High time for the rise of the Valkyries
TEMPERS RARELY flare as hot about musical matters as they do about the work of Richard Wagner.
The 21st century still brings headlines about the family feuds of his heirs as they struggle with each other to control the festival the composer founded in Bayreuth, Bavaria, to celebrate and perpetuate his work.
In the summer of 2001 there was a scandal when conductor Daniel Barenboim broke the taboo on performing Wagner in Israel. He played the prelude to Tristan und Isolde as an encore at a concert with the Berlin Staatskapelle in Jerusalem.
Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen, had wanted to conduct part of the opera Die Walküre, but was persuaded to turn instead to Schumann and Stravinsky. He got the idea of Wagner as an encore, he said, when he heard a mobile-phone ringtone of The Ride of the Valkyries (from the opera he had been dissuaded from conducting) at a press conference he gave in Jerusalem.
And when, at the end of the concert, he announced that the Berlin orchestra would play Wagner as their second encore, there was a prolonged discussion, much protest, and dozens of departures from the audience, all followed by a warm reception for the actual performance.
The fallout reverberated around the world. Barenboim was denounced by then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, accused the conductor of being “brazen, arrogant, uncivilised and insensitive” and said the city would have to reconsider its future relationship with him. Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre called his action “cultural rape” and said, “That’s exactly what he did, he tried to seduce the Israeli public. The Israeli public refused, he raped us.”
Wagner, of course, was a notorious anti-Semite, and his music was exploited for propaganda purposes by the Nazis. Google the names Hitler and Wagner and you’ll be told there are more than eight million relevant hits. This, while lower than the score for Hitler and Goebbels, is a lot more than the pairings of the dictator with Goering or Himmler.
A published conversation between Barenboim and cultural critic Edward Said outlines the conductor’s balancing act. As a person, Barenboim explained, Wagner “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. It is noble, generous . . . The fact remains that he was a monstrous anti-Semite. How we would look at the monstrous anti-Semitism without the Nazis, I don’t know. One thing I do know is that they, the Nazis, used, misused, and abused Wagner’s ideas or thoughts – I think this has to be said – beyond what he might have had in mind . . .