Richard Wagner, Getty Images
Richard Wagner. Photo by Getty Images
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Last week, the American Musicological Society's Internet chat forum held a discussion on an unusual topic: the latest Wagner scandal, which earlier in the month caused storms in European newspapers, mainly in Germany. The brouhaha was barely noticed in Israel.

A forum member sent discussion partners a blog article by Isi Leibler in The Jerusalem Post, one of the few opinion pieces published in Israel on the affair. Leibler got to the heart of the matter: The Israel Chamber Orchestra's planned visit next summer to the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. In its repertoire, the orchestra would play works by the anti-Semitic 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, who is boycotted in Israel.

Since its founding by Wagner, the festival has been run by his descendants. The current director, the composer's great granddaughter Katharina Wagner, wants to speak openly about the festival's status during Hitler's rule, when Wagner became a symbol of Nazi ideology. In the spirit of reconciliation, the Israel Chamber Orchestra was invited to play at the festival.

Leibler wrote that "it is surely shameful for Jews to be associated with activity that can be linked to such an evil person. It truly requires a person to act in a schizophrenic manner to say that they can enjoy this man's music and close their eyes to his evil actions. But even more so, the heartlessness of Israelis ignoring the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors represents a stain on our dignity and national identity.

"But for an Israeli orchestra to actually go to Germany to perform his works in Bayreuth where he was glorified by the Nazis is truly a national disgrace. It should be cancelled."

Fleeing Vienna

One respondent to Leibler's article is himself the descendant of a great composer: E. Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg. E. Randol Schoenberg is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and director of the Los Angeles Opera, which this year performed Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" at the largest arts festival in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, whose funding came partly from Jewish donors.

"If anyone suffered from Wagner's particular brand of anti-Semitism it was people like my grandfathers - Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl - two Jewish composers who grew up in Vienna while Wagner's theory that Jews could not be creative artists held sway over the musical world," wrote Schoenberg in JewishJournal.Com. He discussed how his grandfathers fled Vienna, leaving behind family who later died in the Holocaust.

"And yet, my grandfathers loved Wagner's music, even while they hated the man and his terrible philosophy.

"Schoenberg wrote that by the time he was just 25 years old, he had heard every Wagner opera 20 or 30 times. His early works are unmistakably Wagnerian, and he counted Wagner among his most important teachers.

"Zeisl earned much-needed income by performing his own piano transcriptions of Wagner's operas for a wealthy Jewish patron, who paid simply to sit next to him during the performance. He, too, turned to Wagner as a model for his unfinished opera, 'Job,' ... composed after fleeing Austria. Even during and after the war, my grandfathers' love and esteem for Wagner's music did not diminish.

"Following my grandfathers' example, I believe it is wrong for Jews to reject Wagner's music out of hand and to refuse to listen to it. Wagner's music has undeniably been an inspiration to countless Jewish composers, conductors, musicians and music lovers."

Not at concentration camps

Schoenberg denied the rumor that Wagner's music was played at concentration camps. This is a myth, he insisted; while there were prisoner orchestras at Auschwitz, they played mostly light music, not Wagnerian opera. The Nazis dealt with mass extermination, not musical accompaniment. Anyone who claims that Wagner's music gives expression to the culture that led to the Holocaust "should take a look in the mirror," Schoenberg claimed. "Anyone who thinks that German culture and Jewish culture can be separated is fooling himself."

Schoenberg added: "German culture is a part of Jewish culture and vice versa. Wagner's influence can no more be extricated from Jewish music history than Mendelssohn's, Mahler's or Schoenberg's could be from German music history. The two - German and Jewish - go hand in hand, for better or worse."

His conclusion: "The truth is that Jews have nothing to fear from Wagner .... Whatever one thinks of Wagner the person, his accomplishment in 'The Ring' ranks among the greatest artistic achievements in Western civilization. If you don't believe me, go to the Los Angeles Opera and listen, and you will hear for yourself."

Two refugees from the Nazis, two musical geniuses

In October 1944, a Western Union messenger in Los Angeles brought an envelope to the home of the exiled composer Arnold Schoenberg. It was a telegram sent by the director of the Palestine Orchestra (later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra ), Leo Kestenberg, to congratulate the great composer on his 70th birthday. The telegram announced that the orchestra would open the forthcoming season by playing one of Schoenberg's works.

This telegram has been found by the composer's grandson, E. Randol Schoenberg, and sent as an attachment to the American Musicological Society's discussion on the controversy surrounding the Israel Chamber Orchestra's planned performance at the Bayreuth Festival. Two other documents were letters Kestenberg sent to Schoenberg in May and July 1939, in which the director mentions that the orchestra, which had been set up just three years earlier, had performed the composer's "Chamber Symphony" and "Pelleas Und Melisande."

In these documents, Kestenberg describes his own biography, how he fled Prague in 1933 and in 1938 came to Mandatory Palestine to direct the orchestra. These moving letters do not fully reflect the tragedy that befell these two Jewish refugees, who a decade earlier would not have been able to imagine their fate.

In the mid-1920s, Schoenberg (1874-1951 ) won a post at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin; in 1926, he moved to Berlin from Vienna. Seven years later he was summoned for a meeting by the academy's senate, which decided in his presence to expel "Jewish elements" from the institution. Schoenberg immediately resigned, fled Germany, and after some wandering, settled in Los Angeles.

Kestenberg (1882-1962 ), the son of a cantor, was born in Rosenberg, then in Hungary, and became an internationally renowned musical educator. After World War I, he won a post as musical adviser at the Prussian Ministry of Education and the Arts; after fleeing the Nazis, he established in Prague the International Society for Music Education, which remains a leader in this field today. After arriving in Mandatory Palestine, he co-founded Levinsky College's music education institute of Jewish studies for women.

Kestenberg's and Schoenberg's paths crossed twice: first in Germany, where they emerged as leaders in musical performance and education, and then in America and Israel, where they lived as Jewish exiles from Central Europe, each trying to rebuild his career. Kestenberg's correspondence with Schoenberg attests to the major role played by the Israeli Philharmonic in preserving and renewing this Jewish musical heritage from Central Europe. (Noam Ben-Zeev )