"Wagner and the Jews". By Daniel Barenboim

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 5 June 2013 | 4:57:00 pm

"Another taboo that continues to be maintained in Israel is the performance of Wagner’s works within the country. To this I must say that the rumor that my performance in 2001 with the Staatskapelle Berlin of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde caused a sensation is a myth that has now, more than ten years later, become established in many people’s minds. The pieces were played as an encore following a forty-minute discussion with the audience. I suggested to the people who wanted to leave that they do so. Only twenty to thirty people who did not want to hear Wagner’s music left the hall. The remainder applauded the orchestra so enthusiastically that I had the feeling we had done something positive."

"Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews. As far as I am concerned, if Beckmesser’s awkward melodies resemble synagogue chant, then this is a parody of Jewish song and not a racist attack. One can of course also raise the question of taste in this matter. "

"When one continues to uphold the Wagner taboo today in Israel, it means, in a certain respect, that we are giving Hitler the last word, that we are acknowledging that Wagner was indeed a prophet and predecessor of Nazi anti-Semitism, and that he can be held accountable, even if only indirectly, for the final solution."

Perhaps no other composer in history sought to combine such obviously incompatible elements in his works. The qualities that make Richard Wagner’s supporters so enthusiastic are often the same ones that repel his opponents, such as his tendency toward extremes in every aspect of composition. Although he stretched the limits of harmony and operatic form to the breaking point, the realization of his musical concepts always remained exceedingly economical. Paradoxically, this very economy defines the incomparable dimension of his structures. Perhaps he found it necessary to make especially frugal use of certain individual elements in order to make the effect of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—even greater and more unexpected.
A good example of Wagner’s economy can be found at the beginning of the first act of Die Walküre, in which a wild storm rages. Even Beethoven made use of all the orchestral instruments in the storm in his Sixth Symphony, and given the instrumentation available to Wagner, one could assume that his storm would take on even grander proportions.

Instead, however, he allows only the strings to unfurl the full force of the storm; the result is a far more direct, naked, and compact sound than a full Wagnerian orchestra with brass and timpani would have produced. It is the precision of Wagner’s directions in the dynamic structuring of his scores that brings out the emotionality of the music. Wagner was the first composer to very consciously calculate and demand the speed of dynamic developments. When he wants to achieve a climax, he generally applies one of two techniques: either he lets a crescendo grow gradually and organically, or he lets the same musical material swell two or three times in order to let it explode the third or fourth time.

In Wagner’s operas, there are frequent cases in which the musical material swells up and down in two bars the first time it appears. The second time Wagner allows the same material to grow for two bars with a subito piano—sudden quiet—immediately afterward. Only the third time is there a climax after four bars of crescendo. A mathematical equation therefore gives rise to sensuality and fervor. It is his skillful intellectual calculation that creates the impression of spontaneity and purely emotional sensation.

Another characteristic of Wagner’s musical uniqueness can be observed in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, in the continuation of the famous “Tristan chord” at the beginning of the opera. A composer with less genius and with a poorer understanding of the mystery of music would assume that he must resolve the tension he has created. It is precisely the sensation caused by an only partial resolution, though, that allows Wagner to create more and more ambiguity and more and more tension as this process continues; each unresolved chord is a new beginning.

Wagner’s music is often complex, sometimes simple, but never complicated. It is a subtle difference, but complication, in this sense, implies among other meanings the use of unnecessary mechanisms or techniques that could potentially obfuscate the meaning of the music. These are not present in Wagner’s work. Complexity, on the other hand, is always represented in Wagner’s music by multidimensionality. That is, the music is always made up of many layers that may be individually simple but that constitute a complex construction when taken together. When he transforms a theme or adds something to it, it is always in the sense of multidimensionality. The individual transformations are sometimes simple but never primitive. In other words, his complexity is always a means and never a goal in itself. It is also always paradoxical, since its effect can be intensely emotional, even staggeringly so. In his literary work Opera and Drama Wagner wrote:

In the Drama, we must become knowers through the Feeling. The Understanding tells us: “So is it,”—only when the Feeling has told us: “So must it be.”

I find it all the more important to do away with certain misunderstandings and false claims about Wagner precisely because perceptions of him are often so confused and controversial. Here I also want to discuss extramusical sides of Wagner’s personality, and among these are of course his notorious and unacceptable anti-Semitic statements.