A very unusual musical event happened this week when the Israel Chamber Orchestra performed Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll at the annual Bayreuth Festival, which is a celebration of Wagner’s music. Why was this unusual? It was unusual because Wagner’s music has always been unofficially banned in Israel. Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, and Adolf Hitler was one of his biggest fans. Wagner’s music was played at Nazi death camps, making it “the soundtrack to the Holocaust,” as observed in this story on NPR. No matter what an objective observer might think, to the people of Israel, the horrific context in which this music was played and the attitudes of the composer outweigh any aesthetic value.
Of course, this same ban of Wagner’s music has not extended beyond the borders of Israel – his music is performed all over the world by respected orchestras. In other parts of the world, the aesthetic value of Wagner’s music trumps the distasteful aspects of his life and his music’s place on the world stage in Nazi Germany. In recent years, some have suggested that performances of Wagner’s music in Israel or by Israelis can contribute to healing from the wounds still felt by Holocaust survivors and their families. The performance by the Israeli Chamber Orchestra at Bayreuth was that kind of symbolic event that brought an extra layer of meaning to the performance of such well-known music. Perhaps the performance was therapeutic for some, but who makes the decisions on behalf of a nation or a culture group?
I don’t have the answers to this question, but how to handle cultural sensitivities has definitely been on my mind lately. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on whether to use the song “Dixie” in music therapy, and the general consensus reached by readers of this blog and my music therapy friends on Twitter was that “Dixie” was a song generally to be avoided, unless called for by a particular therapeutic situation. In the public sphere, vocal performances of “Dixie” are increasingly rare, and they’re controversial when they happen. Some argue that “Dixie” is just a delightful piece of Americana, though, especially once any demeaning lyrics are taken out. Does the aesthetic value of this song outweigh its distastefulness for some communities? Or are there enough examples of delightful Americana other than “Dixie” to share in a public place?
Of course, in music therapy, we are typically playing music for small numbers of people in a private setting, not playing to a performance hall open to the public. In deciding whether to use music that is controversial on a cultural level, individual and group preferences and needs must be considered alongside cultural expectations.
Certainly, Wagner’s music must be handled with extreme care among our Jewish clients, particularly those who are Holocaust survivors. One music therapist* told the story of the song “Ride of the Valkyries” being played in a music therapy session with older adults, following the request of a client. Another woman in the group began screaming, then refused to speak for two days. Later, the music therapist learned that this client was a survivor of the Holocaust. Clearly, this is an instance when that particular piece of music had an effect that was harmful for a particular client.
With other clients, Wagner’s music presents no obvious problems. Many people like Wagner’s music, and some of his music is very well-known. I’ve used “Ride of the Valkyries” in sessions myself, as an example of familiar classical music or as a support for expressive movement to music. Most of my clients are probably more familiar with the connection of Wagner’s music to Bugs Bunny than to the Holocaust. Does the offensiveness of a particular set of music for one group of people make it off-limits to the rest of the world?
I wish I could now offer a list of five tips for how to decide whether music is culturally-sensitive and how to use it, but I think that would minimize the importance of truly weighing the various aspects of this ethical issue. Should we music therapists be aware of all music that might be offensive to a cultural group? Is that even possible? What can we do to ensure that we don’t cause harm to our clients?
*Froman, R. J. (2009). Music therapy practice with Jewish people in the United States of America. Music Therapy Perspectives, 27, 33-41.