Eduard Hanslick offering incense to Brahms cartoon rom the Viennese journal Figaro 1890 bannerNineteenth-century music critic and Brahms champion, Eduard Hanslick, offering incense to the bust of Brahms [Viennese Figaro, 1890].For the past month or so, I’ve been involved in a wonderful and fascinating writing endeavour, the results of which have been published online by The WholeNote as well as other arts publications (The Dance Current and Opera Canada magazine). The Emerging Arts Critics project, begun by the National Ballet of Canada, now expanded to include the Toronto Symphony and the Canadian Opera Company, selects eight promising arts critics, all people in their 20s, and provides them with reviewing assignments, professional mentoring. and guaranteed publication in major journals. The WholeNote is the venue of choice for TSO reviews, which have already appeared online. I was asked, and was delighted, to be the mentoring individual for the symphony reviewers.

What was stunning about this project was not only that someone recognized that arts reviewing was a discipline that needed mentoring, expertise and development, but that such support would be given to an enterprise which has virtually disappeared from the day-to-day lives of most North Americans. I don’t have definitive figures, but I’m guessing there were more than 100 classical music reviewers employed by Canadian and American newspapers 20 years ago. Today there are probably no more than a dozen left, and it seems half of them work for The New York Times. Here in Toronto, as I know well, having worked as the classical reviewer for The Globe and Mail until just a couple of years ago, the National Post has done away with all classical reviews, The Star employs the redoubtable JohnTerauds on a freelance basis, and The Globe’s musical offerings are almost exclusively devoted to opera. That leaves in the city publications like WholeNote, the website Ludwig Van Toronto and assorted (and very fine) individual bloggers and websites such as OperaRamblings, Schmopera and Barcza’s Blog.

But individual bloggers are no substitute for reviews in a major metropolitan daily, for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

It’s not about the quality of the writing. There’s probably more good writing about classical music today in the world than ever before. And it has nothing, or less than you might think, to do with maintaining the health of the the classical performing scene in the city and region, which seems to me to be exploding with vitality these days, reviews or no reviews. I remember, with great pleasure, actually, one Canadian Opera Company publicist sheepishly admitting to me that my reviews of her company’s productions had no impact on her box office at all, positive or negative.

She was embarrassed to tell me, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Because my feeling always has been that my reviews aren’t and shouldn’t be for the people already going to the classical events. Just do the math. A sold-out run of a seven-performance COC production results in about 14,000 patrons in the Four Seasons Centre. About 7500 for three sold-out Roy Thomson Hall TSO concerts. The Globe and Mail’s daily circulation is about 300,000; the Greater Toronto Area has a population of 6.4 million. A remarkably small percentage of Torontonians in general, and Globe readers in particular, are interested in attending classical music events.

So why devote precious space to a review of them? Because reviews of art events are not just for the people who go to them. They are for everyone. They are for all the citizens of a healthy society concerned about their communal life. They are for everyone because they offer an opportunity for a society to train a critical lens on itself. Going to a concert is not just another hobby, like joining a bridge club or a ballroom dancing class. It is a public expression of fundamental values, central to a society, even if hidden beneath a polished and slightly off-putting surface of formally attired men and women playing music written, mostly, centuries ago.

The key to discovering the real purpose of a “critical” review is tied up in the history of the word itself. Our word critical comes from the Greek kritikos and the Latin criticus, meaning one who judges, one who discerns. Not one who constantly finds fault, by the way, as the word has degenerated to mean, but one who looks inside, evaluates, reveals. And we’ve kept a vestige of that original classical meaning of the word to this day when we talk about something being a critical feature of an enterprise or situation, meaning a component that is uniquely and vitally significant (as in the analogous medical term “critical condition”). This is the real source of the critic as reviewer – someone who analyzes the critical components of a work or a performance – the essence, the tipping point, the hidden heart of the work and the world.

