this evening (wednesday), 8.00-8.45pm on bbc radio 4:
the moral maze: is wagner’s music morally tainted by his anti-semitism?,
with melanie phillips michael portillo claire fox matthew taylor and michael buerk
Can art be morally contaminating? The anti-semitism of the German composer Richard Wagner still makes him a divisive figure even 200 years after his death. In a row over a Jewish conductor for a performance of the opera Parsifal, Wagner described the Jews as “the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble about it“.
Famously he was said to be Hitler’s favourite composer and Wagner’s works were used in propaganda by the Third Reich in the Nazification of German culture. There are even claims his operas were played to those held in concentration camps. As recently as last year protestors in Israel forced the cancellation of a concert featuring his work.
The anniversary of his death is being marked by major performance at the Proms and the actor Simon Callow will be performing “Inside Wagner’s Head” at the Royal Opera House. In an interview Callow says he’ll confront the composer’s hatred of Jews head on and publicity promises it will be as controversial as Wagner himself.
Can we ever separate the beauty of art from the sin of the artist? Should we boycott performances by Wagner, even if they don’t contain any anti-semitic views? And if so, why not do the same with the dozens of other 19th and 20th century artists who espoused similar views? Are those people who enjoy and are moved by performances of Wagner morally compromised? When does an image that is racist, anti-semitic or offensive become art? Does the passage of time act as a kind of moral decontaminant? Or is that the worst kind of moral relativism?
(if you miss it, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037jbv5)