As a retired musician who loved playing as well as listening to music, I have attended (and played) hundreds of concerts and operas in my time, but I never bought a ticket to an opera by Richard Wagner despite knowing that his music was extraordinarily beautiful and innovative. That was a personal decision I made, a cultural sacrifice, if you will, because I had lived through World War II and experienced at close hand the revelations of what the Nazis had done. My attitude was much like Isaac Stern’s who said he could never accept an invitation to play in Germany after the war – it was an emotional matter with him – but he also said he would never condemn any young musician, Jewish or otherwise, who chose to play in Germany today..
To condemn Barenboim or anyone else for bringing Wagner to a receptive audience is unwise. One cannot by authoritarian dictat determine who is culturally acceptable and who must be forever banned from Jewish reality. Would we also boycott Mendelssohn – his string sextets, his string quartets and his sublime violin concerto, among other gorgeous works – whose family abjured their Jewishness, or Mahler who converted, or any other Jewish composer who did not conform to our beliefs?
The issue remains, as Stern indicated, a matter of personal choice but at the same time it should permeate our sense of history so that we never forget. We Jews are great at teaching ancient biblical history, much of which may be considered more anthropological than applicable to our lives today, but where are the teachers of modern times who focus on the people’s problems and ethical ways to solve them?
Wagner remains a consummate talent, a giant among composers, and if one chooses to listen to his works it is an enriching experience. Banning him is not worthy of what Jews should represent in history; there are other, more pressing matters today the concern for which should better define us.