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Taboo music

Michael Lawton
June 6, 2012

It could have been a historic event, but it was not to be: plans for a concert of the music of Richard Wagner at the University of Tel Aviv have been canceled.

A 19th century photograph of Richard Wagner
Image: dapd

It would have broken an unwritten law, an Israeli boycott which has never been officially imposed. But a concert which the Israeli Wagner Society had planned has been called off.

A hundred musicians from various Israeli orchestras had been assembled; they were already rehearsing the overtures to "Tannhäuser" and "The Mastersingers," the tone-poem "Siegfried Idyll" and the immolation scene from "Tristan and Isolde."

The concert was not being financed with public money, but through private sponsorship, and an academic program with lectures had been planned. But the announcement that the event was being planned had led to massive protests and indignant accusations. The university management decided to cancel the event.

Hitler's temple of the muses

Richard Wagner still calls forth strong feelings in Israel - survivors of the Holocaust are particularly critical, since the music reminds them of the cruel times they went through. Adolf Hitler considered Wagner to be his favorite composer and maintained a close relationship with his descendent in Bayreuth. He often visited the opera house there, on the "Green Hill," and he often visited the Wagners at home. It was especially Wagner's daughter-in-law, Winifred, who was a member of the Nazi party and remained loyal to Hitler's memory, right up until her death in 1980.

Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler in 1934
Winifred Wagner remained an admirer of Hitler until her deathImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Wagner the anti-Semite

"There's a lot of Hitler in Wagner," said the writer Thomas Mann in 1938. Many people in Israel today would still agree. They consider that a concert featuring music by the man who wrote an anti-Semitic pamphlet in 1850 under the title "Jewishness in Music" a provocation. In the pamphlet, Wagner criticizes the artistic achievement of the Jewish musicians and poets of his time as trivial, banal and unoriginal, and blamed them for a "decline" in German culture. Seen from this perspective, Wagner's operas become the soundtrack to the Nazi genocide. And for their part, Wagner's descendents in Bayreuth dealt with this aspect of their inheritance only reluctantly.

Music and ideology

All the same, many musicians think one must separate Wagner the anti-Semite from Wagner the musician. The Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, head of the Berlin State Opera, told Spiegel news magazine some years ago that music was not ideological: "Wagner was anti-Semitic, but his music wasn't."

The first famous musician to try to break the taboo was Zubin Mehta in 1981, who announced at the end of a concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra that they would play the Prelude to "Tristan and Isolde" as an encore, and that people could leave if they wished. There were angry reactions and loud protests as the orchestra played.

Daniel Barenboim conducting
Daniel Barenboim has always championed Wagner's musicImage: picture alliance/dpa

Ovations, provocations

Twenty years later, Barenboim repeated the experiment in Jerusalem. He too addressed the audience and gave those who couldn't bear to hear the music the chance to leave. In 2011 the experiment was tried in the opposite direction: an Israeli chamber orchestra playing in Bayreuth performed some Wagner. The orchestra had been invited, not to the festival itself but on its fringes, by the head of the festival, Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter. There were standing ovations. The conductor, Roberto Paternostro, said then that he understood those who had "gone through hell," and who didn't want anything to do with Germany and Wagner's music.

A few months ago there was another scandal when the head of the Tel Aviv Opera, Hanna Munitz, decided to withdraw a Wagner piece from a dance program. As long as she was in office, she said, she was determined to keep this composer off the stage.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / mll
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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