The work and the world. That’s the other secret of arts, and especially music, reviewing, that newspaper editors counting clicks to digital articles spectacularly fail to understand. It’s not just the artistic world that the critic investigates – it’s the whole world. And that’s because music is such a deeply social, deeply communal activity. The move from a discussion of music to a discussion of society is impossible to avoid. That’s what a music critic does when they’re at their best – intercut and interweave musical and cultural perspectives so that the discussion of one becomes the discussion of the other. Arts reviews can then be places where a society questions and interrogates the things it believes in, the things it values. That’s why reviews are for everyone, because they illuminate issues in which everyone has a stake.

reviewsOr at least they should. That’s what I was trying to tell the young critics I was mentoring in the Emerging Arts Critics program. In the end, once they’ve mastered the elusive language with which we describe music, once they’ve figured out the structure and pacing of an 800-word review, once they’ve learned to navigate the boundaries between personal and impersonal judgments, they’re left with the task of creating a draft set of values for their readers to absorb, debate, reject, or accept. Should a performer like Barbara Hannigan be more important than the music she performs or the other way around? What can a Brahms concerto teach us about the relative value of the individual and society in our lives? What happens when a cynical, cold composer (like Dmitri Shostakovich) is performed by a radiantly intensely human performer (like Alisa Weilerstein)? Whose character should prevail? (A life issue as well as a musical issue)

Those are the kinds of questions muscial reviewers should tackle, I believe – questions that begin with notes and phrases and dynamics and expand to fill the longing space we all have for value in our personal lives.

It seems that the venues for addressing these kinds of critical questions are shrinking today. We are instead inundated, drowning, gasping for breath in a Twitterverse full of the other form of criticism – disparaging, negative, demoralizing. But we can’t and won’t stay there forever. I’m sitting here, hoping against hope, that the talents and skills that our Emerging Arts Critics are learning will once again, someday, be useful to us all.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Aaron CoplandIt used to be.

New music in the classical past was the St. Matthew Passion, the “Eroica” Symphony, Tristan and Isolde, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the Rite of Spring.

It was, once upon a time, and even not that long ago.

Well into the 1930s and 40s, new music wasn’t something to be frightened of. New music was the Ravel Piano Concerto, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Peter Grimes, even Lulu and Wozzeck.

But then came the absolute zero, icy, crystalline formulations of the post-WWII generation, of the Boulezes and Stockhausens of the world, with their serialism and pointillism and extreme dissonance, and centuries of Western musical discourse was annihilated within a few years. Music that had celebrated the human spirit in powerful, communicative tonal gestures was washed away in an instant, or so it seemed, by the new purist wave of dark musical star showers and ethereal musical starlight. Music had become anatomized, and the flayed, transparent body of new musical composition was exhibited in autopsied performance spaces all over Europe and North America.

Audiences blanched in horror. Or recoiled in incomprehension.

Or so the story goes. Truth to tell, of course, the music of serialist and post-serialist Europe was actually much more interesting and uplifting than imagined. At its best, this music carried with it an astonishing vitality and freshness, a testament to the infinite possibility of the new itself, a message of hope in the end. And being confronted with the complex reality of this art was a spiritual and musical challenge; learning to navigate one’s ear through the mazes of beauty and strangeness it presented was a valuable workout for the soul.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1980. Photo by Claude Truong Ngoc.But it was difficult – it was meant to be difficult. It was music that was written as the ruins of Europe lay smouldering across half a continent, ruins that were even more damaging to the spirit of Europe than to its externalities. It was music that dared to take on the challenge of Theodor Adorno, who had famously asked how it was possible to make art after Auschwitz. Well, the post-war musical generation said, it is possible to make art – but it will sound like this, because the world looks like this. Tonality, the symbol of the world that had just rotted away to nothingness, had, they felt, rotted away along with it.

