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The Wagner Clan by Jonathan Carr

The Wagner Clan (2007)

by Jonathan Carr

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Jonathan Carr

The Wagner Clan

Faber and Faber, Paperback, n.d.

8vo. xiv+411 pp. Preface by the author [xi-xiv]. Updated with a new postscript [353]. Notes [355-73]. Index [377-411]. Illustrated with 31 black-and-white photos between pp. 126-7 and 270-1.

First published, 2007.


List of Plates
Family Tree

1. A Sublime but Glaucous Sea
2. Revolutions and Reverse
3. Ugly Duckling and Swan King
4. The Fortress on the Hill
5. The Plastic Demon
6. The Spin Doctor
7. Odd Man Out
8. Wolf at the Door
9. Three Funerals and a New Broom
10. All the Reich’s a Stage
11. Dissonant Quartet
12. Mausi at Bay
13. War – At Home and Abroad
14. New Bayreuth?
15. The Road Not Taken
16. Sins of the Fathers
17. End of Empire?
18. Time Present and Time Past
19. Time Future?



This is a creepy edition of a creepy book. The new postscript advertised on the very front cover, though not on the title page, refers to events as late as September 2008, some three months after the author's death. Who wrote this mysterious postscript? Mr Carr's wife? Mr Carr's ghost? Wagner's ghost? Somebody from the Wagner clan? We are not told.

However that may be, this is a decently researched, deliciously witty, marvellously readable and not a little insightful study of one neglected subject. Books about Richard Wagner are legion, the quantity being rather inversely proportional to the quality. But books about the Wagner family? That is another matter. Mr Carr's study is the most recent member of a very small company.

The Wagner Clan – one is tempted to say The Wagner Dynasty, as Mr Carr does only half-jokingly – is rather crowded. As you can see from the indispensable family tree in the beginning, the ghost of Richard Wagner can boast, as of 2008, 3 children, 5 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and 9 great-great-grandchildren. All these people are not only direct descendants of Richard Wagner, but, one generation further back, of Franz Liszt as well. Cosima, the only one of his three children whom Liszt didn’t outlive, was Wagner’s second wife. She became one after three illegitimate children, emulating her father’s example up to a point, at least the first of which was right under the nose of Hans von Bülow, a great pianist and conductor who had the misfortune to be Cosima’s first husband and devoted to Wagner’s music all his life. What followed in the next almost 150 years was an epic tale of family intrigue that often amounted to succession wars conducted from Wahnfried, “the ill-named mausoleum-like”[1] house planned and built by “the Master” in Bayreuth. The aim was to secure control over the local Wagner Festival, a familial property which has progressed from a shaky start in 1876 to the lucrative and ludicrously snobbish industry of today.

Mr Carr writes with breezy eloquence and deft sense of humour. He is lively and amusing, yet often incisive and insightful. Who, if they have tried Wagner’s prose writings, can help smiling when they read that “often it seems that Wagner takes up his pen not because he knows from the outset what he wants to say but because he wants to find out what he really thinks”? When in June 1848, fired with nationalistic fervour, Wagner said in a speech that the “sun of German freedom and German gentleness should alike warm and elevate” all other people from Frenchmen to Cossacks and from Chinese to Bushmen, the author observes that “with the sad benefit of hindsight, it is hard not to sneer at Wagner’s vision of Germanic global warming.” Mr Carr is especially hilarious when he describes Wagner’s fundraising attempts during his exile, presumably directed towards the staging of some massive “total work of art” in four evenings and other chimeras like that:

Zurich is traditionally a city where much money can indeed be raised (and hidden from prying eyes), but not by just anyone. And here among its solid citizens was a perfect example of the sort of person seemingly bound not to get a sou; a rather undersized (not quite five feet seven inches) Saxon musician with an oversized head, a thick accent, dreadful manners and an often venomous glare, who wrote and babbled incessantly about chimeras like Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future). His marriage was clearly shaky and he had no fixed address. Yes, he had had some success and status in Dresden and he had made something of a mark since arriving in Zurich, both as a conductor and as actor/narrator of his near-interminable Nibelung tale – recited to a dogged little throng over four nights in the luxury Hotel Baur au Lac. But surely one would sooner invest in an enterprise to make silver from moonbeams than inject cash into this Saxon windbag?

