Monday, August 9, 2010

Wagner in Israel?

The controversial film "Dancing in Auschwitz," which I discussed in my previous blog, reminds me of a controversial musical act performed by Daniel Barenboim:  breaking the taboo on playing Wagner's music in public in Israel.

Barenboim is exactly the right person to break this taboo.  His grandparents were Russian Jews who fled to Argentina to escape the Pogroms in Russia.  He was born in Buenos Aires in 1952 to Jewish parents, who started teaching him to play the piano when he was five years old.  Before long they recognized that he was a child prodigy, and they wanted him to grow up as a musician in Israel, among his own people.  They traveled to Israel and settled there in 1952.  Although he grew up primarily in Israel, he was absent for long periods of time as he studied and concertized throughout Europe.  In his own words, he grew up "in Israel with European culture and values."  His multinationalism is evident in his official papers.  He has citizenship in Argentina, Israel, and Spain, and he holds a passport issued by the Palestinian authority.  His feelings towards Israel began to change during the 1960s, particularly after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when he felt sympathy with both Israelis and Palestinians.  As a talented and acclaimed pianist and conductor, he tried to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together through music.  Along with his close friend David Said, a Palestinian-American, he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose members were young Israeli and Arab musicians. 

Barenboim is well aware of the problems posed by Wagner's music for Israeli Jews.  Wagner was a notorious, vehement anti-Semite long before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.  However, Wagner's music took on a new dimension when Hitler made it a symbol of Nazism and had it performed at official Nazi ceremonies.  Because of this link with official Nazism, Wagner's music was abhorrent to Holocaust survivors, and an unofficial taboo on playing Wagner's music in public was observed in Israel.  Barenboim, while sympathizing with and respecting the feelings of Holocaust survivors, felt the absurdity of the taboo, especially when he heard some of Wagner's music played as ringtones for cell phones in Israel.  He decided to give his audience a choice about listening to Wagner's music.  On July 7, 2001, after he had finished conducting a concert and one encore, he asked the audience whether they wanted to hear something by Wagner as a second encore.  A 30 minute debate followed, and a few dozen people left in anger.  The great majority of the audience stayed and listened to Barenboim conduct Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde.  When the music ended, the audience gave an enthusiastic ovation.   Barenboim's experiment with Wagner had no lasting effect.  Israel's unofficial ban on live performances of Wagner's music continues to this day.

Mark Twain once said that Wagner's music is really not as bad as it sounds.  In Israel, it is worse.

(If you want to read about this in Barenboim's own words, see his journal on his website.)

Barenboim has conducted Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra outside of Israel.

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