Before Wagner Was Taboo


The orchestral rolling thunder of Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner is almost as taboo in Israel as Hitler himself. To even suggest that Wagner’s music be performed in Israel is to invite a maelstrom of outrage, as if “Der Ring,” Wagner’s operatic cycle (now being performed around the world in celebration of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth), is morally indistinguishable from the Horst Wessel, the Nazi anthem. And yet, when Wagner died in 1883, the idea that his music would be virtually banned in a future Jewish state would have been baffling to Wagner’s Jewish contemporaries. The Jews of the 19th century thought his music was terrific and, OK, Wagner was anti-Semitic but who in Europe wasn’t?

Not only was Wagner not taboo among Jews in the era that knew him best, but Theodor Herzl — Israel’s founding father! — even opened the 1898 Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, with an orchestral performance of Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” And Jews, in turn, were not ostracized by Wagner. Unlike the Nazis who outlawed Jewish participation in German orchestras, Wagner had Hermann Levi, a Jewish conductor from a prominent rabbinic family, not only conduct “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final opera in 1882, but after Wagner’s death it was Levi who for many years served as the principal conductor of the Bayreuth Festival, the Wagner family’s annual summer celebration of Wagner’s operas that is under way this week.

Wagner died 130 years ago, six years before Hitler was even born, and logic suggests that the composer could hardly have become more anti-Semitic after his death. But Jewish hatred for him has only grown.

“He was the quintessential German; the quintessential German nationalist,” says Allan Leicht, whose play about Wagner and Levi, “My Parsifal Conductor,” is expected to open in New York in the 2013-14 season. There’s a straight line leading from that nationalism to the Holocaust, says Leicht. At the same time, there’s a straight line leading from that nationalism to the founding of Israel. Leicht, an Emmy-award winner and oft-nominated television writer, says Herzl “wrote explicitly that he could never have written ‘Der Judenstaat’ [The Jewish State] had he not gone to the Paris opera to hear Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser.’ Herzl was writing his book about a Jewish homeland and considered ‘Tannhauser,’ which touches upon German nationalism to be his inspiration.” Herzl, says Leicht, believed that “the Jews deserved as much nationalism as the Germans. No one at the Zionist Congress, as far as I know, minded that ‘Tannhauser’ was performed. Wagner was the music of the day.”

Today in Israel German cars are everywhere, and Germany is one of Israel’s largest trading partners. Everything German has been forgiven — except Wagner.

“The irony,” says Leicht, an Orthodox Jew and Zionist who divides his time between New York and Jerusalem, is that in Israel “you can hear [Richard] Strauss,” who was actually alive and a Nazi sympathizer during the Third Reich. “Strauss, they’ll play. The reason they won’t play Wagner is not just that Wagner was so anti-Semitic, though he was, but that his music is so terribly potent, so effective, so recognizable as Hitler’s music. That Hitler chose Wagner” as his favorite composer “tainted Wagner forever, at least for generations.”

“Parsifal” is “a very, very religious work,” says Leicht. “Many people think it is the most gorgeous work ever written for the stage, though [Friedrich] Nietzsche,” a friend of Wagner, “hated it. He saw Wagner as a bohemian, as a great innovator, as a great artist, but Wagner had became more of a Christian artist,” while Nietzsche was, of course, famously atheist.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria “who was paying Wagner’s bills” and putting up with Wagner’s eccentricities, “had a royal orchestra,” says Leicht, “and that royal orchestra was conducted by Levi. Levi was a huge star in the 19th century, a very fine pianist and composer, himself, perhaps comparable to Leonard Bernstein, but a very sad figure. Wagner would have had no problem with Levi conducting any of his other operas, but Wagner didn’t consider ‘Parsifal’ to be just an opera but a religious experience. A Christian experience ‘for the consecration of the stage.’ In an illiterate medieval society the Catholic Church used art and the stage to educate people and spread the Gospel. Parsifal was in that tradition, and in the tradition of the Passion Play. Wagner’s wife, Cosima, didn’t hate Levi, either, but that a Jew would conduct ‘Parsifal’ …

“I detected in Cosima’s diaries a real affection for Levi. I really think she was in love with Levi. Partly, because she felt so betrayed by Wagner,” with his many infidelities. Even Cosima, before they were married, was one of his infidelities. “He had three children with [Cosima] while she was married to his previous conductor. Wagner was a totally amoral individual. He truly loved her, but he loved everyone else too.”

It was Nietzsche, says Leicht, “who brought Levi to the Wagners, long before Levi became a conductor for Wagner. They enjoyed Levi, treating him as one of the family — whom they’d make fun of; loved and ridiculed for his Jewishness. Their children treated him very badly. Cosima said she had enormous affection for Levi ‘except for your birth defect; you are a Jew.’ They hounded him about converting. Levi just tolerated it.”

While at Bayreuth, Levi was the object of a derisive and anonymous letter, written to the Wagners, smearing Levi for being a Jew and accusing him of having an affair with Wagner’s wife, “a letter,” says Leicht, “that was trying to break up the association between Levi and the Wagners.” Wagner read the nasty nasty aloud to Levi, in front of Cosima.

“At that point,” says Leicht, “Levi walked out. He stormed out of Bayreuth, furious for the first time. He put up with everything but he couldn’t believe that Wagner, his friend, would confront him with such a letter.”

Who wrote the letter? Some guess that it was Wagner himself, “because Wagner was a dramatist, an actor, and duplicitous to the very end. He wanted to get rid of Levi, but not really, because he knew he could not do ‘Parsifal’ without Levi or the king.” In the end, the friendship meant nothing.

But Levi came back. To the Jew, the friendship meant something.

Levi may have forgiven Wagner, but Leicht understands if Holocaust survivors won’t. “I wouldn’t be in favor of playing Wagner in Israel. It hurts people’s feelings. Music is not important enough for it to hurt people’s feelings.”

In New York, WQXR is celebrating Wagner’s bicentennial (!/articles/wqxr-features/2013/jul/22/wagner-week-life-richard-wagner) with additional biographical and musical information.