Richard Wagner’s Piano

Earlier this week, Mali Sharon, a fellow congregant, called me to ask if she could share a story with our congregation at Friday night services. Mali had recently returned from Bayreuth, composer Richard Wagner’s home in Germany. She was in Bayreuth to see her son Yuval conduct an opera at the famous Bayreuth Music Festival. Yuval is the first American Jew to conduct an opera at Bayreuth, a Festival that has been held yearly since 1876. The Festival was conceived and promoted by Richard Wagner himself as a venue to perform his operas.  Wagner descendants have been directors of the Festival ever since.

As Mali tells it, she was on a private tour of the Wagner museum, which was once Richard and wife Cosima Wagner’s private home in Bayreuth. They came to the room that housed Wagner’s beloved Steinway piano. Someone in the group asked if they could play it. Permission was granted, and composer and musician Marc Lowenstein, a colleague of Yuval’s from California who was on the tour, sat down on the bench. Mali asked if he could play Ha-Tikvah, the Israeli national anthem. He did, and the performance was captured on a cell phone by Sasha Anawalt, another colleague of Yuval’s from USC who was on the private tour.

As you read my introduction to Mali’s talk, below, I hope you will better understand the significance of Yuval Sharon, the son of two Israelis and the grandchild of survivors of Auschwitz, conducting an opera at Bayreuth. And I hope you will better understand why Yuval’s mother, Mali, the Israeli daughter of Auschwitz survivors from Romania, broke down in tears of joy when hearing HaTikvah played on Richard Wagner’s piano. Here is how I introduced Mali last Friday night to our congregation:

“In a few moments, I am going to invite Mali Sharon to address us. But before I do, I want to provide a framework, a context, as it were, to help us better understand the power of her experience.

“In his final speech in the White House, Ronald Reagan spoke about his understanding of what made our country the greatest country in the world. He said:

“‘…You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American”…………… This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength-from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.’

“I share this with you tonight because in a few moments Mali Sharon is going to speak to us about her visit to Bayreuth, a town in Germany where the 19th century composer Richard Wagner lived. Wagner was one of Germany’s great composers. He was also a German nationalist and virulent anti-Semite. Whereas, as Reagan articulated, we believe that people from all religions, races and countries can become “American”. Wagner believed that being “German” was reserved for one group of people only. Non-aryans could never be German. He reserved a particular animosity toward Jews, who, he felt, introduced a foreign and corrupting element into pure German culture. In an 1850 magazine article entitled “The Jew in Music”, Wagner wrote that “…the Jew is “incapable … of artistic expression, neither through his outer appearance, nor through his language and least of all through his singing.” Instead, Wagner believed Jews could only “imitate art.”

“Because Wagner was considered a genius and held an exalted position in German culture, people paid attention to what he thought and said. According to German historian and musicologist Jens Malte Fischer, Wagner didn’t invent Antisemitism, but he “carried over the hatred of Jews of his era into the area of culture and – in particular – that of music…… He helped hoist Antisemitism out of dirty bars or scarcely read pamphlets and into the comfortable milieu of the middle class.”

“During Wagner’s lifetime, and even after his death, his home in Bayreuth became a convening place for Antisemites. His wife Cosima occasionally engaged Jewish soloists and musicians to play at the famed Bayreuth Music Festival, but these were token appearances meant to placate the liberal press. Overwhelmingly, important roles were cast with non-Jewish singers and performers. Their son Siegfried continued this practice right up until the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933.

“Hitler venerated Wagner as both a composer and as a fore-runner of the type of racial Antisemitism that Hitler himself formulated and popularized to the masses.

“Ronald Reagan’s bright and optimistic vision of what it is to be an American strikes us as the exact opposite of Wagner’s dark and pessimistic view of who could be considered “German”.  Whereas Reagan praised the “energy and new ideas” that immigrants bring with them to our shores, Wagner lamented the contributions of those he saw as “outsiders” as weakening and corrupting the pure Germanic culture.

“I now would like to introduce to you our own Mali Sharon, recently returned from a visit to Bayreuth. How she came to be at Bayreuth — I am certain she will tell us. Mali ……”