The music of German composer Richard Wagner was never played in his parents’ home: Too many bad associations with Hitler and the Nazis, explains filmmaker Hilan Warshaw.
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So it wasn’t until he began playing violin in a New York City youth orchestra that Warshaw was first introduced to the work of the notoriously anti-Semitic 19th-century German opera composer. And rather embarrassingly, he found himself smitten.
“I just loved the music. But, at the same time, it was something that my conscious mind told me was anathema,” he recalls.
Over the years, Warshaw – whose family lost many relatives during the Holocaust – developed what he describes as a “push-pull relationship” with Hitler’s favorite composer. And it made him curious about the other Jews in Wagner’s life.
So curious, in fact, that he decided to devote the past several years to making a film on the subject. The fruit of that effort, “Wagner’s Jews,” is playing in Tel Aviv at the Docaviv festival, Israel’s premier event for documentary film.
Produced, directed and written by Warshaw, the feature-length film focuses on the Jews who were some of Wagner’s closest associates, among them the gifted young pianist Carl Tausig, who was almost like a son to him; the conductor Hermann Levi, who happened to be the son of a rabbi; and the pianist Joseph Rubinstein, who lived in Wagner’s home for many years and killed himself when the composer died.
The film also explores the complicated relationship of post-Holocaust Jews, both in Israel and abroad, with Wagner’s music.
Although it is not well known that Wagner had many Jewish supporters and friends, notes Warshaw, neither should it be all that surprising.
“Wagner was not living in 1938 Germany,” he notes. “He was living in the mid-to-late 19th century, and it would not have been possible for him to operate effectively in the music world of his time without coming into contact with Jews, since there were many in the music world in Europe at that time.
"It’s also not surprising that these Jews were willing to be associated with him, because if they were not going to associate with every composer who expressed anti-Semitism, the only ones left for them to be working with would be their dads.”
Wagner’s anti-Semitism was certainly not a rarity at the time, but neither was it as prevalent as assumed, according to Warshaw. His case in point is the little-known story, brought to light in the film, of Wagner’s first wife, Minna Planer. Although they had a rocky relationship from the start, it was “Judaism in Music” – his famous essay attacking the Jews – that brought things to a head in their marriage.
“This proves there was a virulence to his anti-Semitism that even his wife couldn’t deal with,” posits Warshaw.
The son of an Israeli mother and American father, Warshaw grew up in Manhattan, where he attended Ramaz yeshiva high school. As for his unusual name: “I tell people it’s a new-age Hebrew name – a masculine form of Hila.”
He studied conducting at the Mannes College of Music in New York and Aspen Music School, before transitioning to film studies at New York University.
“The reason I left conducting is that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life interpreting someone else’s work – I wanted to create my own,” he says. “It was also a natural move because for me; film is very, very musical. And by making films about musical subjects, my love of music stays alive.”
To mark the 200th birthday of the controversial German composer, “Wagner’s Jews” was broadcast last year in Germany on Arte and WDR, both of which provided funding for its production.
Did Warshaw’s work on the film change his views? “Originally, when I heard that Wagner had many Jewish associates, I thought that maybe he was just an anti-Semite in theory but not in practice, or that maybe this is something not as extreme as we’ve been led to believe,” he responds.
“But while working on the film, my view of Wagner the man became darker, because the more I explored his relationships with Jews, the clearer it became to me that these were largely exploitative relationships.”
When asked if he supports or opposes the ban on staging Wagner’s operas in Israel, Warshaw hesitates for a moment. “I don’t have a strong moral feeling about this one way or the other,” he says.
“Let me put it this way. I can understand the reasons for the ban very well. But I actually think that people make a bigger deal of it than needs to be made, because Israel is not the only example in the world of a democracy where performing arts organizations tailor their repertoires to what they think their audiences will accept."
"I don’t think it’s a freedom of speech issue – I think it’s an issue of a social symbol," he added. "So I understand the ban and, to a certain degree, I really empathize with it. But I can’t really say I’m 100 percent in favor of it, the reason being my own life experience.
"I grew up in America, not in Israel. I had the opportunity to play Wagner’s music, to study it, and those were formative experiences for me. I’m aware that had I grown up in Israel, I would probably not have been able to have those experiences. So for me to come out and be a partisan of the ban wouldn’t be 100 percent honest.”