All in the Family

Joseph Horowitz is the author of five books, including "Wagner Nights: An American History." He teaches at the Eastman School of Music and serves as an artistic advisor to various orchestras, including the Pacific Symphony

Richard Wagner was a dramatist of genius. An acute psychologist, a wearer of myriad masks within his own persona, he inhabited a Shakespearean range of types male and female, human, superhuman and subhuman. He sympathetically understood his flawed heroes and excited compassionate under-standing for his damaged or deranged villains.

Wagner’s own flaws have obscured these extra-musical gifts. Present-day scholars (and pseudo-scholars), moths to the flame, too often write about him with scant consideration, or even awareness, of the subtlety with which he could scrutinize the human condition. But Nike Wagner, one of 13 Wagner great-grandchildren, has produced a family memoir in which shrewd insight and unexpected empathy animate a cast of characters nearly worthy of the master himself.

Though Wagner’s anti-Semitism mangled his posthumous reputation forever, it was his British daughter-in-law, Winifred, who fatally linked the family festival at Bayreuth to the Third Reich. Even as a sequestered and dishonored relic in 1976, she could declare: “If Hitler came through this door today, I’d be just as glad, just as happy, to see him here, to have him here, as ever.”

Her granddaughter’s account of this imperious woman, in “The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty,” is a triumph of analytic portraiture. Born Winifred Williams in 1897, raised in an orphanage, she was taken at 9 to Berlin, there to be adopted by a disciple of Liszt. She was married off to Siegfried Wagner, Richard’s only son, at 18. At Wahnfried--the Bayreuth family villa--she was a newcomer to a coterie ruled by Wagner’s widow (and Liszt’s daughter) Cosima. But when Cosima and Siegfried both died 15 years later, it was Winifred who became the festival administrator at 33.


She moved boldly, engaging Wilhelm Furtwngler, Germany’s leading conductor, and Heinz Tietjen, general intendant of the Prussian State Theater. Her openness to outside influences offended the inbred Bayreuth establishment. She would have shut down the festival during World War II--and to some degree safeguarded its reputation--had not Adolf Hitler been a passionate Wagnerite. With his support and her guidance, Bayreuth survived until 1944, while Germany crumbled all around. Swastikas adorned the Festspielhaus on Hitler’s birthday.

Notoriously, the alliance with Hitler was also a dalliance. Like Wagner, like Winifred herself, Hitler had been a loner in search of salvation. And now as chancellor, writes Nike Wagner, he was saving Winifred:

“Every madness has its own logic.... If we try to enter Winifred’s imaginary domain, we realize that although she undoubtedly had a fantasy image of Hitler as a unique savior, the political aspect of this fantasy was quite insignificant. Winifred’s personal history provides the key to this understanding. She had not forgotten the humiliations that she had received from her arrogant new relations when she moved into Wahnfried, as an 18-year-old Cinderella. Only her husband had been able to protect her, but he died in 1930 and left her alone. But not quite alone, because by then she had acquired a much more powerful protector. It was like a fairy tale; he saved the festival by bringing money and prestige, and he loved Wahnfried and her children unreservedly. This is why Winifred said that ‘I will always remember him with gratitude, because he literally tended the flowerbeds here in Bayreuth and helped me in every way.”’

Nike Wagner’s account of this interpersonal drama, at once apolitical and charged with politics, is no apologia. The “inner consciousness” of the Wagners, she writes, became “thoroughly impregnated with fascism.” And yet never before has Winifred emerged as poignantly as in Nike’s tale of a young widow’s susceptibility. Her husband had been a roue bachelor with homosexual habits. Her new Lohengrin (who did not like being asked who he really was) was a perfervid visionary. “Divested of her defiant self-assurance,” she succumbed to a sublimated partnership she only half understood.


