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Machlokes / Controversy
Jewish World Review March 2, 2001 /7 Adar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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From Bach to Wagner
via Jerusalem

Pondering the anti-Semitic content of a beloved composers work -- THE intersection between music and ideas is a dangerous place for intellectuals to loiter. The collision between the appeal of the good music and the bad ideas of some artists is a pileup most of us don't wish to view. If you adore music - and I count myself among those who regularly worship at the secular temples of the classical music repertory - making decisions about whether to reject the work of certain artists because of the dangerous or vicious causes they may have promoted during their lifetimes is an agonizing decision.

But for many Jewish music lovers the boundaries of the acceptable and the unacceptable are generally clearly drawn in at least two cases: Bach, acceptable; Wagner, not.

Though both were Germans, these two giants represent different poles of artistic ideas. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is arguably the greatest of all the composers of the Baroque era. His chamber, orchestral and vocal music has universal appeal that cuts across generational and cultural divides.

Bach has come down to us as a good man and fabulous organist and composer who struggled to make a living for his 20 children - a number of whom became composers in their own right - by playing in churches and writing music for sacred services and the occasional noble patron.

On the other hand, no musician has ever been as reviled for his politics as Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner is just as much remembered for his despicable anti-Semitism as for the 10 operas that remain pillars of the standard repertory of every major company in the world.

Writing at a time when traditional Christian Jew-hatred was morphing into something even more dangerous, Wagner wrote vicious essays blasting the "Jewish" influence on the music of his day. These pieces were probably read by more people than saw performances of his operas during his lifetime.

Though Wagner died long before the ascendancy to power of Wagner opera-lover Adolf Hitler, the Wagner family's subsequent closeness with the Nazi regime sealed the identification of Wagner with the worst nightmare of the 20th century. That association became so close that since the 1930s, many Jews have refused to listen to his work. Indeed, that inclination has in Israel become a formal ban by major orchestras - and a source of endless controversy. As renowned conductors such as Zubin Mehta have discovered to their dismay, the Wagner ban is an emotional subject that is not susceptible to reasoned debate. Suffice it to say that as long as Holocaust survivors are around in any numbers, the boycott will, more or less, remain in place.

But when these simplistic notions about the two composers are subjected to closer scrutiny, the results can be surprising.

One person who chose to think seriously about the implications of some of Bach's work is musicologist Michael Marissen of Swarthmore College. The author of a 1998 book titled Lutheranism, Anti-Judaism and Bach's 'St. John's Passion,' Marisssen has taken on the unenviable task of reminding the music world that some of the texts that Bach chose to set to music are among the most anti-Semitic passages in the Christian Bible.

Marisssen discussed his theories at a symposium sponsored by the Temple University Department of Jewish Studies held in Philadelphia last weekend prior to a performance of the "St. John Passion" by the Temple Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra.

Though any Christian "passion play" in which the Jews are blamed for Jesus' execution is bound to raise the hackles of contemporary Jewry, the Gospel of John is the worst in the Christian tradition. It is, as Marisssen points out, filled with appositions of good and evil in which "the Jews" are the personification of the latter.

Though in our own day the teaching of contempt for Jews has been abandoned by the Catholic Church as well as by most Protestant denominations, the role of John in fomenting anti-Jewish violence throughout two millennia cannot be underestimated. And although the anti-Semitism that animated Nazism must be seen as distinct from traditional Christian Jew-hatred, without that foundation the Nazi plan of murder could never have succeeded.

Marissen also points out that far from being an innocent who knew only music, Bach was a learned man who had a vast library of theological works and was a devout follower of Lutheranism. And let us not forget that Luther also penned anti-Jewish rants that would resonate centuries later with both Wagner and Hitler. Marissen admits that he has no way of knowing whether or not Bach was an anti-Semite, but he was still a product of his time, his country and his church.

While it is hard for any Jewish music lover to resist the appeal of Bach's "St. John Passion," or some of his other cantatas that is a practice best assisted by ignorance of their German texts.

Even though Marissen is at pains to point out that Bach chose not to compose some of the most inflammatory sections of John, what remains is bad enough, with its references to the innocence of the Romans, the schemes of "the Jews," and the bloodthirsty cry "Kreuzige, Kreuzige" - "crucify, crucify" - of the Jewish mob. Though Marissen also points out that Bach held to the Lutheran belief that saw Jesus' sufferings as the result of the sins of all mankind throughout eternity rather than as the specific guilt of the Jews, it cannot be denied that Bach's "John" is filled with language that can be seen as incitement to hatred.

That is a bitter pill to swallow for those music lovers who would like to ignore Bach's librettos and simply revel in his vocal music.

Armed with this knowledge, what should we think about Bach? Do we ignore the truth or do we simply ban him and some of his works as has been done with Wagner?

The only answer Marissen offers us is to put aside the myths and confront his failings as well as his genius. The world would be a poorer place without Bach's music and though some are happy to live without it, I, for one, would not. But it will never again be possible to think of him without placing him in the context of his beliefs and seeing him very differently.

All of which leads us back to Wagner. For just as it is impossible to ignore the anti-Jewish content of some of Bach's settings, it must be remembered that anti-Jewish sentiments are conspicuous in Wagner's operas by their absence.

Indeed, almost all of his work set classic myths, such as the Nibelungen tales, which are devoid of Jews. And those scholars who seek inductively to find Wagner's personal anti-Semitism in his operas (rather than the other way around, as with Bach) are reduced to strained analogies and symbolism that doesn't hold up.

Such theories speak more to the inventiveness of their authors - and their understandable zeal to make sense of the otherwise life-affirming music of a composer who preached hate - than to the content of Wagner's work. Attempts to classify any music as intrinsically "good" or "evil" inevitably fail.

The ability of Wagner's music to inspire good as well as evil people is affirmed in the diaries of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who confided that during the months when he wrote his famous pamphlet, "The Jewish State," that he only was sure of what he was doing on nights "when Wagner was played at the opera."

A visitor from another planet, knowing nothing of the music's historical associations and lacking an emotional reaction to events in Germany, might well conclude that Jews were more likely to boycott Bach's music than Wagner's.

Faced with this problem, the serious student of music, as well as the casual listener, must learn to understand that composers are complex beings who cannot be easily reduced to simple images. As Wagner's followers learned to their sorrow, great art will not redeem an evil society. But neither should we ignore troubling works from otherwise admirable musicians.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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