The boy Wagner was hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Weber’s Der Freischütz.
In late 1820, Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received some piano instruction from his Latin teacher.
He could not manage a proper scale but preferred playing theatre overtures by ear.
Ludwig Geyer (see left) died in 1821, when Richard was eight.
Subsequently, Wagner was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, paid for by Geyer’s brother.
The young Wagner entertained ambitions as a playwright, his first creative effort (listed as ‘WWV 1’) being a tragedy, Leubald, begun at school in 1826, which was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe.
Wagner was determined to set it to music; he persuaded his family to allow him music lessons
By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig.
Wagner’s first lessons in harmony were taken in 1828–1831 with Christian Gottlieb Müller.
In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhaus.
|Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven (see right) became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony.
He was also greatly impressed by a performance of the Requiem of Mozart.
From this period date Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures.
In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (see left) on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera.
In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced so profound an impression upon me.”
Wagner claimed to have seen Schröder-Devrient in the title role of Fidelio; however, it seems more likely that he saw her performance as Romeo in Bellini’s ‘Capuleti e i Montecchi’.
He enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831 where he became a member of the Studentenverbindung Corps Saxonia Leipzig.
He also took composition lessons with the cantor of Saint Thomas Church, Christian Theodor Weinlig.
Weinlig was so impressed with Wagner’s musical ability that he refused any payment for his lessons, and arranged for Wagner’s piano sonata in B flat (which was consequently dedicated to him) to be published as the composer’s op. 1.
A year later, Wagner composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenesque work performed in Prague in 1832 and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1833.
He then began to work on an opera, ‘Die Hochzeit’ (The Wedding), which he never completed.
In 1833, Wagner’s older brother Karl Albert managed to obtain Richard a position as choir master in Würzburg.
In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, ‘Die Feen’ (The Fairies).
|Carl Maria von Weber,
This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer’s death in 1883.
Meanwhile, Wagner held a brief appointment as musical director at the opera house in Magdeburg during which he wrote ‘Das Liebesverbot’ (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
This was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but closed before the second performance, leaving the composer (not for the last time) in serious financial difficulties.
In 1834 Wagner had fallen for the actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer (see right).
After the disaster of ‘Das Liebesverbot’ he followed her to Königsberg where she helped him to get an engagement at the theatre.
The two married in Königsberg on 24 November 1836.
In June 1837 Wagner moved to the city of Riga, then in the Russian Empire, where he became music director of the local opera.
Minna had recently left Wagner for another man but Richard took her back; this was but the first debacle of a troubled marriage that would end in misery three decades later.
By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for most of his life).
|‘Das Fliegende Hollander’
|During their flight, they and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner drew the inspiration for ‘Das Fliegende Hollander’ (see right) (The Flying Dutchman) with a story based on a sketch by Heinrich Heine.
The Wagners spent 1839 to 1842 in Paris, where Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house, however, he also completed his third and fourth operas ‘Rienzi’ (see left) and ‘Das Fliegende Hollander’ during this stay.
Wagner had completed writing ‘Rienzi’ in 1840.
Largely through the strong support of Giacomo Meyerbeer, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the German state of Saxony.
In 1842, Wagner moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable acclaim on 20 October.
Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor.
During this period, he staged there ‘Das Fliegende Hollander’ (2 January 1843) and Tannhäuser (19 October 1845), the first two of his three middle-period operas.
Wagner also mixed with artistic circles in Dresden, including the composer Ferdinand Hiller and the great classical architect Gottfried Semper (see right).
The Wagners’ stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard’s involvement in leftist politics.
A nationalist movement was gaining force in the states of the German Confederation, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of Germany as one nation state.
Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in the socialist wing of this movement, regularly receiving guests who included the radical editor August Röckel, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. He was also influenced by the ideas of Proudhon (see left).
Widespread discontent in Dresden came to a head in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony rejected a new constitution.
The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role.
The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries.
Wagner had to flee, first visiting Paris and then settling in Zurich.
Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile.
He had completed Lohengrin, the last of his middle-period operas before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence.
Liszt, who proved to be a true friend, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.
Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of.
Before leaving Dresden, he had drafted a scenario that would eventually become the four opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’.
He initially wrote the libretto for a single opera, ‘Siegfrieds Tod’ (Siegfried’s Death) in 1848. After arriving in Zurich he expanded the story to include an opera ‘Der junge Siegfried’ (Young Siegfried) exploring the hero’s background.
He completed the text of the cycle by writing the libretti for ‘Die Walküre’ and ‘Das Rheingold’ and revising the other libretti to agree with his new concept, completing them in 1852.
Meanwhile, his wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression and then Wagner himself fell victim to ill-health which made it difficult for him to continue writing.
Wagner’s primary published output during his first years in Zurich was a set of notable essays: “The Art-Work of the Future” (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”, in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; “Judaism in Music” (1850), a tract directed against Jewish composers; and “Opera and Drama” (1851), which described the aesthetics of drama which he was using to create the Ring operas.
Wagner began composing ‘Das Rheingold’ in November 1853, following it immediately with ‘Die Walküre’ in 1854.
He then began work on the third opera, now called ‘Siegfried’, in 1856 but finished only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: ‘Tristan und Isolde”
Wagner had two independent sources of inspiration for ‘Tristan und Isolde’.
The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (see left).
Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life.
