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Hans Werner Henze: Wagner should not be played in Israel

The doyen of German composers, a political outcast for much of his life, Hans Werner Henze, 86, has spoken out on the ever-inflammatory topic of Richard Wagner’s antisemitism and his influence on the Third Reich.

‘So long as there are people living in Israel who endured the Nazi concentration camps,’  he said, ‘Wagner should not be performed there. I see no pressing reason to play Hitler’s favourite music.’

Speaking ahead of the Dresden production of his anti-capitalist, anti-war opera We Come to the River, Henze added: ‘I have always tried to remove myself as far as possible from (Wagner’s) actions, his ideology and his work.’

That’s telling them.

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  1. I find the whole Wagner debate in Israel rather strange and old-fashioned. By the way, Wagner was not Hitler’s favourite composer, it was Bruckner.
    For a more considered view on this subject please click this link.

    • Here is Hitler’s quote : “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.
      The effect of his music being played in Israel would be totally equivalent of the reaction many in America would have at the site of the Federal flag displayed in Downtown of and American. city. We all understand that but we refuse to understand the sensitive nature and highly disturbing and traumatizing effect Wagner’s music may have on those few surviving 80year old + citizens of Israel or their families or all others in Israel who feel that way.

  2. (I don’t understand the German so I’m just going off what you’ve written, Norman, but …)

    I think this whole “let’s not play Wagner because it was Hitler’s favourite music” is ridiculous and stupid.

    It’s only because it’s Wagner that it’s a problem. If Hitler’s favourite music had been “Puff the magic dragon”, would that be treated with the same kid gloves? No. We would laugh at Hitler every time we heard it. (Yes, I know Puff was written in 1963 but you get my point)

    Hitler’s favourite drink was apparently tea, English-style. Ergo, tea should be banned in Israel, Golders Green and everywhere else there might be Holocaust survivors!

    I just think people need to deal with it in their own way, and perhaps admit that their real problem is that Wagner’s music in particular really does something to the soul that many people enjoy (in a hedonism kind of way in my case at least), and which in other people summons up all kind of unpleasant hubris. It really does have a powerful effect on the mind, more so than nearly all other “classical” music. I personally have trouble composing or thinking clearly for days after hearing any Wagner. But I love hearing it. I don’t think it’s intrinsically good or evil any more than a knife is.

    Of course the problem might be that Wagner was a self-professed anti-Semite and wrote and said some nasty things. OK, well that’s a good enough reason I suppose, if he hated Jews that much then it’s only honouring Wagner’s ghost not to let Jews (or anyone else) play or hear his music anywhere near Jewish homes. Oh dear, does that come across as a fascist idea?

    So let’s stop this stupid “Hitler’s favourite music” nonsense. Listen to it / play it, or don’t, but decide for yourself, and don’t spread nonsense.

    • If one were to list names of composers who had nasty things to say concerning Jews we would indeed be left
      with very few composers whose music we could play , it is so easy to single out one professed anti semite
      as the standard bearer for anti-semitism ,it allows one to function with moral indignation as an added +. My
      suggestion to resolve this is for Israel to pass strict laws concerning the playing of Wagner – make it illegal
      with severe punishment – 5 yrs . in dungeon for first offence 10 for second and for any repeat offenders
      15 yrs . with stipulation that the offender must listen to the Ring Cycle every day . That should nip in
      the bud any Wagner thoughts . Next Chopin could only be played if pianist is given permit , it seems he
      was not too enthused about dealing with” Jews” -we could go down the line with permits until we have eliminated
      most all and are left with only the pure .

    • Golubinsky-Mishkov says:

      Why this endless clamoring to play the work of this vile avowed anti-Semite in Israel?

      Does any other nation or group of people do this, have people whinging over and over to play the music of a person who hated them, who reviled them, who wrote hateful things about them, and whose music was, as one of the worst human beings who ever lived, the aesthetic embodiment of his murderous regime?

      There are tons of other composers. Henze is correct. Stop slavering after this monster, and Germany too, at least publicly. Those masochists who want to devour this anti-Semite can do so in the privacy of their homes. That’s what all the new internet radio stations and programs, iTunes, CDs, DVDs, LPs, and casettes all make possible.

  3. I still think that the remaining survivors of the Shoah should be able to go to a concert without hearing Wagner. And yet do we then censor history by not allowing the young to hear its magic by denying it to them in the concert hall? Fascism of political correctness? I am a goy–I feel that it is not my place to discuss the sensitivity of the subject. But as a musician who thinks we should always put out on the table for serious discussion–we need to hear the music in its glory without shrinking from the conversation about Wagner’s assholery. Yes, assholery. Both aspects must be addressed. And I think the music wins out in the end for what it can teach us about people. Thus it can be seen, divorced from politico-historical complications that continue to doggedly hamper the arguments of the music’s actual intrinsic value.