All this must not imply that Mr Carr is not serious about his subject. Now and then, his lively prose does suffer from an overdose of flippancy. But not often! Mr Carr does address all thorny issues with complete seriousness under the facetious surface. He is admirably clear-eyed and level-headed. He loves to defend spurious notions only to tell you that the whole situation is not as simple as that. It is tempting, as shown by the sad example of many Wagnerian “scholars”, to draw a straight line from Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism to the Final Solution. It is charming to speculate that Minna was a greater inspiration than Cosima. It is romantic to fantasise that Ludwig II of Bavaria (aka “the swan king” or “the mad king”, but never the “gay king” the author wonders) nearly ruined the state thanks to his infatuation with Wagner. Tempting, charming, romantic and easy, but ultimately wrong. Nor does Mr Carr have any patience with the beloved method of conspiracy theorists that the absence of evidence is evidence in itself, and not necessarily an evidence of absence at that (e.g. Wagner was so ashamed of his putative Jewish origin that he never even mentioned the subject). “With that puerile approach”, the author sneers, “you can ‘prove’ anything.”

Mr Carr’s chapter on the ever-controversial subject of Wagner’s anti-Semitism (“The Plastic Demon”) is not quite up there with the best[2], but it’s a fair and balanced assessment. Surprisingly enough, he reaches the conclusion that Wagner’s attitude, so far as can be judged by his muddled writings and private remarks, is not quite so black-and-white as generally supposed. It is much easier, of course, to make a case of Wagner as a Jew hater than to defend him as a Jew lover, but the point is that Mr Carr does neither. He conventionally traces Wagner’s attitude to his years of struggle when he was dependent on, and had to grovel to, rich and successful Jews, most notably Meyerbeer whom Wagner hated all the more because he had succumbed to his influence in Rienzi. Privately, Wagner said all Jews should be burned, but who of us would stand the test of history if our off-the-cuff remarks are preserved and examined? He is on record in his notorious pamphlet Das Judentum in der Musik (1851) suggesting total assimilation of the Jews, and though in the later edition of the same work (1869) he raised the question of their expulsion, “he hardly did so with a conviction that made the comment useful to Nazi propagandists.”

The truth is, the Wagner clan in Bayreuth became obnoxiously anti-Semitic only after the Master’s death, largely thanks to Cosima and Chamberlain. Cosima – Mistress of Bayreuth or Hohe Frau (Exalted Woman) for starry-eyed pilgrims and “Mama” for her children – was a more consistent Jew hater than Wagner ever was. And her attitude is much harder to explain with her background. As for Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of her sons-in-law, he wrote preposterous volumes on the racial supremacy of the “Aryans” (not only over the Jews) and actually “proved” that all great people in history, from Jesus Christ to the titans of the Italian Renaissance, were Aryans. Finally, there was Winifred Wagner[3], daughter-in-law of the long deceased composer, who was head over heels in love with “Uncle Wolf”, aka “the Landsberg jailbird”, “the Reich’s most desirable and least attainable bachelor” and the stage designer of “the real-life Götterdämmerung of Berlin in 1945”. This liaison, which would have ended in marriage but for Adolf’s reluctance, turned the Festival from a Wagner shrine into a Nazi one, or at least into the closest approximation of home Der Führer ever had. Ironically enough, the massive Bayreuth campaign to invent a Wagner’s life in which the Master was no callous philanderer, supreme egotist, ungrateful squanderer and political revolutionary never bothered to tone down his anti-Semitism.

“All the Reich’s a Stage” is the chapter that complements the one on Wagner’s personal opinions – and puts Mr Carr right up there with Mr Magee. Both authors adduce solid arguments that neither Wagner was especially popular through the Nazi era (in fact, the opposite is true), nor the Nazis were particularly fond of his music or ideas. Hitler was just about the only true Wagner fan among the lunatics at the top. This means Adolf knew great music when he heard it, nothing more. Mr Carr demolishes the simplistic, not to say idiotic, notion (supported by Thomas Mann, for instance) that the affinity between Wagner and Hitler stemmed from an impressive similarity of outlook. Ironically, this is one case when the absence of evidence does provide some useful hints. There is next to nothing about Wagner in Hitler’s voluminous legacy of words. The Master’s music dramas are barely mentioned in general and tremendously hackneyed terms. What’s more interesting, Hitler never did mention Wagner’s writings on racism or nationalism. Had Wagner been such a guiding light of the Nazi ideology, surely Der Führer would have talked and written of him more, would he? There is no evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose writings at all. If he had, Mr Carr suggests, he may well have found them ideologically unsatisfactory.

