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Controversy Flares over Playing of Wagner’s Music by the Ipo

October 23, 1981
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A fierce controversy continued in Israel this week over the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s attempt to add the music of Richard Wagner to its repertoire. The music of Wagner has been boycotted in this country since 1948 because of the composer’s anti-Semitism, because his music was often played as concentration camp inmates were marched to the gas chambers, and because of the close associations members of his family had with Hitler. Wagner’s music was chosen by the Nazis as a symbol of the “Nordic superman.”

The controversy erupted last week when Zubin Mehta, conductor and musical director of the IPO who also serves as musical director of the New York Philharmonic, announced that the overture to Tristan and Isolde would be played as an encore at the concert being performed at Mann Auditorium.

Mehta, well aware of the hostility toward Wagner among many Israelis, particularly Holocaust survivors, announced that he would pause before the encore to allow people in the audience and members of the orchestra to leave if they so wished. Some of the audience and orchestra members left and fist fights broke out in the auditorium between those who wanted the music halted and those who wanted to hear it.


Despite this incident, the IPO is determined to add Wagner’s music to its repertoire. Mehta and IPO violinist Daniel Binyamini, chairman of the IPO management committee, told a press conference yesterday they thought no modern orchestra could exist without playing Wagner in view of his influence on modem music. They said the political aspects of Wagner’s views and the Nazis’ affinity for his music should not be allowed to diminish the importance of his music.

Mehta said last week after the fracas at Mann Auditorium that the orchestra decided to play Wagner’s music because of the passage of time since the Nazis killed six million Jews. “I understand the emotions of the people who went through the concentration camps, but Israel is a democracy and any one should be able to hear whatever he wants,” Mehta said.

The dispute in the media and in the populace is roughly along political lines. Rightwing personalities and Likud supporters oppose the playing of Wagner’s music, while labor, liberal and leftwing personalities are largely in favor of allowing the IPO to add Wagner’s music as encores or at special concerts if it is suitably announced in advance.

But there is a consensus that the IPO should refrain from adding Wagner’s works to any subscription-series concerts, which would not allow opponents of those with concentration camp memories who cannot bear to hear his works to stay away from any concert at which Wagner were to be played.

But a number of former concentration camp inmates are among those who have expressed support for Mehta and the IPO, saying opposition to Wagner was purely political. They said they would agree to a continued ban on Wagner’s music only if those who were opposed to Wagner also united in their opposition to the import of Volkswagen and Mercedes cars, and German-produced television sets and high-fi stereo sets which now sell by the thousands in Israel. However, this was countered by others who said that “pieces of metal” should not be compared to the feelings of those upset by Wagner’s music.

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