Published May 11, 2009
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.
So Wagner elevates his heroes and heroines still higher than his noble artistic predecessors did, to the plane of the superhuman. Lohengrin in the 1850 opera of that name is an ideal knight who appears from nowhere in a boat pulled by a swan to save a damsel in distress, and his chivalric prowess proves to be the work of the Holy Grail’s sacred magic–music of what Thomas Mann called a silver-blue hue evokes shining manly virtue and fateful love.
In Tristan und Isolde (1865) the nonpareil knight and the Irish princess drink a love potion that launches them into transports exceeding by far not only the hottest operatic passions of other composers but, indeed, the known bounds of human longing. Death alone can rightfully consummate such desire, and Isolde’s climactic Liebestod, as she joins her slain lover in night’s kingdom, is music of incomparable, harrowing rapture.
In the Ring (1869-1876), Siegfried, the human grandson of the supreme god Wotan, literally does not know what fear is, slays the dragon Fafner guarding the hoard of gold that represents the moral tribulation of gods and men and dwarfish Nibelungs, wins the love of Wotan’s disowned daughter Brünnhilde by plunging through the wall of magic fire with which her father surrounded her, and is murdered by a treacherous spear thrust in the back, earning a funeral march as majestic in its keening as that in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
The eponymous hero of Parsifal (1882), “a pure fool, knowing through compassion,” resists the seduction of the immemorial temptress Kundry, who has woefully roamed the earth in various incarnations since mocking Christ on the via dolorosa, and foils the evil wizardry of Klingsor, a renegade knight of the Grail, catching in mid-air the spear that Klingsor hurls at him and that had once pierced Christ’s side, and making the sign of the cross with it. Parsifal’s rule revives the moribund Order of the Grail, and the opera–which Wagner declared was not an opera at all but a “stage-consecrating festival play”–ends with the elevation of the Grail, the chalice that was used at the Last Supper and into which Christ’s blood flowed when He was on the cross, to music that answers the human cry for the numinous with a heart-wringing imperious warmth.
That so illustrious an artist as Wagner should be a moral imbecile is not a unique turn of events, but it is a profoundly disheartening one. Wagner was a very public Jew-hater, and his anti-Semitism was so intense and pervasive that it appears to have leached into his best operas. His most defensive defenders squirm every which way to deny it, but it is pretty well undeniable that villains such as Kundry, Alberich, and Mime in the Ring, and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, are Jewish caricatures.
The origins of Wagner’s hatred bubble in the usual darkness. Poverty early in his career did not prevent him from indulging expensive tastes, and the need to borrow money led him to “Jewis
h scum” when “our people” failed to extend him credit. His resentment of the moneylenders and pawnbrokers was outdone, however, by his hatred for Giacomo Meyerbeer, the titanically successful operatic composer whom he imitated in the 1847 Rienzi, whose support he importuned and received, and whom he repudiated in a letter to Robert Schumann as “a source whose very smell I find repulsive.”
In his 1850 pamphlet Jewishness in Music, written to settle Meyerbeer’s hash, Wagner derided the “gurgle, yodel, and cackle” of Hebrew sacred song, compared the effect of “Judaic works of music” to that of a Goethe poem rendered in Yiddish, and adjudged Jewish attempts to make art as issuing in “coldness and indifference, even to the point of triviality and absurdity.” His own success did not mellow him; the swamp fever only got worse with age. The so-called “regeneration” essays he wrote late in life, Carr declares,
railed against Jewish influence in the press, scorned state moves to bring about full Jewish emancipation, and even called Jews “the plastic demon of the decline of mankind.” It is hard to be sure just what he meant by “plastic demon,” but it sounds pretty dreadful and that, no doubt, was the main thing.
In private he was even more malignant: His wife Cosima (1837-1930) records in her notorious diary that, in 1881 at a performance of Lessing’s rather preachy play advocating tolerance toward the Jews, Nathan the Wise, Wagner said jocularly that such a performance would be just the occasion to round the Jews up and burn them all.
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! Germanbeer!”
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 w
as 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.