Wagner, Israel and the Palestinians

There is perhaps no other composer in history who sought to combine such obviously incompatible elements in his works.


There is perhaps no other composer in history who sought to combine such obviously incompatible elements in his works. The qualities that make his supporters so enthusiastic are often the same ones that repel his opponents, such as his tendency toward extremes in every compositional aspect. Although he stretched the limits of harmony and operatic form to the breaking point, the realization of his musical concepts always remained exceedingly economical. It is in fact paradoxically this very economy that defines the incomparable dimension of his structures. Perhaps he found it necessary to make especially frugal use of certain individual elements in order to make the effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk even greater and more unexpected.

A good example of Wagner’s economy can be found at the beginning of the first act of Die Walküre, in which a wild storm rages. Even Beethoven made use of all the orchestral instruments in the storm in his Sixth Symphony, and given the instrumentation available to Wagner, one could assume that his storm would take on even grander proportions. Instead, however, he allows only the strings to unfurl the full force of the storm; the result is a far more direct, naked and compact sound than a full Wagnerian orchestra with brass and timpani would have produced. It is the precision of Wagner’s directions in the dynamic structuring of his scores that brings out the emotionality of the music. Wagner was the first composer to very consciously calculate and demand the speed of dynamic developments. When he wants to achieve a climax, he generally applies one of two techniques: either he lets a crescendo grow gradually and organically, or he lets the same musical material swell two or three times in order to let it explode the third or fourth time. In Wagner’s operas, there are frequent cases in which the musical material swells up and down in two bars the first time it appears. The second time Wagner allows the same material to grow for two bars with a subito piano immediately afterwards; only the third time is there a climax after four bars of crescendo. It is therefore a mathematical equation that gives rise to sensuality and fervor; it is his skillful intellectual calculation that creates the impression of spontaneity and purely emotional sensation.

Another characteristic of Wagner’s musical uniqueness can be observed in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, in the continuation of the famous “Tristan chord.” A composer with less genius and with a poorer understanding of the mystery of music would assume that he must resolve the tension he has created. It is precisely the sensation caused by an only partial resolution, though, that allows Wagner to create more and more ambiguity and more and more tension as this process continues; each unresolved chord is a new beginning.

Wagner’s music is often complex, sometimes simple, but never complicated. It is a subtle difference, but complication implies among others the use of unnecessary mechanisms or techniques which could potentially obfuscate the meaning of the music, and these are not present in Wagner’s work. Complexity, on the other hand, is always represented in Wagner’s music by multidimensionality. The music is always made up of many layers which may be individually simple, but which constitute a complex construction when taken together. When he transforms a theme or adds something to it, it is always in the sense of multidimensionality; the individual transformations are sometimes simple but never primitive. In other words, his complexity is always a means and never a goal in itself; it is also always paradoxical, since its effect can be so emotional, even staggeringly so. In his literary work Opera and Drama Wagner wrote: “In the Drama, we must become knowers through the Feeling. The Understanding tells us: “So is it,” – only when the Feeling has told us: “So must it be.”

I find it all the more important to do away with certain misunderstandings and false claims about Wagner precisely because perceptions of him are often so confused and controversial. Today we also want to devote ourselves to the extra-musical sides of Wagner’s personality, and among these are of course his notorious and unacceptable anti-Semitic statements.

Anti-Semitism was not a new development in nineteenth-century Germany. Only in 1669 did it become legal for Jews to move somewhat freely in Berlin and the surrounding area, and even then only rich Jews were allowed to take up residence there. Jews who were only passing through Berlin (like Moses Mendelssohn) had to enter the city through the Rosenthaler Gate, which was otherwise used only for livestock, and had to pay the same tax a farmer or merchant would have paid for his livestock or wares. In contrast to the Huguenots, it was forbidden for Jews to own land, to trade in wool, wood, tobacco, leather, or wine, or to pursue a profession. There were taxes for every imaginable occasion in the lives of Jews: for traveling, marriages and births, among others.

Wagner’s anti-Semitic statements must be seen in this context. The anti-Semitism of his era was already a widespread illness since time immemorial, even if Jews were accepted, respected, and even honored in certain circles of German society. A healthy measure of anti-Semitism was an unquestioned component of the nationalistic movements in late 19th century Europe. It was nothing extraordinary to blame the Jews for all current problems, whether political, economical, or cultural. In addition to the age-old hatred of Jews that had previously been directed against the Jewish religion, the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century was also justified by criteria of “ancestry” and “race” and was directed against the now largely emancipated and assimilated European Jewry. The center of this trend was Vienna. As we know, these notions were followed up and intensified in the 20th century. The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet once wrote in an article about Artur Schnabel that he may have been a great pianist and a wonderful musician, but that one always had the impression from his style of playing that he belonged to the Jewish people because he manipulated music the way Jews manipulated money.

