When I next saw Levit, in early December, his mood had changed. He was in Hamburg, at the outset of a brief tour with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, playing Brahms’s two piano concertos on separate nights. His manner was uncharacteristically furtive. “Things are strange,” he told me, backstage at the Elbphilharmonie, where the concert was taking place. “These last couple of weeks, they have been very strange.” I waited expectantly. “Very, very strange. We will discuss later.”
Levit went into his dressing room to take a phone call while the orchestra gathered onstage to rehearse. Paavo Järvi, the Kammerphilharmonie’s longtime music director, stepped to the podium and looked around. “Where is Igor?” he asked. He shrugged, smiled, and gave the downbeat for the grandly ominous orchestral introduction of Brahms’s Concerto in D Minor: a fortissimo D in the horns, double-basses, violas, and timpani. I sent a text to Levit: “Your concerto is starting.” After a minute or two, he appeared through the side door and bounded toward the piano, waving his arms in a birdlike motion, as if riding the waves of the music. He arrived on the bench twenty or so seconds before the piano’s stealthy, pensive entrance. The orchestra, apparently accustomed to such behavior, took no notice.
After the rehearsal, in Levit’s dressing room, he told me what had been going on. A few weeks earlier, he had appeared on a political talk show hosted by the German journalist Maybrit Illner, and participated in a discussion of hate speech. The panel also included Ralf Schuler, an editor from the right-wing tabloid Bild. Schuler, attempting to show that hate could inflame the left as well as the right, brought up a tweet that the pianist had posted in 2015, at the time of the refugee crisis in Germany. Levit had written that members of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland Party, who had waged hate campaigns against the refugees, had “forfeited their humanity”—their Menschsein. Wasn’t the tweet itself dehumanizing? Levit responded by saying that he had been brought up to understand the word Mensch in its Yiddish sense: “A Mensch is a person of honor.” On that basis, he remained secure in his belief that the extremists lacked humanity, and he took nothing back.
Schuler’s remarks brought Levit to the attention of people on the far right, who began attacking him publicly and privately. He was called Judensau, a Jewish pig, and within a couple of weeks he had received three death threats—two on e-mail, one on Instagram. The messages, which Levit shared with the police, mentioned two forthcoming events on his schedule: a concert in early December and one in January. The first of these dates was in Wiesbaden—the night after the concert I was about to see at the Elbphilharmonie. But some ambiguous wording in the threat made it seem possible that tonight could be the target.
Levit paced his dressing room and made himself an espresso. “To hell with these people,” he said. “It doesn’t produce fear, it produces a certain kind of anger, like, a real anger. And it produces a very energizing feeling of ‘O.K., you try me, you will get more.’ I don’t want to overprize myself: other people, especially women, receive this kind of thing on a daily basis. But it does make me very intensely consider who I want to be—what kind of, let’s say, citoyen I want to be. I am a musician, but I am who I am. I think about becoming not only louder but deepening my actions. I don’t know yet what that would be. It’s a very interesting time.” Levit told me that he has no interest in entering politics, although it is obvious that the field fascinates him.
I went to my seat in the hall while Levit put on his concert dress. Thirty minutes later, he was launching into the Brahms. I felt an unease I had never experienced before in a concert hall. Looking around, I wondered whether an attack was actually possible, and whether Levit’s performance had acquired some extra edge of anger and defiance. It was difficult to say, since the first movement of the D-Minor Concerto is angry and defiant from the start. In the second movement, though, dire thoughts receded. The piano part of the Adagio begins with a passage marked “molto dolce espressivo,” or “very sweet and expressive.” It is music of almost vertiginous loveliness and loneliness—a lullaby remembered in grief. Levit is never more impressive than when he loses himself in such lyric idylls.
Afterward, I asked Levit what he had felt onstage. He said, “Honestly? Once the music started, I did not think about it. For me, the stage becomes the one place of freedom, absolute freedom. Nobody is bothering me, there are no phone calls, no interruptions. The worst thing that can happen, the worst thing possible, is a wrong note. Also, to hell with those people.”
The police had asked Levit to avoid talking about the threats until after the Hamburg and Wiesbaden concerts. In late December, he published an essay on the subject, which appeared in the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “Was I afraid?” he wrote. “Yes, but not for myself.” He linked his experiences to more serious instances of physical and verbal violence in Germany: a 2017 knife attack on Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena; the 2019 assassination of the Hessian politician Walter Lübcke, who supported Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees; the 2019 resignation of Martina Angermann, the mayor of Arnsdorf, in the wake of incessant online harassment. This trend of violence could be connected to the spread of hate speech online: “First the speech, then the deed.”
Levit defended his stance as an engaged musician—his refusal to “shut up and play.” Music has astonishing powers of communication, he wrote, but it cannot name things: “To be free requires employing your own senses. To hear, to see, to feel, to smell. Music allows us to feel this kind of freedom. But music is not a substitute, it cannot be a substitute. Not for truth, not for politics, not for human understanding and sympathy. It cannot be a substitute for calling racism racism. It cannot be a substitute for calling misogyny misogyny. It can never be a substitute for being a wakeful, critical, loving, living, and active citizen.”