A Different View of Music

February 2, 2012
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The conductor didn’t need to remind me; I was already sitting straight in my chair with both of my feet flat on the floor. She made an announcement anyway, telling us to sit properly, since there were those who slouched. As I held my violin high, I eagerly listened for the call of the concertmaster and the response of the cellos. Sure enough, the first chair first violinist carefully played the A with the perfect crescendo and diminuendo. I smiled in excitement and anticipation. The piece had begun!

Reflecting now on my string orchestra experience in the ninth grade, I honestly cannot remember when I fell in love with Richard Wagner’s “Overture to Rienzi”. I just know that from the very first time we ran through it, I could not get the melody out of my head. Even though I was only a second violin at the time, I would constantly find myself humming the proud and uplifting tune the first violins played. When orchestra ended for the summer, I continued to listen to the music on Youtube or the Wagner CD my parents bought for me because I couldn’t stop talking about it. “Overture to Rienzi” very quickly became my favorite classical piece.

During the summer of 2011 I attended a Jewish music program, a program aimed at combining religion with art. During one of the many discussion groups, we talked about the controversy regarding Richard Wagner’s music. Apparently, as I learned that day, not only was he an outspoken racist and anti-Semite but he also had a huge impact, after his death, on Adolf Hitler. Shocked (and a little embarrassed about my admiration for the composer), I sat quietly as I listened intently to my peers’ different opinions. Some argued in favor of listening to Wagner while others stated it is our duty, as Jews, to reject everyone and everything that aided Hitler. This was the first time I learned of any debate over Wagner. Throughout the discussion, “Overture to Rienzi” kept playing through my head and I guiltily tried to push it out. Maybe it’s not right to listen to this piece anymore, I thought. But I ignored the idea.

However, I left the program still disturbed and conflicted over this controversy. I decided to research Wagner’s influence on Hitler. I quickly found a book titled The Young Hitler I Knew, written by his childhood friend, August Kubizek. In one of the chapters, Kubizek describes the historic night when he and Hitler went to see Wagner’s opera “Rienzi” together. The title character, Rienzi, with his charismatic leadership and great oratory skills, appealed to the teenage Hitler so much that he yearned to emulate the protagonist in the opera. Upon seeing “Rienzi”, Hitler no longer wished to become an artist or architect. Instead, he dreamed of higher aspirations in politics. I also learned that because Hitler was so attached to the opera, he had “Overture to Rienzi” played during Nazi rallies and before giving his compelling speeches.

I reread this disturbing information and confirmed it in other sources. After recovering from my initial horror, I began thinking about myself. Is it wrong for me to love the same piece as Hitler? What does this say about my own character? Because Hitler and I share an emotional connection to a piece of music, does that make me a “bad person”? And should I stop listening and singing “Overture to Rienzi” because an anti-Semite wrote it? How can I love this piece that was written and enjoyed by evil men?

Although I realized that Hitler and I loved the piece for different reasons, I still thought about these questions. Clearly, I concluded, music has its own intrinsic value as an independent work of art. This is evident by the fact that music written centuries ago still moves people today. Indeed, the beauty of classical music lies in its ability to transcend not only time and place but also person. Although Wagner was a racist, I recognize that his music has an independent identity separate from him and from Hitler. I have thus concluded to continue to listen to and enjoy my favorite classical piece.

Music has always been in my life, yet I never fully comprehended its power until now. Having struggled with the historical facts about “Overture to Rienzi”, I have a deeper understanding that music exists on its own terms and speaks differently to each individual. This crucial realization allows me to continue to be moved by great music regardless of its historical
context.





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