Wagner’s Lesson, Unheeded

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

Try as you might, you cannot avoid Richard Wagner.

But the Israelis keep trying anyway. Ever since it became a state in 1948, Israel has adamantly discouraged the performance of Wagner’s music within its borders. As Hitler’s favorite composer, Wagner was prominently used as the soundtrack of the Third Reich, and the associations that survivors from Nazi concentration camps have with Wagner’s music are obviously painful.

That--and Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism--is why there was such an uproar over Daniel Barenboim’s choice of an encore at the Israel Festival two weeks ago: the prelude to Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde.” The Argentine-born conductor, who grew up in Israel, may be one of the most important musicians Israel has produced, but that has not stopped Israeli officials, from Ariel Sharon on down, from condemning him.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert called Barenboim’s action “brazen, arrogant, uncivilized and insensitive,” and said the city would rethink its relations with the conductor. Ephraim Zuroff, who heads the Israeli branch of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, accused the conductor of first trying to seduce Israel’s citizens. “The Israeli public refused. He raped us,” Zuroff said, calling on Israelis to boycott Barenboim.


For years, Barenboim has been attempting to break the common agreement to ban live performances of Wagner in Israel. He had hoped things had changed in the 20 years since Zubin Mehta, music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic, announced an encore of the “Tristan” prelude. On that occasion, a Holocaust survivor jumped on stage, tore off his shirt and displayed his scars from a Nazi concentration camp, causing Mehta to halt the performance.

“I have the greatest understanding and compassion for all Holocaust survivors and their terrible associations with Wagner’s music,” Barenboim wrote in a Times editorial in May. “Therefore, Wagner’s music should not be played during concerts for regular season ticket-holders during which faithful subscribers would be confronted with ... painful memories. However, the question must be asked whether any person has the right to deprive any other person who does not have these same associations of the possibility of hearing Wagner’s music. This would indirectly serve the misuse of Wagner’s music by the Nazis.”

For his engagement at the Israel Festival, with the orchestra from the Berlin State Opera, Barenboim had planned to program the first act of “The Valkyrie,” from Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” cycle. Only after much controversy, a demand by the Israeli parliament that the festival cancel the concert, and a request by the festival itself to change the program did Barenboim relent and perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, instead.

But Barenboim continued to insist that the Wagner ban was unworthy of a democratic state. Recordings of Wagner’s operas are sold in Israel, as they are practically everywhere else in the world. Israel state radio is not prevented from broadcasting Wagner’s music, although it does not do so often. Barenboim said he made his decision to perform the “Tristan” encore when a cell phone ring interrupted the press conference before the concert. It was programmed to play “The Ride of the Valkyries.”


If it can be played in public on a cell phone, Barenboim argued, why not in a concert hall where it belongs and where people actually have the choice of hearing it or not? And that is exactly what the conductor did. He announced from the stage his intention to play the Wagner excerpt and then engaged in a heated discussion with the audience about it. Some 50 people angrily stormed out in protest; about 1,000 remained and gave the performance a standing ovation.

In fact, the issue is deeper than simply presenting a choice of whether to listen to Wagner. Wagner’s music and his aesthetics pervade high and low culture throughout the world, and Israel is no exception. The prelude to “Tristan” may well be the single most influential piece of music written in the last century and a half. Technically, its opening “Tristan chord” began the process of breaking down tonality, which would become the greatest issue in 20th century music.

More important, though, was Wagner’s concept of a total artwork that combined music, drama and scenery to a degree never before attempted. In his mature operas, Wagner not only proved a genius at defining character and plot through music, he also insisted on theatrical verisimilitude in all aspects of the staging. He would settle for nothing less than overwhelming the senses of his audiences. And the responses ranged from the extremes of obsessive adulation to outright alarm.

So potent is the Wagner equation that he is the only composer who spawned an “ism.” And Hitler was hardly the only one under the spell of Wagnerism. It has long been suggested that Nietzsche’s madness was a result, at least in part, of his utter absorption in Wagner’s universe.

To this day, ordinary people go to extraordinary lengths to place themselves under that same spell. For instance, attending the “Ring” usually requires great expenditures of time and money, with most cycles proceeding over seven or eight days. A new production of the “Ring” will be given by Seattle Opera next month. Try to get a ticket.

But it doesn’t take a “Ring” trek to realize Wagner’s continuing significance. He has had an effect on nearly every composer who followed him. Lush, symphonic film music, as it was developed in the 1930s in Hollywood by German emigre composers, was designed to underscore action and emotions, to add atmosphere and tell us something about character--in the Wagnerian way.

Movies, moreover, have only become more Wagnerian as they have gained new technological means to overwhelm an audience’s senses and psyches. When Los Angeles Opera announced the involvement of the “Star Wars” special-effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, in the company’s first production of the “Ring,” a typical reaction was to wonder why it hadn’t been done before.

At its most troublesome, though, Wagner’s art can enslave. I am reminded of a composer who once expressed a dislike for Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. “Don’t you like to be moved?” he was asked. “I don’t mind being moved,” he replied, “but I don’t like to be pushed.” Wagner pushes like no composer before him or after.


But his work also illuminates the human condition in a way that has never been equaled in music drama. The nuanced portrayals of character and moral dilemmas reveal the profound implications of how the mind works. Yes, Wagner could made unsavory characters, such as Mime in “Siegfried” and Beckmesser in “The Mastersingers,” into caricatures of Jews. But he also made his glorious heroes into morally flawed and ultimately untenable characters. Siegfried, that Aryan showpiece who so appealed to the Nazis, brings down the entire world of the gods in part because he was a mistake to begin with (the result of a forbidden, narcissistic love between twin brother and sister), and because he was so stupid.

No one has to like Wagner as a person; no one has to like his music. But no one should dismiss him. To understand how this music can produce near-hypnotic power over listeners is to understand culture’s ability to manipulate, for better and for worse. Wagner’s profoundly persuasive techniques of managing the emotions and swaying an audience can be found in everything from Leni Reifenstahl’s Nazi propaganda to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

What makes the Wagner case so crucial is that it points out the complexity and inconsistency of human nature. Wagner was an extreme case, but he was hardly the only intolerant composer whose work matters nonetheless. Charles Ives was homophobic. Percy Grainger was racist. Charles Ruggles was so anti-Semitic that several of his colleagues stopped visiting him in his old age, sick and tired of his rants. When the Israel Festival sought the substitution of Stravinsky for Wagner, it conveniently overlooked that Stravinsky’s anti-Semitism has been a subject of controversy for several years.

There is, of course, no excusing Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Nor would it ever be reasonable to suggest that someone who survived the death camps could or should get over the associations with music that accompanied Nazi rallies and Hitler’s radio addresses. But isn’t the broadcasting of Wagner’s music, which survivors might unsuspectingly be exposed to in restaurants or other public places, far more insensitive than a scheduled live performance?

Israel has problems right now that would seem to be far more pressing than whether this piece or that is played at a symphony concert. Yet those problems have to do with the country’s ability to listen to things it doesn’t want to hear, and that happens to affect us all.

The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians have such difficulty listening to each other, that they cannot get beyond those wrongs that each side perpetrates, and reach an understanding and mutual acceptance, is not unrelated to an inability to apprehend Wagner as total person, to understand how a man can be very great, very wise in some matters--and very wrong. The lesson that Wagner has to teach is that the world is not black and not white. But you can’t hear that lesson if you won’t listen. *