Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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Wagner and Barenboim

The tacit ban on Wagner's music that holds in Israel since the early 1940s is ostensibly based on the notion that survivors of the Holocaust may find it offensive to have Wagner's music played in the land of the Jews. Why would they find it offensive? Presumably, because Wagner held clear antisemitic views (and published a book declaring jews a menace), and because Hitler and many other Nazis adored Wagner's music and Wagner himself. However, it seems to me (and to many journalists, apparently) that the latter reason is the deciding one.

I think it is crucial to be able to distinguish between art and artist, creation and creator. Wagner was an antisemite, but so was Chopin. Nevertheless, Chopin's music remains very popular in Israel, and around the world. This strengthens the hypothesis that the Israeli ban owes more to the fact the Nazis adored Wagner than to anything that has to do with the man himself or with his works.

I acknowledge that knowing the identity of a creation's creator, and some biographic information about him, can shed light on the creation and help interpret it in additional ways. But nevertheless the distinction between the artist and his art should hold.

I deem Wagner's musical work good, worthwhile, and interesting. I would like to be able to attend performances of it in Israel. Hitler may have also liked the color blue, and hearing birds singing in the morning. So? The fact some people may not be able to make that distinction between artist and art should not limit the public's cultural horizons. Attending a concert that's held in a concert hall is, after all, an entirely voluntary act of art consumption, and those whose horrid associations are inseparable from Wagner's music may refrain from this act.

This is all very logical and reasonable, perhaps even trivial. Unfortunately, it was not enough to convince the management of "Festival Israel" to let Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest conductors alive, and specifically a celebrated interpreter of Wagner's operas, to conduct the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre in the festival. A lamentable decision, but a legitimate one. Barenboim was asked to propose an alternative offering and agreed to do so.

But at the end of the concert that was supposed to feature Wagner's opera and instead featured Schumann's Symphony No. 4 and Stravinsky's Spring Rite, and after an encore, Barenboim unorthodoxly turned to the audience and asked whether they would like to hear something by Wagner as an additional encore. He suggested that those who would be terribly offended by this may leave at this point. Most of the audience responded enthusiastically and asked for Wagner, and a minority protested loudly, hurling abuse at Barenboim and denouncing him. Most of them eventually left, however, and Barenboim proceeded to play the opening of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde.

This behavior seems, to me, to be rude and illegitimate. He has reached an agreement with the management of "Festival Israel", the sole point of which was that Wagner's music will not be played in the festival, and proceeded to do just that. It's true that most of the audience was in favor, but nevertheless it violates the agreement with the festival management. While I greatly appreciate Barenboim and his work with Wagner's music, and despite my clear opinions on Wagner's music (indeed, I'm quite a Wagnerite), I think he should have carried on his battle for Wagner's music in more polite ways than this. He practically smuggled Wagner into the festival, and that's wrong.

I wish the Israeli media and general populace were capable of more rationality and temperance in debates on art and culture. The intolerable ease with which Nazis, the Holocaust, and hysterical propaganda are thrust into so many public debates here frustrates me very much.

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