The archetype of the “iron mother,” Nike Wagner tells us, is recurrent in the family saga. Winifred was partly imprinting on Cosima, who was widowed at 46 and lived to be 93. As Richard’s wife, she had been a paragon of devotion. Upon his death, her utter dedication to his legacy (she saw no one but her children for a year afterward) dictated utter control both of the festival and of her son, a dedication made the more awful and majestic by its selflessness.

Cosima’s posthumous reputation resembles Winifred’s: stiff-backed, obsessed with dynastic power and (as her diaries unhappily reveal) anti-Semitic. If Winifred did not partake in her husband’s amiability, Cosima did not share her husband’s warmth, humor and outbursts of infectious sociability, let alone his genius.

Winifred’s special curse was her friendship with Hitler; Cosima’s was ingratitude toward her illustrious father. Liszt was (and is) esteemed for his gallantry and generosity. But Cosima denigrated his talent and, at Bayreuth, honored neither his presence nor his passing.

Nike reminds us, however, that Liszt was an absentee father, that his children were taught by their elderly governesses “to converse in cliches and witty apercus ,” that “the emotional chill of this upbringing” was a potent influence. “The Liszt children were united in their hatred of their governesses, and learnt to be hypocritical as a form of self-defense; this strategy was also used against their father, whose attempts to become closer to them were unfortunately limited to moralistic preaching.” Liszt, she adds, maintained an “inner distance ... from everybody: his etiquette, his ‘mask for the world”': trenchant observations of a great man mummified by hagiographers as a saint.

What Hitler was for Winifred, Richard was for Cosima--and more. “Reading old letters of my father,” she wrote in her diary, “shows me again that I had neither a father nor a mother. Richard was everything to me, he alone loved me.” Twenty-four years her senior, Richard was husband and father both.

Post-Richard, post-Cosima, post-Winifred, the most prominent Wagners are the brothers Wieland and Wolfgang, Siegfried and Winifred’s only sons, who reopened Bayreuth in 1951 and jointly ran the Festival until Wieland’s early death in 1966. Here Nike, one of Wieland’s four children, is at home. Her inside view achieves a delicate intimacy, respectful yet acute.

After Richard, Wieland was of course the family genius, who revolutionized the staging not only of Wagner, but--through his emphasis on directorial reinterpretation--of opera generally. His legendary Bayreuth productions--in which abstract color and design replaced the mountains and rocks, helmets and breastplates Wagner specified and Cosima enforced--purged Wagner of Germanic associations in favor of probing explorations of universal archetype and myth.

But Wieland remained scarred by Hitler, the family friend who had fondly exempted him from military service. When his mother continued to take tea with Edda Goering and Ilse Hess in a garden off the main house, he built a wall to cut her off. His burden of “shame and anger,” Nike writes, darkened his personality. We are permitted to glimpse “that strange, sarcastic, spoiled, depressive look that his family and collaborators would come to fear.” Claiming the freedom of the artist, he began an affair with the coltish young soprano Anja Silja--his daughterly Brnnhilde onstage and off--and “tore the family apart.”


Wieland’s brother Wolfgang is the Bayreuth Festival’s current director. While Wieland was alive, Wolfgang ran the business side of things and shared artistic control. Nike calls him “an astonishing administrative machine” whose success partly depended on his ability to distance himself from his relatives. Crucially, in 1955, Wolfgang moved into his own Bayreuth homestead rather than cohabit Wahnfried with Wieland and his brood. He also kept his children apart from their cousins. In Nike’s view, these strategies, among others, secured his base of power.

And she writes bitterly of Wolfgang’s 1960 production of “The Ring of the Nibelung,” in which Wieland’s trademark circular disk, on which the action was played, was bent into a shallow bowl and dismantled.

