War and the agony of the artist; or, Furtwangler plays Beethoven’s 9th three times

January 27, 2009

Because I have a new Furtwangler gravatar, and because we’ve been surrounded by the echoes of a war these past weeks, I’ve had occasion, over the past few days (not that I needed an excuse), to listen to three of Furtwangler’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, given in 1937, 1942 and 1951.    These were in London, Berlin and Bayreuth respectively before, during and after World War II.  I was interested to see if I could gauge what he thought of the war that was coming, the war he was part of, and the war he remembered.  I think I got something out of the experience which I’d like to share.

But first, some words about  Wilhelm Furtwangler, the greatest of all conductors in the age of recorded music.  For Furtwangler, the romantic repertoire of symphonies, concertos, songs and operas was like the flow of a great, unending river.  Under Furtwangler’s baton, you are carried on its breast, in calm and flood, for an hour or so, until the work comes to an end.  Then you are released from it, and it sets you down, but the river flows on, in time and space and memory, until the next of his performances you are privileged to be part of.  Once you have heard Furtwangler conduct Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner or Wagner, it is almost impossible to listen to anyone else conduct their works.

So conscious was Furtwangler of his responsibility, and the power he wielded in calling up the passions and poetries of composers long dead, that his hand often trembled before the first downbeat of the baton.  A famous story is told of a leader of first violins who looked up to see the conductor tormented by hesitation at the start of a performance, and called out encouragingly, “Coraggio, Maestro!”

For Furtwangler, any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was a religious ritual.  He gave the symphony only on special occasions.  The work is, of course, most famous for its chorale, the fourth movement which sets Schiller’s Ode to Joy to music of extraordinary power and force.   Furtwangler saw the great finale as the culmination of all that went before it, the dread, the storms of violence, the tearing grief, the hope, the longing, expressed in Schiller’s words: “Alle Menschen werden Bruder, Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt!”

But Furtwangler knew better than any before or since that in Beethoven’s setting of the Ode the joyful processional and the auto-da-fe go ever together.  Human nature walks as readily to an execution as to a wedding, and the grim beat of war compels no less than the gentle words of peace.  Each elegant polka masks the Dance of Death. The pipe-and-drum march of the Chorale leads as surely to the death chambers as to the canivale.  That is why Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (although perhaps not Schiller’s) is also an Ode to Despair.

All this Furtwangler understood with a perfection never equalled.  And because of that, the three statements he left us with these performances of the Ninth might cause us to reflect on how a great artist and a man of good conscience and decent instincts responded through the fragile medium of music to the reality of a war which, with all its ineluctable brutality and inexorable cruelty, tore his treasured dreams to pieces – and those of the German people, who never wanted the war that Hitler forced them into.

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While we wait….

January 25, 2009

…. myself not least, for normal service to be resumed, can I introduce visitors to one of the the finest offerings of the folk music revival of the 1960’s – Crazy Man Michael, by Fairport Convention?


It was only a ‘unilateral’ truce anyway

January 18, 2009

For Hamas, it’s business as normal:

Rocket fire continues despite ceasefire: Palestinian gunmen fired six rockets into Israel on Sunday morning. One of the rockets hit the Sderot area, another rocket hit a henhouse in a kibbutz and a third one landed near another kibbutz.

The three other rockets also landed in open areas. There were no reports of injuries.


Truce in Gaza

January 18, 2009

Israel has announced a unilateral 10-day truce in the war against Hamas.  It will come into affect in one hour – at 1100 hours AEDT.  IDF troops will remain in Gaza and will retaliate if fired upon, or if further rockets are fired to southern Israel.  Hamas has said it will not agree to any truce while Israeli troops remain in Gaza.


Israel, Palestine and Gaza: Part IV

January 16, 2009

All the usual caveats apply, needless to say.  Comments are welcome, if non-abusive.

IV The global coalition against Israel

The current war in Gaza has witnessed a huge surge in anti-Israeli sentiment world wide. Animus toward Israel has been steadily growing for many years, and even prior to the launch of Operation ‘Cast Lead’ had achieved a level of cultural embedment that in many respects is both baffling and disconcerting. It has been particularly alarming to see how, over the past few years, the decades-long aversion to anti-Semitism has broken down over much of the western world, and classic Jew-hatred has unmistakeably re-surfaced as part of the anti-Israel discourse.

I say baffling and disconcerting because, on any objective measure, Israel hardly rates at all on the index of pure evil. During the period that Israel has been in existence, the world has witnessed nations conducting themselves in ways that completely eclipse the worst that can be said of Israel: the Soviet Union, the PRC and Cambodia, to name three.

In today’s world, atrocities by the governments of Burma, Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, the Congo, North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Syria should totally overshadow the crimes alleged against Israel. Some of these the world has largely ignored; some it has deplored – often quite gently. But none of them have attracted the avalanche of fury that has been directed, with steadily increasing intensity, against the lonely Jewish state lodged precariously on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

Some context

Israel has done much that can be disagreed with or even vehemently opposed. Its carrying of the war against PLO terrorists to the streets of Europe was probably unwise, and it made bad mistakes, such as when its intelligence services executed the wrong man in Oslo in 1973 (they mis-identified a Moroccan waiter as Ali Hassan Sulameh, mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre).

