When South Bank Show host Melvyn Bragg sat down to watch the first film of the flagship arts programme’s final series, he turned to the director Tony Palmer and asked: “Are you expecting me to believe all this?”
It is a question viewers will also raise when Palmer’s documentary about Richard Wagner and his relatives airs on Sunday, revealing, as it does, the family’s entanglement with Hitler and the Nazis.
“I knew about the lying and deceptions, the general unpleasantness, but I hadn’t known the extent of it,” says Palmer, who first introduced himself to the children and grandchildren of Richard Wagner more than 30 years ago — then to start work on a five-hour cinematic feature starring Richard Burton as the German composer.
“I had to get permission to film at Wagner’s theatre and at the family estate in Bayreuth back then, so I have been in conversation with the various members of the family you see in the film for the past 30 years. I think it is why they revealed so much to me.”
The revelations are, quite simply, astonishing. There is Wagner’s son, Siegfried, who, in his late years is married off to an English orphan, Winifred, to ensure his homosexuality does not prevent him continuing the line. Winifred goes on to fall in love with Hitler — there is an episode in the South Bank film where she goes into a daze over the colour of Hitler’s eyes. She invited him for summer sojourns at Bayreuth in central Germany in the late 1930s, where her children would hand the Nazi leader their geography textbooks for him to sketch troop invasions of Poland.
Two of Winifred’s three children went on to be mired in their own racist pursuits. The late Wieland set up an actual concentration camp just outside Bayreuth, and Wolfgang was until recently running the Bayreuth estate “as a police camp”, according to his own niece.
But what does any of this have to do with Richard Wagner, born in 1813 and died in 1883, well before the rise of Hitler, the composer of such operatic masterpieces as The Ring Cycle, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde?
Wagner was a vocal antisemite; it is well established and it is why performances of his music are still banned in Israel. According to Palmer, the actions of his offspring were very much spawned by the composer himself.
“Wagner rewrote history to suit himself — and the rest of the clan have gone on to do the same,” he says. “Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, was the chief ideologue of the Nazis; daughter-in-law, Winifred, who joined up with the Nazis in 1923, was up to her neck in it.
“Look at Wolfgang’s son, Gottfried — he has come out with the truth [about the family] and he has been deemed insane by them. He is banned from entering Bayreuth. There is nothing mad about him, he is extremely coherent.”
Richard Wagner himself was, according to Palmer, “a horrid little man”, a wanted criminal who seduced women, fleeced people for money and plotted the destruction of the Dresden Opera House. A horrid little man whose music has, no less than Shakespeare’s plays, changed the world. It is why very few people consider his antisemitism should prevent performances of his work.
“Historically, to rob yourself of knowing that music means you don’t understand what came next,” argues musician and broadcaster David Lasserson. “You look at modernism, music theatre works from the modern era like a Stravinsky piece, and they’re angular and quite short, the orchestral writing is more sparse and compact — and it’s a reaction to the massiveness of Wagner’s operas that came to be seen as bloated.
“Consider, also, the music itself — something like the five hours of uninterrupted passion that is Tristan und Isolde. It is absolutely mind-blowing.”
Lasserson adds that these works are better explored than hidden. “A director can choose whether to mine the antisemitism or whether to use the heroism of the writing to explore contemporary times. It is much richer to work with it and to take it on board — to explore the monster he was — than reject it. And while we are at it, let’s explore who else was an antisemite — what about Chopin?”
Palmer goes even further — not only does the greatness of Wagner’s music demand that it must always have a home in an opera house, but it is precisely his monstrous nature that produced such art. “If Wagner had been a quiet little man living in Hampstead Garden Suburb he would not have written this extraordinary music,” he says.
“There is no other example in the whole of western history where a creative artist stood totally centre stage. In 1876 for the first night of The Ring Cycle, every crowned leader of Europe — with the single exception of Victoria — turned up. Bismark, the Kaiser… they bowed down to him and said: ‘Well done, sir.’ It is an astonishing achievement. The whole history of Germany since Wagner became active — 1845 until the present day — is mirrored and reflected in his work. He’s terribly important.”
But the key question concerns whether Wagner was instrumental in the development of Hitler and ultimately the Holocaust.
Palmer is very clear on the issue. “Is he to blame for Hitler, for Auschwitz? No. There were terrible economic times, political turmoil, the Weimar Republic didn’t work. The trouble is that Wagner gave Nazism some sort of artistic credibility. Hitler took encouragement from certain parts of Wagner’s philosophy. If you have a powerful voice, powerful tunes and a powerful ideologue, then someone like Hitler is going to come along and use it.”
It is a view to bear in mind when considering Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, so loaded as it is in its tale of racial purity pursuits; or The Ring Cycle that, according to Wagner scholar Sir John Deathridge, is wrapped up in the anti-Jewish essay of 1850 — Jewishness In Music — which the composer was writing at the same time. “The words and sentiment he was putting into this pamphlet absolutely fed into the conceptual evolution of the Ring,” says Deathridge.
But nonetheless it is a work, he feels, that should be performed, if for no other reason than a duty to the nature of artistic creation itself. “It is not sensible to define a piece of work too much in terms of what the author thought about it,” he says.
“As soon as a composition leaves a composer’s desk it is no longer his — if it is any good, that is — it is apart from its creator, and the ownership is passed on to society.”