That was long ago, very long ago, but the fear of this music, and consequently of all that was new in music, lingered for many years after. For decades, despite the dizzying variety of styles in which composers were creating all sorts of musical worlds, the curse of “new” music – new defined as difficult, dissonant, and avant-garde – hung over audiences like a stinking, sulphurous, cloud. Consequently, audiences failed to notice something that might have attracted their interest – that a battle to regain something of the power of tonality had broken out within the musical avant-garde, a war between the disintegrating, acidic, centrifugality of dissonance and the cohesive binding centripetal power of the tonal. It was an aesthetic battle that consumed decades. But now, I’m beginning to think, the war is coming to an end.

And tonality has won.

It’s not your grandfather’s or your great-grandfather’s tonality, though. It’s not the key-centred, forward-moving, goal-oriented music of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s music that has simply overcome the fear of creating consonance, that’s not afraid to bask in thirds and sixths and octaves again, that’s harmonious, even – if one might dare to say so – beautiful. And, most importantly, it’s music whose form is comprehensible, whose unfolding in time matches the perceptual equipment of normal music lovers.

Of course, music like this has been written by men now in their 80s for years, by Philip Glass and Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. But I’m referencing a different group of musicians, a brand-new generation of composers, many American, all in their 30s – writers like Missy Mazzoli, and Nico Muhly, and especially, Caroline Shaw (who I think is the greatest of them all). Our own Ana Sokolović can join that group. Along with them are Europeans, a bit older, who have negotiated their own way clear to a personal and engaging style. blending tonality and atonality – composers like the English George Benjamin or the Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas (who can make the unfolding of a simple overtone sequence an experience of sheer terror).

What’s fascinating about these new tonal composers is that they are writing music once again that is accessible yet multi-layered, “easy” to listen to but challenging as well, music that has communication with an audience as its primary concern, not the manipulation of new compositional materials and techniques. They are composers who are not afraid of the tonal nature of their material, as familiar as it may be, but who succeed in speaking the old musical words with a new musical syntax. They are also not afraid to take on the anguish and brutality emerging at the heart of the world they have inherited, using music to comment and reflect on the world in which they and their audiences live. They are recovering for musical art the political, social and moral parameters it always previously had. They are, unbelievably, but effectively, returning music to the family of all the other arts.

It’s been so long since we approached a work of contemporary music with the same expectation of meaning and pleasure with which we routinely approach contemporary film, or visual and conceptual art, or the novel, that we’ve almost forgotten how to do so. To think that we can just simply understand a work of musical art, however new and novel it may be – be moved by it, have it speak significantly to us – is almost beyond belief. We had almost given up hope of music attracting a public and maintaining a high degree of artistic excellence at the same time. But that seems to be what’s happening with this new generation of composers. Something vital and valuable is emerging from the confusion and darkness of decades past.

Music has had its fallow periods before. The period between the dissolution of the Baroque and the emergence of the classical style in the early 18th century was similarly filled with failed experiments, wrong turns, a search for communicative power. And then we got Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. We may not achieve such musical transcendence this time around, but we’re heading in the right direction. And it’s dearly to be celebrated.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

Neil CroryGenius, if the word has any meaning at all, comes in many forms. There’s the exuberant, demonstrative, egomaniacal, smoking-hot pistol of genius – think Glenn Gould. 

But there’s also a quieter form of whatever genius is – and if it’s anything, it is originality combined with integrity, uncompromisability, single-mindedness, assurance.

And by that definition, Neil Crory had genius.

Neil, friend to so many, longtime CBC Music producer, writer, mentor, proselytizer, imp, beauty, died on January 10, after he and the Parkinson’s disease which had invaded him a decade earlier had finally had enough of each other and decided to part ways in mutual disgust. Neil, to the disease’s fury, had bent to its destructive evil, but had never broken.

