The Israeli Chamber Orchestra has just given a concert playing music by Richard Wagner, and what’s more in Bayreuth, the town where he lived and which has been a shrine to him ever since. There’s been a general but unwritten agreement in Israel that Wagner was such a rabid and stereotypical anti-Semite that his music should not be played there. Self-respect came into it. Some are rejoicing on the grounds that this concert breaks a taboo. But taboos arise for the very good reason that they define and protect civilized behavior, and it is a sensible precaution to examine the whys and wherefores whenever someone claims that it is right to be breaking them.
Every year in the 1930s the Wagner festival at Bayreuth was a leading fixture in the Nazi calendar. Adolf Hitler was the regular guest of honor. Of course Wagner cannot be blamed for the fact that Hitler adored his music. But he can be blamed for the fact that his music, even or especially at its most grandiose, promotes a vision of myth and myth-making, so to speak Harry Potter with a full orchestra attached. A kindred spirit, Hitler’s view of the world was also dependent on myth and myth-making, especially where Jews were concerned.
My father could have been a professional musician, and he took me as a teenager to the Bayreuth festival. We met Winifred Wagner, born Williams, whose marriage to Siegfried had made her the composer’s daughter-in-law. On her desk were signed photographs of Hitler and Goebbels. She paid them compliments, and regretted that they could no longer be patrons, they had so loved the arts. Myth-making was everywhere. Quite as creepy is Haus Wahnfried, the family house-cum-museum, where in one gloomy room after another the past of the composer is treated as holy and everything associated with him preserved like relics in a cathedral. Wagner himself has been captured as in a myth of his own making.
Wagner’s music is played everywhere, of course, and so it should be — except in Israel or by Israeli orchestras. More than a taboo, the Wagner boycott in that country is by consent a standing reproach to the fantasies about Jews common to him and to Hitler. That’s not a taboo at all, but a way of saying that some things are so evil that they can’t be normalized.