For months the planned program had elicited angerthe Knesset demanded that the event be canceled and the Simon Wiesenthal Center attempted to block the performance through a court injunction. Last week, the decision was made. The show will not go on. Despite Barenboim's outspoken commitment to the project, the vocal support of some Holocaust survivors and the concert's popularity, festival organizers yielded to pressure and dropped Wagner from the program, replacing the Walkre excerpt with selections from Schumann and Stravinsky. "Not playing Wagner now is almost like giving the Nazis a posthumous right," says Barenboim. "If you have certain terrible associations that do not allow you to listen to this music, you obviously shouldn't be forced to do so. But you should not have the right to prevent other people who do not suffer from the same associations."
Barenboim's hopes of helping Israelis dispel these associations have been dashed for now, but he remains undaunted. "There is a lot that each one of us can do on an individual basis to advance in areas where the politicians will inevitably follow," he says, referring to his efforts to encourage dialogue in the Middle East. With his friend, the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said, in 1999 he began a yearly workshop where young Israeli and Arab musicians can "practice the passion that they share, which is music." As for his influence on his two sons with his second wife, the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova (his first wife was the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose life and career were cut short by multiple sclerosis), it's unclear to what extent they'll emulate their father's musical example. David, 18, and Michael, 15, are fans of hip-hop music.
Q: Why did you agree to an alternate program?
A: Now the concerts are sold out, and I don't want to disappoint people by not coming. But the stupid thing is that people who will come to hear something other than Wagner had bought tickets to hear Wagner. It's too silly for words!
Q: Can political or racist views taint a piece of music?
A: No. If that were so, there would be a great chunk of the musical literature that we wouldn't be able to play. Everything you say about music is actually about our reaction to it, and not about music itself. For me, there is only one clean and clear definition of music, and that was by Busoni, who said music is sonorous air. Whatever we say about music other than that is about our reaction to it, and not to the thing itself. Music as such cannot be anti- Semitic or communist or capitalist or any of those things.
Q: How do you feel Germans deal with the Nazi legacy?
A: There was a Berlin politician who referred to me as "the Jew Barenboim," then claimed he meant it as a compliment. There is this kind of thing—it's not anti-Semitism in the usual or known way, but rather a lack of understanding. But I think it must be impossible to really come to terms with the fact that part of the history of your country, a country of such culture, was a period of such darkness as the Germans experienced with the Nazis. I don't think they have completely worked it out and, frankly, I don't think it can be completely worked out.
Q: Was there much pressure on you as a musical prodigy?
A: I had the great luck to have very intelligent parents who did not exploit me as a child. I went to school like everybody else. I had friends my own age. And I did all the silly things that one does and one should do.