Working at CBC Radio Music, as I had done for decades, meant that I knew of Neil Crory. He was the ultimate music producer, famous for his discoveries and crusades, picky, prickly, notoriously indulgent with other people’s money, hard-nosed to a fault, a bit of an elitist, slow in his projects and obsessions, not everyone’s favourite colleague. In fact, far from everyone’s favourite colleague. It always used to make me laugh that a radio department devoted to musical artists never really knew what to do when it actually stumbled across one.

I knew of Neil Crory, but never really knew him until 2007, when I was handed an unenviable assignment – to produce a single, four-hour long, weekend classical music program, hosted by Bill Richardson (another artist people were confused by) called Sunday Afternoon in Concert. Today, the program is simply called In Concert, is still four hours, and is produced by Denise Ball in Vancouver and very ably hosted by Paolo Pietropaolo. Denise and Paolo approach their monstrous broadcast time like any sensible production team – they divide their program into sections and segments and weave a tapestry of music throughout their program. They do a fine job.

However, for reasons I now forget, I decided not to follow this approach with Sunday Afternoon in Concert. I wanted instead to do the impossible – weave a single theme through a four-hour long broadcast, create a program that was not a kaleidoscope of various parts, but a unified whole unfolding over four hours, a Wagnerian opera of a radio program, different every week. It was insane, counter-intuitive (no one listens for a four-hour long period of time), impossible. Everyone thought I was crazy. Everyone, that is, except Neil Crory.

I’m not sure whether the mischievous imp in Neil was simply attracted to the sheer perversity of what I was trying to do. I’d like to think he shared my enthusiasm for trying something different. For whatever reason, he became my chief partner in crime, with his awe-inspiring ability to come up with novel programming and repertoire selections. He didn’t contribute to every program, but the ones he did contribute to were very special. Our mutual boss, Mark Steinmetz, told me once that Neil had come up to him after one of my shows – the four-hour Bach show where we played, among other things, two versions of Brandenburg 5 by two different Canadian orchestras, back to back – and told Mark he thought SAIC should be taken off the air. “Why?” Mark asked. “Because it’s too good,” was Neil’s reply.

It remains the single best compliment I’ve ever received in 40 years in the business.

But the true worth of Neil Crory’s talent, and genius, and the love and respect he inspired was in evidence when Sunday Afternoon in Concert decided to present a live Christmas concert in the Glenn Gould studio in mid-December 2007. It was one of the first things we talked about at our first story meeting in September. Neil said he’d produce it, and rolled off a roster of A-list Canadian opera stars that he’d try to convince to come perform. All the greats Neil had discovered and mentored and encouraged and inspired when they were just starting out, now regularly appearing in the greatest opera houses in the world. We all looked at each other in disbelief. A concert like that would take a normal person six to eight months to pull off, if they could pull it off at all. Neil assured us it would work. We believed him.

And then, because these things happen, we got busy and Neil got busy, and it was now the first week in November and we really hadn’t done anything at all to plan the Christmas show. I convened a special meeting where we all reluctantly agreed that we’d have to shelve the live concert idea until next year. All, that is, except Neil. No, he said, I think we can make this happen. In five weeks? Yep. Five weeks? Let me see what I can do.

And, of course, he pulled it off.

It wasn’t quite Michael Schade saying to the Vienna State Opera – sorry, you’re going to have get someone else to perform Tamino next Tuesday – I have to go back to Canada to sing Christmas carols in front of 250 people in the Glenn Gould Studio because Neil Crory asked me to, but it was damn close. Performers who are routinely booked five years in advance all showed up within a month’s notice because Neil asked them to – Schade, Russell Braun, I don’t think Isabel Bayrakdarian could make it, but many other stars were there. The green room was such a Who’s Who of Canadian vocal talent you couldn’t help but laugh in astonishment at the treasures all assembled in one place. I on the other hand, wasn’t laughing. As the executive producer of a show that came together so quickly -- was there even a dress rehearsal, don’t think so – I sat in the audience in anxious anticipation, until the first act strode on stage – I think it was two brothers from Newfoundland – and thereafter spent the entire afternoon in blissful tears. It was one of the greatest things I ever witnessed – and it was all Neil – the love in the room, the excellence on stage, the commitment of the performers , the passion behind it all – it was everything that Neil Crory represented coming to life and exploding in beauty in one tiny concert hall one December afternoon. It was special, to say the least. It was Neil.