His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer’s philosophy, a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition.
He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer, who was also Hitler’s favourite philosopher, for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.
One of Schopenhauer’s doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts.
He claimed that music is the direct expression of the world’s essence, which is blind, impulsive Will.
Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its contradiction of his previous view, expressed in Opera and Drama, that the music in opera had to be subservient to the drama.
Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle, which he had yet to compose.
Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found their way into Wagner’s subsequent libretti.
For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’, generally considered Wagner’s most sympathetic character, although based loosely on a historical person, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation.
Wagner’s second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck (see right), the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck.
Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zurich in 1852.
Otto, a fan of Wagner’s music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner’s disposal.
During the course of the next five years, the composer was eventually to become infatuated with his patron’s wife.
Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardizing her marriage.
Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and began work on Tristan, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.
While planning the opera, Wagner composed the ‘Wesendonck Lieder’, five songs for voice and piano setting poems by Mathilde.
Two of these settings are explicitly subtitled by Wagner as ‘studies for Tristan und Isolde ‘.
The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde.
After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zurich alone, bound for Venice, where he sojourned in the Palazzo Giustinian.
The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to the efforts of Princess Pauline von Metternich.
The premiere of the Paris Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco.
Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.
The political ban which had been placed on Wagner in Germany after he had fled Dresden was lifted in 1861.
The composer settled in Biebrich in Prussia, where he began work on ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’, the idea for which had come during a visit he had made to Venice with the Wesendoncks.
Despite the failure of ‘Tannhäuser’ in Paris, the possibility that ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ would never be finished, and Wagner’s unhappy personal life at the time of writing it, this opera is his only mature comedy.
Between 1861 and 1864 Wagner tried to have ‘Tristan und Isolde’ produced in Vienna.
Despite numerous rehearsals the opera remained unperformed, and gained a reputation as being “impossible”, which further added to Wagner’s financial woes.
In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.
|Ludwig and Wagner
Wagner’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II (see left) succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18.
The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich.
He settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and proposed to stage ‘Tristan’, ‘Die Meistersinger’, the ‘Ring’, and the other operas Wagner planned. Wagner also began to dictate his autobiography, ‘Mein Leben’, at the King’s request.
for more information about Ludwig II see
To Wagner, it seemed significant that his rescue by Ludwig coincided with his learning the news of the death of his supposed enemy Meyerbeer, noting ungratefully that “this operatic master, who had done me so much harm, should not have lived to see this day”.
After grave difficulties in rehearsal, ‘Tristan und Isolde’ premiered at the National Theatre in Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner premiere in almost 15 years.
|Cosima von Bülow
|Hans von Bülow
The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow (see left), whose wife Cosima (see right) had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, the child not of von Bülow but of Wagner.
Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt.
Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends.
The indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavour among members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the king.
In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich.
He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.
Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne.
‘Die Meistersinger’ was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premièred in Munich on 21 June the following year.
In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce, but this did not materialize until after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of ‘Meistersinger’, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring.
Minna Wagner had died the previous year and so Richard and Cosima were now able to marry.
The wedding took place on 25 August 1870.
On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance of the ‘Siegfried Idyll’ for Cosima’s birthday.
The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner’s life.
Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle.
At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially designed opera house.
In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house.
The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (see right) (“Festival Theatre”) was laid.
In order to raise funds for the construction, “Wagner Societies” were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts.
However, sufficient funds were raised only after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874.
Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried (see left) (“freedom from delusion/madness”).
The expenses of Bayreuth and of Wahnfried however meant that Wagner still sought other sources of income by conducting or taking on commissions like the Centennial March for America.
The Festspielhaus finally opened on 13 August 1876 with ‘Das Rheingold’, now taking its place as the first evening of the premiere of the complete Ring cycle, and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.
|Bayreuth Festspielhaus – Plan
The Festival has been overseen since 1973 by the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung (Richard Wagner Foundation), the members of which include a number of Wagner’s descendants.
| ‘Parsifal’ – Closing Scene
Following the first Bayreuth festival Wagner began work on ‘Parsifal’ (see left), his final opera.
The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy for health reasons.
During this period he also wrote a series of essays, including some reactionary writings on religion and art which recanted his earlier views.
Many of these—including “Religion and Art” (1880) and “Hero-dom and Christendom” (1881) —appeared in the journal ‘Bayreuther Blätter’, founded in 1880 by Wagner and Hans von Wolzogen for Wagnerite visitors to Bayreuth.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera which was premiered on 26 May.
Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks.
Ca’ Vendramin Calergi
During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on 29 August, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter.
Wagner died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine on 13 February 1883 at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal.
Franz Liszt’s two pieces for pianoforte solo entitled ‘La lugubre gondola’ evoke the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola (see right) bearing Richard Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal. Wagner was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth.
Wagner’s operatic works are his primary artistic legacy. Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as “poems”. Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra’s role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra’s dramatic role, in the later operas, includes the use of leitmotivs, musical themes that can be interpreted as announcing specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interweaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama. Ultimately he urged a new concept of opera often referred to as “music drama”, (although he did not use or sanction this term himself) in which all musical poetic and dramatic elements were to be fused together—the Gesamtkunstwerk.
Wagner’s compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements.
|‘Das Fliegende Hollander’
Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (see left) and ‘Tannhäuser’ (see right) which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”).
