This is going to be a sensitive one. Fair warning.
Summertime. We’re nearly there, though friends of mine in the eastern US have been sweating their asses off for some time now. Despite torrential downpours and some extreme flooding throughout Germany there have been a few gorgeous, sun-filled half-days sprinkled in for good measure. One of which was a week or so ago when I went to my first open-air gig (aside from a festival) in a very long time. It was in the center of the small town of Dachau, only about 20 minutes by SBahn from Munich: Grizzly Bear and an unremarkable opener I don’t care enough about to look up. Grizzly Bear was good. That’s all I have to say about them.
Now. I’ve spent the better part of 3 years living in western Europe and I am well aware of (and was prior to my move) the unbelievably ugly history a certain small group of folks from the place I now call my home have branded on the entire world, not to mention their relationship with my homeland as far as WWII is concerned. It must be said that the beauty of this country, of Bavaria, the people here, the art, the multicultural neighborhoods, the food, the architecture..everything… far outweigh the aforementioned historical stain. I have to admit I really didn’t pay the history that much attention aside from learning about it in school, realizing its horrors, lamenting on them and then going to math class. Right or wrong that’s the truth. Two summers ago I had the opportunity to visit Normandy, Omaha Beach specifically. The overwhelming sense of loss and sadness I felt while visiting there coupled with the complex emotions my better half, a German, was having were practically unbearable, but necessary. Then I came home and la la la life went on.
I love music. Not all of it. That’s a shite statement given by people who could give a fuck about music at all. “What bands and music do you listen to?” “Oh, you know…everything. The radio…” GAH. Anyhow, while I have definite favorites, my eardrums can bend toward specific and completely different genres depending upon my mood. “Even classical music, Abby? Operas?” Why yes, even classical music. Specifically Richard Wagner. I can almost feel the mood lowering.
Yes, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. You know him from such hits as “Flight of the Valkyries”. And the fact that he is one of the, if not the most controversial composer in history. I think the first time I heard Tristan und Isolde years ago I was enraptured. Hooked. It is just so. painfully. beautiful. You can read all you want about his life, his works, his successful attempt to bind theatre and stage and orchestration and opera and visual art into one glorious, spine-tingling bundle. His attempt to escape creditors, his affairs and his exile to Switzerland is gloriously gossipy. What always seems to stand out however, as it should, are his anti-Semitic political writings and, posthumously, the fancy a certain German political leader of the 1920s-40s took to his music. So. Quite the conundrum, right? Is it wrong, for obvious reasons, to listen?
I allowed myself some time prior to the Grizzly Bear gig to board a bus and visit the Dachau KZCamp for the first time. The clouds were low in the sky and it was cold and rainy. Fitting, as somehow a bright sunny day and the warmth of sun on my face would seem insulting and disrespectful to the many whose lives were taken so tragically. One should feel uncomfortable there, in every way possible, I think. What else can I say? The experience was dark and didn’t feel real. I mean it was real, of course. To see the earth and dwellings that supported so much sadness and hate and death. You can understand my thought process and the heaviness of heart I had only if you had visited the same place on the same day at the same time. You can, however, try to imagine it.
About a year ago I had the opportunity to see British (and Jewish) actor Stephen Fry’s Wagner & Me wherein he travels and unearths the multitude of controversial facets of the composer he has loved (like is responsible for his journey to becoming an artist kind of love) since he was a small boy. Faced with the same questions as I but on a grander scale, he manages with charm, wit and a lot of heart to thoughtfully research and explore Wagner’s influences on politics, music, literature and the arts in general. If your interest is somehow piqued enough to watch it yourself I won’t reveal his conclusion. What I will say is the mere fact the film was made and Wagner exulted on the big screen to begin with is telling.
I left the Camp and went to the show. That was that. I had a temporary diversion of thought: dinner and a gig. And, even now, I really don’t have an answer as to whether it is wrong to enjoy the music of a man whose narrow views completely clash with mine; a man whose music was lauded by one of the most inhuman and hateful beings in history. I do enjoy Wagner’s music terribly though. And if it – the music – makes me jubilant and happy, albeit emotionally drained at times, and therefore a happier and kinder person in the long run, is that troubling? Wrong? Again, I don’t know. I do know that later that same evening the weather cleared and the crisp air danced across our faces, as we all, despite race, religion or mother tongue, enjoyed the universal beauty of music under this Dachau sky…
…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
[Abby's Road is a Knox Road feature published every other Friday.]