Family disharmony at Wagner festival Feud: Behind-the-scenes bickering among the composer's descendants provides as much drama as the "Ring."


September 03, 1998|By Mary Williams Walsh | Mary Williams Walsh,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAYREUTH, GERMANY — "I'm told it is better than it sounds."

-- Mark Twain, on the music of Richard Wagner

BAYREUTH, Germany -- Nothing about Richard Wagner is ever really the way it first looks or sounds and, fittingly, this small town in northern Bavaria, all charming beer gardens and rosebushes on the surface, is many things -- deeper and darker -- to many people.

For the 19th-century German composer, it was the ideal setting to build an opera house to the exacting specifications for staging his masterpiece, the "Ring" tetralogy. For opera lovers today, it is the sacred shrine where each summer a chosen few can hear Wagner's music at its most sublime at the Richard Wagner Festival.

Now, however, Bayreuth has become a gothic showcase of all the miseries a culturally and socially prominent German family can be heir to as one generation ages, another one jostles for power and a few choose the moment to air new revelations of the Wagner role in the Third Reich.

Festival director Wolfgang Wagner -- Richard's grandson -- is pushing 80 and is expected to give up control soon.

With a wife and daughter waiting in the wings, an ambitious niece castigating his "artistic stagnation," an estranged son detailing the Wagner-Nazi connection on the international lecture circuit and a sister-in-law retailing family sexual peccadilloes from her deathbed, what should be the crowning moments of an august career is turning into an "annus horribilis" for Wolfgang and the Wagner shrine itself.

"Murder and manslaughter," great-granddaughter Nike Wagner says of what would happen if all the composer's warring descendants were corralled into Villa Wahnfried, the Wagner ancestral home here in Bayreuth.

Up until now, direction of the Bayreuth Festival has remained firmly in the hands of male Wagner descendants and their widows, with younger generations breathing new life into the festival after the devastation of World War I, the Nazi years and the postwar occupation of Bayreuth by U.S. forces, who used Wagner's bombed-out villa as an officers' mess and played boogie-woogie on his concert grand.

Now, however, the rage of the descendants is so powerful that it threatens to break the long-standing dynastic grip.

First, Wolfgang's sister-in-law, Gertrud -- widow of his brother, Wieland -- completed her memoirs this summer. They are an uninhibited account of sexual escapades -- particularly, her late husband's alleged affairs with famous divas -- and power plays in the ancestral home of the composer who gave the Western world its most famous wedding march.

The book also claims that Gertrud, a choreographer, came up with many of the stage innovations that have brought such luster to the Bayreuth Festival but was never given credit for any of them.

"I was not allowed to exist," Gertrud writes, adding that after she was widowed, Wolfgang warned her, "If you ever talk, stage or write, I will cut off your money."

Gertrud died just as her book was going to press, and other Wagner descendants and personalities named in it are fighting to have parts of it suppressed.

More fortunate, perhaps, has been Gottfried Wagner, 51, the composer's great-grandson and an accomplished musicologist. He has lived to see his autobiography published in its entirety and make a sensation in Germany.

"He Who Does Not Howl With the Wolf," a painful account of life in Villa Wahnfried in the postwar years, will be released in English in the United States next year. The title is a play on words, "The Wolf" being both Hitler's nickname and a reference to Gottfried's father, Wolfgang.

The core message of "He Who Does Not Howl," that Germany's greatest composer of the Romantic era was also an industrious hater of Jews, will come as no surprise to knowledgeable music lovers.

When he wasn't setting ancient Norse legends to music, scholars agree, Richard Wagner was writing political tracts, including the notorious "The Jews in Music," which ends with the baleful and all-too-prophetic warning to European Jewry: "Bear in mind that one thing alone can redeem you from the curse that weighs upon you. Destruction!"

Not for nothing is Wagner's music boycotted in Israel.

What is new and provocative about Gottfried's "j'accuse" is the intimacy of his account of life within the Wagner compound. Gottfried claims that his father and uncle Wieland were virtual Hitler godsons who called the dictator "Uncle Wolf."

He claims that Hitler proposed marriage to his grandmother, Winifred Wagner, who was an early and enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party and who, according to Gottfried and other historians, supplied Hitler with the paper on which he wrote "Mein Kampf." Winifred ruled the festival during its flagrantly pro-Nazi years, 1933 to 1944.

Damning stuff, and no sooner was it in print than Wolfgang rushed a statement to all of Europe's leading newspapers: The book was "a slander and a fabrication," "fundamentally damaging to the international reputation of the Bayreuth Festival."

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