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Wagner in Israel: The issue of whether the music of the notorious antisemite and composer Richard Wagner should be publicly performed in Israel remains impassioned fifty-six years after the fall of the Nazi regime

08 July 2001

Wagner and the Israel Festival

In May 2001 it was decided by the directors of the Israel Festival that music written by the composer Richard Wagner would not be performed at the festival. Wagner’s piece, Die Walkure was scheduled to be played by the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in July , but owing to a public outcry in Israel against playing the works of the composer whose name and creations are closely associated with the Nazi regime, it was decided not to perform the piece.

On the evening of the concert, Schumann’s Symphony No 4 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were performed instead of the Wagner. For a second encore, the conductor Daniel Barenboim asked the audience if they would like to hear something by Wagner. A thirty-minute discussion ensued. Part of the audience protested loudly against the playing of Wagner and left the hall, but most agreed to hear the piece. The orchestra then performed a section from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. After the performance some of the audience, as well as some of the orchestra members themselves, apparently were confused by what had happened. In the wake of the concert, the debate about the playing of Wagner in public performances in Israel and Barenboim’s actions continued in the media.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1833 in Leipzig and died on February 13, 1883. Wagner composed operas steeped in folk legends that glorified the German people (Volk). Among his most famous works are Lohengrin (1850), The Ring of the Nibelungs (Der Ring des Nibelungen: 1854-1874), the Master Singers of Nuremberg (Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg: 1867) and Parsifal (1882). With the support of the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, a devoted fan,

Wagner built his own festival theater at Bayreuth. From the middle of the 1870s onward, his works were performed there. Wagner was a strident antisemite and racist. In his malicious essay, Judaism in Music (Das Judentum in der Musik: 1850), he assailed Jews for being responsible for the ills of society. According to Wagner, Jews were incapable of really creating culture. Attacking the composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Christian of Jewish extraction, he wrote: "He has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and the tenderest sense of honor – yet without all these preeminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from Art…”[i]

Wagner ascribed to the belief that Jews are avaricious and they strive to rule the world. He wrote in Judaism in Music that, “According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force. That the historical adversity of the Jews and the rapacious rawness of Christian-German potentates have brought this power within the hands of Israel’s sons – this needs no argument of ours to prove.”[ii]

In the closing paragraph of his essay Wagner wrote of the impossibility of changing the Jew and making him a productive member of society. In his eyes the only solution was that Jews should not be a part of the society, but be cast out from it. He wrote: “But bethink ye, that one only thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus – Going under!”[iii]

Adolf Hitler was an ardent admirer of Wagner’s music and his racial and antisemitic world-view. Especially through his friendship with Wagner’s daughter-in-law Winifred, Hitler was closely drawn into the Wagner circle that remained in Bayreuth after the composer’s death. Regarded as Germanic to its core, Wagner’s music generally accompanied Nazi mass rallies. Thus Wagner and his music, probably more than any other artist and body of art, became associated with National Socialism.

Yad Vashem on the Performance of Wagner’s Compositions

Given Richard Wagner’s antisemitic writings and the close association of National Socialism and especially Hitler with him, Yad Vashem believes that orchestras in Israel must be particularly sensitive to the playing of Wagner’s music in live performances. In particular, the public performance of Wagner’s music is a source of pain for much of the Holocaust survivor community. Although an official governmental censure on the playing of Wagner would infringe on cultural freedom, it is important that all orchestras realize the strong connection between Wagner’s antisemitic and racial invective, Hitler’s adulation of him, and the heinous crimes committed by the Nazi regime in the name of the ideology of which Wagner was a prominent forerunner and which his music has come to symbolize.

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Katz, Jacob
    The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner's Antisemitism. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1986
  • Koehler, Joachim
    Wagner's Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple. Cambridge. Polity, 2000
  • Large, David Clay ed.
    Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984
  • Rose, Paul Lawrence
    Wagner: Race and Revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1992
  • Sheffi, Na'ama
    The Ring of Myths: The Israelis, Wagner and the Nazis. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2001
  • Wagner, Gottfried
    Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family's Legacy. New York: Picador USA, 1999
  • Weiner, Marc A.
    Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995

[i] Wagner, Richard, Judaism in Music and Other Essays, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1995, pp. 93-94

[iii] Wagner p. 81

[iii] Wagner, p. 100