Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Was Mozart a racist or Bach an antisemite?

I remember many years ago watching the Bergman film of "Magic Flute". There is a scene in the Mozart opera where there is a Turkish dance. Turks and Turkey were very much in vogue in the 18th century. A friend I watched it with muttered "racist" at this scene. I winced with annoyance. This incident came back to me when I read a facebook entry describing Henry VIII and Cromwell as " fascists". How wise is it inscribe figures like Mozart, Cromwell or Shakespeare with modern day ideologies such as fascism? Not very in my opinion. In the case of Cromwell I realise that during the Second World War there was an attempt to label him a proto-fascist but from my reading of the man I doubt it. I appreciate that people will point to the Irish campaign and the massacres at Wexford and Drogheda. I have always thought that the killings at both these places are an aspect of a long bloody civil war rather than a 20th century example of ethnic cleansing. I imagine the Cromwellian soldiers were probably also driven by the reports of atrocities carried out in the 1641 rebellion against Protestant settlers in Ulster. And the character of Cromwell has to be fixed in the religious nature of the times. Cromwell as a devout Protestant wanted to bring the Rule of the Saints. His willingness to see the readmission of the Jews to Britain in 1656 also has to be seen in this light. It is less an example religious toleration and more religious necessity as the conversion of the Jews was a natural stage to the rule of the saints. As I said on Face book Cromwell was no liberal but neither was he a fascist.

What about other great figures of the past? Bach has been accused as an anti Semitic because of disparaging references to the Jews in his music especially in the St John Passion.. Bach has come down to us as a good man and fabulous organist and composer who struggled to make a living for his 20 children - a number of whom became composers in their own right - by playing in churches and writing music for sacred services and the occasional noble patron.

It has been pointed out that far from being an innocent who knew only music, Bach was a learned man who had a vast library of theological works and was a devout follower of Lutheranism. And let us not forget that Luther also penned anti-Jewish rants that would resonate centuries later with both Wagner and Hitler. There is no way of knowing whether or not Bach was an anti-Semite, but he was still a product of his time, his country and his church.

Finally it occurs to me by judging the figures of the past we lay ourselves open to similar charges of humbug from the people of the future. What will they make of our war mongering or consumerism with the tremendous waste of finite resources.