In any other country, the music of the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner is heard as just that -- as music. In Israel, his music has been in effect drowned out by debate on whether the works of a musical genius adopted by the Nazis as a symbol of German greatness should be performed in the Jewish state.
The controversy, which has dominated newspaper editorials and radio talk shows, is less about Wagner than about how Israel memorializes the Holocaust. Israelis dispute whether a public performance of Wagner's music would demonstrate gross insensitivity to those who survived the Nazis' attempt to exterminate European Jewry or whether the performance would be a proof of national self-confidence and maturity. Can Israelis trust themselves to remember the past? Or does enjoyment of Wagner's music imply a shameful forgetfulness?
Israelis have decided against testing themselves, at least for now. A performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of some of Wagner's greatest works was to have taken place Friday. It was canceled after protests by orchestra members, Holocaust survivors and members of parliament. Guest conductor Daniel Barenboim had to settle for allowing a few members of the public to attend a rehearsal for the concert that was never held.
Mr. Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen, is credited for touching off the uproar, and strongly criticized for doing so. The Wagner program was his idea. A majority of the orchestra members belonging to a governing board voted in favor of his proposal.
Mr. Barenboim's critics accused him of raising the issue only to satisfy what they called an outsized appetite for publicity. But he would seem already assured of being awash in it as the new music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Unter der Linden Opera in Berlin.
Wagner has not been performed here since a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1938. It was before the Nazis began their wholesale slaughter of Jews, a decade before the establishment of Israel.
"The orchestra has been wanting to play Wagner for a long
period of time because he is a very important figure in musical history," said Yehoshua Pasternak, a trombonist and head of the the Philharmonic's committee of musicians. "Mr. Barenboim asked if we were ready."
Wagner is possibly the ultimate test for anyone in favor of appreciation for an artist's creations remaining unaffected by knowledge of the artist's life. Wagner's musical talents are universally recognized as enormous. His political philosophy is recognized today as abhorrent.
Born in 1813, Wagner combined music and drama in new ways, and on a monumental scale, culminating in "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and "Parsifal," completed shortly before his death in 1883. He was a widely read essayist and a talented conductor. He was a favorite of the king of Bavaria, who subsidized his
work. And, as expressed in his essays and correspondence, the composer also had a startling hostility toward Jews.
Wagner complained that Jews were ruining Germany. They were incapable of true artistic creativity, he said; their liturgical music was "nonsensical gurgling." He said their failure to assimilate into German culture held back the greatness of the German people. He also warned that assimilation would contaminate the German race.
After the composer's death, his best-known admirer was Hitler. He adopted Wagnerian music, and parts of Wagner's philosophy, as anthems for the Nazis.
In Israel, Wagner has remained more of a symbol than a musician. Israelis can buy German-made automobiles without a second thought, and their government can accept German loans and grants (including billions of dollars in war reparations). The Philharmonic can perform in Germany about as frequently as it performs in the United States.
Abraham Melamed, one of the orchestra's violinists, learned about the composer when growing up in Romania before World War II. He then spent much of the war in a concentration camp. "I knew Wagner's music when I was young, and later I read a little bit about it," he said. "I decided I didn't want to have anything to do with him." Of the 110 full-time orchestra members, Mr. Melamed was one of about 20 to decide to absent himself from any Wagner program.
Holocaust survivors were not the only persons to object. Most of the people telephoning talk shows or writing letters to protest against the concert were born decades after World War II. They spoke of wanting to honor the memory of grandparents. Some hinted at anxiety that a Wagner performance would suggest that Israel could forget, or forgive.