Larry David is caught whistling Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” outside an L.A. movie theater in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when he is interrupted by another Jewish man on the street.
“I want to know what a Jew is whistling Wagner for when he was one of the great anti-Semites of the world! … That’s Hitler’s favorite composer,” the man yells at David, a co-creator of Seinfeld.
To many in the Jewish community, almost 133 years after the composer’s death, Wagner is still taboo.
However, as history marches on and Jewish youth become more disconnected from the virulent anti-Semitism previous generations faced, engaged couples may find themselves contemplating the use of one of Wagner’s most popular works at their wedding.
Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” — popularly known as “Here Comes the Bride” from his 1850 opera Lohengrin — is, by many, considered a masterpiece and is widely heard as brides walk down the aisle at weddings throughout western society. For years, however, Jewish brides have customarily refused to play this song at their weddings.
“There is no question that rabbis should not recommend this composer and if possible avoid the ‘Bridal March’ for a wedding,” said Rabbi Arnold Saltzman, who, in addition to leading three Maryland congregations, has composed operas and symphonies. “However, brides for many years had it in their mind that perhaps due to movies and television that this was ‘the’ bridal song.”
Born in 1813 to an ethnic German family, Wagner composed more than 100 works throughout his life. He is considered to have revolutionized opera.
While his operas remain extremely popular, Wagner is also widely known for writing hundreds of pages of anti-Semitic essays, and as one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite composers.
“In his own time, very few people heard the music because there were very few recordings, no radio or TV, but his essays were greatly read and so he had a terrible influence on mid-19th century Europe,” said Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of the Commentary magazine.
Despite the musical value of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus,” many argue the anti-Semitism inherent in the work’s historical context disqualify it from being played at a Jewish wedding.
Rabbi Mark Novak, leader of the Mark Novak Band, said throughout his 25 years performing at
Jewish weddings he has never received a request to play the “Bridal Chorus.” He said if ever asked to play it, he said that he would refuse, citing not only Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but the wealth of alternative processional options.
“Why introduce a song like that that is used primarily at non-Jewish weddings when there are so many beautiful traditional Jewish love songs to play as part of a processional,” Novak said. “It would be a dubious choice at best, considering the context of how and when it was written, and who listened to it and admired it. … I would find it personally repugnant.”
Novak added, “I think anyone who would ask for it is asking out of ignorance and not knowing the history of the composure.”
Aside from Wagner’s anti-Semitism, his music is also tainted by its adoration by Hitler and the Nazi Party, which embraced the composer as a German leader and proud representation of the Germanic race. The Nazi Party featured Wagner’s music prominently at its events and utilized Wagner’s annual Bayreuth Festival, which he began to showcase his operas, as a platform for Nazi propaganda.
Today, Wagner’s music is rarely played in Israel. An Israeli symphony orchestra sparked controversy in 2012 when it became the first orchestra to play Wagner’s music in Israel since the country was founded.
Though Wagner’s anti-Semitism is very clear in his essays, his operas instead embrace themes of love and joy. His music and operas are still performed and celebrated more than a century after they were written.
“There’s a much stronger argument to be made that art has to be judged on its own merit, and I think art survives on its own merit,” Tobin said. “While Wagner’s ideas have long been discredited, most people will hear his music and have no idea about the stuff that he wrote.”
Yet, the anti-Semitic affiliations bring an overarching shadow of historical pain to a Jewish wedding, an event that should be joyous and celebratory.
Though Saltzman said he would argue that Wagner is not the most appropriate composer to play at a Jewish wedding, if a bride insists on playing the “Bridal Chorus” he said he would not make an issue of it.
“Marriage is about more than a song.”