Extracts from Gottfried Wagner’s Afp interview with Simon Morgan have been widely quoted in newspapers and, in some instances, traduced. We reprint the complete interview below, in which Gottfried takes issue not just with his ancestor and siblings but with conductor Christian Thielemann, who has declared Wagner’s music to be apolitical.
As the musical world lavishly celebrates Richard Wagner’s bicentenary, the composer’s great-grandson insists he is no spoilsport by denouncing the German master as a narcissist, woman-hater and an anti-Semite.
“I’m not out to make people feel guilty. It’s not my wish to have Richard Wagner banned. I’m just not one of the adulators, the incense-burners,” Gottfried Wagner told AFP in an interview.
There is no mistaking who Gottfried is descended from.
The resemblance is striking: the same prominent nose and high forehead that have marked out most of Wagner’s descendants.
But the 66-year-old musicologist, writer and lecturer sets himself apart from the other members of the sprawling Wagner clan by refusing, as he sees it, to sweep under the carpet the darker side of one of history’s most controversial composers.
The son of the late Wolfgang Wagner — the patriarch who ruled over the legendary annual music festival dedicated to 10 of the composer’s operas for nearly 60 years — Gottfried learnt the price of rebellion early.
“I was carted off to boarding school for spraying red paint” on the famous bust of Richard Wagner by Arno Breker, Adolf Hitler’s favourite sculptor, Gottfried explains.
The bust still stands in the park in front of the legendary Festspielhaus theatre built to Wagner’s own designs in Bayreuth, southern Germany, which remains a place of fervent pilgrimage for Wagner lovers and aficionados.
“I was classified as difficult. But I stand by what I did even today,” even if the act of vandalism was more a gut reaction than a planned intellectual protest, Gottfried explains.
“I saw him as a threat,” he says.
Gottfried has indeed been seen as the black sheep of the Wagner family ever since, cemented by the 1977 publication of his autobiography “He Who Doesn’t Howl with the Wolf”.
In it he called for the voluminous private correspondence between Hitler and the Wagner family dating from 1923 until 1945 to be made public, as well as 27 rolls of private film footage, all still kept under lock and key.
But Gottfried’s half-sister Katharina Wagner — who co-runs the Bayreuth Festival with Eva Wagner-Pasquier — has dampened hopes that the Hitler letters would be published any time soon, telling Tagesspiegel newspaper that all of the different Wagner heirs must agree to it.
In Gottfried’s latest book, “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me”, released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, he examines the deep-rooted anti-Semitism and misogyny that runs through the composer’s works.
“It’s not about spoiling (Wagner) for people. But there is nothing to be gained from whitewashing him and idealising him. Massive personalities such as Richard Wagner are not untouchable,” the composer’s great-grandson says.
— ‘I refuse to be in a soap opera’—
In addition to his 13 completed operas, Richard Wagner was a prolific writer and theorist.
One of his nastiest publications was an anti-Semitic pamphlet “Judaism in Music”, which he first published under a pseudonym in 1850, but then revised and released under his own name in 1869.
Wagner’s oeuvre “includes a whole range of racist and sexist writings”, Gottfried Wagner says.
“He developed his own racial theories, too. Obscene racism. And with our knowledge today, we can’t just ignore it and say ‘it’s all just beautiful music’”.
The different branches of the Wagner dynasty have waged a long internecine feud for control of the Bayreuth Festival.
But Gottfried, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Kurt Weill and other composers branded “degenerate” by the Nazis, says he never wanted any part in that battle.
“I made that clear very early. There was never any question for me that I would take over from my father. I want to retain my independence. I see my stance as an ethical one. I refuse to be an actor in a soap opera,” he says.
Gottfried says he has no truck with those he describes as Wagner’s “apologists” who refuse to acknowledge the role the composer played in paving the way for Nazism in Germany.
German conductor Christian Thielemann, the Bayreuth Festival’s unofficial musical director, contends in his own recent book entitled “My Life with Wagner” that music is per se non-political and that a “C-major chord is just a C-major chord”.
But Gottfried is dismissive of such statements.
“Wagner uses tonalities in a very concrete context. Not by chance. It always has a message,” he says.
He sees a direct link between Wagner’s music and the lust for political power.
Hitler himself was a regular visitor to the festival and a personal friend of the Wagner family.
Modern politicians still vie for attention on the red carpet at Bayreuth’s glitzy opening night.
“It’s all about self-adulation. That’s what brings people to Bayreuth and what Richard Wagner delivers par excellence. Bayreuth will always be political,” says Gottfried.
“And if Chancellor Angela Merkel is there, you can’t just say it’s all just about beautiful music.”