Of course, sadly, Neil was predeceased by about a decade by the CBC Radio Music department he loved and had helped shape. It’s a tale for another day, but the destruction of CBC Radio Music remains, whether noticed or not, acknowledged or not, one of the great moral and artistic tragedies of Canadian cultural life. The organization that helped create everyone from Glenn Gould to… well, to Neil Crory, was a beacon for creativity and originality in this country, and the world beyond, and it was snuffed out in a blizzard of bad ideas, creative amnesia and Lilliputian thinking in a matter of a few months. The end of Radio Music didn’t kill Neil Crory, but it didn’t inspire him in his later years, either.

I’m told that Neil died listening to Schwarzkopf singing Strauss, a fresh yellow rose in his lapel, surrounded by friends, a true producer to the end. Those of us who were touched by him, who felt the breeze of his unique presence pass by us and change the atmosphere around us, won’t forget him, ever. A country produces few individuals with his depth of humanity, caring, intelligence and wit. Another like him won’t be coming along any time soon.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

TSO: Crises Weathered, Challenges AheadIt’s been less than two years since the then-chair of the board of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Richard Phillips, and eight of his senior colleagues, including Sonia Baxendale, stunningly and abruptly resigned from the organization one December afternoon. It remains a mystery to this day why they left.

Had this kind of thing happened at other similar organizations – the New York Philharmonic, or the Metropolitan Opera, let’s say – it would have been front-page news. Here, it barely caused a stir, and since then, Richard Phillips and Sonia Baxendale seem to have been more or less expunged from the history of the TSO. Which is a pity.

Because what’s interesting about Phillips and Baxendale is that without them, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra may well have gone bank-rupt in the spring and summer of 2016. Today, as the TSO is finally achieving some desperately needed organizational stability, it’s hard to imagine how different things were not that long ago. But in March of 2016, after the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t departure of short-lived TSO president and CEO Jeff Melanson, the TSO was within a few thousand dollars of insolvency. Senior financial officers were ap-proaching department heads to inquire whether there was anything that could be sold to keep the organization afloat. In a situation streaked red with emergency, Phillips and especially Baxendale (who became the organization’s acting CEO, for an agreed six-month term, after Melanson’s departure) steered the TSO ship rockily but successfully to a small surplus in fiscal 2015/16. They accomplished this by applying the appraised value of a valuable TSO viola against the organization’s accumulated deficit (reducing that deficit by four million dollars), con-vincing the Toronto Symphony Foundation to double its annual contribution to the TSO, and one assumes, by writing some generous cheques of their own. For thanks, within eight months they had disappeared from the organization.

Perhaps Phillips’ and Baxendale’s departure was karma for the sin they had committed of hiring Jeff Melanson to be the orchestra’s presi-dent and chief executive officer in the first place. We shall never know the full extent of Melanson’s toxic influence on the TSO, but it can be effectively argued that the organization is just now recovering from it. Before Melanson, the Toronto Symphony had had one CEO for 12 years, Andrew Shaw. In contrast, there have been four changes of leadership since – four administrative regimes in four years. A year and a half of Melanson, six months of Phillips and Baxendale, two years of Gary Hanson as interim CEO, and now a few months of Matthew Loden, the TSO’s just recently appointed CEO.

