Daniel Barenboim on Wagner, Israel and intellectual honesty

Barenboim: Wagner and Us

I have a special relationship to Daniel Barenboim’s music-making.  It was Barenboim’s ka-jillion-LP set from which I learned the Beethoven piano sonatas in 1972 or so.  It was Barenboim who conducted Tristan in my first visit to Bayreuth in 1981.  It was Barenboim who was at the podium for the Harry Kupfer Ring, and who continued to work with Kupfer in Berlin until, in 2002, I was privileged to attend the “Wagnerfest” at the Staatsoper, two weeks of performances of all the canon with the same stage director, conductor, orchestra and performing ensemble.

It was Barenboim who wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune in April 2008 that so moved me that, when waiting for a friend outside the Vienna Opera House that evening, I realized Barenboim was passing by and I shouted thanks to him.  It was Barenboim who stepped onto the elevator at the Four Seasons Chicago, carrying a score, and sending me into abject catatonia.

But were, by some fell circumstance, we were denied the opportunity to hear Barenboim make music any more, we still would be blessed with his writing.  His 2008 volume of essays, Music Quickens Time, reveals an intellect at once broad and deep, as he shares some of what he has learned from Wagner, Mann, Spinoza, Hitchcock, Boulez, Voltaire, Furtwängler, Schumann, and many others.  In that volume, too, he talks about Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and the confluence of Goethe, Hafiz, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Palestine.

Barenboim has recently graced us with two other pieces of writing.  The first is an interview with Ivan Hewett appearing in The Daily Telegraph on May 9, 2013.  There he distinguishes Wagner’s music from his prose writings, calling the proposition that the music is stained by anti-Semitism “bullshit”: “Do you think I could bear to conduct his music if that were true?  Of course there is really vile anti-Semitism in Wagner’s writings, but I can’t accept the idea that characters like Beckmesser and Alberich are Jewish stereotypes in disguise.  Would Beckmesser be a court councilor if he were meant to be a Jewish stereotype?  No Jew would occupy such a role.”

I find this point attractive, probably because I have espoused it myself.  But then we get to the real fruits of this extraordinary mind:

Wagner is contrapuntal in a philosophical way, as well as a musical way.  What I mean is that every tendency has its opposite, and you see that in the man himself.  He’s a metaphysical hermaphrodite – he embraces hard and soft, masculine and feminine.  Because of this he knows and understands every kind of motivation.  He understands courage and cowardliness, generosity and avariciousness.  And in a strange way he embraces all of music, as if he discovered all its secrets before everyone else.  It can be unbelievably vast and grand, but also it can be so intimate.  Look at the first scene of Gotterdämmerung, where the Norns weave the threads of fate.  It’s the music of the future: the whole of Debussy is there.

Barenboim embellishes upon and deepens many of these observations in his article in the June 20, 2013, issue of the New York Review of Books, titled “Wagner and the Jews.”  (The essay is also available online here.)  He starts off with a bit of musical analysis in which he points to Wagner’s “economy.”  The depiction of the storm in Act I of Walküre uses only the string, he notes.  And elsewhere Wagner creates climax not by adding instruments but by using crescendo, subito piano, and crescendo again.  “Wagner’s music is often complex,” explains Barenboim, “but never complicated.”

Looking at “extramusical sides of Wagner’s personality,” Barenboim notes that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was prevalent for centuries in Germany, “a widespread illness since time immemorial.”  And it did not die with Wagner, but rather “these notions were followed up and intensified in the twentieth century.”  Moreover, “racist statements, whether against Jews or currently against Muslims, have by no means disappeared from today’s society.”

He cites Herzl’s vision of a Jewish community in Palestine in which “Arabic residents and other non-Jews would have equal political rights.”  And he cites Martin Buber and the Israeli declaration of independence as testaments to religious and intellectual freedom.  “The reality, as we all know,” says Barenboim, “looks different today.”

Barenboim then observes, with the clarity and simplicity that he so admires in Wagner:

It is… not anti-Semitism that determines the relationship of Palestinians to Israel, but rather resistance against the division of Palestine at the time when Israel was founded, and against the withholding of equal rights today, for example the right of an independent state.  Palestine was simply not an empty country (as Israeli nationalistic legend has it); it could in fact have been described at the time as it was by two rabbis who visited the land to survey it as a potential Jewish state: ‘the bride is beautiful, but she is already married.  To this day it is still a taboo in Israeli society to make clear the fact that the state of Israel was founded to the cost of other people.

Which takes us to yet another recounting of the incident in 2001, when the Staatskapelle Berlin performed in Israel, as an encore after the announced program, the Prelude and Liebestod under Barenboim’s direction.  The performance, as an encore, was preceded by a 40-minute discussion in the course of which Barenboim urged those offended to leave the hall.  “Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall.  The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive.  Only the next day did the dispute erupt when politicians called the performance a scandal, although they had not been present themselves.”

Barenboim concludes:

The entire Wagner debate in Israel is linked to the fact that steps toward a Jewish identity have not been taken.  … When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, in means, in a certain respect, that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution.  This view is unworthy of Jewish listeners.  They should rather be influenced by such great Jewish thinkers as Spinoza, Maimonides, and Martin Buber than by half-baked dogmas.

Barenboim the Argentine, the Jew, the Israeli, the artist, has shown himself also to be a citizen, and his music-making is, in large part a civic gesture.  That is not to say he is a didact or a nationalist.  Rather, when making music he gives voice not only to the composition at hand, but to the connection that music has to him and, through him as agent, to us.

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