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Richard Wagner

Botstein on Wagner, Jewish violinists, and Puff Daddy

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Leon Botstein believes that the informal ban on Wagner’s music in Israel should be lifted. STEVE PYKE

Leon Botstein was born in 1946 in Switzerland. He graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, then obtained a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard. He has been the president of Bard College since 1975. He is music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

This interview, which was conducted late last month, has been condensed and edited.

Jewish Standard: What do you think of the informal ban on Wagner’s music in Israel?

Leon Botstein: I’m opposed to the ban. The ban is hypocritical. The ban falsifies the history of the Holocaust. Wagner had nothing to do with the extermination of European Jewry – nothing. He died before Hitler was born.

Other people killed Jews. They were ordinary, educated citizens of Europe, German and non-German. They participated in the wholesale slaughter of civilians because they were Jewish, and it has nothing to do with Wagner.

As a child of survivors, I’m offended by the cheapness of the explanation. First of all, there’s a long history of Jewish Wagnerism, and it includes Theodor Herzl, who was a devoted Wagnerite. Besides, in Israel they don’t ban music by active Nazis, like Carl Orff [composer of “Carmina Burana”]. It’s completely hypocritical. And they didn’t ban performances by active collaborators who were star artists, because they wanted big-name artists [for example, Karl Böhm] to perform there.

It’s convenient, it’s lazy, it violates the objective basis of history. No serious historian believes that there is a connection between the death camps and Wagner.

Wagner was an evil man and a vicious anti-Semite – a cynical man as well, because he also -like many anti-Semites -adjusted anti-Semitism to his own purposes. I think that his was one of many, many, many contributions to a mentality that got transformed by the Nazis. Hitler became a very ardent Wagnerite, but his favorite composer was really [Anton] Bruckner, and we don’t ban Bruckner. Bruckner’s music became the basis of a Nazi vision of an Aryan religion that could be competitive with Christianity. It wasn’t Wagner’s music.

The people who are criminally liable are those who shot civilians over open graves, who participated in the transport of innocent civilians to their deaths in camps – and this cannot be laid at the door of a man who died in 1883.

He never advocated the extermination of anybody.

You cannot put Wagner and Hitler in the same boat. One was really, in the end, an artist, a composer, a maniac, a kind of self-appointed philosopher and poet, and a Lothario and a dishonest man, but he was not a killer and, in the end, not a politician.

J.S.: Would Wagner, had he lived, have approved of Hitler and the Final Solution?

Botstein: I have no idea. What would Beethoven have thought of Puff Daddy? He might have been Puff Daddy himself.

J.S.: Was it controversial to finally have a Wagner festival – 19 years after the festivals started?

Well, yes. The reason we did it was because, when we started, the first Bard Festival was on Brahms. Brahms happened to be a philo-Semite. Deeply liberal and profoundly philo-Semitic. We had started with Brahms and now we decided to go to the opposite end with Wagner.

Wagner changed the landscape. There’s no point in not acknowledging greatness where it belongs. He popularized a whole way of listening and absorbing culture. One should not underestimate the enormity of his imagination. His music is utterly beautiful and original and powerful.

J.S.: Why were so many Jews – like Hermann Levi, who conducted the first “Parsifal” – followers of Wagner?

Botstein: His music appeals to so many Jews because he’s good. If he were second rate, no one would worry about him.

J.S.: Getting away from Wagner, why are so many Jews famous composers?

Botstein: That’s not really true in modern times anymore, and wasn’t true in the 19th century, either. Jewish composers have become more prominent in the 20th century as Jews became more assimilated. The area where Jews really excelled is in the popular music world – Offenbach, Johann Strauss Jr. (who came from a Jewish family), Gershwin, Rodgers, Kern.

J.S.: Someone has said that the shortest book in the world is a book of great non-Jewish violinists.

Botstein: Not true – though it’s told in Yiddishe meises. There are lots of great non-Jewish violinists today, and maybe they are all going to be Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Jewish participation in the classical and popular music world stems from the fact that music places the lowest burden on the sacrifice of Jewish identity.

In “The Jazz Singer,” what does the father worry about? That his son is a pop musician, that he’s playing roles that are not Jewish, that he’s not doing a Kol Nidre service.

Remember, musicians were an integral part of the Temple, and there was no interdiction of music as there was with graven images. And music required no linguistic sacrifice: You don’t have to speak any language to be a musician.

I can be a Yiddish-speaking chasidic boychick and if I play the violin, no one cares who I am. So, for a wunderkind it is a kind of quick ticket [to success].

There was a Jewish cultural bias on behalf of this kind of achievement – once, but no longer. In America, we are no better than our gentile neighbors. To think that we are still the People of the Book is a conceit that we do not deserve.

Asian-Americans are the Jews of America. They are at Juilliard, at MIT. They are the forerunners of ambition, intellect, love of learning, the love of classical music. For Jews, assimilation has been successful in the worst way. There’s been a falling off of Jewish practice, the loss of our commitment to the practice of learning.

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