Appreciating Wagner the musician in spite of Wagner the man
MY LIFE WITH WAGNER FAIRIES: RINGS, AND REDEMPTION: EXPLORING OPERA’S MOST ENIGMATIC COMPOSER By Christian Thielemann Pegasus, $27.95, 267 pages
More than 40 years ago I spent a week that seemed like a lifetime in Bayreuth, the pretty little German provincial town that once served as capital for the Margraves of Ansbach-Bayreuth, minor Franconian princelings who rented a few regiments of troops to King George III for service against George Washington. Karl Alexander, the last Margrave, sold his postage stamp domain to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1791 and spent his remaining years as a wandering precursor of today’s Eurotrash.
But Bayreuth hadn’t seen its last local princeling yet. Governed by the Prussian Hohenzollerns and then the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, it emerged from provincial obscurity in the latter half of the 19th century when “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, long besotted by the music of Richard Wagner, decided to install the maestro at Bayreuth. Millions spent on a new, state-of-the-art opera house (the Festspielhaus where the Bayreuth Festival is still staged each summer), Wahnfried, a princely villa for the maestro, and a salary and expense account that even a modern rock star would envy all contributed to the financial woes that led to Ludwig’s overthrow in 1886 and his suicide a few days later. While the Wittelsbach dynasty continued to reign in Bavaria until the demise of the German Empire at the end of World War I, the hereditary Wagnerian mini-kingdom would survive in Bayreuth into the 21st century.
The musically brilliant — but also vulgar, gluttonous, adulterous, ungrateful, and monumentally megalomaniacal — Richard Wagner would be succeeded as uncrowned king of Bayreuth by his son, Siegfried and then by his two grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang. In between Siegfried and his sons, there was even a Queen Regent — or Dowager Empress — in the form of Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s formidable Englishborn widow. Winifred ruled the roost and ran the Bayreuth Festival before and during the Third Reich. An unabashed Nazi sympathizer, Winifred feted Adolf Hitler and his entourage at their height, blissfully unaware that while the fuhrer officially embraced Wagner’s music because of its Germanic chauvinism — and the composer’s rampant anti-Semitism — he actually preferred the lowbrow melodies of Viennese operetta masters like Franz Lehar. After the war, Wieland and Wolfgang shunted their politically incorrect mother aside and, beginning in 1951, presided over a resurrected, politically sanitized Bayreuth Festival that survives to this day.
By the time I arrived in Bayreuth to do a feature on the festival in anticipation of its upcoming centennial, Wieland Wagner was dead, Winifred Wagner was a bitter bystander with a dwindling, die-hard following of her own, and her surviving son, Wolfgang, was firmly in control of the festival. Until his older brother’s death, Wolfgang had been responsible for the business side of operations, although occasionally directing individual opera productions. It showed. After a lengthy interview with him at the Festspeilhaus I came away with the impression of a man who had inherited a family business empire, the business of which happened to be opera.
In “My Life with Wagner” renowned Berlin conductor Christian Thielemann, the veteran of many a Bayreuth production, professes an artistic admiration for Wolfgang Wagner that some may find a trifle overblown. Wolfgang understood his grandfather’s operas the way Henry Ford II understood cars: not because he had created them or developed the assembly line, but because from his earliest years he had been immersed in the family business. Both men played their respective roles well, but few would attribute creative genius to either of them.
In this brief but discursive book, Mr. Thielemann is at his best when he sets aside history, politics, contemporary gossip and high theory and speaks to us as a seasoned professional musician and an inspired artisan: “I think all who listen to [Richard Wagner’s operas] ... have a justified, indeed necessary interest in learning what happens in the Wagnerian workshop: the composer’s workshop and the workshop of his interpreter. Not all that goes on there is a miracle or a unique event; there are plenty of things that we can know, understand and explain.”
Spoken like a true craftsman. The twisted personal motivations, weird symbolism and pseudo-mythical Germanic plots and lyrics Richard Wagner brought to his work range in quality and character from genuinely inspired to hopelessly silly. In many ways, the Ring Cycle is musical science fiction in reverse: we enter into a murky alternative world of the past rather than the future, a blurry, irrational place redeemed only by the inspiration of a master musician whose chords pierce through the onstage smoke and mirrors and enter into our hearts.