Thursday, October 07, 2010

Evil Music?

Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861The Israel Chamber Orchestra has caused a lot of controversy in its home country about its decision to play at the Bayreuth festival, which celebrates the music of Richard Wagner. Despite being long dead before the Nazis came to power, his anti-semitic writing led to admiration by Adolph Hitler and it is said that his music was played at the concentration camps where so many Jews died. His music has been, therefore, shunned by most Israeli musicians.

Not being a classical fan, and certainly not of opera, I don't have any particular desire to try and rehabilitate his music from an artistic point of view. However, it does beg an interesting question: does enjoying the music equate to condoning the views of the composer/artist? It all reminds me a bit of the debates in Christian youth circles in the late 70s and early 80s about so-called back-tracking.

Most notorious was an alleged expression of admiration for Satan in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", which, it was claimed, could be heard if you played the track backwards. Lots of vinyl albums suffered damage as a consequence, and a test on our student flat's record player was unclear! Other examples have been quoted and demonstrated with varying degrees of plausibility. The debate centred around whether the hidden message was there, and even if it was, did it matter? After all we don't know all the views of every musician, and can't you just take a song at face value.

Returning to the more serious issues around Wagner, the question is whether his music can ever shake off their associations, and be appreciated as music, rather than political or ideological statements. If something is beautiful [not that I personally think Wagner's music is!], is it just beautiful?

Everything has associations, and music can be especially evocative of memories. It may be that one day, when all living memory of the Holocaust has gone, that people can listen to Wagner just as music. In the meantime I suspect that a rehabilitation, even by an Israeli orchestra, is not possible.
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