Simon Behrman

Wagner: ring of change

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The musical dramas of Richard Wagner, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year, are among the most popular works of classical music today. They are regularly staged at all the major opera houses, and tickets sell out fast.

Yet he remains a deeply problematic artist. For a great many people he and his music have become indelibly associated with anti-Semitism and Nazism. His works remain largely banned in Israel. Almost any documentary about Hitler and Nazi Germany will at some point mention Wagner as a cultural inspiration, and Hitler's devotion to the composer in particular.

Mahler: music from the volcano

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Today one of the most recorded and performed composers is Gustav Mahler. Born to a poor Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he died 100 years ago in imperial Vienna as one of the richest and most famous musicians in Europe. How can his music speak to us today?

During his lifetime he was mainly famous as a conductor. His style was based on the idea that the printed musical score is not a holy text to be obeyed. Instead music is a living art that changes at every performance as every concert hall, every audience, every social context is different. This understanding of how changes in social circumstances affect the listener and performer also explains the changes in the popularity of Mahler's music.

Voices from the West Bank

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Chris Jones and Michael Lavalette

There is a growing body of literature exposing the crimes of Israel and attacking the lies of Zionist historiography. This book provides a different contribution. It is almost entirely based on the testimony of ordinary Palestinians, specifically young people in their teens and early twenties. One obvious reason for this focus is demographic - 60 percent of people in the West Bank are under 20. But also young people tend to be more open and critical about established narratives and the Israeli occupation affects young people in particularly harmful ways.

Jewish History, Jewish Religion

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Israel Shahak, Pluto Press, £12.99

This book is an attack on Israel's persecution of the Palestinians. It goes further than merely criticising the more extreme aspects of Israel by locating anti-Arab racism at the heart of the Zionist project itself. In addition the writer is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who emigrated to Israel after the war. This reissue of a book originally published in 1993 comes with forewords written by no lesser anti-imperialists than Gore Vidal, Edward Said and Ilan Pappé.

The Returns of Zionism

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Gabriel Piterberg, Verso, £16.99

This is an important and truly groundbreaking book. It belongs to a line of Israeli anti/post-Zionist scholarship that has emerged over the past 20 years. The Returns of Zionism takes a fresh look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and goes much further in destroying the romantic myths of Zionism. The book is also framed around the fact that Zionist texts systematically exclude the indigenous people of Palestine.

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy: John Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt

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The core of this book originated as an article for the London Review of Books in spring 2006. As a denunciation of the US government's pro-Israeli bias in foreign policy it produced a predictably vicious backlash from the Israel lobby itself which this book seeks to expose.

The first chapter is by far the best in detailing the full extent of US economic, diplomatic and military aid to Israel. New information is given about the way even what are supposed to be loans end up as aid. Though of course the US government's uncompromising support for Israel is hardly news.

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

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Mahler: Symphony No 5

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela has burst onto the classical music scene over the last couple of years. Formed in 1975 it struggled for most of its existence until the rise of Hugo Chavez's government and the popular movements. It now has permanent public funding which has allowed it to grow and travel the world with its performances.

Made up of young people from the barrios, who are given instruments and tuition for free, it has been credited with giving hundreds of thousands of poor kids a chance to escape poverty, drugs and crime.

The Sound of a Soviet Tragedy

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Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich was born 100 years ago. Simon Behrman looks at the music of an artist whose life was intertwined with the fate of the 1917 revolution.

The failure of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to live up to the hope it promised was the greatest tragedy of the last century. Its effects were felt not just in the politics and subsequent history of the 20th century but also in the art and culture that surrounded it. Dimitri Shostakovich occupied a central position in these events, and more than any other composer his music explores the hopes and tragedy of this period of history.

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