.  The intention of the visit was one of goodwill: to announce that the Israel Chamber Orchestra would be invited to open next season’s Bayreuth festival, the annual Wagnerian spectacular that culminates in the performance of the entire Ring Cycle.  But this act of cultural diplomacy was duly rebuffed.

A sentimental ban of Wagner’s works has existed ever since 1938, when the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini refused to play Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on account of the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany.  The fate of Wagner’s music was sealed with the Holocaust, as its perpetrators openly adored and patronised it.  Personal theories on race and musical talent were rendered one and duly condemned, the notorious Das Judentum in der Musik fused with the interminable narrative of the Ring Cycle.  Besides, Israel needed to bolster its own cultural program, and in managing it, Wagner could hardly receive a hearing.

The Israeli journalist Noah Klieger still sticks to the old assumption that a ban of Wagner is justified.  Now, while they are very good musical reasons as to why Wagner should not be inflicted on anybody (‘Is he better than he sounds?’), his anti-Semitism is not a solid one.  Singularity is the name of the game in condemning evil, rather than necessarily realising how general it can be.  Anti-Semitism, that longest of hatreds, has had a list of practitioners so diverse amongst the otherwise cultured that banning their work from consumption would make the cupboard of civilization rather bare.

Whether an Israeli orchestra plays in Bayreuth or otherwise is of no consequence to those such as Klieger.  ‘We don’t need reconciliation with Wagner.  We have reconciliation with Germany.’  Wagner, to put it simply, ‘is the same Wagner – whether it’s today or 100 years ago, it’s the same Wagner with the same theory’ (Deutsche Welle, Oct 6). The question remains then who Israel is reconciling itself with?  Few, in any case, would ever want reconciliation with Wagner’s political beliefs. 

Things veer into the realm of the absurd when we consider the fact that other anti-Semitic composers such as Richard Strauss are played in Israel.  Indeed for a time Strauss, along with Carl Orff and Franz Lehár, got the cold shoulder from the Israeli authorities, something many Jewish figures of culture disagreed with.  And Wagner himself has been, as the scholar Na’ama Sheffi has pointed out, played on the Kol Hamusika (Voice of Music) for years without incident.  What matters for those opponents such as Klieger is that Wagner was the ‘father of this [racial] theory’.  For Klieger the point is obvious, and even he contends with the logical conclusion.  ‘If we banned all anti-Semites, we wouldn’t have a lot of writers, poets and composers because most of them were anti-Jewish.’

Ultimately, it does all come down to sentimentality, sensitivity and political management.  Grand figures of culture tend to be unspeakable monstrosities in their politics, and to ban them for their personal inclinations is always a dangerous practice.  The argument that figures of art influence political action is not much better.  Many would like to see the vocation of the political better affected by cultural sense.  It is questionable to assume that a fine musical sequence on its own accord manned the gas chambers.  As former Israeli politician Colette Avital commented, ‘As long as there are survivors of the Holocaust, their sensitivity has to be respected and nobody should hurt their feelings’ (Independent, Oct 6).  Eventually, the views of the outsider shall prevail, and that view shall favour, for better or for worse, the playing of Wagner.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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Emanuel Paparella2010-10-11 09:14:57
Sibellius is another composer that comes to mind here: he too seems to have harbored anti-semitic pro Nazi tendencies. The point made by this article that to mix art and politics is a dangerous operation is a good one indeed. But of course the issue ought never to have been focused on the quality of Wagner’s music despite Wagner’s anti-Semitism. That’s an easy one to answer. Rather, the issue ought to be: how does one explain that some of the Nazi leaders, not the excluding the Fuehrer himself, could go and listen to the Ring of the Niebelung sagas opera for nine hours or so and then come out of the theater as greater beasts than they went in ready to round up people for the lagers and violate the dignity of their humanity? I have never heard a satisfactory answer to that question which I suppose is related to the crucial issue of the relationship of ethics to aesthetics. Kant considered them separable and that’s why he coined the word “aesthetics,” but if that be the case then the point that art humanizes man is questionable and in the final analysis it matters not whether or not we educate the young to an appreciation of art. I like to think that what makes homo sapiens a better human being than Neanderthal man is the fact that homo sapiens placed some wonderful paintings on the wall of his cave and Neanderthal man did not, and that in fact, as Picasso himself used to think, the separation of ethics and aesthetics has led to an insipid kind of aestheticism separate from life. We consume and exhibit art after having thrown out the window the very notion of Beauty which the Greeks imparted to us. The results have been obvious since.

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