Thursday, July 28, 2011

L'Chaim, Richard Wagner

It's fair to say Richard Wagner was an avowed anti-Semite.

His 1850 pamphlet "Jewishness in Music" attacked many of his Jewish contemporaries in music, such as Felix Mendelssohn. He claimed Jews had no place in German music or culture, and even that most Germans were secretly repelled by them. Published first under a pseudonym and later openly, this pamphlet was joined in 1869 by a reprinted version - leading to protests at the opening of Der Meistersinger. Oddly, his private journals recount several strong friendships with Jews, including one he wrote of as "one of the most beautiful friendships of my life" (Samuel Lehrs of Paris).

What is undeniable is that his music and public anti-Semitism were both appropriated by Adolf Hitler. His operas in particular became the unofficial anthems of Nazi propaganda. There is even evidence that Wagner's music was used by the Nazis in an attempt to 're-educate' prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp.

And here the story takes a turn. Many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps of WWII emigrated to Israel, and since the formation of that nation, the operas of Wagner have never been performed there. The protests of Holocaust survivors were considered of greater gravity than the timelessness of Wagner's music - especially given his personal anti-Semitism.

But that changed on July 26, 2011. In a German town known as Bayreuth - home of the annual Wagner Festival - the Israel Chamber Orchestra performed the Siegfried Idyll by Wagner before an audience including Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter and co-director of the festival. Conductor Roberto Paternostro said the orchestra's decision was unanimous, and that he hopes to carefully and respectfully present the music of Wagner to a new generation, unburdened by the weight of a deeply personal and even more deeply traumatic past.

Can music heal? When music itself is the reminder of painful experiences, perhaps that is too much to ask. But art transcends the artist, and can and should be judged on its own merits. Perhaps, in this case, it is not the music that heals the listener, but the listener who will heal the music.

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