This is a fascinating biography of Wagner’s granddaughter Friedelind (1918-1991) who for too long has been wrongly labelled as the black sheep of the notoriously dysfunctional Wagner family. They have forever argued among themselves, in particular since the rise and fall of Nazism and in a way that is reminiscent of the quarrel between the brother giants Fafner and Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold
. The analogy is the more striking if one views the premature death of the hugely talented opera director Wieland Wagner in 1966 as that of Fasolt’s murder by his brother (Wolfgang/Fafner) in the struggle for ownership of the Ring
/Bayreuth Festival. The curse laid upon it by Alberich had passed from operatic fiction to a fact of life.
Friedelind was the second child of Wagner’s only son Siegfried and was particularly close to her father, so his unexpected death in 1930 was a great shock to the twelve year-old child. Her teenage years paralleled those of the rise of Nazism in Germany and a family friend was the Wagner-obsessed Adolf Hitler, who invariably dropped in for tea at Bayreuth with Friedelind’s widowed mother, Winifred née
Williams. Winifred, a British-born orphan adopted and raised by a member of the Wagner circle, Karl Klindworth, and eventually married off to Siegfried Wagner - whose homosexuality was threatening the prospects of furthering the Wagner dynasty - and they had four children.
Friedelind was nothing if not strong-willed and developed a love-hate relationship with her mother until the latter’s death in 1980, unrepentant of her admiration for Hitler to the last, completely blind to the hideous evil that drove him. During the post-war years Winifred had regular visits from Mrs Goering and Mrs Hess for tea at Wahnfried; only the absence of Mrs Hitler (Eva Braun) prevented a hand or two of bridge to complete the domestic picture.
This biography is as much about Winifred and Friedelind’s younger brother Wolfgang (who succeeded Wieland as Festival Director) as it is about Friedelind herself.
Friedelind’s life was nomadic (‘she had no permanent address, practically lived in her car’) and only ever found contentment in her final years when she settled in Lausanne. Initially spellbound by Nazism, after several years she vehemently turned against it and fled from Germany in 1939, first to England - where she was interned on the Isle of Man until Toscanini interceded successfully on her behalf - and then to North America. When the war was over she returned to Europe but not to Bayreuth where she was more often than not banned as an unwelcome traitor, who had deserted country and family. This was no ordinary family but one bearing the surname Wagner, indeed it had been made perfectly clear to Winifred and her children by the Gestapo that Friedelind’s treachery - when she arrived in the USA she lectured, wrote articles and broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda - would have cost them all arrest and deportation to a concentration camp had they not been Wagners and had they not had Hitler’s protection. After the war Friedelind directed an opera just once (Lohengrin
at Bielefeld in 1968) but she was an opera director manquée
and instead stood in awe of others such as Walter Felsenstein or Joachim Herz and lectured on their work as well as setting up highly successful - artistically if not financially – master-classes in all aspects of opera and theatre. Her post-war autobiography also proved provocative, starting with its title Heritage of fire
. Her many schemes included building a flexible theatre to get away from the proscenium arch structure and free up the whole interior space. Bizarrely it brought her to Teesside, the north-east corner of England where, coincidentally, such a building was being planned. Suffice to say and in keeping with the ups and downs of her life and career, it all ended in tears in the 1970s after just a few years.
Chris Walton’s translation of Eva Rieger’s compelling narrative reads well, although there’s one glaring error, namely ‘Richard Wagner’s 100th birthday in 1983’, which was the anniversary marking the centenary of his death. Unsurprisingly Friedelind continues to make waves today by raising as many questions as answers. One of many unresolved frustrations came to light after Winifred’s death when it was revealed that to her favourite granddaughter Amélie Hohmann (a daughter of Verena, Siegfried and Winifred’s youngest child) she had entrusted not only Hitler’s letters to Winifred but also those to her from Friedelind from the USA during the 1940s. ‘She possesses these documents down to the present day (2012) and ignores all requests to make them available for scholarly purposes’. In view of the machinations and intrigues so endemic in that family it seems unlikely that they will ever come to light. Barenboim said of Friedelind - who recognised his gifts when he was still a young boy - that she had hair like Franz Liszt and the profile of Richard Wagner. She mixed with and earned the respect of the greatest musicians such as conductors Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer and Bernstein as well as singers Anja Silja and Frida Leider. She had the stubbornness and tenacity of her aunts, particularly Isolde (the disinherited daughter of Wagner and Cosima) and Daniela (daughter of Cosima and her first husband Hans von Bülow). While she appeared thick-skinned, she had to deal with her own demons … which included her demonic family. Whilst she was renowned for generosity of spirit despite her ineptness in financial matters, she also had an eye for talent and, according to one beneficiary, ‘put all our lives and careers in an uplifted orbit’. Her story made an equally uplifting read.
2 A 'giant Easter egg'. Mausi's home and family
3 The noisy child. 1924 to 1931
4 'She should learn to cope with drudgery'. At boarding school. 1931 to 1935
5 'Impudent, endearing and witty'. Friedelind and her aunts. 1936 to 1937
6 'Is it German, what Hitler has done for you?' 1938 to 1939
7 'It's precisely because I'm German that I'm not living in Germany'. The farewell. 1940
8 In England, behind barbed wire. 1940 to 1941
9 'My heart is overflowing'. From Buenos Aires to New York. 1941 to 1943
10 'Only you could still save our inheritance!' 1943 to 1945
11 After the War is over. 1946 to 1950
12 Friedelind returns. 1950 to 1955
13 The master classes begin. 1956 to 1960
14 Heyday of the master classes and their end. 1960 to 1966
15 Sibling conflict. 1967 to 1970
16 Schemes and setbacks. The 1970s
17 A foster mother, a guiding light'. The 1980s
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