Home > Uncategorized > Under My Skin: Beautiful Music, Horrible Memories

Under My Skin: Beautiful Music, Horrible Memories

During an already bizarre election year in the United States, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) has created a strange ad. Essentially, it tries to persuade Jewish Democrats not to vote for Barack Obama, due to various stances perceived as against Israel. “Is this still your Democratic party?” the ad asks. “Or Obama’s?”

The message alone does not make the ad strange, however. In the background plays ominous music. Groaning strings and horns, interrupted by thunderous brass blasts, all punctuated by the almost irregular-sounding beats of the timpani. Sounding almost like a portent of death itself.

Anyone sufficiently well-versed in opera (or, at least, that of the Teutonic kind) should recognize it: The “Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final opera from Richard Wagner’s quadrilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

For readers who might not know what makes this strange, an Israeli political interest group is pushing its agenda by using music composed by a virulent anti-Semite. On top of that, Wagner was one of Hitler’s favourite composers. In fact, Wagner is typically portrayed as Hitler’s favourite overall, and for good reason. The dictator not only enjoyed his music, but even described Wagner as a prophet foretelling the rise of Nazi Germany. Due to these associations, a long-standing unofficial ban on performances of Wagner’s music remains in effect in Israel. In this light, the usage of Wagner by the ECI comes across as either very disingenuous, deliberately provocative, or some combination for both: Especially with the implicit cultural knowledge embedded within the ad, one could associate “Obama’s Democratic Party” with the Nazis… and the “Arab American Democrats” seen three times in what I call the “Nuremburg rally cut,” lifted from the Democratic National Convention. On the other hand, it could backfire, and one could equate the politicized usage of Wagner by the ECI with that of you-know-who.

In this day and age, concerns about rock ‘n’ roll seducing and corrupting youth have generally fallen by the wayside. They occasionally flare up into melodramatic moral panics about sex, drugs, Satan worship, faux-Illuminati “occult” imagery, and so on. And yet, as we approach the bicentennial of the long-dead (since 1883) Wagner’s birth, he continues to spark fierce debate about whether one’s art can be tainted by the character of its creator. It’s understandable, considering that Wagner might have indirectly and posthumously inspired the mass murder of six million Jews. Although not a smoking gun, Wagner’s reaction to a theatre fire in Vienna seems damning when one thinks about the crematoria at the death camps. Since the fire took place in a Jewish section of the city, he “joked” that, “All Jews should be burned during a performance of Nathan the Wise.”

I can only imagine the challenges of wrestling with the anti-Semitic legacy of this angel of music, especially if one is Jewish. In an unfortunately unavailable and incomplete film made in Vienna in the mid-1980s, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein makes a statement that summarizes the strong mixed feelings that can explode to the surface: I hate you Richard Wagner… But I hate you on my knees. Conductor Daniel Barenboim who has tried subverting the unofficial ban on Wagner in Israel (and who has worked to bring together Arab and Jewish musicians) has been called a “court Jew” by the less-than-charitable.

In the BBC documentary Wagner and Me, actor Stephen Fry explores his own mixed feelings about the composer.

Of Wagner, he says:

Music… it’s made me do things inside… it’s released forces within me. And no music has done it like Wagner’s. Over the years, my relationship with Wagner’s music has grown deeper and stronger, but also more complicated. Because it’s no secret my passion was also shared by him. And some people believe it even inspired his terrible crimes. I’m Jewish, so those are hard facts to face. And there have been times when I wondered if I ought really to love Wagner at all.

I’m not Jewish. More like German-Irish, with my parents having the surnames Delventhal and Neal. (It probably also accounts for why Salome is my favourite opera; a German composer adapting a play by an Irishman.) There are some exceptions, including a “freed man of color” 200 years ago from Massachusetts on my maternal grandmother’s side. So my own take on the issues surrounding Wagner is somehow paradoxically more and less fraught. On the one hand, there is the possibility of being considered a potential anti-Semite since I can’t claim Jewish heritage. On the other hand, I can’t be called a “court Jew” like Barenboim, or a “self-loathing Jew” like Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Like Fry, however, I’ve been swept up by Wagner’s music since my own youth. Needless to say, writing about this juxtaposition is very hard, especially in public as I try to keep a lid on my own strong feelings. In a bid for some kind of moral purity during adolescence, I even tried renouncing Wagner and all his works when I found out about his associations. But I could not, as his music can bring me to the most sublime heights of musical ecstasy. Not all of it, of course. Not Die Meistersinger, as, at least in my book, it’s not up to other of works. It is no Tristan. Besides, there’s the speech by Hans Sachs about protecting German art from “foreign” influences. A handy way for me to compartmentalize, I suppose.

What’s amazing is that all the people mentioned here never experienced the horrors of the death camps firsthand, with Wagner playing in the background as some apocryphal stories recount. Maybe it’s because his reach has been so broad and difficult to ignore. For many years after Wagner’s death, composers defined themselves in terms of being pro- or anti-Wagner. Creators in other media, including a number of authors (T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann), have alluded to Wagner in their works. Film and virtual environments have become more recent manifestations of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) Wagner advocated. And, yes, a number of film composers cite Wagner as an influence. Of course, his operas still appeal to a number of aficionados, who at the very least appreciate the genius of Wagner’s music. Perhaps even more, they are drawn by its beauty, willingly drinking of its seductive and potentially deadly potion.

Not unlike Wagner’s cultural influence, the Holocaust continues to cast a large shadow as well, nearly 70 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Perhaps this accounts for the ongoing debate about Wagner, and the strong associations made to him by at least trying to imagine the Holocaust’s unimaginable horrors. Even if they are more direct, the connections between our personal lives and direct musical memories can pale in comparison. And yet, they are strong in their own way. For instance, without going into detail, I recently had a difficult falling-out with someone who introduced me to U2. (Also part of the reason why I hadn’t posted anything here for almost three months. Doing much better now.) In my own mind, can I listen to… can I somehow reclaim, maybe even enjoy… that music without making the association? Again, it’s most certainly not at the same level as the Holocaust. On the other hand, it’s more personal and recent.

Like Amfortas’ physical wound in Wagner’s final opera Parsifal, we have emotional wounds that might never heal without a miracle. Music can at least help with that. That’s why so many of us turn to it in our times of greatest need. But for those who associate certain music (especially very beautiful and well-crafted pieces, regardless of genre) with personal and historical traumas, that tension still might never go away. The debates about separating a work from its creator (and, perhaps by extension, other extramusical associations) will rage on, both within and beyond ourselves. The only thing we can do is try to resolve it for ourselves, as Stephen Fry does at the end of Wagner and Me:

Wagner’s music is bigger and better than Hitler ever imagined it to be. And Bayreuth, the theatre Wagner dreamed of creating for so long, is also redeemed by that fact. Which is why I’m not prepared to surrender either of them to him.


I still believe, as firmly as I believe anything, that his work is important and on the side of the angels. It is fundamentally good.

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  1. October 1, 2012 at 20:36

    An even better piece on the Wagner controversy, written by none other than Alex Ross: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/09/the-case-for-wagner-in-israel.html

  1. July 22, 2013 at 11:11

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