Farrakhan plays Mendelssohn

Stephen Wigler

April 22, 1993|By Stephen Wigler

I was fascinated to read earlier this week that Louis Farrakhan loves the music of Mendelssohn and that his performance of that composer's Violin Concerto in Winston-Salem, N.C., last weekend shows, in his words, "that I am not anti-Semitic."

Mr. Farrakhan, the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, has for years said things that have been hurtful to Jews and that have troubled their relations with African-Americans. Some of those remarks -- for example, that Judaism is a "gutter religion" and that the founders of Israel are "criminals in the sight of God" -- are already golden oldies in the history of hate.

Perhaps such remarks would not have been so painful if Mr. Farrakhan were not so talented; he is an electrifying speaker who has been able to convey a powerful message about the benefits of education, discipline and hard work to his audiences, which include many more people than the 50,000 members of the Nation of Islam.

Mr. Farrakhan is also a passable violinist, according to New York Times' music critic Bernard Holland, who traveled to Winston-Salem to attend a three-day symposium devoted to promoting interest in classical music among young African-Americans. Mr. Farrakhan, whose performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto had not been previously announced, said afterward that the piece also allowed him to make a statement about how his views had changed.

Mr. Farrakhan said he was "[trying] to do with music what cannot be done with words and [trying] to undo with music what words have done," the Times reported. He also said that his love for the music of Mendelssohn, whose grandparents were Jewish, showed that he was not anti-Semitic.

Mr. Farrakhan's affection for Mendelssohn is understandable -- what fiddler doesn't love the E Minor Concerto? -- and his belief that the discipline of studying classical music would be beneficial to black youngsters and enrich their lives dovetails with his educational philosophy.

Much as one would like to believe it, however, one cannot help but be skeptical about the rest of Mr. Farrakhan's message. Music can be a potent symbol -- of harmony and building bridges over cultural divides. As a powerful and successful figure in American public life, Mr. Farrakhan has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a skillful manipulator of such symbols.

Yet as one who identifies himself as a Jew, I am a little uncomfortable when Felix Mendelssohn is identified as one, too. While Mendelssohn's grandfather, Moses, was the greatest German-Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Felix's parents were converts to Christianity and the composer lived his entire life as a devout Lutheran.

When Mendelssohn is called a Jew, I cannot help but think of those who believe in the taint of blood, such as the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner, whose scurrilous "Jewry in Music" was dedicated to the proposition that no one of Jewish blood could write first-rate music and who used Mendelssohn as one of his prime examples.

That Mr. Farrakhan loves Mendelssohn's music does not persuade me that his views have changed. The pianist Walter Gieseking, who recorded -- quite beautifully -- many of the composer's "Songs without Words," was a Nazi sympathizer. So was the conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg, a peerless interpreter of the music of Gustav Mahler, who was a convert to Catholicism.

Ironically, Mr. Farrakhan is relying on the Nazis' own repulsive racial theories of who is a Jew in order to rationalize playing of Mendelssohn as a conciliatory gesture. During the German Third Reich, the ovens at such places as Buchenwald and Auschwitz filled the air with the stench of the burned flesh of people who thought that they were no longer Jews.

Playing a "Jew's" music no more proves an absence of anti-Semitism than using one or the other of the anti-polio vaccines -- with which Mr. Farrakhan's children were presumably inoculated and which were invented by Jews.

Mr. Farrakhan chose to mark his performances of Mendelssohn with a conciliatory statement and perhaps that makes a difference. Still, much as one would like to embrace his apparent change of heart, even Mr. Farrakhan, if he thinks about it, should know that you cannot "undo with music what words have done."

He may be an eloquent violinist, but he is an even more eloquent speaker. And the many occasions on which he has brought otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people to their feet in cheers because of his hateful remarks rankles in memory.

It could be that Mr. Farrakhan now realizes that hatred only diminishes the hater. Or it could be that, like all politicians -- whether Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton or Jesse Jackson -- he merely recognizes the occasional need to re-invent himself. Mr. Farrakhan has certainly been outflanked by such recent purveyors of hatred as Professor Leonard Jeffries and the rapper Ice Cube.

And there is much beside Mr. Farrakhan's past expressions of contempt for Jews (and other whites) that troubles me -- his authoritarian ways and his private army, for example, reminiscent as they are of the trappings of fascism.

More than 10 years ago, I asked Paul Robeson Jr., the son of the great African-American actor-singer whose career was destroyed by bigots and right-wing witch hunters, what he thought of Mr. Farrakhan and his followers. Mr. Robeson laughed and replied: "They're brownshirts in blackface."

I agreed with him then, and it will take more than a few performances of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto to convince me to change my opinion now.

Stephen Wigler is the music critic of The Baltimore Sun.

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