Monday, March 22, 2010

In one of those landmark events that mark a real ending of an era, Wolfgang Wagner, younger grandson of the composer, has died at age 90.

In the wake of World War II in a Germany most of whose major theaters and opera houses had suffered damage or total destruction, the Festival opera theater that Richard Wagner had designed and built specifically to present his own works in the little town of Bayreuth stood undamaged.

There was no logic to this -- the town's railroad station and switching yard had been taken out by Allied bombs, and the composer's house had sustained a direct hit, being about half destroyed. The Festspielhaus stood alone and exposed on top of a hill just outside of town from the train station and was unmistakable from the air. The appropriation of Wagner's ideas and works by the Nazi's was both complete and well-known worldwide. The theater should have been a priority target. When the war ended, the American occupation command was left with the thorny problem of just what to do with one of Germany's foremost cultural icons.

The question of Richard Wagner's "complicity" in Nazi policy and the Final Solution is something of a red herring in that he died in 1883, five years before Adolph Hitler was born. His Nationalism was typical of many Europeans who grew up in the shadow of the great upheavals of the 19th century as the old monarchies were breaking down, and indepenent kingdoms, scattered principalities, duchies and occupied territories struggled to find a common identity with those others who shared a common language or ethnic origin. Italy's great composer Giuseppe Verdi was no less an Italian Nationalist than Wagner was a German one, but there was one extra component to Wagner's story.

Wagner was outspokenly antisemitic -- in company with half or more of his countrymen -- but less so than than many others. The problems came after his death with the managing of his legacy by two English ex-patriots.
The first, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, married one of the composer's daughters. An avowed Aryan supremacist, he became a Nazi Party hero as the movement's chief living philosopher, on whose death in 1927 the Party staged as close as possible to a State Funeral with full honors as they could manage without yet being in power.

More significantly, a young English girl named Winifred Williams lost both parents at age two and was passed around among relatives for the next four years. At age six, she was sent to live with German relatives, a staunchly Nationalistic older couple who were deeply involved with music, friends of the late Richard Wagner, and wholly involved in the Wagner mystique. If Dr. Frankenstein had been commissioned to construct a bride specifically for the composer's son and heir Sigfried Wagner, he couldn't possibly have produced anyone better suited than Winifred became under Karl and Henrietta Klindworth's loving care.

She was 17 and he 45 when
Siegfried and Winifred were brought together at the 1914 Festival. A year later they were married and between 1917 and 1920 she bore him four children. When he died in 1930, their two sons weren't within two decades of being able to inherit management of the Festival. Winifred elbowed her sisters-in-law out of the way and took command herself. She became an early supporter of Hitler (sending him food packages and, reputedly, the paper on which he was to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf while he was imprisoned) and a relatively early member of the Nazi Party. When Hitler came to power she sent congratulations and invited him to Bayreuth and to Wagner's house, which became a favorite retreat for him.

Hitler even proposed marriage, which was diplomatically refused because she was otherwise involved -- Winifred was not one to let the grass grow under her feet. However the Nazi government maintained close ties to Bayreuth by purchasing huge blocks of tickets to the Festival's summer season of performances to give to members of the armed forces for R&R. Winifred's older son Wieland was personally exempted from military service, as the heir to the Festival, by "Uncle Wolf", the family's nickname for Hitler. Younger son Wolfgang was conscripted, however, and experienced both action and wounds in the army. By this time, the family and the Festival (which were inextricably intertwined) were fully identified as well with the Third Reich and Nazi policy.

Relatively early in the war, as the boxcars began to roll to extermination camps, Winifred began receiving increasingly desperate letters from Jews, some musicians and others patrons of the Festival, and from friends and agents of Jews begging her to use her influence to obtain protection from the Final Solution. It is beyond question that she used this influence frequently, mostly by calling Joseph Goebbels personally to plead for special consideration based on whatever reason could be concocted that would gain an exemption. In fact, she called so often that Goebbels, in extreme annoyance, finally ordered that no further calls from Frau Wagner be patched through to him, and ordered an aide to deal with her in future.

