The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner

As the faithful flock to the Bayreuth Festival in his bicentennial year, the spellbinding German composer continues to fascinate, inspire and infuriate

This bronze portrait bust of German composer Richard Wagner, sculptured by artist Arno Breker, resides in Bayreuth, Germany, home of the annual festival honoring his work. (Getty Images)

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Born in Leipzig in 1813 and politically exiled to Zurich and Paris for more than a decade following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848–49, Wagner struggled for much of his early career to gain the recognition and rewards he felt were his due. He was quarrelsome, grandiose, manipulative—by many accounts an awful character. “He used women, deceived friends and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle,” Dirk Kurbjuweit writes in Spiegel Online International. Even worse, from Wagner’s perspective, his operas were widely misunderstood and outright scorned by many of his contemporaries. “The Prelude to Tristan und Islode reminds me of the old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel,” the noted critic Eduard Hanslick wrote in 1868. “Wagner is clearly insane,” suggested the composer Hector Berlioz. Taking a gentler approach, the 19th-century American humorist Bill Nye ventured, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”—a line frequently misattributed to Mark Twain, a Wagner enthusiast, who enjoyed quoting it.

By the time of his death in Venice in 1883, however, Wagner had become a cultural superstar. Wagner societies cropped up across the globe. He was hailed as the avatar of a new artistic order, the hero of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, “the idol of the impressionists, realists, decadents, postimpressionists, and modernists down to Proust and Thomas Mann,” the historian Jacques Barzun says in the 1958 edition of  Darwin, Marx, Wagner.

However powerful to non-Germans, Wagner’s works struck an even deeper chord with his countrymen, especially in the heady days that followed Germany’s unification in 1871. He had become a national symbol, like Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante. There was an ugly side to Wagner’s conception of nationhood, however: He favored a Germany uncorrupted by Jewish influence, spelling out his views in a notorious pamphlet, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewry in Music), which helped put wind in the sails of a nascent ultra-nationalist movement that fed on widespread hostility to Jews. “Yet even amid the chorus of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, Wagner’s rantings stood out for their malicious intensity,” writes the music historian and New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who is writing a book on Wagner.

After his death, the composer’s widow Cosima Wagner (the daughter of Franz Liszt) solidified Bayreuth’s identity as the spiritual center of the movement. Wagner’s son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain became its intellectual leader, much admired by the young Hitler. As the future dictator rose in the 1920s, the Wagner family embraced him publicly. When Hitler was imprisoned following the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923, Winifred Wagner, Richard’s daughter-in-law, brought him the paper on which he wrote Mein Kampf. (She died in 1980, still believing in his greatness.) As chancellor, Hitler became a regular guest at Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus: Bayreuth had become “Hitler’s court theater,” in Thomas Mann’s well-known phrase—a reputation which dogs the festival to this day, as do any vestiges of cultism.

Philippe Jordan admits that he hesitated to go to Bayreuth before he was engaged to conduct Parsifal at the festival last year. “I always was fascinated by Wagner and I always loved him, but I wanted to avoid the ‘German’ Wagner and this kind of pilgrimage which you associate with Wagner and Bayreuth, a kind of fanaticism,” says Jordan, who will conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra next season. “Wagner is not just a German composer for me—he’s universal. He was the very first pan-European composer.”

In the end, Bayreuth’s genial atmosphere and idyllic setting were a pleasant surprise, Jordan found, and very conducive to performing. “The people there are not fanatics—they just adore his music.” He adds, “Music, by itself, is not political. Music itself cannot be anti-Semitic. Notes are notes, and music is music.”


Needless to say, Germany has changed dramatically since 1945, and today is arguably the best governed and best behaved major power in the world. On the lovely grounds of the Bayreuth Festival Park, just below the opera house, an outdoor exhibition, Verstummte Stimmen (Silenced Voices), individually commemorates the Jewish artists who had been banned from Bayreuth in its darkest period; a number of them were eventually murdered in death camps. The heroic bust of Wagner fashioned by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, glares at the tall memorial placards. “Germany is the only country that has constructed monuments lamenting its most shameful episode,” Avo Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, commented in Bayreuth at the opening of the exhibition in July 2012.       

The association of Wagner and Nazi Germany remains so firm that his music is not yet performed publicly in Israel. “There is still the feeling, which I respect, that as long as there are Holocaust survivors, we don’t have to force it on them, not in public places,” explains Gabriela Shalev, an Israeli college president and former U.N. ambassador, who attended the Bayreuth Festival a year ago and was greatly moved. “We can listen to it at home, with friends. Most of us go abroad—people who want to hear Wagner can hear him in London, in New York, in Munich.” Shalev’s maternal grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz, but she grew up in a German-speaking home surrounded by German books and culture. Her parents listened to Beethoven and Wagner. “So this is part of the ambivalence that I as a Jew and Israeli bought to Bayreuth,” she says.

The Jewish conductors James Levine and Daniel Barenboim are among the leading interpreters of Wagner in our time, at Bayreuth and elsewhere. Leonard Bernstein was another whose love of the music kept him performing Wagner in spite of profound misgivings. The late New York Philharmonic conductor explored his conflicts in an unreleased 1985 documentary segment filmed, appropriately enough, in Sigmund Freud’s examination room at 19 Berggasse in Vienna. He asked:


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