Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Walking Out On Wagner

[T]he decision of the Israel Chamber Orchestra sadly represents an act of moral failure and a disgraceful abandonment of solidarity with those who suffered unspeakable horrors by the purveyors of Wagner's banner.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants

All you have to do is read the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on him to realize the quantity and quality of Wagner's prodigious work:
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works.

Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"). This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. However, his thoughts on the relative importance of music and drama were to change again and he reintroduced some traditional operatic forms into his last few stage works including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. Wagner's influence spread beyond music into philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants. Wagner's views on conducting were also highly influential. His extensive writings on music, drama and politics have all attracted extensive comment; in recent decades, especially where they have antisemitic content.
Wagner was also a rabid Antisemite.
Under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Wagner published the essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik" in 1850 (originally translated as "Judaism in Music", by which name it is still known, but better rendered as "Jewishness in Music.") The essay attacked Jewish contemporaries (and rivals) Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and accused Jews of being a harmful and alien element in German culture. Wagner stated the German people were repelled by Jews' alien appearance and behaviour: "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that because Jews had no connection to the German spirit, Jewish musicians were only capable of producing shallow and artificial music. They therefore composed music to achieve popularity and, thereby, financial success, as opposed to creating genuine works of art.

...Despite his very public views on Jews, throughout his life Wagner had Jewish friends, colleagues and supporters. In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner mentions many friendships with Jews, referring to that with Samuel Lehrs in Paris as "one of the most beautiful friendships of my life."
Wonderful. Another antisemite who could on the one hand rant about how Jews are "a harmful and alien element in German culture" and at the same time proclaim that some of his best friends are Jewish.

One other thing that we can learn from Wagner about artistic creativity: no matter how beautiful, inspiring and 'morally uplifting' a piece of art or music can be, it in no way indicates the moral level of its creator.

That does not degrade the creator of the art, the one who appreciates it--nor the art itself.

But a Jew with a sense of history will tend to distinguish between someone like Wagner on the one hand and his work, focusing on Wagner's life and actions as his real work.

So whether we are talking about 1981 when Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in playing a piece from Tristan und Isolde, or yesterday--when the Israel Chamber Orchestra played Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll"-- the distaste many Jews have towards Wagner is not irrational.

They just remember that his hatred of Jews is.

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