This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852.
Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’.
|‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’
However, his thoughts on the relative importance of music and drama were to change again and he reintroduced some traditional operatic forms into his last few stage works including ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ (see left).
Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.
|‘Tristan und Isolde’
His ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.
He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features.
It was here that the ‘Ring’ and ‘Parsifal‘ received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants. Wagner’s views on conducting were also highly influential.
His extensive writings on music, drama and politics have all attracted extensive comment; in recent decades, especially where they have antisemitic content.
Wagner’s late dramas are considered his masterpieces.
Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Germanic mythology—particularly from the later Norse mythology—notably the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga, and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied.
They were also influenced by Wagner’s concepts of ancient Greek drama, in which tetralogies were a component of Athenian festivals, and which he had amply discussed in his essay “Oper und Drama”.
The first two components of the Ring cycle were ‘Das Rheingold’ (The Rhinegold) (completed 1854) and ‘Die Walküre’ (The Valkyrie) (completed 1856).
In ‘Das Rheingold’, with its “relentlessly talky “realism” [and] the absence of lyrical “numbers” “, Wagner came very close to the pure musical ideals of his 1849 – 51 essays.
‘Die Walküre’ (see left), with Siegmund’s almost full-blown aria (‘Winterstürme’) in the first act, and the quasi-choral appearance of the Valkyries themselves, shows more ‘operatic’ traits, but has been assessed as “the music drama that most satisfactorily embodies the theoretical principles of “Oper und Drama”.
A thoroughgoing synthesis of poetry and music is achieved without any notable sacrifice in musical expression”.
|Siegfried – Richard Wagner
While still composing the Ring, (leaving the third Ring opera ‘Siegfried’ (see right) uncompleted for the while), Wagner paused between 1857 and 1864 to compose the tragic love story ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and his only mature comedy ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), two works which are also part of the regular operatic canon.
‘Tristan und Isolde’ uses a story line deriving from the poem ‘Tristan und Isolt’ by the 13th century poet Gottfried von Strassburg.
Wagner noted that “its all – pervading tragedy […] impressed me so deeply that I felt convinced it should stand out in bold relief, regardless of minor details.“
This impact, together with his discovery of the philosophy of Schopenhauer in October 1854, led Wagner to find himself in a “serious mood created by Schopenhauer, which was trying to find ecstatic expression. It was some such mood that inspired the conception of a Tristan und Isolde.“
The work was first performed in Munich on 10 June 1865, conducted by Hans von Bülow.
Tristan is often granted a special place in musical history.
It has been described as “fifty years ahead of its time” because of its chromaticism, long-held discords, unusual orchestral colouring and harmony, and use of polyphony.
Wagner himself felt that his musico-dramatical theories were most perfectly realised in this work with its use of “the art of transition” between dramatic elements and the balance achieved between vocal and orchestral lines.
‘Die Meistersinger’ was originally conceived by Wagner in 1845 as a sort of comic pendant to Tannhäuser.
It was first performed in Munich, again under the baton of Bülow, on 21 June 1868, its accessibility making it an immediate success. It is “a rich, perceptive music drama widely admired for its warm humanity“; but because of its strong German nationalist overtones, it is also held up by some as an example of Wagner’s reactionary politics and antisemitism.
When Wagner returned, with the added experience of composing ‘Tristan’ and ‘Die Meistersinger’, to write the music for the last act of ‘Siegfried’ and for ‘Götterdämmerung’ (Twilight of the Gods), as the final part of the Ring was eventually called, his style had changed once again to one more recognisable as ‘operatic’ (though thoroughly stamped with his own originality as a composer, and suffused with leitmotivs) than the aural world of ‘Rheingold’ and ‘Walküre’.
This was in part because the libretti of the four ‘Ring’ operas had been written in reverse order, so that the book for ‘Götterdämmerung’ was conceived more ‘traditionally’ than that of Rheingold; still, the self-imposed strictures of the Gesamtkunstwerk had become relaxed.
However, the differences are also because of Wagner’s development as a composer during the period in which he composed ‘Tristan’, ‘Meistersinger’ and also the Paris version of ‘Tannhäuser’.
From Act III of ‘Siegfried’ onwards, the Ring becomes chromatic, and both harmonically more complex and more developmental in its treatment of leitmotifs.
Having taken 26 years from the first draft of a libretto in 1848 until the completion of ‘Götterdämmerung’ in 1874, the Ring represents in all about 15 hours of performance, the only undertaking of such size to be regularly represented on the world’s stages.
|Erlösung dem Erlöser !
Wagner’s final opera, ‘Parsifal‘ (1882), which was his only work written especially for his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth and which is described in the score as a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (festival play for the consecration of the stage), has a storyline suggested by elements of the legend of the Holy Grail.
It also however carries elements of Buddhist renunciation suggested by Wagner’s readings of Schopenhauer.
|Holy Spear – Parsifal
Wagner described it to Cosima as his “last card“.
The composer’s treatment of Christianity in the opera, its eroticism, and its relationship to ideas of German nationalism and anti-Semitism have continued to render it controversial for non-musical reasons.
However, musically it has been held to represent a continuing development of the composer’s style , with “a diaphanous score of unearthly beauty and refinement“.
It is undoubtedly Wagner’s greatest opera – his masterpiece.
click here for more information about ‘Parsifal‘
Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence, throughout his life.
