In 1933, composer Richard Strauss was appointed by Joseph Göbbels as president of the Reichsmusikkammer, or German State Music Bureau. In 1945, Strauss declared that the Allied bombing of the Hoftheater, his favorite opera house in Munich, was “the greatest catastrophe that has ever disturbed my life.”
And now, six decades later, Strauss is being celebrated in a June 29 performance of his opera “Ariadne Auf Naxos” — at Congregation Ansche Chesed, of all places, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
To be fair, there’s another side to the story. Strauss did eventually resign his post at the Reichsmusikkammer, after refusing to take the name of Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig off the playbill for his opera “Die Schweigsame Frau.” Moreover, he may have saved several Jewish lives later in the war, specifically those of his daughter-in-law and her son, who were placed under house arrest in Vienna.
If the talmudic adage, “He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world,” is true without exceptions for self-interest, then right now Strauss is making music with King David. But if the Talmud has any sense of context, Strauss is burning in Hell while his music is played on Satan’s loudspeaker.
To the extent that any artist is capable of worldly effect, Strauss was an active participant in building Nazi culture by gladly performing tasks such as penning the musical theme for the 1936 Olympics. Even his quasi-pacifist opera “Friedenstag” is hardly anti-antisemitic. Strauss’s tepid musical “resistance” is but de minimus amelioration of the moral vacancy with which he lived in comfort through the 12-year reign of The Thousand Year Reich. He was not a banal naif; he was an accomplice and a collaborator.
This is not the first time, of course, that the rather widespread and long-standing antipathy toward German cultural produce has manifested itself. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that the music of Richard Wagner, the undoubted genius and undoubted racist admired by Strauss, was performed in Israel. Appropriately, the musicians came from the Staatskapelle Berlin, the state orchestra, though Daniel Barenboim wielded the baton. And once the ban was abrogated, many Israeli orchestras followed suit.
However, Wagner in Israel is not a precedent to consideration of Strauss in shul. That’s because Israeli orchestras, though surely consisting primarily of Jews, do not present themselves as Jewish institutions guided by Jewish concerns. A shul, however, ought to have, as the old ad for Hebrew National hot dogs went, a higher standard.
A shul ought to be more like Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who famously said, “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.” Instead, Ansche Chesed doffs its yarmulke.
Asking about this appalling juxtaposition of spectacle and venue, I was told that the shul had rented the premises to an organization called One World Symphony, thus implying lack of responsibility. Oh, but Strauss represents culture. When an avowedly egalitarian synagogue like Ansche Chesed feels obliged to honor Teutonic music, it’s a stunning admission that Jews have neither the will nor the inclination to respect their own tragedy while bowing to a repugnant universalism that denies all judgment.
Or maybe no judgment call was involved. I can only wonder whether it even crossed the mind of whoever in the synagogue authorized “Ariadne auf Naxos” that there was something a wee bit off about using its space in this way and putting up a nicely designed poster advertising the event in the lobby. Surely those who attend the performance will appreciate its many artistic virtues, but the very presence of Strauss in a Jewish sanctuary raises a very simple question to which there is one answer: Shame!
Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, is the editor of “Scribblers on the Roof: Contemporary American Jewish Fiction” (Persea, 2006).