A Ban on Classical Music?

November 25, 2011

Learning, Political Theory


The YouTube video link I posted is from the opera, Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner.  I am in the music school, and confess I am a classical music nerd.  This opera is extremely beautiful and I hope you enjoy this little snippet from it.  It was composed between 1857 and 1859.  It was an extremely influential work among other great composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg.  Wagner used a lot of new harmonic techniques and expanded the vocabulary of classical music through this work.  That being said, his brilliance was not appreciated in some countries while he was alive and even to this day.

Adolf Hitler admired Richard Wagner’s music and felt it was a great representation of Germanic national music.  Wagner is known for being an anti-Semite and he even detested other Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn (although in private, he did acknowledge that Mendelssohn was a genius).  He felt that Jewish musicians were not able to express at the same level as Germans either.  Some people argue that his writings were not just in opposition to Jews, but also his operas had hidden messages against Jewish culture as well.

This article, http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/music/75247/muted/, talks about a controversial performance of the Germanic composer by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra this past July, and describes some of the more specific reasons why the country does not allow Wagner’s music to be played.  Why is this music banned if Wagner died half a century before Hitler even became into power?  I’m not saying that it should or should not be played, but I am curious if it is a violation of free speech.  Why should a free country not allow their musicians to play music that they love?  Maybe because “the Nazis embraced Wagner not by accident or opportunism but because they recognized in him the cultural trailblazer of the world they set out to rule” (article).

John Stuart Mill suggests that nothing should be silenced if it can educate others. “It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side” (On Liberty).  Students should study Wagner’s music, play Wagner’s operas, and experience Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Why should orchestras not be allowed to share his music in Israel, especially if they are not trying to allude to his anti-Semitic character, but rather just want to share his music?  I think Israeli’s have a right to ban his music because it was very influential to the Nazis, and honoring a musician that clearly hated everything about their beliefs is a little odd.  However, other composers were anti-Semites as well, such as Tchaikovsky, but he is still played regularly. In this situation, would John Stuart Mill call this a violation of freedom of speech, even if it might be extremely offensive to some Jews to hear his music played in Israel?  Should musicians play his music to educate others in Israel?  Should it continue to be banned from most orchestra performances?

Richard Wagner



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12 Comments on “A Ban on Classical Music?”

  1. bmauto21 Says:

    When reading this post one wonders whether something can be both educational and harmful at the same time. It is understandable not to play his music in Israel because he was anti semitic but at the same time his music should not reflect his personal character. Something that people do not really know is that Henry Ford, Founder of Ford Motor Co., was very anti semitic. He once bought a newspaper just to print anti semitic things and since he owned the newspaper they couldn’t tell him not to print that. Now while Henry Ford was an anti semite, people still think of him as one of the more genius minds of the 20th century. Without him the modern assembly line would not have been created and automobiles would no be what they are today. People tend to forget the bad qualities of people in history if what they did was better man kind with their thoughts, inventions, etc. While he did help man kind he was very much against Jewish people but yet everyone still bought his amazing cars. This can be said about Richard Wagner and although he may have hated JEwish people, not allowing his music to be played is a violation to what John Stuart Mill’s believes is our freedom of speech.

  2. Danielle Studenberg Says:

    It’s very interesting to me that Wagner is banned from some countries. I didn’t realize music could be associated with such things. Although, the composer himself lived before Hitler’s time, and I don’t think the association between Wagner and Hitler is justifiable. I agree that it’s not okay to glorify something anti-semetic, but music should not be banned at all.

    I do believe that John Stuart Mill would declare the situation in Israel to be a violation of freedom of speech. The philosopher believes that all voices should be heard. I do think that this may offend some Israeli people, so the context of where the music is played should be regulated. I don’t think students should learn about Wagner in school yet they should be allowed to buy Wagner’s music on their own time.

  3. Matthew Vlasic Says:

    This post makes a great connection. I was unaware that music was banned for reasons like this and I’m glad I now know this. I agree with the second commenter. Mill advocated for everything to be expressed, no matter its origins, its harmfulness or harmlessness; if it is an idea that is able to be expressed or communicated then he thought that it should be expressed in order to increase awareness and better the knowledge in society.

