Munro: Grappling with Wagner's music, political legacy

The Fresno BeeMarch 8, 2014 

As a musician, Richard Wagner was a genius. As a person, he was appalling.

That's generally the view held today of the 19th Century German composer, whose operas changed music history — and whose anti-Semitic views made him the soundtrack for Nazi Germany.

With the Fresno Philharmonic this afternoon performing a greatest-hits concert featuring the composer's best-known music, it's worthwhile to revisit the hard question that has been debated time and again when it comes to Wagner: What do you do when a composer's music is sublime — but who held political views that most people consider repugnant today?

"I think it's obvious that Wagner's anti-Semitic views and writings are monstrous," says Theodore Kuchar, the orchestra's musical director. "Wagner the person is absolutely appalling, despicable, and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings ... noble and generous."

From a musical standpoint, Wagner is a monumental figure, Kuchar notes. His later works are often regarded as the beginning of modernism, most notably harmonically but also thematically and structurally.

But his political views can still inflame.

"It's a very difficult topic especially for someone growing up in Israel, where Wagner and Strauss are still banned today," says Thomas Loewenheim, conductor of the Fresno State Symphony and the Youth Orchestras of Fresno.

Wagner's music was often played as Jews made their way to the gas chamber. That isn't a fact easily forgotten in Israel, says Loewenheim, whose grandmother survived the Holocaust.

And yet you can't ignore Wagner's musical contribution — even in Israel. In music classes there, professors would sneak in discussions of the composer, who wasn't part of the curriculum, Loewenheim says.

Kuchar points out there are actually "four" Wagners.

"First of all, there is Wagner the composer," he says. "Then there's Wagner the writer of his own librettos — in other words, everything that is tied to the music. Then there is Wagner the writer on artistic matters. And then there is Wagner the political writer — in this case, primarily the anti-Semitic political writer."

For Loewenheim, the music can be separated from the man. He's programmed Wagner many times in Fresno.

"I think his music is just phenomenal," he says. "But it isn't always easy to ignore the political undertones. I think it depends on if it's touching your nerve or not. For some people there's a very clear answer: They will never play Wagner."

At the same time, Loewenheim wonders whether people today would be as amenable to a contemporary composer who espoused anti-Mexican or anti-black views, say, or anti-gay views. (Has Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame written any sonatas?)

Which begs the question: Does Wagner get a pass because he's long gone?

That's a plausible explanation. Another one: We can't ignore him because he was simply so good.

"It's a very controversial topic," Loewenheim says. "But there are controversial people in the world. Do we listen to them, or do we just shut them off? Sometimes God puts the greatest talent in some of the weirdest human beings."

IF YOU GO

Fresno Philharmonic's "Ride of the Valkyries," 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 9, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., fresnophil.org, (559) 261-0600. $20-$75

 

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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