Though clearly amused at Wagner’s foibles, Mr Carr never downplays his genius, or indeed his positive qualities. There is very little (rightly) about Wagner’s music in this book, but one notable exception concerns Siegfried Idyll, the only one of Wagner’s non-dramatic works to enter the standard repertoire and one that “combines so many of those qualities such as charm, lightness and intimacy that the rest of Wagner’s music is widely but wrongly said to lack.” Though by no means a sufficient condition for a great biography, it is reassuring to have a biographer who knows what he’s writing about on musical matters.[4] And it’s worth remembering that whatever human qualities Wagner may have lacked, he definitely had plenty of passion, determination and, above all, charm. There is no other explanation how he managed to make and keep many friendships, not to mention extract loans and favours of epic proportions. No doubt some of those people were smitten with his music and perhaps recognised its timeless value. But this cannot be the whole explanation. Unfortunately, nothing is more impossible to describe in words than charm. Music, again, is much more precise.

But this is not a biography of Wagner; nor, despite the wealth of information, is it a history of Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. It’s the people who are in the foreground, mostly the people who came after the Master (who is prominent only in the first five chapters[5]). Mr Carr treats all of his “characters” with the same witty irreverence that a fine satirical novelist might have used. Indeed, he tells the epic, multi-generational story with a consummate skill that perhaps only a novelist could really appreciate. Somehow, miraculously, Mr Carr manages to do all this without killing his readers with huge amounts of irrelevant details or indulging at length in cheap amateur psychology. Also, he is remarkably non-judgemental, though not – thank the God of Biography – impartial.

Mr Carr’s writing on Houston Stewart Chamberlain (“The Spin Doctor”) and Winifred Wagner presents vivid portraits of people who, whatever your opinion of them, are anything but boring. Indeed, Chamberlain gives me the impression of a great man whose formidable talents were woefully misdirected. As for Winifred (“Winnie”), there is something almost heroic in her frankness, however calculating it might have been sometimes. Until the end of her life in 1980, aged 82, she remained unapologetic about her infatuation with “Wolf” and continued to correspond with her circle of USA friends, “shorthand not for the United States of America but for ‘Unser Selig Adolf’ (Our Blessed Adolf).” She certainly was a worthy successor of Cosima as “Mistress of Bayreuth”. Mr Carr is absolutely right that the lengthy 1975 documentary by Hans Jürgen Syberberg, which is really a mammoth interview with Winifred, is well worth watching (it’s complete on YT, and with English subtitles at that).

Much more ambiguous, yet brilliantly presented all the same, is the material on Wolfgang and Wieland, Winifred’s two sons who reopened the Festival in 1951. They were strikingly different personalities with strikingly different backgrounds. Wieland was moody, impractical and insecure, but he turned into a brilliant stage designer (“admittedly one capable of silliness and even perversity and not always quite as original as his greatest fans seemed to think”) who revolutionised Wagnerian staging in post-war Bayreuth. Back in the 1930s he was regarded as “the heir”, treated as a son by “Uncle Wolf” and even exempt from the front when the war came. In a complete contrast, Wolfgang was mediocre producer but shrewd businessman. Nobody ever thought of him as an heir (he was sent to the front and actually wounded), but, ironically, he became one for nearly half a century after his brother’s early death in 1966, aged only 49. Was there some tension between the brothers? You bet there was. Was Wieland tormented by his exalted place during the Nazi era? Mr Carr correctly deems this to be “unprovable”, but he seems to think it was likely. As always, his treatment is a model of dispassionate analysis.

Mr Carr does prove, however, that partiality is no hindrance to such analysis. The easygoing, witty and bisexual Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s only son (“Odd Man Out”), may be said to be the author’s favourite, but that does not preclude a candid portrait, warts and all. It is not often remembered these days that Siegfried was a fine conductor and prolific composer, overshadowed in both departments not only by his father but also by Richard II (Strauss, that is). It is still less widely known that Siegfried, had he been member of some other family, would probably have ended up as an architect in Italy. Much to his posthumous credit, and the chagrin of Wahnfried and old-time Wagnerians, Siegfried dared to make some mild reforms in the Festival (i.e. invited non-Germanic conductors like Toscanini) and was rather more tolerant to Jews than was acceptable at the time. He even liked decadent music like Verdi and Bizet. Imagine that!

Mr Carr’s other great favourite is Friedelind Wagner (“Mausi”), Siegfried’s eldest child and the only one who denounced the Nazi regime. She fled to England during the War, but there she was viewed with suspicion and finally locked up as an undesirable alien. With the help of no less a figure than Toscanini, her second father by her own admission, she made it to the New World where, after six years of red tape, she was granted an American citizenship. As early as 1945, she published (in English) her autobiography, Heritage of Fire, in which she exposed mercilessly, if not always accurately, her family’s close ties with “Uncle Wolf” and other big Nazi shots who were regular visitors to Bayreuth. Mr Carr’s analysis why Friedelind never played a more vital role in running the Festival after the War (“The Road Not Taken”) is a masterpiece of biographical writing. On the whole, though he makes no bones that “Mausi” was no saint, Mr Carr certainly has a soft spot for her. It’s hard not to.

