Barenboim and the Wagner taboo



A furore has erupted in Israel which deserves very close attention. I refer to the case of the remarkable pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim — a close personal friend of mine I should say at the outset — and a performance he gave on 7 July in Israel of an orchestral extract from one of Richard Wagner’s operas. Since that time, he has been subjected to vast amounts of commentary, abuse, and amazed expostulation, all of it because Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was both a very great composer and a notorious (and indeed deeply repulsive) anti-semite, who well after his death was known publicly as Hitler’s favourite composer and commonly associated, with considerable justification, with the Nazi regime and the terrible experiences of the millions of Jews and other “inferior” peoples that it exterminated. Wagner’s music has been informally banned in Israel so far as public performance is concerned, although his music is sometimes played on the radio and recordings of his music are on sale in Israeli shops. Somehow, to many Israeli Jews, Wagner’s music — rich, extraordinarily complex, extraordinarily influential in the musical world — has come to symbolise the horrors of German anti-semitism.

I should also add that, even to many non-Jewish Europeans, Wagner is barely acceptable for some of the same reasons, particularly in countries that underwent a Nazi occupation during World War II. Because some of his music sounds grandiose and “Germanic” (however one takes that misused adjective) and because he was a composer exclusively of operas, his work is so overbearing and so deeply concerned with the Germanic past, myths, traditions and achievements, and because he was such a tireless, verbose, pompous prose expounder of his mostly dubious ideas about inferior races and sublime (Germanic) heroes, Wagner is a difficult person to accept, much less to like or admire. Nevertheless, he was an unquestionably great genius when it came to the theatre and to music. He revolutionised our whole conception of opera; he totally transformed the musical system; and he contributed ten great masterpieces, ten operas that remain among the very great summits of Western music. The challenge he presents, not just to Israeli Jews but to everyone, is how to admire and perform his music on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to separate from that his odious writings and the use made of them by the Nazis. As Barenboim has frequently pointed out, none of Wagner’s operas have any immediately anti-semitic material in them; more bluntly, the Jews he hated and wrote about in his pamphlets are simply not at all to be found as Jews in his musical works. Many critics have imputed an anti- semitic presence in some characters that Wagner treats with contempt and derision in his operas: but they can only be imputations of anti-semitism, not instances of it, although the resemblance between caricatures of Jews that were common at the time and Beckmesser, a derisory character in Wagner’s only comic opera Die Meistersinger vor Nuremberg are actually quite close. Still, Beckmesser himself is a German Christian character in the opera, most certainly not Jewish. Clearly Wagner made the distinction in his own mind between Jews in reality and Jews in his music, since he was voluble about the former in his writing, and silent on them in the latter.

In any event, Wagner’s works in Israel have by common consent been left unperformed, until 7 July, 2001. Barenboim is head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Berlin State Opera, whose orchestra he was leading on tour in Israel for the three consecutive concerts presented in Jerusalem. He had originally scheduled a performance of Act One of Wagner’s opera Die Walkure for the 7 July concert, but had been asked to change it by the director of the Israel Festival, which had invited the German orchestra and Barenboim in the first place. Barenboim substituted a programme of Schumann and Stravinsky, and then, after playing those, turned to the audience and proposed a short extract from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as an encore. He opened the floor to a discussion, which ensued with people for and against. In the end, Barenboim said he would play the piece but suggested that those who were offended could leave, which some in fact did. By and large though, the Wagner was well received by a rapturous audience of about 2800 Israelis and, I am sure, extremely well performed.

Still, the attacks on Barenboim have not stopped. It was reported in the press on 25 July that the Knesset committee on culture and education “urged Israel’s cultural bodies to boycott the conductor… for performing music by Hitler’s favourite composer at Israel’s premier cultural event until he apologises.” The attacks on Barenboim by the minister of culture and other luminaries have been venomous, even though despite his birth and early childhood in Argentina, he himself has always thought of himself as an Israeli. He grew up there, he went to Hebrew schools, he carries an Israeli passport along with his Argentinian one. Besides, he has always been thought of as a major cultural asset to Israel, having been a central figure in the country’s musical life for years and years, despite the fact that, since he was in his teens, he has lived in Europe and the United States most of the time, not in Israel. This has been a result of his work, which has afforded him many more important opportunities outside rather than inside Israel. After all, to have conducted and played the piano in Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna, Salzburg, Bayreuth, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires, and places like them elsewhere has always overshadowed the mere fact of residence in one place. To some extent, as we shall see, this cosmopolitan and even iconoclastic life has been a source of the anger directed against him since the Wagner incident.