His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses of his own operas.
Essays of note include “Art and Revolution” (1849), “Opera and Drama” (1851), an essay on the theory of opera. One of his most significant writings is “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”, 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers in general, and Giacomo Meyerbeer in particular.
He also wrote various autobiographical works, including “My Life” (1880).
In his later years Wagner became a vociferous opponent of experimentation on animals and in 1879 he published an open letter, “Against Vivisection”, in support of the animal rights activist Ernst von Weber.
There have been several editions of Wagner’s writings, including a centennial edition in German edited by Dieter Borchmeyer (which however omitted the essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik”).
The English translations of Wagner’s prose in 8 volumes by W. Ashton Ellis, (1892 – 99), are still in print and commonly used, despite their deficiencies.
A complete edition of Wagner’s correspondence, (estimated to amount to between 10,000 and 12,000 surviving items), of which the first volume appeared in 1967, is still under way.
Wagner’s influence on literature and philosophy is significant.
Wagner’s protean abundance meant that he could inspire the use of literary motif in many a novel employing interior monologue.
The Symbolists saw him as a mystic hierophant; the Decadents found many a frisson in his work.
Friedrich Nietzsche was part of Wagner’s inner circle during the early 1870s, and his first published work ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ proposed Wagner’s music as the Dionysian rebirth of European culture in opposition to Apollonian rationalist decadence.
Nietzsche broke with Wagner following the first Bayreuth Festival, believing that Wagner’s final phase represented a pandering to Christian pieties and a surrender to the new German Reich. Nietzsche expressed his displeasure with the later Wagner in “The Case of Wagner” and “Nietzsche contra Wagner“.
Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine worshipped Wagner.
Edouard Dujardin, whose influential novel ‘Les lauriers sont coupés’ is in the form of an interior monologue inspired by Wagnerian music, founded a journal dedicated to Wagner, La Revue Wagnérienne, to which J. K. Huysmans and Téodor de Wyzewa contributed.
In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived”, while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels.
He is discussed in some of the works of James Joyce.
Wagnerian themes inhabit T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, which contains lines from ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and ‘Götterdämmerung’, and Verlaine’s poem on ‘Parsifal‘.
Many of the Wagner’s concepts, including his speculation about dreams, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.
|Adolf Hitler and Winnifred Wagner
In a long list of other major cultural figures influenced by Wagner, Bryan Magee includes D. H. Lawrence, Aubrey Beardsley, Romain Rolland, Gérard de Nerval, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Rainer Maria Rilke and numerous others. Wagner’s operas, writings, his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (for the design of which he appropriated some of the ideas of his former colleague, Gottfried Semper, which he had solicited for a proposed new opera house at Munich). These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. Adolphe Appia’s stagings of Wagner operas at Bayreuth had far reaching consequences in theatre practice generally.
Following Wagner’s death, the debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th century, continued to make him politically and socially controversial in a way that other great composers are not. Much heat is generated by Wagner’s comments on Jews, which continue to influence the way that his works are regarded, and by the essays he wrote on the nature of race from 1850 onwards, and their influence on Adolf Hitler.
Wagner and Hitler
Wagner’s operas had an almost religious effect upon Hitler; Wagner’s skill for drama and dramatic music no doubt underscored the impact of the legends already known to Hitler from youth.
Hitler and many of his associates shared a fascination with the history and mythology of the German Volk, and the following discussion will focus on examples of “mythical influences”, and how they helped shape the personal and political activities of these men.
Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) most famous works are undoubtably his music dramas.
‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ (left ‘Das Rheingold’) and ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (right – model stage-set) and most importantly, ‘Parsifal’, (below – ‘Die große Gralsszeneare’), the works that are widely acknowledged as being of great musical significance
The development and use of the leitmotif, the parts written for the heldentenor, the manipulation of chromaticism in the tonal system, and the development of the music drama itself are all very important aspects of Wagner and his music.
The ancient sagas that Wagner used as a
basis for these music dramas held for him revealed truths and insights into human behavior and emotions. He has not been alone in his interest and opinions.These myths have been used as an argument for, or illustration of, various beliefs and ideologies. ‘The Ring’ has been variously interpreted as a look into the human psyche; a means of promoting socialism; a prophecy of the fate of the world and humankind; and a “parable” about the industrial society that was coming of age in Wagner’s lifetime.
It was also used by the Nazi party to justify and glorify racism, and to supply a basis of fanatic loyalty in the Schutzstaffel, or SS.
The legends of German mythology are essentially the same as the old Nordic legends; many of the proper names are the same in both cultures, and most of the remaining names are very similar to the Norse versions, differing only in spelling.
Thus the Norse Odin, the ruler of the gods, becomes Woden, (or Wotan), further south in the Germanic regions. In the same fashion, the Norse heroes known as Sigurd, Brynhild and Gudrun become Siegfried, Brünnhilde, (see right ‘Wotan & Brünnhilde), and Günther in the German stories.
The extremely close parallels between the two cultures makes it an absolute certainty that both the Germanic stories and the earlier Norse legends were derived from the same ancient tales.