    • That must be right. If Wagner is programmed — I don’t know how often this happens in Israel — and it disturbs you, don’t go. But don’t deny what you rightly call the glory of the music to those who do want to hear it. I am approaching retiring age, and all my musical life has been troubled by this problem. It is not so much that Wagner’s music is a guilty pleasure, but that I simply cannot forget when listening to it (with wonder) what a loathsome specimen he seems to have been in almost every respect, and this does taint my enjoyment. Mind you, I have some similar problems with many other composers from Mahler to Elgar. The only major figure about whom one never hears a single bad word is Vaughan Williams!

    • They have the choice whether or not to go to a concert which includes Wagner’s music. I suspect that only a small minority of people in Israel are REALLY so bothered by Wagner. Therefore, should the majority of people be deprived from hearing his music live in concert if they want to?

      John Hames makes an excellent point; if we boycotted the music of every composer who had less-than-perfect morals or socio/political/religious views or whose persona might ‘offend’ some parts of society, we would probably be left with only a handful of composer to listen to!

    • Golubinsky-Mishkov says:

      Please stop misusing the term “fascism.” Please. You dishonor the dead and those who survived real “fascism” by doing so.

  4. it’s irrational but let’s be compassionate. as long as there are survivors for whom wagner has atrocious associations, let’s respect their feelings.

  5. I’ve always admired the fertility of Henze’s creativity, but his music does have a tendency to sprawl and teeter on the edge of memorability. I’d have thought he’d benefit from *not* distancing himself from Wagner’s music. There’s alot to be learnt!

  6. Michael Hurshell says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Henze, I do grow weary of Germans (prominent or not) giving opinions about what music should or should not be played in Israel. (Who asked them?) I am sure Israel will work it out for itself. – Apart from that, it would be nice if folks engaged on this topic would try to remember that “favorite music” is a rather vague term to use in such a discussion. Do they mean: Hitler liked listening to Wagner? Or: he had Wagner used as a backdrop for official events, in order to lend the regime an air of culture, Germanness and aryan superiority? Or do they mean he had the party force their legions of members to appear to like Wagner? By all accounts, Hitler really enjoyed music like Die lustige Witwe. So let’s try not to define Wagner merely by following how the Nazis (publically) defined him. There is somewhat more to him – and his music – than that.

  7. Peter Klein says:

    I wrote about the Wagner/Nazi controversy a while back:
    Wagner present us with a major problem. He was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. And his loathsome anti-Semitic ideology and writings, which were promulgated by his heirs along with his music, were part of the underlying foundation of the Third Reich. There is no cut-and-dried answer, because everybody has a point.

    For me, the music usually wins out, albeit after a struggle. But no one should allow him or herself to be totally swept away by Wagnerian emotional overload without understanding where that helped lead. And none of us should presume to tell Israelis what they should do, particularly while Holocaust survivors are still alive.

    • Peter Klatzow says:

      Gottfried Wagner once said “The music is the sugar coating to the poison pill” . Seems to have a point there.

  8. ‘I have always tried to remove myself as far as possible from (Wagner’s) actions, his ideology and his work.’

    Huh? What about Henze’s (quite wonderful) orchestration of the Wesendonck Lieder?

    Problem is (as a Jewish music theorist once pointed out to me), if you listen to Mahler, you are also listening to Wagner. Ditto for Schoenberg. And then there are the other members of the Second Viennese school, not to mention Debussy, Ravel, and … well, we could go on and on.

  9. Um….I have a recording made at the fateful “Hitler Birthday” concert where the BPO and Furtwangler played Beethoven 9. To my knowledge, old Ludwig has yet to be banned. Yes, Wagner was an anti-Semitic pig, but that was part of a prejudicial tradition dating back to the Baroque. Wagner’s “Wedding March” is not allowed to be played in Roman Catholic services but Mendelssohn’s is. Why is that? One is from an opera and the other incidental music for a play. Both theater pieces, right? And, goodness-gracious, they’re just notes–no text–just notes. Sorry, I leapt to my high horse for a moment.

    • Golubinsky-Mishkov says:

      Did Beethoven write an article denouncing Jewish people?


      Did Wagner?


      Can you not grasp the difference? Seriously?

  10. Jose Gallardo says:

    i love Henze :-)

  11. There’s something gloriously ironic about Henze, some of whose compositions are dedicated to mass-murderers (Guevara, Ho Chi Minh), claiming moral authority about whose music should be played where. It’s indisputable that there are Israelis for whom the music of Wagner will never be acceptable, yet equally true that there are many for whom the man’s views and art are easily separated. As other comments have pointed out, this is a matter for the citizens of Israel. There is an unfortunate tendency in Germany (most noticeable in the artistic community) towards leftist moral posturing – a further irony being that these people often support causes and ideologies whose victim count dwarfs that of the Holocaust.

