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Richard Wagner - Banned from Israel

Updated on June 22, 2015


The Jewish Influence in Music

Over the course of history, Jews were of prolific influence in the development of Western music. The first documented examples of Jewish music are song traditions found in the Hebrew Bible. Many of these song traditions impacted the development of liturgical music in the Catholic Church. Throughout the Classical and Romantic Eras, Jews such as Lorenzo da Ponte, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Gustav Mahler continued to make contributions to the art of music with their operas, concerti, lieder, and symphonies. Later, as the music culture blossomed in the United States, Jewish composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein added to the already vast collection of music literature. With Jewish musicians and composers in America, came the birth of the Broadway musical. Such notable figures include: Richard Rogers, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Kern, Kurt Weil, and Stephen Schwartz.

Creeping Anti-Semitism

Despite the strides that Jewish composers have made over the centuries in creating iconic and groundbreaking music, there are still those who would prefer to see them fail, but not because they are poor musicians. Perhaps these people are jealous of the innate talents that Jews have for business, the arts, and the sciences. Perhaps these people fear Jews because they know so little about Jewish practices and see them as intruders. As in the case of Richard Wagner, it may be that these people prefer that Jews fail because they see Jews as inferior specimens of human society.

Portrait of Richard Wagner


Wagner's Anti-Semitism

In 1850, a famous and well respected composer by the name of Richard Wagner who was responsible for what is today known as Wagnerian opera (i.e. Tristan and Isolde, The Valkyrie, and The Flying Dutchman) wrote an article entitled “Judaism in Music” which was submitted under the pseudonym K. Freigedank (literally K. Free-thought). In this article, Wagner took it upon himself to explain why Jews are poor composers. He claims that despite the success of his Jewish contemporaries which include Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jews are incapable of speaking any of the languages in which operas are commonly featured (i.e. German, French, and Italian) with finesse and elegance. He goes on to describe the Jewish language, Yiddish, as “intolerably jumbled blabber.” He furthers his description by calling Jewish speech a “creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle” sounding language that is incapable of expressing true passion. In his article he goes on to specifically point out the works of both Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and berates them for their success.[1]

Ride of the Valkyries

With further research, it has been reported that Wagner was compelled to write his essay after having read a criticism about two of his own works, Rienzi and Tannhauser which stated that by composing these two operas, Wagner had combined the styles of Carl von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer. In effect, it was suggested that Wagner's music was influenced by Meyerbeer's music. This enraged Wagner as he felt that his superior, pure-blood, German heritage made him a better composer than Meyerbeer who was “Jewish and therefore lacked national roots, without which a composer could not have an authentic style.”[2]

Publications, concert program notes, and speeches were not his only outlets for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. He would often engage others in personal conversations about how he felt in regards to Jews being involved in music. Among them were his advocate and father-in-law, Franz Liszt, as well as his wife, Cosima Liszt Wagner. Liszt conveys his dislike for Jews in his book, The Gypsies and Their Music in Hungary; however, evidence reveals that Wagner's wife, Cosima, was even more tenacious in her anti-Semitism than either her husband, or her father. After the death of her husband, she was adamant about maintaining and promoting all of Wagner's anti-Semitic writings. It has been suggested that Wagner may have been influenced by Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, a book that establishes modern-day, scientific racism and anti-Semitism and promotes the Aryan race as being the perfect examples of human beings. This, however, is debatable as the two did not meet until sometime between 1875 and 1880 which was after the publication of Wagner's “Judaism in Music.”[3]

Cosima Wagner

Born Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt
Born Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt | Source

Wagner and Nazi Germany

“As an individual, Wagner is one of the least appealing composers in the history of music. He was vain and selfish, almost never paid his debts on time, and was deeply anti-Semitic. During the Third Reich, Hitler gave Wagner special prominence in the pantheon of German composers. The composer's virulent nationalism and anti-Semitism meshed well with the ideals of Nazi Germany, and to this day, performances of Wagner's music are for all practical purposes banned in Israel.”[4]

Hitler's Rise to Power

In addition to Richard Wagner, Houston Chamberlain, Wagner’s son-in-law, had a tremendous impact on Hitler’s ideologies. Chamberlain's book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, alludes to Wagner's philosophy about European Jewry. In his book, Chamberlain describes Jews as parasites that feed upon the resources of their host nation, thereby draining that nation of its vitality. He also wrote a biography about Wagner that focuses heavily on Wagner's anti-Semitism. It was because of Chamberlain's philosophy and writings that Hitler named him the prophet of the Third Reich. Furthermore, the Wagner family continued to have direct ties to Hitler as Wagner's grandsons and Hitler were on familiar terms.

Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner with Adolph Hitler


Hitler's admiration for Wagner was clearly expressed in his Mein Kompf when he said, “My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth master knew no bounds.” Wagner’s final resting place is located at Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth, Germany. In addition, Hitler called Wagner's shrine in Bayreuth “the Olympus of German art,” and Hitler has also stated that the Third Reich's origins are based on the myths depicted in Wagner's operas. Despite Hitler's admiration for Wagner, it is important to note that once Wagner's essays deviated from the philosophy of the Nazi party, Hitler abandoned his sense of affinity for the composer. Though this raises questions about the extent to which Wagner's ideology affected Hitler's ideology, it does not negate the fact that Wagner was a vocal anti-Semite that influenced the philosophy of the Nazi party.[5]

Wagner's Grave in Bayreuth, Germany


Israel's Position on Wagner's Music

As the bicentennial of Wagner's birthday, May 22, 1813, approached, the debate of whether or not to allow public performances of Wagner's music continued. Members of the Israel Wagner Society propose that because it has been over a century since Wagner's death, it was time to set aside what Richard Wagner, the man, stood for, and focus on what Richard Wagner, the composer, has contributed to the literature of symphonic music. As mentioned before, Wagner is responsible for Wagnerian opera, but more importantly, he is responsible for what is today known as Wagnerian harmony which contrasts from conventional harmony and counterpoint used by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the like.

The most recent attempt to break this boycott on Wagner's music was hosted by the Israel Wagner Society on June 18, 2012, at the Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University. This concert series was dubbed the name “An Academic Musical Encounter: Herzl – Toscanini – Wagner.” As part of this concert series Maestro Asher Fisch planned to discuss how Wagner's Tannhauser, the opera that critics claimed was connected to the compositional style of Meyerbeer, affected Theodor Herzl's first draft of his tract, “The Jewish State.” In addition, he would also discuss the influence that Wagner's music had on Arturo Toscanini's humanistic philosophy. Following Fisch's lecture would have been a discussion led by Dr. Meir Stern and Professor Jehoash Hirshberg about the musical, textual, and cultural aspects of Wagner's compositions which would have then been followed by a live performance of some of Wagner's pieces. One hundred musicians were privately contracted by the Israel Wagner Society in order to circumvent the argument that federally funded orchestras should never perform Wagner's works, and thereby obligate their patrons to listen to music by such a controversial composer. It should be noted that some of the members of the Israel Wagner Society are Holocaust survivors, and, as you would expect, do not associate the music of Wagner with the horrors of the Holocaust.[6] However, despite the efforts of the Israel Wagner Society, the concert was canceled due to strong opposition from the public.

Tannhauser Overture

The cancellation of this event has sparked a resurgence in the debate over whether or not it is appropriate to hold public performances of Wagner's music. The last performance of Wagner's works in Israel (Palestine) was supposed to be held in November of 1938, but after Kristallnacht, the Palestine Orchestra, which is known as the Israel Philharmonic today, was asked to cancel its performance. As the association between Hitler and Wagner's music became more and more obvious, this one-time cancellation turned into a ban on Wagner's music entirely that has lasted for approximately seventy-five years. It may seem unusual to many as to why this ban on Wagner's music remains while the boycotting of German goods has long since been lifted. However, given the strong relationship between Wagner and Hitler, and the reports of Wagner's music being played over the loud speakers in Nazi concentration camps, it is understandable why listening to Wagner's music may revive memories of the horrors of the Holocaust whereas driving a Volkswagen Beetle would be considered routine.



Unfortunately, this ban, although seemingly necessary in order to protect the vast majority of Jews and Holocaust survivors who associate Wagner's music to the atrocities of the Third Reich, is hindering the next generation of Israelis from expanding their cultural foundations of music. It would be similar to Japanese-Americans who were held in the internment camps boycotting the music of John Philip Sousa. Israeli musicians such as Daniel Barenboim and Asher Fisch have spoken out against the ban on Wagner's music, and are worried about the cultural development of the future generations of Israelis. In 2001, Barenboim even went so far as to program an unexpected performance of one of Wagner's works as an encore to which a majority of listeners left the concert hall. Asher Fisch states, “If we don't abolish the boycott, it will remain forever... It is not possible that musicians... will grow up and live their lives as musicians without playing Wagner's music.”[7] This statement suggests that if any student wanted to pursue music, studying in Israel would leave his or her education incomplete, for the student would not be able to study the music of Wagner. Perhaps it is difficult for a musician to understand why Israel would ban the music of a prolific composer such as Wagner, but it seems as if it is common sense for Holocaust survivors to want to continue the ban on public performances of his works.

Should Israel Maintain the Ban on Wagner's Music?

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[1] Wagner, Richard. “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. (Leipzig), September, 1850.

[2] Grout, Donald, and Claude Palisca. “Opera and Music Drama in the Nineteenth Century.” in A History of Western Music, 621-2. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2001.

[3] Elad Uzan, “Wagner and Hitler: Active or Passive Influence,” The Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2012, (accessed November 9, 2013).

[4] Bonds, Mark. “Chapter Seventeen: Dramatic and Sacred Music.” in A History of Music in Western Culture, 482-3. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.

[5] Elad Uzan, “Wagner and Hitler: Active or Passive Influence,” The Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2012, (accessed November 9, 2013).

[6] Noam Ben-Zeev, “Israeli Orchestra to Break Boycott Against Wagner's Works for First Time,” HaAretz, May 30, 2012, (accessed November 10, 2013).

[7] Rachel Orzech, “Israel's Confused Taboo Over Wagner,” ABC, (accessed November 10, 2013).


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    • Malcolm Massiah profile image

      Malcolm Massiah 2 years ago from Bristol, England

      An informative and entertaining hub. Very interesting.