    I can definitely understand why Jewish people or people living in Israel would not want to hear this, but then again it is just music. Having said that, even though it’s just music and just simple expression, I don’t think that these particular people should support it or let it be heard because of Wagner’s awful and inhumane views. Mill would say that it should be heard and that banning it is just destructive and not worth doing. Personally, I acknowledge Mill’s thoughts on this, but I believe that people who were affected by his horrible views should not have to hear it anywhere. This music could bring them to a negative place and influence them to think about things that they do not want to think about such as Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust. In this instance, I know that this music could be educational, but there are so many other educational songs out there that there is no point to play this controversial tune or his other songs to those whom he so greatly opposed. I would go against Mill because, in my opinion, it is justifiable to ban this music in particular countries despite it’s potentially positive influences on young, upcoming musicians (I believe its negative connotations outweigh those and there is simply so much other music to study).

  4. mturner1013 Says:

    First off, I must say that I am not a fan of classical music but I did find that clip to be very good. Now more to the point of you post. Would mill ban this music, or argue that banning this music goes against his principal of freedom of speech. I think when you analyze this ban, you have to more-so look at Mill’s harm principal. He says that you should have the freedom to do something or say something as long as it does not cause harm to you, or others. In this case, although I am not an expert of classical music, I think that this music could possibly harm certain persons of religions, such as jewish people, because of the history behind the music. If there is a known association between this music, and the terrible things that happened under the regime of hitler, then if a person hears this music, it is very possible that it could bring back painful memories, and painful stories. Therefore this music is causing harm to the listeners, and although it is not causing physical harm, it is causing emotional harm. According to Mill, any form of harm is harm, and makes the freedom of speech that is causing that harm, no longer free according to his harm principal. Therefore, I think that the ban of Wagner’s music does not violate Mill’s theory of freedom of speech

  5. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I’m a huge music person, so your post caught my attention. I’m a member of the Michigan Marching Band, played in band and orchestra during high school, and am now taking a minor in music (political science still reigns supreme). These composers deeply influenced me, and while I can’t say that I ever have been a Wagner fan, the post still brings out the inner New World Symphony fan in me (cliche symphony, I know, but amazing nonetheless).

    As much as I’m not a Wagner fan, I nonetheless think he’s brilliant. Humanity can learn a lot from music composed by men like Wagner, so to ban it for any reason seems a little silly to me. If we wanted to ban everything that was the brainchild of Nazism or supported by the Nazis, we might as well do away with space travel (our space program came out of Wernher von Braun’s V-2), jet aircraft (although a British invention, the Germans won the race to develop a combat jet fighter), the modern assault rifle (the Germans first fielded such a weapon), and modern combat tactics (many of which were pioneered by German commanders). Were the Nazis bad people who did bad things? Yes. But they are also an important part of history that should never be forgotten, and their music should fall into that category, too.

    It seems to me that Mill would take issue with banning Wagner. His music can definitely be considered a form of free expression, and to ban it just because he was anti-Semitic means that mankind loses the immense benefit of his talent just because of one perceived personality flaw. We can overlook his personal sympathies and just appreciate his music, and Mill would probably agree.

  6. benhenri Says:

    Unlike Danielle Studenberg and mturner said, I actually believe that, according to John Stuart Mill, the playing of Richard Wagner’s music is not a violation of freedom of speech. Yes, it may cause emotional harm to those of Jewish descent living in Israel as well as possibly indirectly urge them to act violently in reaction to the feelings they get when listening to Wagner’s music. However, it still does not cause direct physical harm to them. Personally, I agree with this. Like the person who posted this, even though Richard Wagner is anti-semitic, his music is valuable. The notes as well as the historical background of Wagner’s music can inform and educate listeners, especially other musicians now and in the future. In this way, his music MUST be listened to. Furthermore, like ianbaker stated, even very racist peoples, like Nazis, have created new technology that we cannot live without or that have improved our society tremendously. In fact, similar instances have occurred in history before. For example, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, was considered racist in the past and banned because it employed the word, “nigger,” a derogatory name for a person of African American descent, numerous times. However, thankfully, the ban was eventually lifted. People recognized and hailed the significant literary value of the book in spite of the utilization of the offensive term. The same should go for Richard Wagner’s classic music compositions.

  7. tchung22 Says:

    John Stuart Mill would call the banning of Wagner’s music a violation of the freedom of speech. Mill argued that no one should be silenced because expressing their opinions either allows them to develop an even clearer perception of truth or discard their false beliefs for truth. The ban on Wagner’s music does not allow this to happen. If the music were played, people could do their own research on Wagner and decide for themselves whether they want to listen to his music. Mill believed that all opinions should be expressed. Although Wagner’s personality is not one I wish to emanate, there is no doubt that he was a musical genius. Therefore, people could learn from his music and develop a clearer perception of truth. They could learn his anti-Semitic background and learn the downfalls of such behaviors.