    • Golubinsky-Mishkov says:

      Did Guevara come anywhere near murdering several groups of people based on their religious heritage, because he defined it as race? Did Ho Chi Minh?

      Please do not try to equate the murderous crimes of Hitler with anything Guevara or even Minh did. You spit on the graves of the dead in doing so. Please stop it.

  12. Bartok, in his Concerto for Orchestra, and Shostakovich, in his Seventh Symphony (both works with extra-musical associations), represented Hitler not with quotations from Wagner but with a phrase from Franz Lehar’s operetta The Merry Widow, which in fact was his favourite.

    • I believe Bartok was actually parodying the Seventh Symphony, as he was frustrated and jealous of its popularity at the time; especially after the North American premiere by the NBC Symphony.

  13. Pacert’s post is a little unclear, so I will clarify . Bartók was quoting the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra. He was appalled by the hype around the “Leningrad Symphony” and was making fun of the trivial tune that is used for the long Bolero type build up in the first movement. What Bartók missed was that the tune itself was a taken from Danilo’s song “I’ll Meet You at Maxim’s” from Léhar’s operetta “The Merry Widow” (a favorite of Hitler) and was itself intended as parody. Apparently, when Bártok was asked about the resemblance, it became very clear that he had never heard the Léhar. A fascinating case of “missing the point”.

    BTW, as far as I know, Léhar is not forbidden in Israel? That’s somewhat ironic, for many reasons.

    • Phil Mahnken says:

      Warren Cohen can you say more about Lehar? Why “ironic, for many reasons?”
      Thanks in advance.

      • Léhar was, unlike Wagner, alive during the Third Reich, lived in Vienna throughout the war, and his conduct was “controversial”. He knew that Hitler loved “The Merry Widow” and Léhar gave Hitler a commemorative copy of the score on the 50th Anniversary of its publication (this would have been in 1944 or 5), His music was performed frequently, but as he worked with Jewish librettists, the librettists names were left uncredited. There are many who believe that Léhar, not Wagner, was truly Hitler’s favorite composer. His wife was born Jewish, although she converted to Catholicism on her marriage. It is a sign of Hitler and Goebbles’ affection for Léhar that she was given the status of “honorary Aryan” (how did they come up with this shit?).

        In reading what I just wrote, on reflection, I think Léhar’s case is probably more like Strauss, My initial thought was that it was ironic that in Israel they would have no trouble performing “Hitler’s favorite composer” and someone who did very much accommodate that regime, and definitely tried to maintain good relations with the regime and Hitler personally. But the difference is that, like Strauss, he had Jewish collaborators and relatives and was not personally anti-Semitic, so maybe that would mitigate the situation in the eyes of the Israelis who object to Wagner.

  14. True, nobody asked Henze for his opinion, but I do think he ought to be respected, if not applauded, for his stance, rather than denigrated. And those remaining survivors of the Shoah must be respected too. The arguments about Chopin and everyone else who’s expressed an anti-semitic sentiment are specious in the case of Wagner, a figurehead who was so particularly virulent, and disgustingly obsequious when it suited him (eg begging favours of Mendelssohn, about whom he was obsessed with hatred and jealousy).
    I love Henze too!

    • “begging favours of Mendelssohn”
      I think this would’ve been Meyerbeer.
      Boulez once described Shostakovich as a Meyerbeer of our own time.
      As regards political clout and musical qualities, a comparison more apt for Boulez.

    • This is all so stupid – music is but sound – sound express nothing but sound – a musical note is not anti semitic,
      political , holy or anything but sound – it can be beautiful to some and ugly to others -all depending on
      the listener -”meaning” is attached to suit the occasion . The person that has put the sounds together can
      and often is an impossible being and in the case of Wagner beyond the pale – to those that find him so, do
      not buy tickets to any concert that features his music , stay home , leave it for others., there are many concerts
      you can attend that do not include a Wagner work and in doing so preserve your moral integrity concerning
      the despicable Mr. Wagner .Some people do make a career being morally outraged concerning this fellow Wagner .

      • The problem with opera is text. The problem with Wagner is his own writings about how he intended his operas to be understood. Without his own rascist rantings, Parsifal would still be about maintaining the purity of blood. WIth the accompanying commentaries, the message is even more sinister.

  15. I would like to quote Leonard Bernstein on the subject of Wagner:

    I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. On my knees, I hate him.

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