It is a tribute to the TSO that it has not only survived these ongoing challenges, but has seemed to emerge from them with momentum. The latest annual report showed an operating surplus for fiscal 2017-18 of over two million dollars (although that surplus was buoyed by a $3.2 million grant from Canadian Heritage that will not be repeated next year). Matthew Loden, the new CEO, comes with a fine track record with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The appointment of a new Music Director, Gustavo Gimeno, was announced this fall, to replace the recently re-tired Peter Oundjian, although Gimeno won’t actually take over until the fall of 2020. Throughout all the organization’s troubles and travails, the staying power and continuity of the true heroes of the Toronto Symphony, Loie Fallis, vice-president of artistic planning and Roberta Smith, vice-president and chief of staff, can’t be over-estimated. I’m guessing that the organization’s outgoing and highly popular former mu-sic director should also be included on that list.

The TSO seems to have weathered the existential crises of the past five years, bending without breaking. All arts organizations these days, worldwide, are perched on very delicate financial precipices, the distance between success and catastrophe very short indeed. The real challenge for the Symphony is that the organizational turmoil of the past few years has prevented the orchestra from effectively redefining its artistic mandate and raison d’être in the post-Oundjian era. Andrew Davis has stepped in as the organization’s titular head as the TSO awaits Gime-no, but all of Oundjian’s signature programming initiatives of the past few years have been erased. There will be no Mozart Festival this year, no Decades projects, most distressingly, no New Creations Festival. A city’s symphony orchestra should be the primary musical institution in any metropolis, if only by dint of its size and budget and prestige. But programming counts for something too, and here the TSO is losing that primacy. Tafelmusik is playing these days with greater assurance and self-knowledge, under the inspired new leadership of Elisa Citterio. The Royal Conservatory is outflanking the TSO in terms of New Music, having just moved its successful 21C Festival to January, to fill the gap in the winter calendar where the TSO’s New Creations Festival used to be. The Canadian Opera Company, although not really a TSO competitor, has come to dominate the musical public relations scene in the past few years.
Hopefully, the groundwork has been laid for that to change in the Gustavo Gimeno era. People clearly wish the symphony well and are ex-cited and curious about the new music director. The TSO has already had to add an extra concert for Gimeno’s season-ending appearance with the orchestra this coming June, which is a good sign. Single ticket sales, which have eclipsed subscriptions as a source of TSO box office reve-nue, are also on the upswing. Another positive indicator. A financial plan for stability seems to be within the TSO’s reach, finally. And the current TSO board, led by chair Cathy Beck, extending her family’s long-standing dedication to the Toronto Symphony, looks set to provide a level of continuity to the organization as well.

But the biggest challenge to the Toronto Symphony remains to be addressed. When I spoke to Gary Hanson at the beginning of his tenure as interim president and CEO of the TSO, we talked about the upcoming challenge of replacing Oundjian as music director of the organization. Hanson reminded me that the question that the symphony needed to answer was not who the new conductor would be, but what. In other words, what kind of an organization did the TSO want to become? That used to be a relatively simple question for symphony orchestras in a secure, musical world. It isn’t anymore. Playing the classics beautifully isn’t enough. Or maybe it is. But what about attracting new audiences, reflecting the cultural diversity of the city in which the orchestra is housed, educating people about music, reaching out to other musical communities? It’s not at all obvious where an orchestra should be directing its attention these days. Gimeno is young, which is good, and con-sequently brings few musical expectations with him, which is also good. But it was clear when his appointment was announced in September that he has no idea yet what kind of a place Toronto is, having spent literally no more than a few days in the city up to that point as a guest conductor. But he’ll have two full years to figure that out, along with Matthew Loden, himself just a few months into his tenure.

