Conducting Wagner in Israel
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra had performed Richard Wagner's music in Palestine even during the early days of the Nazi era. But after the Kristallnacht, Jewish musicians avoided playing Wagner's music in Israel because of the use Nazi Germany made of the composer and because of Wagner's own anti-Semitic writings, following an unofficial boycott. This informal ban continued when Israel was founded in 1948, but from time to time unsuccessful efforts were made to end it. In 1974, and again in 1981, Zubin Mehta planned to lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in works of Wagner. During the latter occasion, fist fights broke out in the audience and the music was not played.
Barenboim, who had been selected to head the production of Wagner's operas at the 1988 Bayreuth Festival, had since at least 1989 publicly opposed the Israeli ban. In that year, he had the Israel Philharmonic "rehearse" two of Wagner's works. In a conversation with Edward Said, Barenboim said that "Wagner, the person, is absolutely appalling, despicable, and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings ... noble, generous, etc." He called Wagner's anti-Semitism obviously "monstrous," and feels it must be faced, but argues that "Wagner did not cause the Holocaust."
In 1990, Barenboim conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in its first appearance in Israel, but he excluded Wagner's works. "Although Wagner died in 1883, he is not played because his music is too inextricably linked with Nazism, and so is too painful for those who suffered," Barenboim told a reporter. "Why play what hurts people?" Not long afterwards, it was announced that Barenboim would lead the Israel Philharmonic in two Wagner overtures, which took place on 27 December "before a carefully screened audience."
In 2000, the Israel Supreme Court upheld the right of the Rishon LeZion Orchestra to perform Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. At the Israel Festival in Jerusalem in July 2001, Barenboim had scheduled to perform the first act of Die Walküre with three singers, including tenor Plácido Domingo. However, strong protests by some Holocaust survivors, as well as the Israeli government, led the festival authorities to ask for an alternative program. (The Israel Festival's Public Advisory board, which included some Holocaust survivors, had originally approved the program.) The controversy appeared to end in May, after the Israel Festival announced that a selection by Wagner would not be included at the 7 July concert. Barenboim agreed to substitute music by Schumann and Stravinsky.
However, at the end of the concert with the Berlin Staatskapelle, Barenboim announced that he would like to play Wagner as a second encore and invited those who objected to leave, saying, "Despite what the Israel Festival believes, there are people sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations. I respect those for whom these associations are oppressive. It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it. I am turning to you now and asking whether I can play Wagner." A half-hour debate ensued, with some audience members calling Barenboim a "fascist." In the end, a small number of attendees walked out and the overwhelming majority remained, applauding loudly after the performance of the Tristan und Isolde Prelude.
In September 2001, a public relations associate for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Barenboim was the Music Director, revealed that season ticket holders were about evenly divided about the wisdom of Barenboim's decision to play Wagner in Jerusalem.
Barenboim regarded the performance of Wagner at the 7 July concert as a political statement, and said he had decided to defy the ban on Wagner when a news conference he held the previous week was interrupted by the ringing of a mobile phone to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. "I thought if it can be heard on the ring of a telephone, why can't it be played in a concert hall?" he said.
A Knesset committee subsequently called for Barenboim to be declared a persona non grata in Israel until he apologized for conducting Wagner's music. The move was condemned by the musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Zubin Mehta and members of Knesset. Prior to receiving the $100,000 Wolf Prize, awarded annually in Israel, Barenboim said, "If people were really hurt, of course I regret this, because I don’t want to harm anyone."
In 2005, Barenboim gave the inaugural Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia University, entitled, "Wagner, Israel and Palestine". During the two-hour speech, Barenboim "compared Herzl's ideas to Wagner's; criticized Palestinian terrorist attacks but also justified them; and said Israeli actions contributed to the rise of international anti-Semitism."
In 2010, before conducting Wagner's Die Walküre for the gala premiere of La Scala's season in Milan, he said that the perception of Wagner was unjustly influenced by the fact that he was Hitler's favorite composer: "I think a bit of the problem with Wagner isn't what we all know in Israel, anti-Semitism, etc... It is how the Nazis and Hitler saw Wagner as his own prophet... This perception of Hitler colors for many people the perception of Wagner... We need one day to liberate Wagner of all this weight."
Over the years observers of the Wagner battle have weighed in on both sides of the issue.
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