These early legends are known to the modern world from two collections: the Elder Edda, which is written in verse, and the Younger Edda, (consisting of the sagas), which is written in prose. The dating for these collections seems to be in some dispute; in Bulfinch’s Mythology rather specific dates are assigned: 1056 for the Elder Edda and 1640 for the Younger Edda. However, in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, she speaks of the oldest manuscript of the Elder as dating from circa 1300, some three hundred years after the arrival of Christianity in Iceland, and almost three hundred years after Bulfinch’s date.
Hamilton does state, however, that all of these legends are completely pagan in nature, (thus predating Christianity), and that almost all scholars agree the stories must be much older than the oldest manuscript.
The dates for the Younger Edda are likewise apparently uncertain; Bulfinch’s date of 1640 is hard to reconcile with Hamilton’s statement that the Younger was “written down by one Snorri Sturluson in the last part of the twelfth century.”
Regardless of date, it is agreed the most important collection is the Elder Edda.
These two very long epics furnish the material for almost all of the presently known myths and legends about the ancient gods of the North.
Unfortunately, as Christian missionaries from the Mediterranean area journeyed further north, they systematically destroyed all the pagan artifacts they could find in a remarkably successful attempt to completely obliterate all remnants of the belief system they were replacing.
Only a few fragments of the entire northern European prehistoric collection of myths have been preserved. The legend of Beowulf in England and the Nibelungenlied in Germany are two tales that survived the zeal of the missionaries.
The Eddas are known only from Iceland; apparently Icelandic missionaries were less influential than their counterparts on the continent of Europe — Iceland was one of the last European countries to be Christianized.
All of these surviving legends are essentially gloomy and pessimistic in nature; depressingly so to modern readers.
In Nordic and Germanic mythology the Earth, (Midgard), and Heaven, (Asgard), were destined to be utterly destroyed by the Frost Giants, (who lived in Jötunheim), in a final great battle between Good and Evil, called Ragnarok, (Ragnarok is paralleled by Götterdämmerung in Wagner’s Ring Cycle – see right).
In this final battle, Evil was predestined to win, and the entirety of creation was to be destroyed. The only bright factor in this thoroughly depressing viewpoint was the belief that, in spite of all, if one could die a courageous, heroic death, then all else faded into insignificance.
It is of interest to realize that the Western ideal of heroism and heroic deeds in the face of certain death springs almost entirely from these Nordic myths, and not from the Greek and Roman mythology that most people are more familiar with. (The Greek gods were remarkably un-heroic in their conduct), and of course, this idea of heroism and fighting to the death against any odds would fit very well with the kind of fanatic loyalty sought by Hitler and Himmler.
When Richard Wagner embarked upon the composition of ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, (around 1849), he chose as his framework the Teutonic epic of the Nibelungenlied, (The Norse version of this legend is called the Volsungasaga).
Wagner finished the first two segments, (‘Das Rheingold’ and ‘Die Walküre’), and part of the third, (‘Siegfried’), by 1857, but seventeen years would go by before he would finish the great work with the completion of ‘Siegfried’ and the final music drama in the cycle: ‘Götterdämmerung’.
As mentioned earlier, the Teutonic versions of these myths are very similar to the Nordic versions, differing chiefly in descriptions of climate, and social condition. The Teutonic versions were generally slightly less violent than their Viking equivalents.
In turn, it seems apparent that Wagner again tempered the German tales somewhat; in ‘Tristan und Isolde’, after the hero Tristan is mortally wounded, he is kept alive by the power of love until he is united with his lover, Isolde. After Tristan’s demise in her arms, she is overcome by waves of ecstatic love, and she dies.
As discouraging as this ending may seem, Wagner saw it as the triumph of love in the face of all adversity; not even death could truly defeat it.
Of course, the story steps outside of the bounds of reality somewhere along the way, but this only adds to the transcendent quality of the story and of the music drama itself.
Adolf Hitler’s attraction to Richard Wagner’s music began at an early age. “At the age of twelve, I saw … the first opera of my life, Lohengrin. In one instant I was addicted. My youthful enthusiasm for the Bayreuth Master knew no bounds.”
In 1905, at the age of sixteen, Hitler left school – ostensibly because of illness – and was able to spend his time as he wished – which he later described as the happiest time of his life.
Two of his favorite pastimes were aimlessly roaming the streets of Linz (see right), and attending the opera at night.
He had a passion for music; most especially the mystic operas of Wagner, which he would attend night after night.
His meager supply of pocket money was spent mainly on the opera, (a standing-room ticket cost only the equivalent of ten cents), and on purchasing books on German history and mythology, which he would read for hours at a time.
His fascination with Wagner’s operas seems to have had a profound effect upon him.
His only friend from this period of his life was one August Kubizek, (nicknamed “Gustl”), who gave an interesting description:
“The charged emotionality of this music seemed to have served him as a means for self-hypnosis, while he found in its lush air of bourgeois luxury the necessary ingredients for escapist fantasy”.
Kubizek goes on to relate the events of a particular evening spent in Hitler’s company.
They had attended a performance of Wagner’s ‘Rienzi’, and according to “Gustl”, Hitler had a quite powerful reaction to the opera.
The youthful Adolf was “overwhelmed by the resplendent, dramatic musicality” of the opera, as well as deeply affected by the story therein; that of Cola di Rienzi, a medieval rebel who was an outcast from his fellows and was “destroyed by their incomprehension”. After the opera …
“… Hitler began to orate. Words burst from him like a backed-up flood breaking through crumbling dams. In grandiose, compelling images, he sketched for me his future and that of his people”.