Mr Carr is generous with his powers of characterisation: he bestows them with equal insight, if not at equal length, on minor characters as well. Isolde Wagner, the eldest daughter of Cosima and the Master, is a case in point. She lived a wretched life under the shadow of questionable paternity – officially she was Bülow’s daughter, but unofficially Wagner treated her as his own child (for she was). When she found her Tristan and brought him to Wahnfried, he was accepted as a boorish Swiss interloper. Her later years were darkened by a court battle against her own family in a vain attempt to establish her paternity once and for all. Cosima could easily have settled the matter with her testimony, but she chose not to. That says as much about her cold and cruel personality as anything. Isolde spent the last years of her not terribly long life confined to a sanatorium in Switzerland “like a character from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg”. She died two months before her 54th birthday from tuberculosis. “Of all the family victims in the history of the Wagners”, Mr Carr concludes, “Isolde is arguably the saddest.”

Even quite minor characters can take a life on their own in Mr Carr’s hands. My favourite example is one Gilberto. He was part of the so-called “Italian branch of the family”, but he was no Wagner at all, being son of Blandine, one of Cosima’s daughters from Bülow, and Count Gravina. Let Mr Carr tell the whole story:

Another son, Gilberto, felt irresistibly drawn to Bayreuth, where Siegfried fostered his musical gifts as conductor and flautist, even composing a tuneful but tricky concerto for him in 1913. With his mischievous smile and seemingly inexhaustible stock of brightly coloured bow ties, Gil – as he was popularly known – became a kind of mascot around Bayreuth right into the 1970s. Latterly he had a vital but inglorious role giving curtain cues during performances at the festival theatre; rather a comedown for one who had earlier won acclaim as an orchestral conductor, even in Vienna. But evidently that did not bother Gil. He seemed almost childishly happy simply to belong to the clan. A rare bird.

There is a poignant short story here. Mr Carr almost wrote it. Indeed, his book is a treasure trove for historical novelists. It contains the kernels of at least a dozen novels and a hundred short stories. Writers of historical fiction, please take notice.

“Meanwhile, the need for the clan to come clean on its past remains as pressing as ever”, Mr Carr’s ghost concludes the supernatural Postscript. This accords well with his sobering last paragraphs of the main text. He flatly says that an official apology for the Nazi era would not be amiss; Wolfgang’s rhetorical claim in his memoirs – thrice quoted in this book! – that neither he nor his brother needed to “indulge in remorseful breast-beating” over their personal records during the Third Reich is not good enough – and missing the point. Mr Carr does admit, though, that the Wagner family did no more than countless others who saved their skins by complying with the Nazis, dimly aware of atrocities they did not want to admit even to themselves. He puts a question mark to the future of the festival and warns that better playing, singing and staging of the Master’s works is widely available elsewhere.

Mr Carr’s scholarship is open to some question. He seems to have made a good use of some major primary sources, which he treats with admirable scepticism, but mostly direct quotations are sourced in his notes. Most of the rest comes, one may suppose, from the scholarly volumes from which the quotations themselves were extracted. These volumes are mostly in German (some have never been translated into English) and range from Cosima’s voluminous diaries and Wagner’s still more voluminous letters to the notebooks of Goebbels and the speeches of Hitler, with a good many biographies thrown in for good measure. It remains a conjecture how much comes second-hand from these sources and how accurate all this information is. Very occasionally, Mr Carr quotes primary sources first-hand (i.e. consulted in various archives).

Judging by the life of Richard Wagner, the only member of the clan I’m somewhat familiar with, Mr Carr does know what he writes about. At the same time, he is prone to sloppiness with secondary characters and minor details, for instance old canards like Liszt’s womanizing status and Karajan’s double membership in the Party; Mr Carr could have fixed both errors with a brief look into the biographies by Alan Walker and Richard Osborne, respectively. To Mr Carr’s credit, he does make it clear that Karajan joined the Party “not for ideological reasons but (like so many others) to boost his career after Hitler came to power” and he doesn’t attach any importance to Liszt’s affairs (as he does to Wagner’s several times in tedious detail). I cannot vouch for his accuracy of the great deal of political history of that “sublime but glaucous sea” (de Gaulle’s poetic description of Germany) which by necessity peppers the pages.