When it was all over, the American forces ran a de-Nazification investigation on her which they found extremely frustrating. On the one hand, many Jews and their families testified to the kindness and daring of her interventions. There were also documents in her own hand to prove that as the war went on, she found what was happening to Europe's Jews to be unacceptable. But her personal loyalty to Hitler never wavered, to the point that she claimed he could not have ordered the Holocaust because he was such a gentle, cultured person. She acknowledged the horror stories people were telling her but repeated constantly that the monster of the atrocities wasn't the Adolph Hitler she knew personally.

The Americans finally threw their hands up in the air and said simply that she could never have anything to do with the Festival ever again. Her two sons were named to clean things up politically and to reopen it without any Nazi associations, which they did in 1951. Many claim that such a house cleaning never really happened and that many questionable connections remained.

Wieland and Wolfgang ran the festival together, apparently with much friction, from 1951 through Wieland's death in 1966 at age 49. During that time they directed every production themselves, revolutionizing the opera world's ideas of operatic scenery, costume and lighting by distancing the works from all previous pictorial styles and going deeply into abstraction and psychologically-driven acting. Wolfgang was the less visionary of the two but whatever their personal rivalries, they presented a united front to the world.

After Wieland died, Wolfgang kept on directing but opened the Festival up to avant-garde directors of all kinds, many from the Eastern Zone of Germany, who brought the latest, ultra-political and often Marxist-influenced ideas to bear on Wagner's operas. One was reminded that Wagner himself consorted with Marxist revolutionaries in Germany in the 1840s and was exiled for a while after the 1849 revolution for his association with them.

In his later years, Wolfgang became very difficult. He had long ago thrown his own son out of Bayreuth and "exiled" him and various nieces from the Festival grounds. His brother's daughter Nike Wagner commented memorably that growing up a Wagner was like being raised in the German branch of the House of Atreus. He named his second wife as heir to the Festival, but she died young and the mantle was designated to fall on his daughter by her, the controversial and cutting edge stage director Katherina Wagner.

Various town and government officials got into the act when family members mounted challenges, the accepted solution being that
Katherina and her 30-year older half-sister Eva would run the Festival jointly.

Wolfgang retired officially in 2008. His death paves the way for Katherina and Eva's promised and much anticipated opening of the family's private archives to scholarly scrutiny for the very first time in order to answer all questions, particularly those centering on the Bayreuth/Hitler association. There is suspicion that Wieland and Wolfgang destroyed a great deal of incriminating material, but if the Wagner women do follow through by making the family's history as transparent as possible, they will pave the way for a truly new New Bayreuth.

Gosh, you've done a grand job on this one, Will. Personal feelings? That I was lucky to miss his staggeringly dull production of Parsifal by one night the one year I went to Bayreuth, but that I was very lucky to see the Kupfer Ring - we have him to thank for that and the revolutionary Chereau production, so there's something to give thanks for.
Thanks for the notes on Bayreuth. I had not heard about Wolfgang's death. Cosima's diaries were published some years ago but I seem to remember even here some materials were withheld from publication. Hopefully the archives will reveal even more...
you should submit this ... its fabulously written.
When an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it with me. what I want to know in the archives is - is there really a ring of power there?
That is some terrific Teutonic Tid-bits!
Very interesting article - thank you!
What a fine prof you must have been to Have

Tim in the Loire
Thanks for just about the best comments I have seen about Wolfgang's death. It certainly outpaces the NYTimes error laden and snippy screed. I was fortunate to be a member of the Bayreuth Masterclass as a nascent designer for two years in the 1960s and was able to see both brothers at work. Clearly the genius, Wieland relied on his brother's talents in many ways, especially in Wolfgang's always cutting-edge knowledge of new lighting techniques. Astrid Varnay gives Wolfgand due credit in her book. Also, I don't think that anyone has bested Wolfgang on his finale of the Ring in 1960. So simple, elegant, and in total unity with Wagner. Keep up the good work: I alway look forward to your blog.
Amazing entry! I've noticed a lot of German literature along the lines of Winifred's story: one character is German and hates Jews (or at least loves the Nazis) but gets involved (sometimes romantically/sexually) with a Jewish character. I think the dichotomy is telling of what is still very much alive in Germany.
Will, you have truly outdone yourself on this one. I'm amazed (and much more informed on the subject than I was before reading this).
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