Israeli Wagner Fans Plan to Defy a Longstanding Unofficial Boycott

The Valkyries’ ride to Tel Aviv? The Wagner Society is preparing a Tel Aviv festival featuring music by the composer. Israel's culture minister said the attempt reflects ‘insensitivity,’ due to Wagner's association with antisemitism

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Bayreuth Festival 2021: Onlookers stand in front of the Festspielhaus on the Grüner Hügel.
Bayreuth Festival 2021: Onlookers stand in front of the Festspielhaus on the Grüner Hügel, in Bayreuth , Germany.Credit: Daniel Karmann / Reuters
Haggai Hitron
Haggai Hitron

If the project is realized, it will be revolutionary: a longstanding boycott will be broken, and the avoidance of public performances of works by Richard Wagner in Israel will come to an end.

The Israeli Wagner Society is organizing four concerts featuring works by the antisemitic 19th-century composer on September 22 and 23, aiming to tear down a decades-long taboo and drawing criticism from Israel’s culture minister in the process. Wagner has long been a controversial figure in Israel, not only because of his well-recorded antisemitism, but also because years after his death, the composer was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite composers.

The first two concerts will be conducted by David Miller, an Israeli based in Germany who spearheaded the project, along with the society. The other two will be conducted by Ada Pelleg and Roit Feldenkreis. These events will include semi-staged selections from Wagner’s operas. His great-granddaughter, Eva Wagner, will be invited to stage them.

Amir Weiner, head of the Cross-disciplinary Composition Department at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Credit: Haim Kimchi

Where exactly will the concerts take place? “In a central auditorium in Tel Aviv whose name is still under wraps,” the organizers wrote. Which orchestra will be playing? The association is awaiting the reply of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. The chair of the society, Jerusalem attorney Jonathan Livny, says casting singers is no problem. As far as the orchestra is concerned, if no famous Israeli orchestra responds, the association will assemble an ad-hoc orchestra with players from several of them.

Last month, Culture Minister Chili Tropper sent a sharply-worded letter to the society in which he wrote that the plan for the events constitutes “insensitivity, humiliation, a model of historical blurring and a blow to social responsibility,” and that the unofficial boycott of Wagner is “an ethical and moral decision that should continue.”

Livny wrote in his reply to the minister that Tropper’s reaction was “unworthy.” He then summed up the arguments in favor of ending the boycott, writing: “The fulfillment of the right of many good people [to hold concerts of Wagner’s works], including Holocaust survivors, should not be prevented in the name of sensitivity towards Holocaust survivors.” Livny also remarked that, of course, holding such concerts is not forcing anyone to listen to Wagner.

I wholeheartedly support Tropper’s opinion. The arguments in favor of playing Wagner’s music at live concerts in Israel are extremely trite. Three reasons for this will suffice.

First, the sacrifice involved in giving up public Wagner concerts isn’t great. His works can be heard and watched in quite good renditions at home with superior sound and video quality. Of course, this can be done in the company of Wagner-loving friends.

Second, consideration for the feelings of Holocaust survivors, even if only a few, has a unique significance, because the Holocaust is unique in its tragedy. It is absurd to compare that to the desire of Wagner fans (even if they include quite a few Holocaust survivors) to attend public concerts of his works in Israel.

The third reason is an answer to the common argument that boycotting Wagner is not consistent with Israeli behavior when it comes to other products of German (and non-German) culture, as well as to tangible products whose producers’ personality ranges from dubious to abhorrent. This means creators whose personalities or acts are offensive in the context of antisemitism in general and Nazism in particular.

Miller notes the many renditions of the works of German composer Richard Strauss in Israel. (Incidentally, as far as I have read, Strauss was not an anti-Semite.) The answer to that is that concerning symbols related to the Holocaust, the demand for consistency is of little value. For example, Israelis are “allowed” to travel in a Volkswagen but still boycott Wagner. As Holocaust survivor Avraham Melamed, a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, once said: Music is a spiritual creation, a car is a piece of tin.

