Wagner's Dark Shadow Can We Separate the Man from His Works?


Part 3: A Wagner Enthusiast in Israel

Jonathan Livny, 65, experiences the good spell every time he visits Bayreuth, and he comes here often. During the intermissions, he eavesdrops on the conversations of other audience members, and is pleased when he hears Hebrew, his own language. Livny is Israeli, and he loves the music of Wagner.

His father, a Jew living in Germany, recognized during the 1930s that calamity was brewing and emigrated to Palestine. He was the only member of his family to do so and the rest perished in the Holocaust. His son Jonathan says today: "God died in Auschwitz."

Livny is sitting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, next to a Christmas tree that hasn't been taken down yet. He weeps when he talks about his lost family. He says that his father took along records from Germany, including Wagner's "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." According to author Köhler, Hitler could hum and whistle the melodies of the opera. "My father loved Wagner," says Livny, who travels halfway around the world to see Wagner's most important work, "The Ring of the Nibelung." He lists all the places where he has already seen it performed: Toronto, San Francisco, Strasbourg, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, London, Milan, Vienna, Los Angeles.

Livny speaks quickly and briskly. He wears colorful glasses and drove to the hotel on a motor scooter. He has tried twice to have Wagner performed publicly in Israel. Although it isn't prohibited, Livny failed both times.

A Hideous Man Who Made 'Heavenly Music'

To some extent the now 86-year-old Israeli journalist Noah Klieger may be to blame for this. Klieger survived Auschwitz by pretending to be a boxer. The larger food rations for the boxing team saved him. Klieger speaks as animatedly as Livny, but not as quickly.

Klieger doesn't oppose concerts in Israel because Wagner was an anti-Semite. If that were the case, he says, he would also have to take a stance against performances of the music of Richard Strauss. "Wagner was more than an anti-Semite. He wanted the extermination of all Jews," he says. He cites as evidence a letter to Cosima, who had told her husband about a fire in a Vienna theater which killed hundreds, half of them Jews, during a performance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". Wagner replied: "All Jews should burn to death in a performance of 'Nathan'." People can certainly listen to Wagner at home, says Klieger, but he feels that a public concert would be intolerable. Given his public tensions with Livny, Klieger even refused to take part in a public discussion with him.

Of course, that's not all that surprising given that Livny called Klieger "a professional Holocaust survivor." In Israel, this is considered a vilification of people whose position in public debates is shaped by their experiences during the Nazi era. "Wagner was a hideous man, but he made heavenly music," says Livny. He separates the man from his works, which is the reason he chooses not to pursue his cause this year. If he did, he says, it would look as though he were trying to honor Wagner in the year of Wagner, which he isn't. For Livny, it's all about the music.

Two years ago, he founded the Israeli Wagner Society "to break the last symbol of the hatred of Germans." Volkswagen has become a popular brand of car among Israelis today, says Livny, "even though it was Hitler's invention." That's why he doesn't understand people like Klieger.

Livny says he has been spat at and has received threatening phone calls. "The more they threaten me," he says, "the more I want there to be a concert. The music isn't anti-Semitic."

But is music even possible without context, and without the history of its creation and impact? Let's look at two attempts to talk about the music, and nothing but the music.

Christian Thielemann, 54, a director who specializes in Wagner, knows what it's like to perform his music in Bayreuth. You have to "remain fluid," former Festival Director Wolfgang Wagner once told him, and his wife Gudrun said that it was important to "go the distance." And that's what Thielemann does: He remains fluid and he goes the distance, whatever that means. There is a telephone in the orchestra pit, and when it lit up during rehearsals, he knew that it was festival director Wolfgang Wagner calling to tell him that it was "too loud, too loud, too loud." It's easy to get too loud in Bayreuth, says Thielemann, which is why it is important never to direct "forte." "If the director is enjoying himself too much, it's the beginning of the end," says Thielemann. There is apparently so much power in this music that a director must treat it gently to prevent it from becoming an assault.

