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Wagner's Lesson, Unheeded

The controversy over an Israeli encore of his music drowns out truths about human nature embodied by the composer and his work.

July 22, 2001|MARK SWED | 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.

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