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Richard Wagner bust in Bayreuth
Wagner is seen as a symbol of anti-Semitism by manyImage: AP

Religion, politics and music

May 25, 2011

Members of Israel's parliament consider a funding cut for a pair of ensembles if the musicians perform in Bayreuth. The head of the European Center for Jewish Music tells DW why that would be a mistake.


Israel's Chamber Orchestra and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rischon Lezion have been threatened by Israeli politicians with funding cuts should they perform as planned in Bayreuth. The musicians are scheduled to play Wagner's symphonic poem "Siegfried Idyll" as well as works by Jewish composers.

Deutsche Welle spoke to Andor Izsak, the head of the European Center for Jewish Music in Hannover, about the politicians' motives and the importance of Wagner's music.

Deutsche Welle: Why are there reservations in Israel when it comes to Wagner?

Andor Izsak: It is very complicated. Richard Wagner's music is still seen as a symbol for anti-Semitism and the Nazi regime. People do not consider the cultural meaning this music has. Many people also are not aware that Wagner's stepfather, the actor Ludwig Geyer, was a Jew. Some people also do not consider what a loss it would be if we were all to do away with Wagner's magnificent music. I can absolutely not comprehend why a move like this would be made while at the same time the Wagner Society in Israel has 300 members.

There were protests each time Daniel Barenboim performed Wagner in Israel. There is now talk of it being a slap in the face of everyone in Israel when two of the country's orchestras travel to Bayreuth. What's behind the initiative?

Andor Izsak
Izsak says the ensembles don't deserve a funding cutImage: picture-alliance/dpa

There are strong religious as well as political interests at play. To begin with, the religious reasons: Orthodox Jews have a fundamental problem with instrumental music [during synagogue services]. Personally, this saddens me because the organs that used to be common in European synagogues are no longer played. That's behind much of the opposition. From a political viewpoint, Wagner is still portrayed as the enemy by some people, and Bayreuth is the personification of this enemy. Those people in the Knesset [Israel's parliament] fighting against the performances see the orchestras as ambassadors presenting Israel's official policies.

I once invited a choir of orthodox Jews to Germany. When Wagner was scheduled to be performed at the opera, the choir leader asked me if I could get him in to the concert without being seen. That night we went to the performance and all the musicians from the choir were there. That shows that there is an emotional interest in the music that goes beyond borders.

Both orchestras headed to Bayreuth also want to play pieces by Jewish composers. Why should that be blocked as well?

It's actually a message that we should be celebrating: we have finally moved far enough that Israeli musicians can perform Jewish music in Bayreuth. But that message may not be getting across.

The issue of funding will be discussed this week in the Israeli parliament. Do you think the lawmakers' threat will become reality?

I would personally find it very sad if the orchestra doesn't perform "Siegfried Idyll" in Bayreuth. We are talking about cultural values that are worth too much to humanity to do away with. The desire to forbid that is a position that in my opinion will not last over the long term.

Interview: Gudrun Stegen / sms

Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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