Thirty years later, the boyhood friends would meet again in Bayreuth, and Hitler would remark: “It all began at that hour !”.
More convincing evidence of Wagner’s influences can hardly be wished for after a statement such as this one, but there is more.
Between 1909 and 1913, a time which Hitler described as “the saddest period of my life”, he resided in Vienna.
It was here, by his own statement in Mein Kampf, that he became a confirmed anti-Semite.
The anti-Semitic opinions Richard Wagner had held were no secret, and the concurrence of opinion between these two men could only have served to pull Hitler closer to a greater regard for Wagner.Indeed, Hitler claims to have heard ‘Tristan und Isolde’ thirty to forty times during his years in Vienna.(During these years in Vienna, at the Hofoper opera house alone, at least 426 evenings featured performances of works by Wagner).
In 1923, just before the abortive “Beer-Hall Putsch”, Hitler presented himself at Wahnfried, the home of the Wagner family.
There he met Siegfried Wagner, (Richard Wagner’s only son), and Siegfried’s English born wife Winifred (*see below).
He is said to have sought out the Master’s study, and, deeply moved, stood before Wagner’s grave in the garden for a long time.
Afterwards, he was introduced to Houston Stewart Chamberlain (**see photo below &
‘AN ENGLISHMAN AT THE COURT OF THE KAISER
‘), (Richard Wagner’s English born son-in-law), who was of advanced age and could not speak. Chamberlain later wrote a letter to Hitler voicing his support for Hitler’s goals and ideas.
Hitler valued this letter greatly, almost as if it were “a benediction from the Bayreuth Master himself”.
Hitler continued in his contacts with the family of Wagner, and it is rumoured that he had a relationship with Winifred after Siegfried’s death.
Hitler also became a favourite ‘uncle’ (uncle Wolf), to the Wagner’s two sons, Wieland (left) and Wolfgang (right).
His idea of the supreme expression of opera was the final scene in ‘Götterdämmerung’, and, when in Bayreuth, whenever he witnessed this finale, he would turn around in his darkened box, seek out the hand of Frau Winifred Wagner, and “breathe a deeply moved Handkuss upon it”.
By this time he had seen all of Wagner’s operas countless times, and boasted of having listened to ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and ‘Die Meistersinger’ over a hundred times each.
Other indications of Wagner’s influences are furnished by Albert Speer, who began as Hitler’s chief architect and ended as Reich Armaments Minister.
He speaks of the interior furnishings of Hitler’s country house, the Berghof at Obersalzberg.
The salon was furnished, along with normal items of furniture, with a “sideboard over ten feet high and eighteen feet long” which was used to store phonograph records. Against another wall was “a massive chest containing built-in speakers, and adorned by a large bronze bust of Richard Wagner by Arno Breker“.
The admiration Hitler had for Wagner was reciprocated by the Wagner family; when furnishing this dwelling, the Wagners donated linens and china, and sent Hitler a complete set Richard Wagner’s works, along with a page from the original score of Lohengrin.
There is yet another facet of Hitler’s dwelling at Obersalzberg that shows his sense of unity with Germany’s “heroic” past: the view.
Obersalzberg, as one might imply from the name, is a mountain; high enough to give a good view of the surrounding area.
The Berghof, which was designed by Hitler himself, featured a large picture window which offered a view of the Untersberg, Berchtesgaden, and Mozart’s hometown, Salzburg.
Legend has it that the Emperor Charlemagne still sleeps in the Untersberg, but will someday awaken and restore the German Empire to its past glories.
Hitler didn’t hesitate to apply this prophecy to himself: “You see the Untersberg over there. It is no accident that I have my residence opposite it”.
On the eve of World War II, Hitler’s forces reoccupied the Rhineland. Returning from a triumphal trip through this area, and jubilant over the Allies’ weakness, he requested that some Wagner be put on the phonograph. Listening to the vorspiel to Parsifal, he remarked:
“I have built up my religion out of Parsifal. Divine worship in solemn form … without pretenses of humility … One can serve God only in the garb of the hero“.
The record continued to play.
The next selection was the funeral march from Götterdämmerung, and brought forth the following comments from Hitler:
“I first heard it in Vienna – at the Opera – and I still remember as if it were today“.
The Germanic myths and the dramatic presentation of these myths by Richard Wagner were, very obviously, a central tool of the Nazi Party.
The psychological effects of these music dramas and stories on the principal figures of the Third Reich are equally obvious, when they are looked for.
In Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler, there are no fewer than thirty-four references to Richard Wagner or his music.
And of course, one cannot help but wonder what Richard Wagner would have thought about Adolf Hitler, one of his all-time biggest fans ! However, it was Richard Wagner who declared in his ‘music dramas’ that the coming master race was that of the Germans.
Originally, Nietzsche had delighted in Wagner’s music, but the latter’s obsessive anti-Semitism and conversion to an Aryanised Christianity caused him to denounce the composer with every twist of biting irony at his command.
The great mass of people, however, were to respond more to Wagner’s music than to Nietzsche’s difficult writings, partly because it was great and inspired music and partly because its maker had resurrected the mythology of the German race.
It is said that myths are the truest expression of a race’s spirit and culture, and in ‘The Ring’ the Teutonic ‘Supermen’ bestrode a stage, wherein was war, treachery, courage, blood and fire, climaxed with a stupendous ‘Götterdämmerung’.