A State of Ecstasy and Intoxication

Markus Käbisch, 45, is adept at describing what it's like to listen to this music. He studied music and is now an entrepreneur in the solar industry. He lives in Leipzig, Wagner's birthplace, and at some point he noticed that the composer "is hardly ever mentioned in Leipzig." He established an association with the goal of giving the city a monument of its famous son, but donors were few and far between. "I suspect," he says, "that there is a concern that it might not fit to the image of a liberal, cosmopolitan city." He raised the money elsewhere, and now artist Stephan Balkenhol is working on a sculpture that incorporates a shadow.

Käbisch loves Wagner's music but says he "couldn't handle it every day." He describes it as being, "extremely captivating; when you listen to it the ego and the individual disappear, and you become intoxicated, entering a state of ecstasy." Käbisch calls it "overpowering music." "That's what is so dangerous about it, and it's why this music was so well-suited to politics in the Third Reich." When the conversation turns to Wagner, politics is never far away.

Wagner himself conceived his music as political. He didn't want to be merely an artist, but to build a new society, a society of the emotionally transported, of people who seek love instead of striving for money and power. His music was also a propaganda tool for this idea.

This was convenient for the Nazis, because they too used intoxication, ecstasy and overpowering images in their propaganda, such as at their Nuremberg rallies. In the Germans, they encountered a pronounced susceptibility to emotional turmoil and pathos, which is particularly evident in German Romanticism, in the poetry of Friedrich Schiller or the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. An essentially German longing permeates Wagner's music.

In German politics, this pathos ceased to be possible after Hitler, in contrast to the United States or France. Germans can still relish in the music of Wagner, as long as they take the position that the music is innocent or that they don't care about the political context of art. Then it becomes an innocent pathos. This is one of the aspects of Germans' enjoyment of Wagner.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Jakespeare 04/13/2013
1. Wagner
Wagner was first and foremost an Artist... and as an artist he portrayed the world he lived in with musical tones, daunting silence and thundering crescendos. True Art is totally subjective... and Wagner wasn't making musical statements of his antisemitism... he was playing back the deep and disturbing state of affairs of a Germany at war with herself and the world. If you were Wagner, the Industrial Age was stepping in and demolishing all established order. Christians in Germany had no love for the Semite either at that time. He captured chaos in his music... and it is unfair to lay National Socialism over him and his music. Germany was at the time, at the forefront of Science, Medicine, Art, Psychology and Technology. You can hear that all in his music... and the tragedy of the Titans fall from grace. Lighten Up Germany!
golestan 04/13/2013
The German obsession with post-Nazi guilt borders on the absurd. Anybody who could possibly have been in a position of decision making in 1945 (say of age 21) is now at least 89 years old. Not many of them left and of those who are still there 95% had nothing to do with the horrendous crimes committed in that era. Germany's conduct ever since the founding of the Federal Republic has been exemplary on the international scene. Now you are tainting the reputation of a great composer, who was dead 6 years before Hitler was even born, just because Hitler liked his works? I have news for you: Hitler also liked Berchtesgaden and he was a teetotaller. Are now all the teetotallers and Berchtesgaden also tainted??? ... just the opinion of a Canadian bystander.
sylvesterthecat 04/13/2013
3. Angst, angst and yet more angst
Sometimes I really despair about our German cousins. Germany manages to produce a towering genius like Richard Wagner, after giving the world the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and still worry about the fact that Wagner didn't like Jews very much. Would you have preffered a man who loved everything Jewish but couldn't write music? As he seems to be such an embarrassment to you, can I suggest that you ' find ',(perhaps under the floorboards at Wahnfried), a dusty old Birth certificate in the name of 'Dickie Wainwright' born 1813 in Felixstowe? We'll be delighted to adopt him especially as genius is in short supply these days. Incidentally, the most fanatical Wagnerians I know of, are both Jewish.
dorbarn 04/14/2013
4. How about the United States and Slavery
Slavery was upheld in our constitution... etcetc, we all know the history... can the good things that came to US history and culture through people and institutions, churches, courts, that upheld slavery be separated from this dark history?
Kurnewal 04/14/2013
I think the German emphasis on obedience, respect for authority and discipline historically fostered a society where emotion was repressed. In the arts, especially music, this huge reservoir of repressed emotion could be released. This is why Germany produced a successon of composers who have no equals in musical history: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. The idea of any composer from another nation being measured against any one of these giants is ludicrous.
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