And more power to them all! We need the TSO to be strong, and it hasn’t been able to be especially so in the last few years. Musicians, and orchestral musicians especially, are notoriously grumpy and dark about life, but music is not. Music is optimistic, bright, life-fulfilling. It is the path that its music creates for it that can give the TSO the hints it needs to secure its future. And we’ll all be the better for it.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

A Jewish Defence of Wagner’s Ring

Charles Heller

The November 2018 issue of The WholeNote ran an article by Robert Harris (“Wagner in the Age of #MeToo”), claiming that the #MeToo movement should stir us to consider Wagner’s Ring as being unacceptable to modern audiences because of its antisemitic message. As a Jewish Wagnerian, here is my response.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gottfried Wagner, who, with his penetrating gaze and aquiline nose, conjured up the aura of his great-great-grandfather. He said emphatically: Wagner’s music is great art, the composer and his family were monsters, and we must respect the wishes of those who do not want to hear it publically performed in Israel, a country he loved. He was also of the opinion that fu-ture generations of Israelis, no longer traumatized by first-hand experience of the Shoah, will be able to accept Wagner performances. These views are supported by Israeli music-lovers today.
Richard Wagner said a lot of contradictory and inflammatory things, but when it came to composing music he knew what he was doing. The idea that antisemitism is at the heart of the Ring is preposterous. Mime and Alberich are not Jews, they are dwarves, and they were dwarves when the story was composed in medieval Iceland, where no Jew was ever seen. But people certainly imagined they saw Jewish gestures in Wagner’s dwarves - Mahler complained of one particular performance that it was a ”caricature of a caricature”. But that didn’t stop the Jew Mahler, or his colleague the Jew Schoenberg, from regarding Wagner’s scores as central to Western music. The Ring is not about an evil Jew, it is about what it takes to be oneself and overcome obstacles – overbearing parents (the gods), irrational fears (the giants), brash egotism (the runes on Wotan’s spear) and whatever else is clogging your subconscious mind.
If it were really true that the Ring is an antisemitic diatribe, and that art is to be judged on the morality of the artist, then why stop with Wagner? We still are left with the music of Chopin (who accused Jews of destroying Polish music) and the poetry of T. S. Eliot (who accused Jews of destroying Western culture). Dickens hated Jews too, and don’t get me started on The Merchant of Venice or Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, which despite being intended as an attack on Jews was performed in Toronto with the financial support of the City a few years ago.
Jews have lived with antisemitic garbage for 2000 years, much of it encouraged by the Church and the State. To claim that the Ring is anti-semitic is a perversion of what the Ring and what antisemitism are all about. Antisemitism is alive and well today, both in the twisted minds of far-right thugs in the USA and in far-left politics in the UK and Canada. In the age of #MeToo we must certainly refuse to work with peddlers of hatred and harassment. But Richard Wagner is long dead and his work endures.

Charles Heller is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Synagogue Music, published by the Cantors Assembly, New York and is the author of What to Listen For in Jewish Music. His new book Shul-Going will be published in 2019.

WagnerEarlier this fall, the relationship of the music of Wagner and the State of Israel once more leapt back into public prominence, a Valkyrie of controversy once again bellowing its “Hojotoho” to the world.

An Israeli radio station – the public broadcaster no less – broke the longstanding and hardened, if unofficial, ban on Wagner’s music in that country by presenting the third act of Götterdämmerung to an unsuspecting public at the beginning of September. The station soon apologized, citing the pain that the broadcast might have caused Holocaust survivors. Ironically, the performance in question was a live recording from Bayreuth led by the Jewish Daniel Barenboim, long a Wagner champion.

The apology itself created another firestorm. Although the traditional arguments for banning Wagner in Israel are both Hitler’s affinity for Wagner, and the composer’s own repulsive anti-Semitism, the head of the Wagner Society in Israel, Jonathan Livny, said the ban was a mistake. Livny admitted that although Wagner’s ideology was “terrible,” the music was beautiful, and the “aim was to divide the man from his art.” This, I’m relatively sure, represents the view of many enlightened listeners all over the world, both those who love Wagner and those who hate him. Art and the artist should be separated; the work must be allowed to stand on its own merits. That is what art itself demands.

