The Magazine

Ring's Inner Circle

Refurbishing the house that Richard Wagner built.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The Wagner Clan

The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family

by Jonathan Carr

Atlantic Monthly, 400 pp., $27.50

Richard Wagner (1813-83)
remains, and likely will
long remain, one of the three greatest operatic composers who have ever lived, and he enjoys a particular following among intellectuals of the highest brow, who have been known to condescend to his only real rivals, Mozart and Verdi, the former as an elegant confectioner oblivious to the call of modernity, the latter as an inspired organ-grinder cranking out agreeable tunes to accompany the consumption of huge vats of pasta.

That Wagner declared himself "the most German of Germans," that he regularly cleared his throat for a juicy anti-Semitic spit, that many of those musically reverent highest brows have been capped by spiked helmets real or imaginary, and that Hitler adulated Wagner as no other leading political man has ever adulated another artist--such considerations have complicated or qualified the admiration for his operas, or turned it to flaming hatred. The public performance of Wagner's works was unofficially but strictly prohibited in Israel until 1995, and elsewhere Wagnerism has been assailed as an affront to liberal democratic decency.

Jonathan Carr, an accomplished British journalist and biographer of Gustav Mahler and Helmut Schmidt, has joined his musical and political interests in The Wagner Clan, an excellent family biography that honors the artistic genius and reviles the political venom of Richard Wagner's legacy. An ironclad family rule enjoined that the Master's descendants had to be faithful disciples if they were not to be deemed apostates, and living up to one's heritage was as much an ordeal for some as living it down was to others.

To be a Wagner was (and perhaps still is) to belong by birth to the highest reaches of the artistic aristocracy, preserving and transmitting the founder's renown down the generations, through the institution of the Bayreuth Festival, administered by the family and dedicated to his finest works. It was a proud fate and also a sad one, for one could never hope to be more than an epigone, in the service and in the shadow of the patriarch. Indeed, even to speak of the Wagner family as a heritable artistic nobility is a misnomer, because the true nobility belongs to the singular creator alone, and certainly ought not extend to the mere curators or interpreters of his masterpieces, even if they happen to be connected by blood and adept at their subordinate roles.

One cannot justly write of Richard Wagner's art without mentioning nobility, though that is what Carr does; for however repugnant his stated opinions and personal behavior often were--the index of Carr's book points the reader to Wagner's coarseness, ill-temper, lying, pettiness, philandering, ruthless egocentricity, self-hatred, spitefulness, sycophancy, thanklessness, and vindictiveness--his operas have to do with the noblest men and women undergoing the hardest trials of body and spirit.

There is a magnificent strain in the art of democratic times, redefining nobility for an age that has done away with the conventional nobility of birth. Mozart's Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro overcoming his lust and boredom and recovering his exalted love for his wife; Beethoven's Leonore in Fidelio
saving her husband from a tyrant's dungeon; Goethe's Wilhelm Meister being guided by a secret brotherhood of the wise and virtuous toward happiness in love and work; Schiller's (and Verdi's) Marquis de Posa in Don Carlos giving his life for the cause of freedom and inspiring his friend the Spanish prince to similar daring--these superb men and women embody this newfound nobility and the hope that moral grandeur like theirs will flourish under the egalitarian dispensation.

Where Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller were writing in the exhilarating days of democracy's youth, Wagner is at work in the less appealing prime of democratic laissez-faire capitalism. George Bernard Shaw wrote in The Perfect Wagnerite (1898), still one of the best readings of the monumental tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, that Wagner's "picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic [sic] is a poetic version of unregulated industrial capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century by Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844."

For the sometime socialist revolutionary Wagner, who numbered the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin among his firebrand comrades during the insurrection in Dresden in 1848, and who was compelled to go into exile for 11 years afterward, dire capitalist darkness required, by way of heroic contrast, love and courage resplendent as a thousand suns.