Column

On the horns of a musical dilemma

‘You cant go to Wagner on Yom Kippur,’ said my lapsed Jewish friends. ‘Verdi or Mozart, perhaps, but not Wagner.’

Barbara Amiel September 21 1998
Column

On the horns of a musical dilemma

‘You cant go to Wagner on Yom Kippur,’ said my lapsed Jewish friends. ‘Verdi or Mozart, perhaps, but not Wagner.’

Barbara Amiel September 21 1998

On the horns of a musical dilemma

‘You cant go to Wagner on Yom Kippur,’ said my lapsed Jewish friends. ‘Verdi or Mozart, perhaps, but not Wagner.’

Column

Barbara Amiel

Next week is the Jewish New Year, and the following week brings our Day of Atonement. I’m not an observant Jew, but my roots are deep. My connection to the faith of my fathers, pale and insufficient though it is, has always sustained me. Having said that, let me reveal my religious shallowness. In the top drawer of my desk are the cherished tickets I sent for some six months ago to a Royal Opera rendition of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. The second opera, Die Walküre, will be performed on Kol Nidre night. I should be in synagogue. What to do? Even my lapsed Jewish friends had no doubt. ‘You can’t go to Wagner on Yom Kippur,” they said with genuine horror. “Verdi or Mozart, perhaps, but not Wagner.” Now, I don’t need a rabbi to tell me that a Jew should be in synagogue on Yom Kippur.

But I couldn’t help being intrigued by the old saw that the genius of Wagner is something a Jew should approach warily. In Israel, though there is no law against public performances of Wagner, there might as well be. The Israeli Philharmonic can’t play his music. Protests and threats to government funding would jeopardize its attempts, and every attempt has failed.

This summer, I went to the Bayreuth Festival to hear Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli, conduct the Wagner operas he can’t do in Israel. On arrival, I saw that there was also a week-long seminar on Wagner and the Jews.

Between operas, I reread two of Wagner’s notorious essays, including “Judaism in Music.” This is a complex subject with tangled roots in musicology and history, but first let’s deal with the essays. Wagner saw the influence of Jews in music as a manifestation of the “alien” nature of the Jew. Jews, he felt, lacked the passionate, full-blooded authenticity that music gets when it comes from that mystical bond between the genuine people (the Folk) and their land. Wagner returns again and again to this alienness, ascribing all good qualities to the Folk and all bad things, including incomprehensible, jabbering nasal tones, to our alien tribe.

Clearly, the essays are simply a paranoid raving, often incomprehensible. No matter how gifted a person is in one area, this provides no assurance of clear-sightedness in another area. This is obvious, but we lose sight of it every week. We look at people who can hit a ball with a stick very well and expect them to be moral paragons. Nobody goes to a baseball game to study morals and no one goes to Tannhaüser to listen to a reading of Wagner’s essays. Paul Robeson admired Stalin and was used by the Comintern even as millions were being slaughtered. I wouldn’t give up listening to Robeson’s wonderful voice then or now.

Secondly, one cannot view anti-Semitic feelings or any racial or ethnic prejudices in the same way now as then. The great divide on

this is the Third Reich. After Hitler, all discussions on these subjects took on a different context.

As well, discussions of ethnic groups and their nature have another aspect in multi-ethnic countries. In Canada, the raison d’être of society is to create unity out of disparate elements. We don’t celebrate the great oneness of our language, culture and tribal traditions. But Wagner’s essays were written just at the time, about 1850, when emerging nationalism became the organizing principle of society. Germany was not yet born. The idea of the tribal soul of the great German people—the Folk spirit that inspired the noblest impulses in a given group—was blowing in the wind and was as much a part of the ethos as fear of global warming is today. Wagner’s essays were also part of a great debate, now forgotten, between the romantics and the formalists. This translated in his mind, because of the preoccupations of the period, into the clash between the art of the Folk and of the Jews. A certain formalism or cadence became identified with either German or Jewish music. Other periods have politicized differences in esthetic movements. Josef Skorevcky has written of Czech attempts to prevent the use of the sordino (the mute) in playing the jazz trumpet because the Communist regime thought it bourgeois.

An entirely different matter has to do with the characteristics of Jewish speech, manners, music and behavior in the mid-19th century. Today, one can hardly tell who is Jew or gentile. People dress from the same shops, shop at the same supermarkets and watch CNN. But in those days, unless they belonged to a super-educated, cultured minority, the Jews were fundamentally different.

At the same time, in that static society characterized by social immobility, the Jews developed the greatest social mobility of all, which must have been irksome to many. Jews had been forced into mercantile activities and money-lending when other occupations were closed to them. As society became more oriented along bourgeois rather than aristocratic lines, the Jews were better equipped to move in it. Add to all this Wagner’s own personal temperament as a romantic who very much favored the passionate model with the grand gesture and one can see the problem. Most Jews of that era had little time for the grand gesture. They were not attracted to the great warrior characteristics or the romantic vision that was contemptuous of bourgeois notions of money-making or art as business or entertainment.

Ultimately, none of this matters. No one needs to read Wagner’s essays or have business dealings with him. No one needs to do anything with him except the one thing in which he is quite peerless— listen to his music. I will, but for purely religious reasons, perhaps not on Yom Kippur.