Last week, in an opinion article for The Student Life (TSL)—the student-government funded newspaper of the Claremont Colleges—a Pomona College student called for the removal of German composer Richard Wagner’s frieze from Pomona’s Bridges Auditorium, explicitly echoing recent calls to tear down Confederate statues.
“In spite of renewed determination to combat anti-Semitism from members of both major political parties and organizations across the spectrum, the spotlight has yet to expose a principle anti-Semite memorialized on our very own campus: Richard Wagner, one of five composers whose name and likeness is etched onto Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium,” the article states.
The article argues that “he [Wagner] diffused his prejudice not only through his inclusion of anti-Semitic tropes and characters in his operas, but also through articles such as ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’ or ‘Jewishness in Music.’”
Questioning the decision of putting Wagner’s frieze up in the first place, the article asserts that “it [Wagner’s frieze] is a relic of the era in which the building was constructed: a time when there were quotas on Jewish enrollment in higher education, or when Jews were barred from attending universities altogether.”
“Higher education’s past injustices toward Jews makes it all the more crucial that we clearly acknowledge that Richard Wagner is the Robert E. Lee of our campus,” asserts the student.
Tying the fate of the frieze to the recent movement to tear down Confederate statues across the country, the article states that “[t]he glorification of Lee and Wagner is unacceptable and their hateful ideologies deserve to be expunged from existence. As Robert E. Lee must be torn down from his podium in Charlottesville, so too must Wagner be removed from his lofty perch on Pomona’s most prized structure…”
While the article’s author does admit Wagner’s musical brilliance, he believes that brilliance does not grant Wagner “unadulterated” commemoration:
“[Wagner] was, unquestionably, a very gifted composer….marveling at Wagner’s musical talent does not forgive his vile attitude toward Jews. Nor does it grant him the right to unadulterated celebration, either in concert or as ornamentation.”
For further insight into this matter, the Independent contacted Professor Eric Lindholm, conductor of the Pomona College Orchestra and professor of music, for comment on the controversy surrounding Wagner and musicians’—including the Pomona College Orchestra’s—stances on performing Wagner.
According to Professor Lindholm, “[t]he decision of whether to perform Wagner is a tricky one. It is not just that he was virulently anti-Semitic, but that so much of his entire artistic philosophy was based on an intense German nationalism that included anti-Semitism as a key ingredient.”
“It is not possible to separate Wagner’s music from his broader cultural views. Some musicians refuse to perform Wagner, but we also have someone like James Levine, who is Jewish and one of the greatest Wagner conductors of all time. Each artist needs to come to terms on their own with how they handle Wagner.”
“In the classroom, Wagner cannot be ignored. Most scholars would agree that he and Beethoven are the two most important composers of the nineteenth century,” adding that “[Wagner’s] influences…are seen in the work of countless other artists. But studying Wagner does not mean endorsing his views, any more than studying racism or sexism as cultural phenomena means endorsing those perspectives.”
As for the Pomona College Orchestra’s performances of Wagner, Professor Lindholm stated that “[the orchestra] performed Wagner on only two programs during my 22-plus years here. Both times, I alerted the members of the orchestra to the problems with Wagner and invited them to opt out if they would find the experience too objectionable, but no one has.” The Pomona College Orchestra has not played a piece by Wagner since the 2013-2014 academic year.
On the frieze itself, Lindholm noted that “it could stand to be updated. The five composers featured were all dead before the College was even founded. Given the range of performances that take place in Big Bridges, not to mention elsewhere on campus, there is no reason to present it as being primarily for Western art music.”
The opinion article concludes by advising the country to be “vigilant” of anti-semitism across the world.
“It is now, in a time of increased anti-Semitic incidents, not just in the United States, but also worldwide, particularly on college campuses, that we must remain vigilant of everyday occurrences of prevailing anti-Semitism. Although students on campus may not be aware of the painful history Wagner evokes, I shudder to perform in Bridges Auditorium…”
In a statement to the Independent, a Pomona College spokesperson said the college is “not aware of any previous requests” to tear down Wagner’s frieze and that they “do not have an estimate” of how much removing the frieze might cost.
Bridges Auditorium was designed by architect William Templeton Johnson and built in 1931. The architect drew inspiration for the auditorium from “Northern Italian Renaissance architecture.” It is considered to be one of the finest halls as well as one of the most photographed buildings in all of Southern California.
Pomona College is an elite liberal arts school in Southern California and founding member of the Claremont Consortium, which includes five undergraduate colleges and two graduate institutions.