Monthly Archives: July 2014

Wagner’s Anti-Semitism Still Matters

[from The New Republic]

Review of Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis by Michael Haas (Yale)

In 1909, in a best-selling book called Contemporary German Music, the respected Munich critic Rudolf Louis diagnosed Gustav Mahler’s problem: “What I find so fundamentally repellent about Mahler’s music is its axiomatic Jewish nature. If Mahler’s music spoke Jewish, I perhaps wouldn’t understand it, but what is disgusting is that it speaks German with the Jewish accentthe all too Jewish accent that comes to us from the East.” Still worse, Louis added, was the composer’s masquerade: “Mahler has no idea how grotesque he appears wearing the mask of the German Master, which highlights the inner contradictions that make his music fundamentally dishonest.” Anticipating critics, Louis calmly dismissed the charge of anti-Semitism as exaggerated hysteriabut his ideas and his rhetoric were directly descended from, if not a close paraphrase of, Richard Wagner’s infamous anti-Semitic tract Jewishness in Music, written sixty years earlier. Far from an isolated rant, Louis’s writing represented a thread of Wagnerian myth running through the very fabric of modern musical thought.

What are we to do with Wagner’s anti-Semitism? The recent Wagner anniversary has brought a predictable amount of equivocation and hand-wringing about the German master’s role in the history of hate. We know by now not to read history backward. A nineteenth-century composer who died in 1883 cannot logically be accused of personal complicity in a twentieth-century genocide. Yet that does not mean that the broader question of his responsibility for the spread of modern anti-Semitism can be simply ignored. The issue cannot be brushed aside merely by reference to the fact that, as Daniel Barenboim and other commentators relish pointing out, Wagner loved a handful of Jews (albeit conditionally) and that many Jews (even Zionists) loved Wagner. The fact that there were and are Jewish Wagnerians is not a coherent answer to the question of Wagner’s prejudice against the Jews. Irony is no disclaimer. Nor, conversely, does the musicological obsession over whether Wagner secretly encoded anti-Jewish tropes into his compositions matter much beyond the precincts of academia. The real legacy of Wagner, one with which we are still living today, is nothing less than the sweeping imprint of racial ideology across the length and breadth of modern classical music.

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Lincoln Center Presents an Opera Without Jews, Set in Auschwitz

[from Tablet Magazine]

‘The Passenger’ is a moving Polish Jewish-Catholic Soviet hybrid with a glaring omission. But is it a ‘Holocaust opera’?

The Lincoln Center Festival’s publicity for an opera titled The Passenger, aimed at New Yorkers eager for an unusual musical experience, is magnetic: a “forgotten Holocaust opera,” as the copy calls it, adding that Dmitri Shostakovich hailed it “a perfect masterpiece.” Completed by the Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg in 1968, much of the opera is set in Auschwitz. But beyond a few lines given to a Jewish character, there’s no explicit Jewish presence in this concentration camp. Seeing the work, it’s hard to believe: An opera set in the killing factory known for subtracting Jews from the world, and it subtracts Jews.

The main characters of The Passenger are two Polish gentiles and a German camp officer, surrounded by an international array of women packed into a barracks. They come from Warsaw, Zagreb, and other cities—and then there’s one Greek Jew. Her name is Hannah and she has so little to sing—“This star they pinned on me, this star I have to wear is the fatal mark of my death,” is most of it—that she’s easy to miss.

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Amid the Rap Music, Echoes of an Orchestra Playing in a Dark Past

[from The New York Times]

BERLIN — AT various points during shows, the German rapper Kutlu Yurtseven gestures to a bandmate sitting demurely off to the side. That’s the cue for 89-year-old Esther Bejarano, a diminutive woman with a snow-white pixie cut, to jump in with a song. “When will the heavens open up, again, for me?” is one favorite, the refrain of a local carnival tune. “When will they open up?”

It is an unusual pairing. Ms. Bejarano is one of the last surviving members of the Auschwitz Girls’ Orchestra, the only all-female ensemble among the many Nazi-run prisoner musical groups in the camp system. Among other duties, the Girls’ Orchestra was responsible for playing the marches that imprisoned women had to keep step to as they went out to work in the morning and, even more cruelly, as they returned, half-dead, at the end of the day.

Five years ago, hoping to reach more young people with her story and her message of tolerance and anti-fascism, Ms. Bejarano teamed up with Microphone Mafia, a German hip-hop duo with Turkish and Italian roots. They have released their first album, and have been playing concerts throughout Germany and Europe ever since.

The music combines songs like the poignant Yiddish resistance song, “We’ll Live Forever,” composed in the Nazi-run Jewish ghetto in Vilna just before it was liquidated, with rap passages about current problems like racism that, in Ms. Bejarano’s view, show that the lessons of the Holocaust still need to be learned.

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SHATTERED PASSAGE: The challenge of presenting the Holocaust onstage

[from The New Yorker]

The idea that the Holocaust defeats attempts at artistic dramatization—that it constitutes, in Andreas Huyssen’s words, “unimaginable, unspeakable, and unrepresentable horror”—has a particular force in the world of music. While there are any number of symphonic and choral meditations on the Holocaust, operas on the subject are rather rare, not least because the larger-than-life gestures native to the genre can seem inapt. Furthermore, because of associations between Wagner and the Nazi regime, the very vocabulary of post-Wagnerian opera may appear to be implicated in the genocide.

Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1968 opera “The Passenger,” which the Lincoln Center Festival is set to present at the Park Avenue Armory, is not a flawless work, but it comes closer than any other extant opera to overcoming the challenge of placing the Holocaust onstage. For one thing, Weinberg, who came from a Polish-Jewish family, knew whereof he wrote; he fled from Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939, and his father, mother, and sister were all murdered by the Nazis. When the orchestra in “The Passenger,” heavily influenced by Shostakovich, presents an ironclad, destructive edge, one senses that Weinberg is working from firsthand impressions. At the same time, the libretto, which Alexander Medvedev adapted from a story by Zofia Posmysz, is not so much a direct dramatization of the Holocaust as a study in trauma and memory: on an ocean liner, a former Auschwitz overseer thinks she sees a survivor from the camp, and experiences a series of flashbacks. Finally, the question of music’s own role in the catastrophe is incorporated into the action. A wrenching scene toward the end, depicting a concert at the camp, pits Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, for solo violin, against an overpowering orchestral mass. The lonely, lamenting notes of the Bach are snuffed out one by one.

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My Name Is Truda Vitz review: Terrors echo long after escaping Nazi Austria

[from the Sydney Morning Herald]

Writer-performer Olivia Satchell flits between the branches of her family tree in this fiction-streaked biographical work inspired by the life of the grandmother she never met.

In 1938 Truda Vitz, a 17-year-old Viennese Jew, escaped Nazi Austria and, we can assume, almost-certain death. Arriving in England she was registered as an Enemy Alien and very much alone. Her mother had died earlier that year. Her father, who insisted on her leaving Vienna, fled to Cuba with a mistress.

All that stood between the teenage Truda and destitution was the grudging hospitality of wartime Britain and the jewellery she had smuggled from Vienna under her fur coat.

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