That caveat aside, The Wagner Clan is an enthralling read that would bear a great deal of dipping for fresh, bold and thought-provoking insights – or simply re-reading for the sheer pleasure of Mr Carr’s beautifully crafted prose. The author is certainly correct that the story is fascinating even for those with no taste for “marathon music dramas”. Both the personal tensions and the political context make the subject irresistible. It helps if you are a Wagner nut, but a lively interest in history is much more important. The late Jonathan Carr will be remembered for this book. That’s more than can be for most of us, including plenty of members of the Wagner clan.

[1] Mr Carr’s free translation of “Wahnfried” is “Free from Delusion”. Just one of the numerous ironic overtones in the history of the Wagner clan.
[2] Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (2000), Appendix.
[3] It is a well-known fact that the two most notorious members of the Wagner family were not German but British. Both Chamberlain and Winifred were born in small towns on the south coast of England (Southsea and Hastings, respectively). Both had rootless child- and young adulthoods, though conditions were harder for Winifred who was an orphan. Both came to hate everything British and both found in Germany their only home. Both were deeply misguided individuals. Chamberlain’s ridiculous role as a racist guru and Winifred’s adoration of Adolf remain a stigma on Bayreuth and the Wagner Festival to the present day. History, it seems, has a sarcastic sense of humour.
[4] Except for one place where Mr Carr, discussing the contradictory interpretations of Wagner’s works, rather carelessly claims that music “does not possess the precision available to words.” The truth, of course, is precisely the opposite, as Mendelssohn observed with immortal precison 174 years ago: “There is so much talk about music, and yet so little is said... Words seem to me ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison with genuine music... The thoughts expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” See Alan Walker, An Anatomy of Musical Criticism, Chilton, 1968, p. 4.
[5] The Master is rightly excluded from the ingenious, if low-quality, cover art. Somewhat disappointingly, the photo of those cute kids is not to be found inside the book. The text makes it clear, however, that these are Siegfried’s four children, “The Dissonant Quartet” of Wieland, Wolfgang, Friedelind and Verena, all dressed up for a production of Der Ring des Nibel-jungen. ( )
  Waldstein | Oct 5, 2016 |
A fair minded and authoritative history of Richard Wagner and his descendants, and of the Bayreuth Festival that still remains under their control. ( )
  jcolvin | Jul 27, 2013 |
Readable and interesting book, especially for someone (like me) with little or no prior knowledge about Wagner and his legacy. The narrative flows well and does a nice job of tying in the story of the Wagners with the history of Germany.
Also, there isn't much detail about Wagners music, so it is very accessable to people who have not listened to it before or know anything about it. Infact the narrative cleverly draws you in, and at the end left me wanting to find out more about the music and understand what all the fuss was about. ( )
1 vote BrianHostad | May 4, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871139758, Hardcover)

A family saga as riveting as any opera, and a matchless mirror of Germany’s rise, fall, and resurrection. Richard Wagner was many things—composer, philosopher, philanderer, failed revolutionary, and virulent anti-Semite—and his descendants have carried on his complex legacy. Now, in The Wagner Clan , biographer Jonathan Carr retraces the path of the renowned composer and his descendants. Along the way, Carr offers glimpses of Franz Liszt (whose illegitimate daughter Cosima married Wagner); Friedrich Nietzsche; Arthur Schopenhauer; Alberto Toscanini; Joseph Goebbels; Hermann Göring; and the “Wolf” himself, Adolf Hitler, a passionate fan of the Master’s music and an adopted uncle to Wagner’s grandchildren. Wagner’s British-born daughter-in-law, Winifred, was a close friend of Hitler’s and seemed momentarily positioned to marry him after the death of her husband. All through the war the Bayreuth Festival, begun by the Master himself, was supported by Hitler, who had to fill out the meager audience with fighting men and SS officers. After the war, the festival was dark for a decade until Wagner’s offspring—with characteristic ambition and cunning—revived it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:28 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A family saga that mirrors Germany's rise, fall, and resurrection. Richard Wagner was many things--composer, philosopher, philanderer, failed revolutionary, and virulent anti-Semite--and his descendants have carried on his complex legacy. Here, biographer Jonathan Carr retraces the path of the renowned composer and his descendants, showing how its history and that of Europe are intertwined. Along the way, Carr offers glimpses of Franz Liszt (whose illegitimate daughter Cosima married Wagner); Friedrich Nietzsche; Arthur Schopenhauer; Alberto Toscanini; Joseph Goebbels; Hermann Go:ring; and Adolf Hitler, a passionate fan of the Master's music and an adopted uncle to Wagner's grandchildren. All through the war the Bayreuth Festival, begun by the Master himself, was supported by Hitler, who had to fill out the meager audience with fighting men and SS officers. After the war, the festival was dark for a decade until Wagner's offspring--with characteristic ambition and cunning--revived it.--From publisher description.… (more)

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