From Wagner to Roger Waters: Should We Sanction Musicians Who Hold Odious Ideas About Jews?

It’s the one cultural boycott Israel backs: An informal ban on public performances of Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. Musicians can be anti-Semitic – but can their music?

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A rehearsal of the Richard Wagner's opera ‘Die Walkure', the second part of the 'Ring des Nibelungen' opera tetralogy at the Festspiel opera house in Bayreuth, Germany.
A rehearsal of the Richard Wagner's opera ‘Die Walkure', the second part of the 'Ring des Nibelungen' opera tetralogy at the Festspiel opera house in Bayreuth, Germany.Credit: AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

It happens every few years. A leading conductor or some other music authority seeks to play the music of Richard Wagner in Israel. The attempt generates a controversy, and those in charge ultimately apologize and promise never to do it again. 

The latest instance came last week when Israel public radio’s "As You Want" program broadcast an excerpt from Wagner’s "Gotterdammerung." Afterwards, the radio station apologized, and promised that it would return to abiding by the informal ban on the playing of Wagner’s music - because of its desire to avoid giving pain to Holocaust survivors.

Thus, Kan Kol Hamusika now joins conductors like Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim who have tried and failed to break the Wagner taboo. Others will, no doubt, follow in their footsteps. Nevertheless, given the anger the question provokes not only among the dwindling number of survivors but other Jews who choose to believe upholding this tradition is a matter of principle, it’s not clear that future attempts will be any more successful.

But the idea that this does the Jews, Israel or the arts any good is another question entirely. Like all attempts to merge the arts with politics and to punish artists whose beliefs or actions we oppose - even when, as with the case of Wagner, there is a good historical reason for anger - such bans are almost always a very bad idea.

The instinct to punish artists who voice opinions we don’t like is understandable. Some Israelis will delete the songs of Lana Del Rey from their Spotify accounts because she succumbed to pressure from BDS activists and canceled a concert in Israel.

There’s an even better argument for declaring Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters off limits since he has integrated his odious ideas about Israel and Jews as well as support for BDS into his concerts. In the world of classical music, there are also those who boycott Barenboim - whose recording of Wagner was the one that caused the trouble on the radio - because of his pro-Palestinian views.

The starting point for the discussion of Wagner must always be one of respect for the feelings of Holocaust survivors. The notion that Wagner provided the soundtrack for the Shoah is, at best, an exaggeration. Yet it is also true that for some of those who lived through it, memories of the horror of Nazi Germany are linked with the music of Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer.

German composer Richard Wagner, undatedCredit: AP

Wagner’s bizarre theories about the role of Jews in perverting German music had an outsized influence in his own day and helped prepare subsequent generations to make the leap from hate to mass murder. Indeed, during his lifetime it’s likely that far more people read his anti-Semitic essays than the relative few who had the opportunity to hear his music played live in the time before recordings or broadcast media existed.

But that is not the same thing as saying he was a Nazi. Wagner died in 1883 and, despite his vile ideology, had a complicated and inconsistent attitude toward Jewish colleagues as well as politics. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his widow, children and grandchildren, some of whom allowed Hitler and his followers to hijack the Bayreuth Festival - the prestigious music institution founded by the composer to perpetuate his work - and to turn it into a prop of the Nazi regime. 

Yet to assert, as some do, that Wagner’s operas are anti-Semitic is false. While Wagner’s anti-Semitic screeds are today read only by scholars, his operas continue to be enjoyed by audiences around the world who know little or nothing of his anti-Semitism - because they are life-affirming in nature and say nothing about Jews or Judaism.

Those who seek to project the composer’s racial and political opinions onto the broad canvas of his myth-based theater works are inevitably reduced to strained analogies that can’t stand up to scrutiny.

So long as the work itself is not something that promotes hatred (which can be said of a play such as "The Merchant of Venice," even though no one seeks to enforce a ban on the writings of William Shakespeare) one must separate the artist from their art.

Unlike literature, attempts to classify any music as intrinsically good or evil always fail because the power of the art form is ethically neutral.

A letter by German anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner warning of Jewish influence in culture on display at the Kedem auction house, Jerusalem. April 16, 2018.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

For example, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement and a man who held liberal views about culture and society, was a great supporter of Wagner’s music. Herzl confided to his diary during the period when he was planning to write "The Jewish State," "Only on those nights when no Wagner was performed [at the Paris Opera] did I have any doubts about the correctness of my idea." He later insisted that music from Wagner’s "Tannhauser" be played at the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in 1898.

No one should be forced to listen to anything that conjures up associations with the Shoah for them, and that will likely keep Israel’s Wagner ban alive. But while, contrary to Wagner’s own theories, art cannot stand outside of or above humanistic principles, once we view it only through the prism of politics and make it the prisoner of our ideologies - whether good or bad - we diminish both it and ourselves.

It can only be hoped that Israelis, who wouldn’t let Hitler’s opinions influence theirs on any other subject, will eventually relent and come to appreciate Wagner as music - rather than solely as a symbol of a tragic past.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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