But he is a complex figure nonetheless, which also explains the furore over what he did. All societies are made up of a majority of average citizens — people who follow along all the major patterns — and a tiny number who by virtue of their talent and their independent inclinations are not at all average, and in many ways, are a challenge and even an affront to the usually docile majority. The problems occur when the perspective of the docile majority tries to reduce, simplify, and codify the complex and unroutine people who are a tiny minority. This clash inevitably occurs — large numbers of human beings cannot easily tolerate someone who is noticeably different, more talented, more original, than they are — and inevitably causes rage and irrationality in the majority. Look what Athens did to Socrates, because he was a genius who taught young people how to think independently and sceptically: he was sentenced to death. The Amsterdam Jews excommunicated Spinoza because his ideas were too much for them. Galileo was punished by the church. Al-Hallaj was crucified for his insights. And so it has gone for centuries. Barenboim is a gifted, extremely unusual figure who crossed too many lines and violated too many of the many taboos that bind Israeli society. Exactly how is worth detailing here.

It hardly needs repeating that musically speaking Barenboim is almost overwhelmingly unusual. He has every conceivable gift available to the individual who wants to be a great soloist and conductor — a perfect memory, competence and even brilliance in technical matters, a winning manner before the public, and above all, an enormous love of what he does. Nothing musical is beyond him or too difficult for him to master. He does it all with a seemingly effortless mastery, a talent that every musician alive today acknowledges about him. But it isn’t that simple. His formative years were spent first in Spanish speaking Argentina then in Hebrew speaking Israel, so already he is neither one nor the other nationality purely and simply. Since his late teens he hasn’t really lived in Israel, preferring instead the cosmopolitan and culturally more interesting atmosphere of Europe and the United States, where as I said earlier, he occupies the two most prestigious positions in all music, one as conductor of the best American orchestra (Chicago), the other as director of perhaps the greatest and one of the oldest opera companies in the world (Berlin State Opera). Meanwhile he continues his career as a solo pianist. Quite obviously living that kind of itinerant life and achieving the kind of recognition has come not with a studious compliance with standards set by ordinary people but by exactly the opposite, that is, a regular flouting of conventions and barriers. This is true of any unusual person who must live well beyond the conventions of ordinary bourgeois society. No important achievement in matters of art or science is accomplished by living within the boundaries designed to regulate social and political life.

But it gets more complicated. Because he has lived and travelled so much, and because he has a gift for languages (he can speak seven fluently), Barenboim is in a sense at home everywhere and nowhere. One result is that his visits to Israel are limited to a few days a year, though he keeps in touch by phone and by reading the press. Another is that he has lived abroad, not just in the US and Britain, but in Germany, which is where he spends most of his time now. One can imagine that for many Jews for whom Germany still represents what is most evil and anti-semitic, Barenboim’s residence there is a difficult pill to swallow, more particularly in that his chosen area of music to perform is the classical Austro-Germanic repertory, in which Wagner’s operas are at the very centre. Aesthetically of course, this is a sound, not to say absolutely predictable area for a classical musician to concentrate on: it includes the great works of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, Richard Strauss, plus, of course, many other composers in the French, Russian and Spanish repertory at which Barenboim has excelled. But the core is Austrian and German music, music that for some Jewish philosophers and artists has sometimes presented a great problem, especially after World War II. The great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, a friend and mentor of Barenboim’s, more or less refused ever to go to Germany and play there because, he would say, as a Jew, it was hard for him to be in a country that had slaughtered so many of his people. So already, there developed a sense of estrangement in many of his Israeli admirers about Barenboim’s residence in Berlin, in the heart of the former capital of The Third Reich, which many living Jews still consider to bear within it today the marks of its former evil.

Now it is all very well for others to say, be broad–minded and remember that art is one thing, politics quite another. In actuality this is a nonsensical position, derided precisely by most artists and the very musicians whom we most revere. All of the great composers in one way or another were political, and held quite strong political ideas, some of them, in the case of the early Beethoven who adulated Napoleon as a great conqueror or Debussy who was a right-wing French nationalist, quite reprehensible from today’s perspective. Haydn, as another example suggests, was a servile employee of his aristocratic patron Prince Esterhazy and even the greatest of all geniuses, Johann Sebastian Bach, was always fawning at the table or at the court of an archbishop or a duke. We don’t care about these things today because they belong to a relatively remote and distant period. None of them offends us quite so sharply as one of Thomas Carlyle’s racist pamphlets in the 1860’s, but there are two other factors that need consideration as well. One is that music as an art form is not like language: notes don’t mean something stable, the way a word like “cat” or “horse” does. Second, music for the most part is trans-national; it goes beyond the boundaries of a nation or a nationality and language. You don’t have to know German to appreciate Mozart, and you don’t have to be French to read a score by Berlioz. You have to know music, which is a very specialised technique acquired with painstaking care quite apart from subjects like history or literature, although I would argue that the context and traditions of individual works of music have to be understood for purposes of true comprehension and interpretation. In some ways, music is like algebra, but not quite, as the case of Wagner testifies.

