martes, 30 de septiembre de 2014

Barenboim and his Ideals: Democracy and the Wagner Controversy

Santiago Mazzei
Teacher: Stella Maris Saubidet Oyhamburu
Lengua y Expresión Escrita IV-ISFD 41
September, 2014
Barenboim and his Ideals: Democracy and the Wagner Controversy
In the year 2001, Maestro Daniel Barenboim decided to conduct one of his most favorite pieces in music in a concert that took place in the state of Israel. He decided to do this being aware of the controversy this event would raise not only in Israel, but in the whole world. The classical piece he decided to play was the historically renowned “The Valkyrie”. But the detail that has to be mentioned here is that this masterpiece of classical music belonged to Richard Wagner. This German musician developed his art during the romantic period and is known not only because of his music, but also because of his anti-Semitic literary works and thoughts. As a matter of fact, this composer was Adolf Hitler’s favorite artist and many Jews were executed in the gas chambers to the sound of his music. Many voices have risen against the Argentinean composer’s actions, but he knew how to confront these accusations. Although there is a belief that Richard Wagner’s real legacy in music is one of racial ideology and prejudice even in our modern days, Daniel Barenboim has managed to prove that this matter can be seen from a different perspective and to gain support from many people around the globe.
            Despite the fact that we imagine ourselves living in a post-Holocaust mélange of musical sounds, we still inhabit “Wagner’s world” (Loeffler, 2014). At least this is the point of view that James Loeffler, professor of history at the University of Virginia, adopts towards this issue. Daniel Barenboim, among others, claimed that Wagner appreciated some members of the Jewish German community. Loeffler claims that this fact is not strong enough as to give an end to the debate of whether Wagner’s music can be conceived as something separate from his anti-Semitic ideology. There is a belief in the moral autonomy of artistic productions that comes from the Enlightenment, and that is what motivated most Hebrew geniuses to make music. This has been, for instance, the case of the Mendelssohn family. This Jewish musical success drove Wagner to write his essay Das Judenthum in der Musik in 1850. This written work was about the way in which Jewish traditional sonorities had changed the German musical scene. He claimed, for example, that the “Jews are a pariah nation with no land or language of their own” (Loeffler, 2014). He finished his work by saying that the only possible solution to this situation would be the suppression of Jews from the societies of Europe. In addition to his view, Romanticism carried a nationalist tendency within itself that spread all over Europe, and music in particular was the vehicle for political ideas at the time. Later on, two opposing cultural sides could be differentiated. There were the “German-speaking Jews seeking cultural acceptance as Germans [and the] ethnic Germans seeking political independence as a unified nation” (Loeffler, 2014). According to Michael Haas, Wagner’s literature has been the only significantly important influence in Hitler’s ideology years later, but yet that is not the main point. There is a tendency nowadays to ignore the Jewish musical legacy in many educational institutions from Europe and other parts of the world. However, something different happened in Israel, where Richard Wagner’s music has been banned for half a century.
In 2001, Daniel Barenboim decided to perform a piece from Wagner in Israel, claiming that his music can be listened as something separate from its associations to the holocaust. The conductor of the Berlineer Staatsoper asked “if any person has the right to deprive another who does not have these same associations of hearing Wagner’s music” (Barenboim, 2001). Soon after the end of WW II the Israel Philharmonic did not accept formerly Jewish musicians who had gone through a conversion to another religion during the conflict. Since nowadays 20% of the population of Israel is non-Jewish, conversion does not have a negative connotation anymore. Moreover, “Israel has the obligation to treat these inhabitants as equal citizens” (Barenboim, 2001). Incidentally, if we focus our attention into Wagner’s purely musical contributions, we will find that his ideas of tempi and acoustics have changed the way in which classical music is played and written even in modern times. Despite the fact that his personality was “…appalling… [and] …despicable…” (Barenboim, 1998), neither Hitler nor the German composer has created the anti-Semitic way of thinking. It is something that preceded them. It is also important to remark that there are no traces of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas: there are only interpretations that we can make about the subject. In the same way, one should make a distinction between the musician’s ideology and what the Nazis implemented it for. Barenboim understands music as a trans-national manifestation of art: it does not belong to any language or nationality.
Because his revolutionary ideas stand for the eradication of racial and ideological differences through the universal language of music, Barenboim has gained recognition all over the world. The Protestant Academy of Tutzing gave him the Tolerance Prize in 2002. This was due to his attempt and success of bringing people from Israel and Palestine together through classical music. This success was achieved via the creation of the Western-Eastern Divan Workshop in 1999, in which Barenboim included two concertmasters: One of them was Lebanese, the other from Israel. This has to do with his involvement in politics. Since music has become the breeding ground of his political views; many feel interested in his particular vision of what can be achieved through dialogue. Barenboim states that authentic dialogue, the one that implies listening openly to what the other is saying, is the only hope we have to peacefully live together. Five years later, the UN named him Messenger of Peace, and “in February 2009, he was awarded the Moses Mendelssohn Medal for his contribution to tolerance and international understanding” (Barenboim, 2011). His efforts to promote peaceful relationships between nations have not only made him a recognized figure in the scenario of international politics, but also built a controversial image for him.
The fact that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite rings a bell for many people at the time of appreciating his music. It is really hard to ignore the composer’s way of thinking just by turning our heads the other way. However, there is a question that arises from this matter: Why should people to whom this music does not imply reviving painful memories be deprived from the possibility of appreciating it? Moreover, is it worth it to continue identifying Wagner’s music with the Nazi holocaust in Europe? Daniel Barenboim has managed to show us that banning or holding a grudge against a composer’s music just because it is associated with a historical tragedy is almost at the same level as burning books because they are contrary to a certain totalitarian ideology. We have to be careful not to fight fire with fire, because, as Barenboim pointed out, that has never worked and will never work for us to attain peace between nations. Dialogue is the only hope we have; everything else has just failed. In any case, we should try to stop Wagner’s music from having any direct or indirect influence in contemporary anti-Semitism. And best way to do it is by getting rid of the taboo and start separating the musical genius from the repulsive xenophobic ideologist –even if he was Hitler’s favourite composer and literate. In Barenboim’s words regarding his past presentation in Israel, “this is a case where Israel can and should define itself as a democracy” (Barenboim, 2001).

Works Cited
BARENBOIM D. & SAID E., Wagner and Ideology, Daniel Barenboim, Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from
BARENBOIM D., As a Democratic State, Israel Should Allow Wagner to be Played, NPQ, Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from
BARENBOIM D., Daniel Barenboim – A Builder of Musical Bridges, Daniel Barenboim, Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from
LOEFFLER J., Wagner's Anti-Semitism Still Matters, New Republic, Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from

LUCCHINI L., Daniel Barenboim: "El diálogo es la única idea que nos puede salvar; todo lo demás falló", La Nación, Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from

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