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Book Review

Family saga stresses details over dysfunction

Siegfried Wagner and his wife, Winifred, are the subjects of this undated photo, taken at the Waldorf-Astoria. Siegfried Wagner and his wife, Winifred, are the subjects of this undated photo, taken at the Waldorf-Astoria. (corbis-bettmann)
Email|Print| Text size + By Debra Bruno
February 26, 2008

The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family, By Jonathan Carr, Atlantic Monthly Press, 432 pp., $25

The life of composer Richard Wagner and the family he spawned could make for the most melodramatic of operas. The 19th-century composer who transformed the musical world managed to create a dark and divisive legacy that resounds to this day.

In "The Wagner Clan," British journalist Jonathan Carr fights to capture the history of three generations of the Wagner family. He certainly couldn't ask for richer material. Besides Richard Wagner - whose colorful life almost starts to pale alongside his brood - there was Cosima Wagner, illegitimate daughter of the composer Franz Liszt, who bore Wagner three children while she was still married to conductor Hans von Bulow, one of Wagner's biggest supporters. Richard Wagner was 24 years older than Cosima, and after Wagner died in Venice of a heart attack at the age of 69, she lived another 47 years, fiercely guarding the Master's legacy.

Of Wagner's three children, two of them married raging anti-Semites who were probably attracted both to Wagner and a nationalistic Germany as much as to the hapless offspring. Eva Wagner married the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an author whose books inspired the racial philosophy of the Nazis. Siegfried Wagner chose Winifred Klindworth. He was 46 and had clearly shown a preference for men; she was 18 and described as boyish looking.

Despite her gender, Siegfried must have realized the need for heirs, because Winifred managed to knock out four children in four years: Wieland, Friedlinde, Wolfgang, and Verena. Later, Winifred helped to run Bayreuth, the famed festival that Wagner designed to showcase his works, taking over after her husband's death in 1930. Winifred was rumored to have had a love affair with Adolf Hitler, who attended the festival and forced many fellow Nazis to sit (or, if they could get away with it, sleep) through the lengthy performances.

One of the main questions here, of course, is whether Wagner's romantic compositions, celebrating a mythic and heroic Germany, fueled Hitler's rise. There's no question that both Richard and Cosima Wagner were anti-Semites (Cosima more so), and that an anti-Semitic mind-set continued to run through each generation. But the truth is always more complicated. Carr's research shows that many members of the Wagner family only begrudgingly accepted Hitler's co-opting of the festival. To this day, attempts to perform Wagner's music in Israel provoke cries of outrage.

One Wagner does come out in a more positive light. Friedlinde Wagner, second child of Siegfried and an outspoken Hitler critic, was exiled to the United States and estranged from her family for many years. But Carr reveals that even Friedlinde "was making snide remarks about Jews and blacks even in early 1938," and as a child probably sat on Hitler's knee, like the other Wagner children.

Underneath all of this detail is a compelling story of a family of power-hungry lunatics, many of whom had Richard Wagner's operatic emotions but little of his talent. But it will take some careful reading, for few facts go unscrutinized by Carr, a journalist with academic pretensions. (He's also the author of biographies of Helmut Schmidt and Gustav Mahler.) Readers are pummeled with so much information that the truly dramatic moments - Wagner's death, Cosima's manipulation of her children, Winifred's unapologetic passion for the Fuhrer - could almost escape notice. Most of Carr's reporting will be old news to Wagnerians: A quick check of Richard Wagner on Amazon.com reveals nearly 14,000 books that have gone before.

Debra Bruno is an editor and columnist for Legal Times in Washington, D.C.

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