Were he a minor composer or someone who composed his work hermetically or at least quietly, Wagner would have been slightly easier to accept and tolerate. But he was incredibly voluble, filling Europe with his pronouncements, projects, and music, all of which went together and all of which were larger than life, more impressive, more deigned to overwhelm and compel the listener than those of every other composer. At the centre of all his work was his own fantastically self- concerned, even narcissistic self, which he considered in no uncertain way to embody the essence of the German soul, its destiny, and its privileges. I obviously cannot enter a discussion here about Wagner’s work, but it is important to insist on the fact that he sought controversy, he demanded attention, he did everything for the cause of Germany and himself which he conceived of in the most extreme revolutionary terms. His was to be a new music, a new art, a new aesthetic, and it was to embody the tradition of Beethoven and Goethe, and, typically, it was to transcend them in a new synthesis. No one in the history of art has attracted more attention, no one more writing, no one more commentary. Wagner was ready-made for the Nazis, but he was also — and this mustn’t be forgotten — welcomed as a hero and a great genius by other musicians who understood that his contributions utterly changed the course of Western music. During his lifetime he had a special opera house, almost a shrine, built for him and the performance of his operas in the small town of Bayreuth, which is still the site of an annual festival where only Wagner’s music is played. Bayreuth and the Wagner family were dear to Hitler’s heart, and to add a further complexity to the matter, Richard Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang (himself a former Nazi-sympathiser) still controls the summer festival at which Barenboim has conducted regularly for almost two decades.

Nor is this all. Barenboim is clearly an artist who overturns obstacles, crosses forbidden lines, and enters in taboo or forbidden territory. This doesn’t automatically make him a fully-fledged political figure at all but he has made no secret of his unhappiness with Israel’s occupation and went so far in early 1999 as to be the first Israeli to offer his services gratis to play a concert at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. For the past three years, first at Weimar and this year in Chicago he has brought together young Israeli and Arab musicians to play music together, in a daring enterprise that tries to rise above politics and conflict into the totally non-political art of interpreting music together. He is clearly fascinated by the Other, and categorically rejects the irrationality of a position that says that it is better not to know than to know. I agree with him that ignorance is not an adequate political strategy for a people, and therefore, each in his own way must understand and know the forbidden Other. Not many individuals think this way, but for me, as well as a growing number of others, this is the only intellectually coherent position to take. This doesn’t diminish one’s defence of justice or solidarity with the oppressed; it doesn’t mean abandoning your identity; it doesn’t involve looking the other way so far as real politics are concerned. It does mean that reason, understanding, and intellectual analysis, and not the organisation and encouragement of collective passions such as those that seem to impel fundamentalists, are the way to be a citizen. I have long subscribed to these beliefs myself and perhaps this is one reason why Barenboim and I have our differences and yet have remained friends.

The total rejection, the utter irrational condemnation, the blanket denunciation of complex phenomena such as Wagner is an irrational and finally unacceptable thing, just as in our situation as Arabs, it has been a stupid and wasteful policy for so many years to use phrases like “the Zionist entity” and completely refuse to understand and analyse Israel and Israelis on the grounds that their existence must be denied because they caused the Palestinian nakba. History is a dynamic thing, and if we expect Israeli Jews not to use the Holocaust to justify appalling human rights abuses of the Palestinian people, we too have to go beyond such idiocies as saying that the Holocaust never took place, and that Israelis are all, man, woman, and child, doomed to our eternal enmity and hostility. Nothing historical is frozen in time; nothing in history is immune to change; nothing in history is beyond reason, beyond understanding, beyond analysis and influence. Politicians can say all the nonsense they wish and do what they want, and so can professional demagogues. But for intellectuals, artists, and free citizens, there must always be room for dissent, for alternative views, for ways and possibilities to challenge the tyranny of the majority and, at the same time and most important, to advance human enlightenment and liberty.

This idea is not easily dismissed as a “western” import and therefore inapplicable to Arab and Muslim, or for that matter, Jewish societies and traditions. It is a universal value to be found in every tradition that I know of. Every society has conflicts in it between justice and injustice, ignorance and knowledge, freedom and oppression. The point is not simply to belong to one side or the other because one is told to be, but to choose carefully and to make judgements that render what is just and due to every aspect of the situation. The purpose of education is not to accumulate facts or memorise the “correct” answer, but rather to learn how to think critically for oneself and to understand the meaning of things for oneself.