“Although Wolfgang had shyly and half-heartedly copied his brother’s stylistic peculiarity in his earlier productions, he now prepared to inflict a heavier blow--quite innocently, and yet with the helpless defiance of one from whom too much is expected.... The copying, bending and breaking of the Ring-disc was the most visible rebellion against his inner dependence on Wieland, but this symbolic murder had been preceded by many years during which the elder brother’s intellectual property had been appropriated and exploited. In order fully to understand this psycho-drama, one would have to imagine Picasso having a close relative, also a painter, who was sufficiently gifted to use, copy, and assimilate to his own requirements the style and pictorial inventions of the original Picasso, without the authentic artist being able to claim any copyright on his ideas.”

Whether one subscribes to this family tragedy of “imitation and falsification,” there can be no doubt that the Bayreuth productions Wolfgang currently directs are the work of an old man who does not know when to quit. At the same time, Nike is no disinterested observer of her uncle. As all Germany knows, they are adversaries in a Wagnerian soap opera embroiling, as well, Wolfgang’s excommunicated son Gottfried, who lectures in Israel on Wagner’s anti-Semitism; Wolfgang’s daughter Eva, who has worked extensively in opera management in Europe and the United States; and Wolfgang’s sister Verena, whose son Wieland is a conductor and arts administrator. Nike herself is an accomplished cultural historian whose previous books are about Karl Kraus and Arthur Schnitzler.

At issue is who will inherit the festival. Wolfgang, at 81, will not let go, and his preferred successor is his second wife, Gudrun. Though the Richard Wagner Foundation has announced that Eva will take her father’s place in fall 2002, Wolfgang has implied that he will not leave quietly.

The Sddeutsche Zeitung has described Wolfgang as “a lonely old man, stubborn and isolated.” Nike, in “The Wagners,” calls him “blinkered” and “pathological.” Her book (parts of which were serialized in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) is in one sense a manifesto. At its close, she volunteers a “personal credo.” Bayreuth, she believes, should shatter its own traditions. Outside the canonized Wagner operas from “The Flying Dutchman” to “Parsifal,” it should stage his little-known early operas--"Die Feen,” “Das Liebesverbot” and “Rienzi"--and present related music by his precursors and contemporaries and by such present-day composers as Hans Werner Henze. She is, in short, her father’s daughter, espousing radical change as the truest form of Wagnerian homage.

All of what I have described is contained in Part 2 of “The Wagners.” Part 1 is a series of brief essays on the operas. The two parts are linked: The doings of Wagner’s dramatis personae, she proposes, echo and re-echo in the family annals. She writes of “the influence of Wagner’s music upon the mentalities of his descendants,” of a familial “collective subconscious.” Surveying the “Ring,” she discovers a plot suggesting Wolfgang’s incipient Gtterdmmerung.

“The scandalous aspects of the story of the ‘Ring’ are that a father is trying to use his children to prevent his own end, that an old man sweeps young people to death with him, that a ruler makes his descendants pay for his mismanagement. Brnnhilde and her sisters were deliberately conceived as a squadron to ensure their father’s victory, while Siegmund and Sieglinde were also created as instruments of the god’s will. The cycle plays out the drama of misused and lost children, both on the political and the psychological plane; it is an allegory for the string of disasters triggered when a power-hungry authority refuses to abdicate or to prepare a succession for a different and more just world.”


So astute and knowledgeable a writer cannot fail to offer valuable insights on the complexities of “Die Walkre,” “Tristan und Isolde,” “Die Meistersinger” or “Parsifal.” But this part of her book, notwithstanding a continued emphasis on tools of psychology and psychoanalysis, does not really congeal. The chapters are abridged from the original German edition. They need to be longer or further compressed into an integrated prelude: a “Rheingold.”

Wagner was the master of resonance. His musical leitmotifs, his allusions to myth, his capacity to refract experience from multitudinous perspectives make his long music-dramas seem the more epic and inexhaustible. Nike Wagner’s book--at once an opera-goer’s companion, a genealogical chronicle and a position paper--bravely aspires to a Wagnerian confluence of themes. If this goal eludes her far-reaching grasp of things Wagnerian, nothing else seems to.

Will Bayreuth be redeemed--or at least renewed? Stay tuned.