Daniel Barenboim, who is about to open la Scala's season next Tuesday with Die Walkuere, has written a lenghty essay about Wagner, Israel, and Nazism. In English on his website, and it's been published in Italian (in a massive two-page spread in print and on line) by Corriere della Sera:
During the Third Reich, Wagner’s music was still played by Jews in Tel Aviv by none other than the then Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the modern-day Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, when it became known that Jews had been sent to the gas chambers to the accompaniment of certain Wagner works, the performance of Wagner was rightly declared taboo out of respect for survivors and the relatives of victims. This was done not because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism but rather because of the Nazis’ abuse of his music.
Wagner may have been the most important personal and ideological role model for Adolf Hitler, a kind of “predecessor,” as Joachim Fest writes in his Hitler biography. Hitler called him “the greatest prophet ever possessed by the German people,” and took on Wagner’s mythology as a component of Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, as revolting as Wagner’s anti-Semitism may be, one can hardly hold him responsible for Hitler’s use and abuse of his music and his world views. The Jewish composer Ernest Bloch, for one, refused to accept Wagner as a possession of the Nazis: “The music of the Nazis is not the prelude to Die Meistersinger but rather the Horst-Wessel-Lied; they have no more honor than that, further honor can and shall not be given them.” Whoever wants to see a repulsive attack on Jews in Wagner’s operas can of course do so. But is it really justified? Beckmesser, for example, who might be suspected of being a Jewish parody, was a state scribe in the year 1500, a position that was unavailable to Jews. As far as I am concerned, if Beckmesser’s awkward melodies resemble synagogue chant, then this is a parody of Jewish song and not a racist attack. One can of course also raise the question of taste in this matter.