Books Magazine

Reading List: The Wagner Clan

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
Jonathan Carr's The Wagner Clan is a readable page-turner exploring the extravagant, sometimes unsavory, always larger-than-life history of the descendants of that extravagant, sometimes unsavory, larger-than-life individual, Richard Wagner. It is also a history of their involvement in political and cultural affairs, from the revolutionary ferment of the mid-nineteenth century almost to the present. The family's upheavals and contretemps are often affected by German political history, but they are hardly a mirror of it, as Carr claims more than once; assertions that Bayreuth is (even imagined as) a/the center of German culture seem similarly tenuous. That said, these general assertions do not noticeably affect the substance of the book. Carr, experienced as a journalist, has a gift for the pithy phrase and juicy anecdote. In The Wagner Clan, he works with published and unpublished material to craft a lucid and scrupulously nuanced narrative. On music there is comparatively little, although for a non-specialist like myself, there are interesting observations on performance history, trends in staging, primarily at Bayreuth, and some information about conductors and singers. Mostly this is provided in the context of politics and interpersonal relations rather than musical interpretation. Indeed, this bolsters a significant part of Carr's argument: that no qualities inherent in Wagner's music dramas made Bayreuth and Wahnfried's involvement with the Third Reich a matter of logic or fate.
To me, a habitual reader of academic writing, Carr's notes seem sparse (and having a history, even a 'popular history,' without a hefty bibliography at the back seems almost unnatural!) Carr does have a brief note on his chief sources and recommended translations, however, and embedded in the endnotes are helpful mini-annotations on many of the cited works. If this seems to you to herald dryness, Gentle Readers, take heart: this chronological history is so crowded with colorful detail that it sometimes seems to be woven almost entirely of anecdotes. We see Wagner offering to push Cosima in a wheelbarrow; the grandly-named grandchildren running riot in the grounds of Wahnfried; Nazi officials falling asleep during a Tristan performance; a young Gottfried Wagner exploring the forbidden fastness of the Festspielhaus. Fascinating too are the asides on the careers of the Wagners who made their lives far away from the Green Hill, as artists, scholars, diplomats.
Roughly the first third of the book is devoted to Wagner's own career, and the fate of the festival in the years after his death. This includes fifty pages--heavy going--dissecting the antisemitic beliefs of Wagner himself, and those (far more consistent, virulent, and dangerous) of his son-in-law Houston Chamberlain. The next third of the book lingers, unsparingly, on the fate of the festival, the family, and of Wagner's music during the period of Hitler's ascendancy. While all were favored by the dictator, Wagner's music remained firmly (indeed, increasingly) out of vogue. Despite this, Bayreuth itself stood in need of rehabilitation after the war. As the last third of the book makes clear, the postwar plea of "Hier gilt's der Kunst!" proved entirely inadequate. But it is also the last third of the book that is most concerned with art, exploring the policies and personnel of the festival. It came as a shock to learn how recently sold-out houses and formidable waiting lists became the norm. Extravagant actions from extraordinary personalities, of course, have a much longer history in the Wagner family. Carr leaves the narrative in the early years of the new millennium, and many of his questions and critiques regarding the festival remain relevant. They are also bold: Carr names as desiderata both a more coherent artistic vision for the future and a more open approach to the past.
Here Frida Leider, whose friendship is described as a decisive influence on Friedelind Wagner's wartime emigration, sings the finale of Götterdämmerung:

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