Dayton Hare: Mass Murder, Music and Morality in Art

Thursday, September 29, 2016 - 5:11pm

In August of 2001, something rather unusual happened in the state of Israel. There was a concert in Tel Aviv, which was entirely ordinary, and the famed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim led the orchestra, which was also ordinary. But when Barenboim gave the downbeat for his encore, something completely out of the ordinary happened — he played Wagner.

The encore had been preceded by 30 minutes of intense debate among conductor and audience after Barenboim had asked them if he could play Wagner. Shouts of “fascist” were heard, people stormed out and audience members in neighboring seats heatedly argued about what was to come. But by the end of the evening, the music of Richard Wagner had been played live in Israel for nearly the first time in the nation’s 50-year history.

It was not the first Wagner-related controversy in Israel. Barenboim himself had tried to program some of the composer’s works nearly a decade earlier, but had cancelled following protests. In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic attempted to perform Wagner, but was interrupted by a Holocaust survivor leaping onto the stage, removing his shirt and brandishing his concentration camp scars.

It’s not difficult to see why this is a topic wherein passions run very high. If you were to ask the average person to tell you about Wagner, you would probably hear about his penchant for bombast (see, for instance, the use of “Ride of the Valkyries” in the famous helicopter attack scene in “Apocalypse Now”) and how he was Hitler’s favorite composer, the latter bit unsurprisingly being the point of contention. Hitler’s idolization of Wagner bled into the public sphere during his dictatorship, with the composer’s music appearing at state events, on propaganda broadcasts and more — all of which built a powerful web of negative connotations for those unfortunate enough to suffer under Nazism.

Wagner himself did much to straighten his candidacy for most-favored composer of the Third Reich. In his personal life, Wagner was notoriously anti-semitic, a trait which revealed its noxious presence whenever he picked up his pen to do some prose writing, which was really rather often. One particularly sickening article that comes to mind is “Jewishness in Music,” about which the title really paints as much a picture as is needed. Some even suspect that Wagner’s operas — specifically “Parsifal” — contain Jewish caricatures.  But aside from all the reasons why Wagner was a horrible human being (and there are many more in addition to his anti-semitism — see his bulbous ego, elopement with Cosima Liszt and general dickishness — yes, Richard Wagner, I know), there is still an impassable obstacle to dismissing him entirely: He wrote really excellent music.

“We need one day to liberate Wagner of all this weight,” Barenboim is quoted as saying in a Haaretz article published some years after the encore incident. And maybe he’s right. Or maybe he’s wrong. I’m not really sure. Either way, the whole issue raises some fascinating questions about the morality of experiencing art produced by bad people or that has been used in gruesome contexts. However hard we try to forget him, Wagner’s musical influence is inexorable, and uncomfortably often it’s for the better. Perhaps more than anyone in the mid-to-late 19th century, Wagner developed the harmonic language that led to some of the most radical and exciting innovations of 20th century music. His “Tristan” chord is perhaps the most famous example of this, but everywhere in his music there is a powerful confluence of chromatic harmony and expressivity. Perhaps this is why his music is so affecting — even the most phlegmatic of individuals have been known to be stirred by Wagner.

But much of Wagner’s influence is felt in his antecedence to other masterful minds. Ironically, some of the most fertile musical followers of Wagner were Jewish, notably Gustav Mahler — who forged gargantuan symphonies of Wagnerian dramatic scope — and Arnold Schoenberg, who carried Wagner’s daring harmonic ideas to their logical apex in his development of atonality. Even those who opposed Wagner lived in his shadow and had to reconcile with that fact. For instance, the French composer Claude Debussy, who is credited with creating musical Impressionism (though he detested the term), had a youthful infatuation with Wagner. Only later did he recant, breaking away from Wagner and German music and all that came with it, creating his own sonic language. Of Wagner he remarked, “A beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn.” But he first had to gaze at the sun.

Is it possible then to exorcise Wagner from the Western Canon? The obvious answer seems to be no. Even if we stopped listening to his music (which probably isn’t ideal — I’m listening to the Prelude from “Parsifal” presently, and it’s really quite moving), his fingerprints are all over everything following him. Simply put, he is here to stay. But the more interesting question is whether or not, from a moral standpoint, we should try.

How much does the intention or motivation of the artist contribute to the ultimate value of the art? If Wagner intended to portray Jewish stereotypes in his operas, does that diminish the worth of the music? Or by contrast, how much does an audience’s reaction to a piece affect its value? If a large number of people (e.g. the people of Israel) are revolted by the art for one reason or another, does that mean that it is somehow less? It’s difficult to say. Placing either the creator or the receiver of art in the position of the ultimate arbiter of value seems to be fraught with peril.

Again, I don’t have the answers to these questions — if we’re being honest, probably nobody does (which I realize isn’t very helpful to you). I’ve had many circular conversations about this, all without reaching a satisfactory conclusion. But it’s worth thinking about. And it’s worth pointing out that this problem isn’t exclusive to Wagner. This whole article has ended up being far more Wagnerian than I had intended, but there are others in this same camp. For instance, Stravinsky was profoundly influenced by the Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who wrote beautiful vocal music, innovated more in chromatic harmony than anyone until Wagner, but murdered three people, including his wife and infant child. Some of the more apocryphal details are rather horrifying. Thoroughly nauseating stuff. There’s an interesting Werner Herzog film about it if Germanic cynicism is your sort of thing. Regardless, Gesualdo helped create Stravinsky — who even wrote the foreword to a Gesualdo biography by the University’s own Glenn Watkins — and I love his music despite his murderous nature.

One of the challenges in this question arises from the cult of personality mentality that is found in classical music. Perhaps more than any other genre except hip hop there is an obsession with the artist. Just think about how much you’ve heard about Mozart’s demigod-like childhood accomplishments, or Beethoven’s tragic deafness. Feature films abound. It’s all about the composer. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe, as might be the case with Wagner, it would be better if we all just let it go. Maybe it’s better to just let the music be music.