The world of Wotan and Thor, heroes and giants, great deeds, great victories, and great destruction had never been expressed with such power.
The beauty of Wagner’s music moved men to such an extent that Hitler would declare that to understand National Socialist Germany one must first know Wagner.
For Wagner believed that the virtues of the Teuton tribes had atrophied with the coming of industrial civilisation; that courage and will had been poisoned or emasculated by capitalism and race pollution; that the Jews were responsible for the enervation and enslavement of the German spirit; and that a new Siegfried must arise to lead the Germans to an awareness of their greatness and their glory.
Schopenauer (see right) destroyed the meaning of values, Nietzsche proclaimed the need for passing beyond them, and Wagner supplied a new set to replace the old.
These three men, renowned more posthumously than in their own lifetimes, challenged the world of 1889 and became, in time, the favourites of Adolf Hitler.
From them he derived what fundamental values he possessed.
It is impossible to tell whether these men expressed what they felt around them, or what they sensed would be the future; or whether they were determined to stamp their wills upon the world.
Were they prophets? Or were they magicians?
We know that Nietzsche derived much of his inspiration from mystical trances which possessed him without warning, and that his greatest work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, was inspired by one such experience in the winter of 1882-3.
We know also that Wagner claimed that the sources of his inspiration flowed from similar supra-rational experiences, and the effect of this can be seen in that extraordinary mystical opera, ‘Parsifal’.
Whatever the truth, it is at least certain that much of what they foretold, later came to pass.
Yet the world of 1889 ignored these insignificant portents of change.
People continued to live as though nothing important had happened or would happen, and no one so much as deigned to notice the birth of Adolf Hitler.
Treaties and contracts were made and broken; money was won and lost; children were educated as though all was absolutely certain.
Books were written and read which taught Christian, bourgeois, industrial capitalist, materialist, humanist European values as if no other could ever be of the slightest relevance.
And yet it was these books which lacked all relevance.
‘And what doeth the saint in the forest?’ asked Zarathustra.
The saint answered: ‘I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God.
‘With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the God who is my God. But what dost thou bring us as a gift?’
When Zarathustra had heard these words, he bowed to the saint and said: ‘What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!’
And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys.
When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: ‘Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!”
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Der Bayreuther Kreis
Der Bayreuther Kreis (The Bayreuth Circle) was a name originally applied by some writers to devotees of Richard Wagner’s music who attended and supported the annual Bayreuth Festival in the later 19th and early twentieth centuries.
Many of these devotees espoused nationalistic German politics, and were supporters of Adolf Hitler from the 1920s onwards, and therefore this group of people were directly associated with the rise of Nazism.
There was never any organisation named Der Bayreuther Kreis, or any group of people who identified themselves by that name; but the term has been used by many historians as a convenient label for Hitler supporters associated with Wagner and Bayreuth.
Examples of such association are given in the following citations:
‘Only with timely support from the Bayreuth circle, especially Houston S. Chamberlain, Winifred Wagner, and henchmen like Dietrich Eckhart in the Thule Society, could Hitler assume the public image of a Wotan/Siegfried figure, complete with telling nickname: “Wolf.” ‘
‘Thus Hitler himself admitted: `It was Cosima Wagner’s merit to have created the link between Bayreuth and National Socialism’.
‘It was the Bayreuth circle which raised Wagner’s message to the status of gospel, manoeuvring his ideas into a Germanic doctrine of salvation.’
‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’
The cycle is a work of extraordinary scale.
Perhaps the most outstanding facet of the monumental work is its sheer length: a full performance of the cycle takes place over four nights at the opera, with a total playing time of about 15 hours, depending on the conductor’s pacing.
The first and shortest opera, ‘Das Rheingold’, typically lasts two and a half hours, while the final and longest, ‘Götterdämmerung’, takes up four and a half hours.
The cycle is modelled after ancient Greek dramas that were presented as three tragedies and one satyr play.
‘The Ring’ proper begins with ‘Die Walküre’ and ends with ‘Götterdämmerung’, with ‘Rheingold’ as a prelude.
Wagner called ‘Das Rheingold’ a Vorabend or “Preliminary Evening”, and ‘Die Walküre’, ‘Siegfried’ (see left below) and ‘Götterdämmerung’ were subtitled First Day, Second Day and Third Day, respectively, of the trilogy proper.
The scale and scope of the story is epic.
It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic Ring that grants domination over the entire world.
The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.
The music of the cycle is thick and richly textured, and grows in complexity as the cycle proceeds.
Wagner wrote for an orchestra of gargantuan proportions, including a greatly enlarged brass section with new instruments such as the ‘Wagner tuba’ (see left), bass trumpet and contrabass trombone.
Remarkably, he uses a chorus only relatively briefly, in acts 2 and 3 of ‘Götterdämmerung’, and then mostly of men with just a few women.
He eventually had a purpose-built theatre constructed, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which to perform this work.
The theatre has a special stage that blends the huge orchestra with the singers’ voices, allowing them to sing at a natural volume.
The result was that the singers do not have to strain themselves vocally during the long performances.
Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle begins when the dwarf Alberich rejects love in order to gain unlimited power over the world by forging a Ring of Power from the Rhinegold.