This historical background does not change the fact that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite of the worst kind whose statements are unforgiveable. The reasons for his anti-Semitism lay partly in the success of his Jewish contemporaries Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. The negative characteristics Wagner accused the Jews of possessing—egotism and preoccupation with self-advantage—were in fact some of the very same ones that moved him to make certain exceptions to his own anti-Semitic convictions. Without Hermann Levi he would never have found such a brilliant conductor for his Parsifal, and without Joseph Rubinstein a piano score of Lohengrin might not have existed in Wagner’s lifetime. Wagner published the essay “Judaism in Music” for the first time in 1850 under the pseudonym K. Freigedank in the “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik“ in Leipzig; in 1869 he published it again as an independent brochure under his own name. In this work he writes: ”The Jew – who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself – in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nationality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that.” The only revision of this statement which he ever allowed himself was a comment made to his wife Cosima late in his life: “If I were to write again about the Jews, I should say I have nothing against them, It is just that they descended on us Germans too soon, we were not yet ready enough to absorb them.” Publically, however, he supported even more vehement anti-Semitic positions; he took the “Jewish race” to be the “born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it”; he claimed that “it is running us Germans to the ground, and I am perhaps the last German who knows how to hold himself upright in the face of Judaism, which already rules everything.”

As we have observed during the most recent debates in Europe over integration, racist statements, whether against Jews or currently against Muslims, have by no means disappeared from today’s society.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, who as a successful journalist was confronted by the increasing anti-Semitism in Austria and France, was initially in favor of complete assimilation of the Jews. Interestingly, Herzl’s choice of words was not fundamentally different from that of Wagner’s in describing the situation of Jews in German society. In 1893 he wrote that “to cure the evil” the Jews would have to “rid themselves of the peculiarities for which they are rightly reproached.” One would have to “baptize the Jewboys” in order to spare them excessively difficult lives. “Untertauchen im Volk!”: go underground amongst the people was his appeal to the Jewish population. Richard Wagner also spoke of the “Untergang,” the sinking: “consider that only one thing can be the deliverance from the curse that weighs on you: the deliverance of Ahasver, — sinking! (der Untergang)” Wagner’s conclusion about the Jewish problem was not only verbally similar to Herzl’s; both Wagner and Herzl favored the emigration of the German Jews. It was Herzl’s preoccupation with European anti-Semitism that spurred him on to want to found a Jewish state. His vision of a Jewish state was influenced by the tradition of European liberalism. In the novel Altneuland (1903), he describes what the settled Jewish community in Palestine might look like; Arabic residents and other non-Jews would have equal political rights. In other words, Herzl had not overlooked the fact that Arabs were living in Palestine when he developed the idea for an independent state for the European Jews. In 1921, at the 12th Zionist conference in Karlsbad, Martin Buber warned that politics would have to take on the “Arab question.” “Our national desire to renew the life of the people of Israel in their ancient homeland however is not aimed against any other people. As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people, who have constituted a persecuted minority in all the countries of the world for two thousand years, reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under whichh they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties In order to suppress another people or to dominate them.”

In the Israeli declaration of independence from May 14th, 1948, it also states that the state of Israel “will devote itself to the development of the country to the good of all its residents. It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will guarantee all its citizens social and political equality regardless of religion, race and gender. It will ensure religious and intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, education and culture.” The reality, as we all know, looks different today.

Even today, many Israelis see the refusal of Palestinians to recognize the state of Israel as a continuation of European pre-war anti-Semitism. It is however not anti-Semitism, but rather resistance against the division of Palestine at the time and against the withholding of equal rights today, for example the right to an independent state, that determines the relationship of Palestinians to Israel. Palestine was simply not an empty country (as Israeli-nationalistic legend has it); it could in fact have been described at the time as it was by two rabbis who visited the land to survey it as a potential Jewish state: “the bride is beautiful, but she is already married.” The fact that the state of Israel was founded at the cost of another people is still a taboo in Israeli society to this day.

Another taboo that continues to be maintained in Israel is the performance of Wagner’s works in Israel. To this I must say that the rumor that my performance with the Staatskapelle Berlin of the Prelude and Love Death of Tristan und Isolde in 2001 caused a sensation is a myth that has been anchored in people’s heads until now, nearly ten years later. The piece was played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive. Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.

During the Third Reich, Wagner’s music was still played by Jews in Tel Aviv by none other than the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the modern-day Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, when it became known that Jews had been sent to the gas chambers to the accompaniment of certain Wagner works, the performance of Wagner was rightly declared taboo out of respect for survivors and the relatives of victims. This was done not because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism but rather because of the Nazis’ abuse of his music.

Wagner may have been the most important personal and ideological role model for Adolf Hitler, a kind of “predecessor,” as Joachim Fest writes in his Hitler biography. Hitler called him “the greatest prophet ever possessed by the German people,” and took on Wagner’s mythology as a component of Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his world views. The Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, for one, refused to accept Wagner as a possession of the Nazis: “The music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Die Meistersinger but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they have no more honor than that, further honor can and shall not be given them.” Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews. As far as I am concerned, if Beckmesser’s awkward melodies resemble synagogue chant, then this is a parody of Jewish song and not a racist attack. One can of course also raise the question of taste in this matter.

The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish Israeli identity have not been taken; all concerned continue to cling to past associations which were absolutely understandable and justified at the time. It is as if they wanted to remind themselves by so doing of their own Judaism. Perhaps this is the same fact that does not allow many Israelis to see the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights.

When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means in a certain respect that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.

This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners, who should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.