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Columbia Spectator Staff

Friends of mine who go to other colleges sometimes ask me, "Don't you hate it there? It must be so hard." They are, of course, referring to the infamous legacy of left-wing radicalism at Columbia that is so antithetical to my own political views. break Many outsiders only associate Columbia with incidents like the Minutemen protest, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit, or the ban on ROTC. I didn't exactly do a lot of research into where I wanted to go to college when I was a senior in high school. I had a good feeling in my gut when I walked onto Barnard's campus for a tour my senior year, and based my decision mostly off of that feeling. Often in my life, I find myself drawn to creations of those whose political ideologies I vehemently oppose. On the first day of conducting class this semester, the maestro read out loud the most beautifully written passage by a nineteenth century composer about the role of a conductor. "Do you know who wrote that?" my conductor asked. "Brahms?" I hoped. "It was Wagner," my conductor said. Wagner? Oh no. How could I possibly ever like something he wrote? Richard Wagner was one of the most notable composers of the nineteenth century. Born in Leipzig, Germany in 1813, Wagner had a strong influence on the art of opera with works such as Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Although the average person in our time might not recognize his name, he or she would most likely recognize the proud trumpet theme from Walkürenritt (Ride of the Valkyries). But Wagner considered himself a philosopher first and a composer second. Considering that he was a well-known anti-Semite, I was uncomfortable that I was so moved by his words. In "Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik," Wagner wrote of the "harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation." In his essay "Judaism in Music," he criticized music written by Jewish composers like Mendelssohn as trivial and passionless. Jews were a "swarming colony of worms in the dead body of art." He added, "Only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus — going under!" But even if his writings exhibited strong anti-Semitic sentiments, his music must be free from such tendencies, right? Listening to my favorite Wagner overture, from Die Meistersinger, I'm unable to hear any anti-Semitic undertones. All I can hear are the deep dramatic chords and a beautiful thickness of sound. Some quick research disputed my original instinct. While not overtly anti-Semitic, some of his operas are intensely nationalistic and perhaps foreshadowing of a dark future to come. Written by Wagner himself in Die Meistersinger are the lines: "I beg of you: honor your German masters, thus you will ban disasters!" Wagner died in 1883, years before the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Socialism, but his influence is widely noted in establishing extreme German nationalism. Hitler famously said, "whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner." In Mein Kampf, Hitler called Wagner one of "the great warriors in this world who, though not understood by the present, are nevertheless prepared to carry the fight for their ideas and ideals to their end." Wagner coined the terms "Jewish problem" and "final solution." Hitler even dedicated a memorial to his favorite composer. Recently, I began studying a flute transcription of Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto in D minor. After hearing a recording of this work almost ten years ago, I always aspired to play it myself. Last week, I wanted to find out more about the origin of the flute transcription and did a quick Google search. To my surprise, I found out that Khachaturian was a proud member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I went back and listened to his concerto. Could there be a hidden communist agenda in the energetic melody I knew so well? Evil collectivism trying to influence my selfish capitalist mindset? A secret musical code paying tribute to Joseph Stalin? I listened again and found no signs of such ideas. I still loved the third movement as much as I did before discovering he was a Communist. Similarly, I was not aware of the long history of left wing radicalism at Columbia until I arrived on campus as a first-year. I had never heard of the 1968 occupation of Low or of the still-present ban on ROTC until a month into classes, when I had already met some of my best friends and favorite professors. Had my gut feeling betrayed me? It's impossible for me to undo my original feelings for Wagner, Khachaturian, or Columbia—nor would I want to. I fell in love with the music of Wagner and Khachaturian as soon as I heard a few measures of their work, before I knew their political ideologies, just like I fell in love with this school the moment I walked onto its campus. Political sentiments don't change my love for our school any more than the anti-Semitism of Wagner's writings or Khachaturian's membership in the Communist Party change my long-standing admiration of their musical works. It's possible to love someone's creation while loathing his or her ideology, and it's equally possible to disapprove of parts of Columbia and its history while still loving the institution as a whole. Lauren Salz is a Barnard College sophomore. She is the executive director of the College Republicans and the Communications Coordinator of the Columbia Political Union. Check Your Premises runs alternate Wednesdays.

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