Stunning the senses

One of the Israeli musicians who appreciate Wagner’s music is Amit Weiner, head of the Cross-disciplinary Composition Department at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Weiner is in favor of performing Wagner’s works in Israel, but with a caveat: “I’m in favor, but not fully. If it harms the feelings of Holocaust survivors, I’m against it. On the other hand, Karl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana,” for example, a Nazi work for all intents and purposes, by a Nazi composer for all intents and purposes, should not be performed in Israel.” (“Carmina” has been performed in Israel many times.)

Can you tell us a little about your first encounter with Wagner’s music?

“I’m 41 years old, a Wagnerian from the age of 18. When I was first exposed to his works, I was already stuffed with music, from the Renaissance to Brahms and up to Mahler and Bruckner, and the other great composers. The encounter with Wagner was a shock, for me and for a group of friends who studied with me in the high school of Jerusalem’s music academy. Wagner stuns the senses. I know – from my own experience and that of my friends at the time, all of them musicians – that when you first enter Wagner’s world, for months it’s really the only music you hear. After Wagner it’s hard to listen to Brahms, because the orchestration created by Wagner is far more developed.

“That’s the impression today and – according to what I’ve read – that’s how it was already back in the 19th century, with the appearance of his works, the reaction of both musicians and the general public. Puccini wrote: ‘Alongside Wagner, we are all ordinary mandolin players.’ On the other hand, there were always people with reservations, so that Wagner’s music is like a guava; some love it and some say it stinks.”

To what extent is it possible to describe what is unique in Wagner’s music without using technical, professional terms? Weiner believes it’s possible, almost entirely. His explanation touches only on the aspect of “pure” Wagnerian music, without discussing the leitmotifs in Wagner’s operas, as this is a technique that combines music with drama.

A 1906 painting by Cesare Viazzi entitled 'The Ride of the Valkyries.'

Three foundations characterize Wagner’s music, says Weiner. “The first: unique chords; the second: series of chords that are ‘unresolved,’ and on this issue there is no avoiding a semi-technical explanation; the third: the orchestration.”

What are chords that are unresolved?

“In tonal music, from Bach to Brahms, over 300 years – and also in most of the chords that can be attached to the classical Hebrew songs, and to most European folk songs – almost every chord creates an expectation of hearing another specific chord immediately afterward. This expectation is particularly strong when it’s a chord that ‘must’ be followed by the final chord. It’s very important to stress that the expectation is triggered in every listener, not only in musicians. In Wagner, most of the time these expectations are not met, and that’s how the tension is maintained. Of course, occasionally he also fulfills expectations, so that the surprises don’t lose the ability to surprise.”

And the orchestration?

“Unprecedentedly rich compared to the works of the greatest classical composers. That’s reflected in the size of the orchestra, quantity that in this case creates quality. Incidentally, it’s fitting to mention that the concept of the ‘Wall of Sound’ in rock music was created under the influence of Wagner. And in general, it’s quite certain that without Wagner, all of the music of the 20th century – the ‘serious’ music and apparently the pop music as well, and certainly the film scores – would be different.”

What happens if you hear Wagner’s music without an orchestra, for example, if you play a stripped-down version of a work of his on the piano? Do you play only the series of chords that Wagner invented?

“You lose a lot, of course, but those who can try such a ‘reduction’ on the piano – there sheet music for his works in such a version – will enjoy it very much.”

What’s your opinion of the famous argument, attributed for example to Rossini, that Wagner’s operas have beautiful moments, but are usually boring?

“Beethoven also deliberately included very ordinary, boring moments, including in his greatest works, in order to build expectations. You could argue that Wagner exaggerated in adopting this tactic.”

“The Ride of the Valkyries” is the most famous Wagner selection. His greatest hit. What are the other most “successful” selections?

“The ‘Magic Fire Music’ from ‘The Valkyries,’ and all the preludes to the operas, as well as the ‘Liebestod’ from ‘Tristan and Isolde.’ In general, the preludes and finales are the most stunning selections in Wagner’s operas.”

And these are actually less clearly Wagnerian, in harmonic terms.

“Yes, but all these passages are Wagnerian in terms of orchestration. They’re also Wagnerian in their characteristic structure – swelling waves to a frightening climax. In my opinion, that’s a very sensuous form – as opposed to a calculated form, as in Brahms for example. In Wagner, the structure is Dionysian.”

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