In the Israeli case about Wagner and Barenboim, it would be the easiest thing to dismiss the conductor simply either as an opportunist or as an insensitive adventurer. Similarly, it is reductive to say that Wagner was a terrible man with reactionary ideas in general, and therefore his music, no matter how wonderful, is intolerable because it is infected with the same poison as his prose. How would that be demonstrated? How many writers, musicians, poets, painters would be left if their art was judged by their moral behaviour? And who is to decide what level of ugliness and turpitude can be borne in the artistic production of any given artist? Once one starts to censor, there is no theoretical limit. Rather, I would think that it is incumbent on the mind to be able to analyse a complex phenomenon such as the question of Wagner in Israel (or, to give another example analysed in a famous essay written by the brilliant Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for an African today) and to show where the evil is and where the art is. For a mature mind it should be possible to hold together in one’s mind two contradictory facts, that Wagner was a great artist, and second, that Wagner was a disgusting human being. Unfortunately, one cannot have one fact without the other. Does that mean, therefore, that Wagner should not be listened to? Most assuredly not, although it is obvious that if an individual is still troubled by the association of Wagner with the Holocaust then there is no need at all to inflict Wagner on oneself. All I would say, however, is that an open attitude towards art is necessary. This is not to say that artists shouldn’t be morally judged for their immorality or evil practices; it is to say that an artist’s work cannot be judged solely on those grounds and banned accordingly.

One last point, as well as one further analogy with the Arab situation, is worth making. During the heated Knesset debate a year ago as to whether Israeli high school students should or should not have the option to read Mahmoud Darwish, many of us took the vehemence with which the idea was attacked as a sign of how closed-minded orthodox Zionism was. In deploring the opponents of the idea that young Israelis would benefit from reading a major Palestinian author, many people argued that history and reality couldn’t be hidden forever, and that censorship of that kind had no place in the educational curriculum. Wagner’s music presents a similar problem, although there can be no denying the fact that the terrible associations with his music and ideas are a genuine trauma for those who feel that the composer was, in a sense, ready-made for appropriation by the Nazis. Yet at some point with a major composer like Wagner, blocking out his existence will not work. If it hadn’t been Barenboim who performed his music in Israel on 7 July, it would have been someone else a little later. A complex reality always bursts in on attempts to seal it out. The question then becomes how to understand the Wagner phenomenon, rather than whether or not to recognise its existence, which is an inadequate and obviously insufficient response.

In the Arab context, the campaign against “normalisation” with Israel, while more urgent and actual a challenge — after all, Israel is practicing modes of daily collective punishment and murder against an entire people, whose land it has illegally occupied for 34 years — has some similar features with the Israeli taboos against Palestinian poetry and Wagner. Our problem is that Arab governments have economic and political relationships with Israel while groups of individuals have tried to impose a blanket ban on all contacts with Israelis. The ban on normalisation lacks coherence since its raison d’étre, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, hasn’t been alleviated by the campaign: how many Palestinian homes have been protected from demolition by anti-normalisation measures, and how many Palestinian universities have been able to give their students instruction because anti-normalisation has been in place? None at all, alas, which is why I have said that it is better for a distinguished Egyptian intellectual to come to Palestine in solidarity with his/her Palestinian comrades, perhaps to teach or give a lecture or help at a clinic, than it is to sit at home preventing others from doing so. Complete anti-normalisation is not an effective weapon for the powerless: its symbolic value is low, and its actual effect is merely passive and negative. Successful weapons of the weak — as in India, the American south, Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere — have always been active, and even aggressive. The point is to make the powerful oppressor uncomfortable and vulnerable both morally as well as politically. Suicide bombing doesn’t achieve this effect, and neither does anti-normalisation, which in the case of the South African liberation struggle was used as a boycott against visiting academics in conjunction with a whole variety of other means.

That is why I believe we must try to penetrate the Israeli consciousness with everything at our disposal. Speaking or writing to Israeli audiences breaks their taboo against us. This fear of being addressed by what their collective memory has suppressed was what stirred up the whole debate about reading Palestinian literature. Zionism has tried to exclude non-Jews and we, by our unselective boycott of even the name “Israel,” have actually helped rather than hindered this plan. And in a different context, it is why Barenboim’s performance of Wagner, although genuinely painful for many who still suffer the real traumas of anti- semitic genocide, has the salutary effect of allowing mourning to move on to another stage, i.e. toward the living of life itself, which must go on and cannot be frozen in the past. Perhaps I haven’t caught all the many nuances of this complex set of issues, but the main one has to be that real life cannot be ruled by taboos and prohibitions against critical understanding and emancipatory experience. Those must always be given the highest priority. Ignorance and avoidance cannot be adequate guides for the present. 


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