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The Boston Phoenix Tortured Legacy

A descendant of Richard Wagner struggles publicly to overcome the demons of his past.

By Adam Kirsch

JUNE 7, 1999: 

TWILIGHT OF THE WAGNERS: THE UNVEILING OF A FAMILY'S LEGACY, by Gottfried Wagner. Picador, 310 pages, $25.

"The Jew is repulsive... To become men in common with us is, for the Jews, primarily the same thing as to cease to be Jews... [Jews], bear your share undauntedly in this work of redemption, gaining new birth by self-immolation... But remember that there can only be one release from the curse which rests upon you... destruction."

These words, which would not be out of place in a speech by Hitler, were in fact written by one of the greatest artists in European history. Richard Wagner was not explicitly calling for the murder of the Jews when he wrote his essay "The Jews in Music" in 1850; by "immolation" and "destruction" he was referring to the Jews' voluntary conversion, their self-annihilation as a people. But the vocabulary and tone are close enough to Hitlerism that Hitler himself claimed Wagner as a spiritual ancestor; and Wagner's descendants, even today the custodians of the composer's legacy, were happy to reciprocate. When Hitler was in prison in the early 1920s for fomenting a rebellion, he asked Winifred Wagner, Richard's daughter-in-law, to send him writing paper; on it he wrote Mein Kampf. In the 1930s, after he had taken power, the family built a special room for him at Villa Wahnfried, the composer's estate. There is a chilling picture -- reproduced on the cover of Gottfried Wagner's book -- of the Führer arm in arm with Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandchildren; he promised them joint control over all the theaters of Europe after the "Final Victory."

What would it be like to be born a Wagner -- great-grandson of Richard, grandson of Winifred, son of Wolfgang -- in 1947, two years after Auschwitz? The answer, as given by Gottfried Wagner in this peculiar memoir, is: even worse than you think. Indeed, as this book unwittingly shows, Gottfried has never overcome the Wagner legacy. His whole life has been an attempt to rebel, to be the anti-Wagnerian Wagner; but by becoming the antithesis to his family's thesis, he remains trapped within their terms, unable to proceed to a truly independent synthesis. And it is the very totality of his imprisonment that makes his book so strangely compelling.

Twilight of the Wagners is peculiar, above all, because of its naive confusion of personal and philosophical grievances. On the one hand, Gottfried's life work is noble: in his lectures and writings and opera stagings, he tries to deflate the Wagner myth and reveal the truth about the Wagners' anti-Semitic past. On the other, that work is hopelessly bound up with the resentments that he harbors from his childhood, so that his attack on Wagnerism can seem at times like the world's most grandiose Oedipus complex.

Granted, Gottfried's childhood was enough to warp almost anyone. When he was a child, the annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth was just starting up again, after a six-year hiatus at the end of the war. His father, Wolfgang, was distinctly overshadowed by his older brother Wieland, leading to a virtual civil war between their two families; Gottfried was forbidden to play with his cousins or see his uncle. When the festival season came, he was packed off to boarding school. His father was obsessed with his work, unfeeling, tyrannical, a cruel husband. Gottfried's dog died when the author was 12; at 52, he writes bitterly that "my father had no sympathy for my tears."

These are the ordinary wrongs that, in most families, fuel years of clandestine emotional warfare. Gottfried, however, is able to bring his war into the open, because his family's misdeeds were not just private. Many children feel that a mean relative is some sort of witch or demon; not many can find, as Gottfried did, a film reel of their grandmother and uncle strolling happily with Adolf Hitler. And so Gottfried was condemned to an intricate, endless, and very public rebellion. To attract his father's attention, he lectures him publicly on Bayreuth's sins and cover-ups; his father responds by barring him from Bayreuth and refusing to speak to him. He travels the world attacking Wagner, yet people listen to him only because his last name is Wagner. And his personal life is no less affected. His family is famously German; he marries an Italian woman and lives in Italy. His father displayed no love for his biological son; Gottfried showers love on his adopted Romanian son. The book is littered with accounts of friendships and professional opportunities turned into feuds and lawsuits by the author's combative self-righteousness. (In this, Twilight of the Wagners curiously echoes Richard Wagner's autobiography, My Life -- yet another irony.)

Gottfried Wagner's book is not a good book -- it is confused, carelessly written, and poorly translated. Yet this seems only appropriate, a Gogolian touch: he is a man in the grips of a terrible obsession, and the raggedness of his writing confirms his distraction. What makes the book touching, and valuable beyond its historical contribution to the Wagner problem, is that Gottfried wants desperately to be a good man, a good German, and a good Wagner. Despite all the obstacles, he is succeeding.

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