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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Cosima, Wagner's longtime mistress and second wife, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the alluringly literary French Countess d'Agoult, was even more toxic than her husband, as her diaries and letters prove in abundance. As Carr writes:

When there was anything to deplore, from supplies of rotten food for the army to a badly tuned instrument, as like as not Cosima found "Israel" or "Jewish revenge" behind it. She loathed Jewish faces and Jewish beards of which, to her particular irritation, she saw many among the public at performances of Wagner's works.

From 1876, though only intermittently at first, the cynosure of Wagnerian performance was the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which Wagner had built specifically to stage his own operas, and where to this day only his own operas are staged. The premiere of the Ring in its entirety took place before an audience that included Bruckner, Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky. The philosophical nobility, for its part, was represented by Nietzsche, who had been Wagner's friend and devotee but who divined a sinister nationalism to the festival that was a fatal insult to his cosmopolitan sympathies: "What had happened? Wagner had been translated into German! The Wagnerian had become master of Wagner!--German art! The German Master! German beer!"

Wagner had, of course, made himself the German Master, but the way the Wagnerians, prominently including members of the clan, mastered even him is one of Carr's rich themes. The foreigners who married into the family were bent on yielding to no one in their fealty to Wagner--and indeed, on proving themselves more German than the Germans. Cosima, who outlived her husband by almost 50 years, directed the festival with a domineering punctilio, seeing to it that music and staging adhered to Wagner's own specifications, and that as few Jews as possible worked in the sanctum. She protected Wagner's hallowed reputation from any efforts to stain its purity, discrediting biographers who told of his sexual prowling and general unsavoriness.

Her principal ally in the propagation of holy writ was Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), an English polymath who married the Wagners' daughter Eva. Chamberlain wrote a hagiography of Wagner in 1895, but his 1,100-page best-selling masterwork was The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), which divides humanity into splendid Aryans and pernicious Semites, and argues that since Christ was the essence of goodness, and Jews are the nadir of vileness, He could only have been an Aryan Himself. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who knew choice passages by heart, wrote Chamberlain a gushing fan letter and initiated a correspondence spanning two decades.

In 1923 Chamberlain wrote a fan letter of his own to a political newcomer: "You are not at all as you have been described to me, a fanatic. The fanatic inflames the mind, you warm the heart. .  .  . You have immense achievements ahead of you, but for all your strength of will I do not regard you as a violent man." The recipient, Adolf Hitler, exulted at this benediction from an intellectual hero and precursor. (Some weeks later he proved Chamberlain wrong on the essentials with his failed beer hall putsch in Munich, which landed him in prison.)

The Wagners' son Siegfried (1869-1930) and his English-born wife
Winifred (1897-1980) happened to be in Munich at the time--Siegfried was conducting one of his own compositions--and witnessed the firefight, in which a dozen Nazis died. In the aftermath Winifred, who had met Hitler not long before, spoke to the now-outlawed Nazi party in Bayreuth, composed an open letter on behalf of all the Wagners in Hitler's defense, raised money for the families of Nazi jailbirds, got up a local petition with 10,000 signatures demanding Hitler's freedom, and sent reams of paper to Hitler in prison, where he would write Mein Kampf.

Winifred conceived a passion for Hitler and his ways that lasted all her very long life; some suspected romance between them, though she denied ever having slept with him. Uncle Wolf, as the family called him, was a frequent caller at the Wagner homestead, Wahnfried. Hitler, who in his youth had first imagined his leading Germany to world mastery upon seeing Rienzi, was the most ardent enthusiast Wagner ever had. Most of the Wagners reciprocated the enthusiasm: Siegfried and Winifred's eldest son, Wieland (1917-1966), remarked as a boy that he wished Hitler were his father and Siegfried merely his uncle. Even the snappish family dog took an instant shine to Uncle Wolf.

Siegfried, however, emphatically did not cotton to Hitler or to Nazism. Demonstrating an un-Wagnerian cosmopolitan embrace, he replied in 1921 to a newspaper editor who insisted that Jews be barred from the festival:

If the Jews are willing to help us that is doubly meritorious, because my father in his writings attacked and offended them. .  .  . On our Bayreuth hill we want to do positive work, not negative. Whether a man is a Chinese, a Negro, an American, an Indian, or a Jew, that is a matter of complete indifference to us.

While Hitler and the demented nationalists of the Richard Wagner associations fulminated at the "racial desecration" of a Jew like Friedrich Schorr singing Wotan, Siegfried placed artistic values first, and Schorr is now widely considered the greatest Wotan ever. The gentle, bisexual Siegfried, who wrote 14 operas that have sunk without a trace and conducted 62 performances at Bayreuth, had a remarkable career by any standard but that of genius. He died of a heart attack suffered during a tempestuous Bayreuth rehearsal in 1930. He was one of the best of the Wagners.

Siegfried's daughter Friedelind (1918-1991) shared his decency, and possessed besides the fearlessness of her father's heroic namesake. For her courage she was regularly trashed in family circles and beyond as a bad seed. Although as a teenager she partook of the general admiration for Hitler, when war broke out she bolted in disgust for Switzerland, and withstood appalling verbal shelling from her mother, who was incensed that her defiant daughter should be used for Allied propaganda. Friedelind would move on to
England, where she was imprisoned for nine months as an enemy alien, then to Argentina, and finally to the United States, where she worked as a waitress, dishwasher, and secretary, and eventually became an American citizen. She did not return to Bayreuth until 1953, hoping to take over management of the festival.

However, her brothers Wieland and Wolfgang (born in 1919) had been running the festival since its revival in 1951, and they shouldered their sister out of the action. Wolfgang had been wounded in Poland in 1939 and invalided out of the fighting while Wieland had enjoyed the Führer's special exemption from combat as a person indispensable to the Reich. After the war Wieland flummoxed Winifred with his ingratitude to Uncle Wolf by declaring that he should have joined Friedelind in exile, but he certainly proved indispensable to Bayreuth: From "a notable dabbler," Carr writes, Wieland turned into "one of the finest producers [stage directors, in American parlance] in the history of theatre." His characteristic style of stark abstraction tended to ignore his grandfather's explicit instructions, but made the dramas seem deeper than ever before.

Decades later many of the scenes he conceived were still the standard against which newer efforts tended to be measured and found wanting; the menacing outline of the wizard Klingsor in Parsifal, spotlighted in space like a white spider in a gigantic web; the phallic monolith towering above the doomed lovers in Tristan; the passionate "outsider" Tannhäuser, dwarfed by the intimidating décor in the hall of Castle Wartburg and looking as vulnerable on the chequered floor as a lonely pawn on a chessboard.

When Wieland died at the age of 49, Wolfgang could not hope to match his bold and lustrous ingenuity. Wolfgang's own ideas tended to fizzle, and as he contracted work out to other directors, many of them fashionable nincompoops, Bayreuth began to languish artistically. Financially, too, there were insuperable difficulties, and in 1973 the family ceded its empire, for 12.5 million Deutsche marks, to the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth. But Wolfgang continues to head the operation, and apparently intends to hand control over to his 30-year-old daughter Katharina. Last year--too late for mention in Carr's book--with her direction of Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth, just the sixth production she had ever directed of anything, Katharina joined the ranks of the fashionable nincompoops with a version that was, by all reasonable accounts, an incoherent fiasco.

Bayreuth remains the hottest ticket there is--would-be patrons wait 10 years for admission--but the light of Richard Wagner's genius is threatening to go out in the theater he built. The excellence of his art is the only part of his legacy worth preserving, and now his descendants are ruining that, too.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.