The rejection of love is the only possible way of seizing this gold from the Rhine Maidens who had teased and taunted Alberich’s love.
Once Alberich has seized the gold he forges it into a ring and a magical helmet (the Tarnhelm) that allows all who don it to shift shape at will and cross great distances in an instant.
When the god Wotan is himself allured by the wealth of the gold and power of the ring – stealing them from Alberich in order to pay for a great hall of the gods (Valhalla), the embittered dwarf curses the ring with a spell – ensuring that it will henceforth bring about the death and downfall of all who wear it.
Only the Earth goddess Erda, embodiment of primordial wisdom, and Loge – the luciferic fire spirit upon whom Wotan has relied – recognise the full pathos of what will befall both gods and mortals if the Ring is not returned to its source in the Rhine.
This is ultimately achieved not by the naïve and fearless hero Siegfried, nor by his loveless rival, the son of Alberich but by Siegfried’s lover Brünnhilde – (see right).
She is a female warrior, a ‘death angel’ or Valkyrie born of Erda’s violation by Wotan.
In the symbolism of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, rejection of love in favour of power over, and the enforced submission of female gods and mortals combine to bring about a loss of inner power and knowledge.
In the end Wotan regains the wisdom lost to Erda only by willingly submitting to the fate imposed by the power of the Ring.
He does so by encouraging Brunnhilde to follow her own loving instincts for both Siegfried and himself – knowing full well that this will eventually bring about the downfall or ‘Twilight’ of the gods, but knowing at the same time that only this will save mankind and redeem the world.
The epic ends with Brünnhilde flinging the ring back into the Rhine – whose luciferic flames then rise to engulf Valhalla and cause its collapse.
The gods – hitherto embodiments of inner power and knowledge – fall prey to the allure of outer symbols of that power and knowledge (gold, heroic victory in war, and the grand fortress of Valhalla that is home to dead heroes).
Thus bringing about their own downfall, they now await their return – no longer as gods but as human beings – loving men and women of inner power and inner knowledge.
Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner.
It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail, and on Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail. Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later.
It was to be Wagner’s last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular acoustics of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882.
The Bayreuth Festival maintained a monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as “ein Bühnenweihfestspiel” – “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”.
At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera. Wagner’s spelling of Parsifal instead of the Parzival he had used up to 1877 is informed by an erroneous etymology of the name Percival deriving it from a supposedly Arabic origin, Fal Parsi meaning “pure fool”.
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* Winifred Wagner
Winifred Wagner (23 June 1897 – 5 March 1980) was an English-born Welsh woman married to Siegfried Wagner, Richard Wagner’s son
She was the effective head of the Wagner family from 1930 to 1945, and a close friend of German dictator Adolf Hitler.
Winifred Williams was born Winifred Marjorie Williams in Hastings, England, the daughter of John Williams, a writer, and his wife, the former Emily Florence Karop.
Winifred lost both her parents before the age of two and was initially raised in a series of homes. Eight years later she was adopted by a distant German relative of her mother, Henrietta Karop, and her husband Karl Klindworth, a musician and a friend of Richard Wagner.
The Bayreuth Festival was envisioned as a family business, with the leadership to be passed from Richard Wagner to his son Siegfried Wagner, but Siegfried, who was secretly homosexual, showed little interest in marriage.
It was arranged that Winifred Klindworth, as she was called at the time, aged 17, would meet Siegfried Wagner, aged 45, at the Bayreuth Festival in 1914.A year later they were married. It was hoped that the marriage would end Siegfried’s homosexual encounters and the associated costly scandals, and provide an heir to carry on the family business. Following their marriage on 22 September 1915, they had four children in rapid succession: Wieland (1917–1966), Friedelind (1918–1991), Wolfgang (1919–2010) and Verena (born 1920). After the death of Siegfried Wagner in 1930, Winifred Wagner took over the Bayreuth Festival, running it until the end of World War II.
In 1923, Winifred met Adolf Hitler who, as we have seen earlier, greatly admired Wagner’s music.
When Hitler was jailed for his part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Winifred sent him food parcels and stationery on which Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf may have been written. In the late 1930s, she served as Hitler’s personal translator during treaty negotiations with England. Although Winifred remained personally faithful to Hitler, she denied that she had ever supported the Nazi party. Her relationship with Hitler grew so close that by 1933 there were rumors of impending marriage.
‘Haus Wahnfried’, the Wagner home in Bayreuth, became Hitler’s favorite retreat, and he had his own separate accommodation in the grounds of Wahnfried, known as the Führerbau.
Hitler gave the festival government assistance and tax exempt status, and treated Winifred’s children, particularly Wieland and Wolfgang solicitously.
According to biographer Brigitte Hamann, Winifred Wagner was reported to be “disgusted” by Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. In one notable incident, in the late 1930s, a letter from her to Hitler prevented Hedwig and Alfred Pringsheim (their daughter Katia was married to Thomas Mann) from being arrested by the Gestapo.
According to Gottfried Wagner, Winifred’s grandson, she never admitted the error of her ways. After the war, her posthumous devotion to the man she cryptically referred to as “USA” – for ‘Unser Seliger Adolf’ (our blessed Adolf) – remained undimmed.
She corresponded with Hitler for nearly two decades.
Scholars have not been allowed to see the letters which are kept locked away by one of Winifred’s grandchildren, Amélie Lafferentz.
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|© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013