Jews, Richard Wagner and Anti-Semitism
This summer at Camp Interlochen, I struggled with how I felt about playing music by anti-Semitic composers. The events of Pittsburgh have once again brought my feelings into question, and I’m still figuring out where I stand.
Toward the end of my six weeks at Interlochen, my orchestra and I were told we were going to play the “Overture to Rienzi,” by Richard Wagner. Even before listening to and researching this piece (which is a requirement for all new music at Interlochen), I was disturbed at the thought of playing something by Wagner.
Wagner is one of the most famous composers of all time; however, he was notoriously anti-Semitic. Many of the evil characters in his operas were portrayed using commonly known anti-Semitic stereotypes. In addition, Wagner wrote a paper called “Jewishness in Music,” which denigrated his Jewish counterparts, such as Mendelson. He also wrote other papers about the negative effects of Jewish culture on German society. Basically, Wagner was not a great guy.
After rehearsal was over, I went to the library to look up the piece. I quickly learned that Wagner’s “Rienzi Opera” was actually a favorite of Hitler’s. People have written that Hitler’s idea of “the perfect race” was inspired by “Rienzi,” which Hitler first saw when he was 15. I was even more disturbed to find out the “Rienzi Overture” was played at the beginning of Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies.
Despite all of this, I still went and listened to a recording of the overture I was to play later that week. It was beautiful, but it felt wrong even listening to it knowing the same music was played at an event held to rally support for the destruction of the Jews. While I have not resolved my feelings, I found some piece of mind in the words of the great Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein, who wrote, “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.”
We were given the music on Monday and performed the following Sunday. The whole week in between, all I could think about was the Overture. Every time I practiced the opening note, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the exact same note I was playing was the note that was played to support the Hitler regime. When I talked to my friends about how uncomfortable the piece made me, they were sympathetic, but not totally understanding, mentioning that I should be able to separate a piece’s history from the music. Indeed, many can totally separate Wagner from his works. On the other hand, many refuse to play Wagner, including orchestras in Israel.
After thinking about anti-Semitism this week, I believe it should be something in between. When I played Wagner that Sunday, I allowed myself to enjoy the music, but also allowed myself to be uncomfortable. By doing both, I was able to gain a better understanding of the history of my people and the current environment in which we live. Without that, I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to move forward.