  8. beaurh Says:

    Placing bans on music is an issue debated heavily because of the mass appeal and affect that it has on its listeners. It is my opinion that music should be free of bans and censorship. Music is a form of creative expression and silencing opinions is not favorable in any case, as Mill agrees.
    Although this is my opinion, Israel placing bans on Wagner’s compositions for being anti-semitic is understandable. Israel does not wish its young, very susceptible children to be affected by the minds of anti-Semites. But in agreement with tchung22 above, Wagner can and should be used as a tool to educate youth about the dire consequences that result from hatred and ethnocentrism. Banning one’s opinion does nothing to instill and perpetuate tolerance of others. These negative opinions should be used to express the necessity of tolerance and understanding.
    A similar example is many officials wishing to ban Eminem songs from being aired because they corrupt the youth with violence and anger. Eminem goes on to say that if you do not wish to listen, don’t and that parents should be less worried about what their kids are listening to and what they are actually doing. It is more about how one responds to the controversial music than actually listening to it.

  9. hoeylue Says:

    Every work should be banned that is used to show hate and repulsion against other cultures. There is no reason in abusing art in order to transmit hidden messages. I also believe that Jews or Germans can’t enjoy the artistic quality of Wagner’s music if they relate it to political issues. But I also think that Mill would approve Wagner’s music to be a legitimate way of showing his opinion. This is even more acceptable if we consider the fact that Wagner composed anti-Semite music before the Holocaust happened. After the Holocaust it obviously has become much more taboo to express anti-Semite opinions. But before that, being anti-Semite was similar to being anti-Islam today. Does every kind of art, which is against Islam, gets banned today? I don’t think so. We should either ban everything that expresses repulsion in an offensive way towards other cultures, religions and races or should legalize every kind of freedom in expression. The first would obviously lead to plenty of bans in music, literature and art and therefore impoverishing the arts. The second one would be very unsatisfying in its own way by making people permanent victims of other people’s opinions. But even the middle way, as we mostly have it today is unpleasant for many people. I would plead for a division of art and political opinion. Nobody can entirely enjoy art with the knowledge that it is being used to transmit messages. Not of peace and love but of hate and repulsion.

  10. #jasonschwartz Says:

    As a person of jewish descent, I must say that this is a beautiful peice. A question that I have for you is how did the nazi’s use this music in order to help justify their needs for the extermination of the jewish race? In reailty there must be something that Hitler did or said that made this peice be distasteful. From what I understand, opera and classical music are used to tell a story, this can be seen through its use as background music in all films and plays. So what is the story that the Nazi’s used this music to express? If you could please comment with a little bit more context surrounding the story of the music.

    Furthermore, this is a case of the limitation of freedom of speech. However, like whats going on with the banning of Huckelberry Finn from library’s in the United States, the issue may be a classic case of misrepresentation of the context in which the music is being played. With Huckelberry Finn, I know that a reason for its banning is the use of one specific bad word over 100 times. However, this word is used in order to make fun of rather than support the horrible cause that the word represented.

    I wonder if the case is similar here as the music was made over 50 years before the riegn of the nazi’s.

  11. isobelkraft Says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Not only did I learn some interesting things about some of my favorite composers but it made me consider my own musical interests and whether or not this new info effects them. I believe that Mill would find banning Wagner a violation of free speech. Mill would think that educating through Wagner’s music is not really harming the public, which is his only caveat for restricting free speech. I personally don’t agree with Wagner’s anti-semitic feelings but it does not harm me in any way or turn me away from his compositions. Although music is a very personal expression of one’s own feelings, I find it hard to associate a particular piece of music with hatred of Jews.

    The author of this post mentioned another composer, Tchaikovsky, also an anti-Semite and a composer I happened to play a lot of in high school. I loved playing his works and even after learning that he was anti-Semitic, I still respect and enjoy his art.

  12. Brian Hall Says:

    Personally, I don’t see how banning the works of an individual who was anti-semitic is productive. Certainly many succesful individuals from that era (and still today) have anti-semitic sentiments, but I find it difficult to comprehend how a piece of classical music can portray race-hate. The Israelis would have to ban anything related to Walt Disney if they were going to be truly consistent (and hundreds of other influential artists and composers at that). I can understand the desire not to glorify these people, as a large part of who they were involved specific racial prejudices, but I don’t think that it is appropriate to disallow their works and words to be silenced out of shame or reverse-hatred. The joke is on Wagne: generations of Jews can now enjoy his music while he rots in his grave.

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