Targeted assassinations are a repugnant instrument for a democracy to employ even against its deadliest enemies, although I can see the rationale and – almost – the need. The establishment of settlements in territories occupied as a result of war was wrong – at least morally, although many sympathisers argue that it was not technically illegal. But Israel has demonstrated that it is prepared to regard the settlements as negotiable: those in the Sinai and Gaza have been dismantled and the territories returned to Egyptian and Palestinian sovereignty. Recently Prime Minister Olmert urged the West Bank settlers to psychologically prepare themselves for the day they must return to Israel proper.

Israel has fought many wars, all of which – perhaps with the exception of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon – were forced upon it by its enemies. Three times Israel has fought off and defeated the combined armies of the neighbouring Arab states, whose war purpose was to annihilate Israel and kill or expel its citizens. No war can be conducted without major mistakes or blemishes, but Israel has committed remarkably few.

Its greatest was the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in December 1982. Although the Phalangist militia were responsible for the atrocities, the IDF commanders should have recognised the potential for such actions and guarded against them – as Israel acknowledged, through the findings of the Kahan commission. Ariel Sharon was found to bear personal responsibility and was forced to resign as Defence Minister. The number of victims at Sabra and Shatila is uncertain, but the best estimates appear to be around 500.

World public opinion has never forgiven Israel for Sabra and Shatila, but it has completely forgotten, if it ever really knew, that President al-Assad of Syria, in February that same year, massacred between 20,000 and 40,000 of his own citizens in the city of Hama in reprisal for an attempted coup. Similarly, at around the same time, the number of political prisoners estimated to have been executed by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran ran into tens of thousands. The world paid no mind. I recall Israeli diplomats bitterly remarking, even then, on the double standards that applied to Israel.

The most common charge against Israel is that it is an occupying power, which it has been since 1967 when it captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. It appears little known that Israel offered the territories back in exchange for peace almost before the echoes of gunfire had faded. The Arab answer, delivered at the Arab League’s September 1967 summit in Khartoum, was: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.

Many anti-Israel bloggers and commentators commonly assert that these territories are Palestinian by right or by nature, and that in occupying them Israel is somehow preventing the state of Palestine from constituting itself. Yet during the period that Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip (1948-1967) there was never any question that a state of Palestine should be created there. Both territories were used as platforms to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, both by fedayeen supplied, armed and trained by Jordan and Egypt, and by military units of both nations. Dozens of attacks were launched in the four months prior to the June 1967 war alone. Given that, and in light of the ‘three noes’ of Khartoum, Israel could hardly be expected to return to the status quo ante.

Serious talk of a ‘two state solution’ only emerged after Israel defeated yet another annihilating invasion by Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1973, and it became clear that the Arab states could not destroy Israel by military force, which they had been determined to do since 1948.

It is a historical fact beyond any serious dispute that the Arabs could have created a state of Palestine in 1937, when the Peel Royal Commission recommended it; in 1947, when the UN voted for it; at any time between 1948 and 1967, when the Arabs occupied Gaza and the West Bank; at any time, provided that the terms did not pose an existential threat to Israel, between 1967 and 1977, when the Likud won its first electoral victory, and Israeli irredentism got the upper hand; and in 2000, when Barak offered it.

Each time, the Arabs refused.

The other major charge against Israel is that it is responsible for the current plight of the Palestinians who fled (most) or were expelled (a comparative few) from what became Israel in 1948, who along with their descendants are still maintained in refugee camps as persons of no nationality. Very few people are aware that Israel offered to take back 100,000 refugees after the War of Independence, and that the Arab states refused to allow them to do so. They would only return, the Arabs said, in the wake of victorious Arab armies.

Meanwhile, the Arab states did not allow the Palestinians to settle or gain citizenship within their borders. Instead, the UN’s Work and Relief Agency was set up to fund and run the camps, making the Palestinians refugees in perpetuity. In post-WWII world that witnessed the transfer, often forced, of millions of people – Hindus to India, Muslims to Pakistan, ethnic Germans from a re-constituted Poland, Jews from Arab lands to Israel – only the Palestinians were never permitted to settle and establish themselves in lands of refuge. The Arab states and the UN were determined that the Palestinians should remain unsettled, often in squalid conditions, as a constant weapon and reproach against Israel.

Against that backdrop, it is difficult to understand why international support for Israel (other than in the US) seems to have collapsed so comprehensively. The settlements apart, the most that can be said against Israel, it seems to me, is that it has acted on occasion with unnecessary brutality in executing reprisal raids for terrorist incursions or rocket barrages, and that its religious extremists are a pretty bad lot who hold disproportionate power in the Knesset, thanks to Israel’s foundational mistake in opting for proportional representation as its electoral system.

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What it was is like living in Sderot

January 15, 2009

Listen to Dana.

Thanks to imshin at Not a Fish.


I’m surprisingly impressed with Joe the Plumber…

January 14, 2009

… and his reporting from southern Israel. I have to say I thought this was rather a tasteless gimmick by Pajamas TV, but the guy clearly has a head on his shoulders, and he does pretty well jousting with journalists who obviously know a lot less than he does.

See here (free registration required).