I have taken the time and trouble to read through four pages of (somewhat tedious) to-and-fro over racism in music. I have seen the same subject discussed on Facebook. If we are going to consider racism in music, then it must be all racism, not merely that expressed toward people with dark skin.
I am friendly with Micha Davis (bass trombone, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), who writes:
Wagner to Fillmore
Fillmore? Who is this? Ask anyone who doesn't play trombone. Well, Fillmore was a composer of funny trombone clips, Dixieland-style glissandi stock and from that time (early 20th century US). All the trombonists grew up on these parts, some are fed up with them and some started playing trombone because of these parts. The Lassus Trombone thing was performed by and by Nir Erez in a great section at a youth concert at the Cultural Hall with Roni Porat. So what to the same Fillmore and the known composer Richard Wagner? It turns out that a few days ago a study was released on him in the United States, a study done by two known trombonists, a study that indicates his racist and offensive roots towards black skin, which reflects in these segments. So in the spirit of our period the petition of political correctness, when statues of past figures are cut off, here is also a call to boycott the same Henry Fillmore. In dramatic discussions in Facebook groups, trombonist musicians confessed that we played the same clips and even though there was no known about the composer's past they apologise from the bottom of their hearts and promise that from today on they will check the background of each composer before they play his works. I of course threw a few questions in the air: and what about Debussy's cakewalk clips? Also them to boycott? And maybe Strovinsky's Petrushka and Mozart's Magic Flute? Here in Israel are experts in such boycotts. And what about you, my friends of the American profession? Are you ready to boycott Wagner in the name of the same historical justice?
The subject of racism in music has a pedigree dating back to the 18th century. Was Mozart racist towards Turks in Die Entführung aus dem Serail
or towards blacks in Die Zauberflöte
? Perhaps, but only one composer stands head and shoulders above the others in his direct expression of racism - towards Jews. Richard Wagner.
Not just Wagner, either. Also Liszt and Pfitzner, to name but two other antisemitic composers; another interesting one was Chopin, also an antisemite, as well as the Mighty Handful circle around Mussorgsky, who were also apparently anti-Jewish. Pfitzner in particular was even worse than Wagner and that takes some doing. And Percy Grainger. Another died-in-the-wool antisemite. Plenty of them, unfortunately. Richard Wagner remains the kingpin, but Hans Pfitzner is far, far worse. A little judicious digging reveals that he hated Jews so much that he said after
„Das Weltjudentum ist ein Problem & zwar ein Rassenproblem, aber nicht nur ein solches, & es wird noch einmal aufgegriffen werden, wobei man sich Hitlers erinnern wird & ihn anders sehen, als jetzt, wo man dem gescheiterten Belsazar den bekannten Eselstritt versetzt. Es war sein angeborenes Proletentum, welches ihn gegenüber dem schwierigsten aller Menschenprobleme den Standpunkt des Kammerjägers einnehmen liess, der zum Vertilgen einer bestimmten Insektensorte angefordert wird. Also nicht das ‚Warum‘ ist ihm vorzuwerfen, nicht, ‚dass er es getan‘, sondern nur das ‚wie‘ er die Aufgabe angefasst hat, die berserkerhafte Plumpheit, die ihn dann auch, im Verlauf der Ereignisse, zu den Grausamkeiten, die ihm vorgeworfen werden, führen musste.“
Not comfortable with this kind of racism, the Germans have taken to heart the business of Pfitzner's overt antisemitism and renamed streets and squares named after him across the entire country. Little wonder that it's only the orchestral music (the preludes to Palestrina
Acts 1-3) that is usually performed. Pfitzner was a weirdo. A real head case. He even had a falling out with Cosima Wagner, that arch-antisemite herself, because he wanted recognition from the anti-Wagner composers, such as Johannes Brahms. And for him to say the things he did about Jews is simply unforgivable. Remember: he penned that stuff about the Jews in 1945, after the horrors of the Holocaust had come to light. Utterly abhorrent.
To reiterate, Pfitzner was utterly abhorrent. What he said was that the presence of Jews in the world is a problem, indeed a problem of race. He said that Hitler was right to have dealt with the problem. However, where people took issue, he says, is not with the 'why', nor even with the fact that Hitler did so, but with the 'how' - the methods used to solve the Jewish problem. He claims that Hitler had the attitude of a berserker, who was led inexorably through the course events to the atrocities that he is accused of leading.
In other words, in Pftizner's mind, the Jews were a problem to be solved and Hitler was the man for the job. The only issue people had was with how he solved the problem, but given the circumstances, he couldn't help himself, he had no agency and was led from one thing to another to the Holocaust of millions of souls.
As I said, in the wake of the revelations of the Holocaust, to say things like this reveals a really twisted mind. Pfitzner was a real POS.
Richard Wagner, though, is a case apart. He considered himself first and foremost a philosopher and no other composer went to the lengths he did. He penned a screed entitled Das Judentum in der Musik
, a work in which he sets out his worldview and all other things aside in his artistic output, this one document should be sufficient to condemn him from ever being even so much as considered for performance ever again. Insofar as his music and philosophy were adopted wholeheartedly by Adolf Hitler, even though Wagner and his views were abhorrent, it is still unfair to judge him based on what the Nazis later did with his music, though that doesn’t give Wagner a free pass.
Let us be clear: of the composers I have named (and there are others besides), only one stands out when it comes to antisemitism - Richard Wagner. There were several other composers that I have named who were also antisemitic, but in comparative terms, only Wagner stands out from the pack because of that diatribe. Even his son Siegfried went to some lengths to back-pedal from his father’s overt antisemitism and reiterate that any Jew was welcome to play music, even that of his father. With Richard Wagner, there is no instrumental music to speak of (very little actual purely instrumental music of his exists). Almost everything performed is a bleeding chunk torn from one of his operas and should be considered in the full context of the opera from which it is drawn. Die Meistersinger
and the Ring
cycle are racist (Beckmesser, Alberich, Hagen, and Mime are all caricatures of Jews), yet some of the most popular orchestral music is drawn from these works.
I’m not suggesting erasing history. You cannot change what has happened. We Jews of all people know that. We have a collective memory dating back over 4,500 years. I also accept that antisemitism reached levels of popularity in the nineteenth century when it was almost impossible to escape and many composers expressed antisemitic views, including the popular Mighty Handful in Russia and even Tchaikovsky. That doesn’t excuse them or even Wagner. But we should know what has happened and the racism they espoused should be brought to the attention of the listener.
Only Wagner has been upheld as a shining example by the totalitarian government of a dictatorship, only Wagner's music has been performed continuously at a festival run by an antisemitic family with a known history of association with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Any comparison to any other composer is hideous in the extreme.