These days, interestingly, this traditional view (which is not only confined to music, but exists in all the arts) is beginning to come under renewed scrutiny from an unlikely source – the #MeToo movement. Granted, the connection is a tangential one: much of #MeToo, with its wide ambit, has nothing to do with the arts, let alone Wagner, but the movement has, among other things, reminded us that for many, it is perfectly legitimate to refuse to divide the artist from his or her art. Maybe they shouldn’t be divided; maybe artists and their art exist in a complicated, roundabout, mutually self-referencing cycle of meaning. Maybe allowing judgments of the two to intersect is a more sophisticated and honest view of artistic reality. Maybe the old traditional “hate the artist but love the art” is a very superficial attitude towards the power of aesthetic life. Maybe that’s only what you believe when nothing is at stake.

I must say I have more than a little sympathy for this line of reasoning. The notion that music exists in some perfectly insulated temple of pure meaning, untroubled and unconnected to the rest of the turbulent, messy activity of life robs it of its authenticity and credibility, robs it of the opportunity it has to be firmly and powerfully in the world. Music-making is deeply grounded in politics, ideology and social discourse. It always has been. To assume that there is a separate, unsullied aesthetic dimension, in which pure judgments of musical worth can be made, is appealing perhaps, but is simply an ideology that passes as unassailable truth. It’s dangerous, no doubt, and demands from us care and attention and grace, but perhaps it’s time to suggest that art can legitimately be judged on moral as well as aesthetic grounds, including the moral behaviour and actions of its creators.

That might mean one thing when we’re discussing the revival of Louis Riel, another when we look at Madama Butterfly. In Wagner’s case, if we would just be honest with ourselves, we would admit that the personality of the composer, his beliefs and his art have always been inextricably linked. We always let the overwhelming power of the music blind us to a reality we know is lurking in the background. It’s not that we don’t understand the questionable quality of Wagner’s art – it’s just that we decide not to care.

The basic bone caught in the throat of modern Wagnerians has to do with his oft-stated and repugnant anti-Semitism, a virulent anti-Semitism that we are expected to believe infected his life but left his art untainted. But surely just to state that is to play at the edges of the absurd. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has said that all art in the end is a portrait of the hand holding the pen creating it, and surely he is right. It would be almost inhuman to suggest that an ideology and worldview so central to Wagner’s life and being could be hermetically sealed off from his workWagner’s anti-Semitism was not merely a prejudice, an unreasonable hatred of a group of people. It was a world view. Jews to Wagner were the ultimate scapegoat – the root cause of everything corrupted in the German world. Wagner was not just an anti-Semite; he was a primary intellectual progenitor of the Third Reich. To blithely say that Wagner was Hitler’s “favourite” composer, the way you might choose Bedřich Smetana or I might choose Michael Haydn, is to glide over this central point. Wagner was the key to Nazism. “Whoever wants to understand National Socialism,” said Hitler, “must first understand Wagner.” From the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

And, of course, this philosophy is not just central to Wagner’s life; it is at the heart of Wagner’s art as well. In his magnum opus, the Ring, the gnomic and dwarfish Alberich and Mime are surely none other than thinly disguised, dog-whistle portraits of his ultimate Jewish scapegoat, obvious to Wagner’s 19th-century audiences, banging out a dissonant hammered song in the bowels of the tetralogy’s body. It is the curse of Alberich, of the ultimate scapegoat, that haunts the Ring, and, in the end, no one, not Wotan, not Siegfried, not Brünnhilde, can escape it, a curse symbolized by the burning Valhalla. Perhaps if some intrepid director made the flames at the end of Götterdämmerung emanate from a Reichstag fire, or inscribed Arbeit Macht Frei over Mime’s demonic workshop, we would get the point. The Ring is as inherently anti-Semitic as Das Judenthum im der Musik.

So maybe our Israeli friends are not so crazy. As for the rest of us, sitting in the opera house or concert hall, assiduously “dividing the man from his art,” it’s time, perhaps, for us to be neither surprised nor indignant if we find #MeToo-inspired questions disturbing our pleasure.

Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.

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