Richard Wagner's Bicentennial Sparks Effort to Split Music and Anti-Semitism

Hitler's Favorite Composer Gave Himself Black Eye With Bias

Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.
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Hateful Genius: German composer Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite but a giant of the music world. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, there are more efforts to disentangle those two facts.

By Reuters

Published January 27, 2013.
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“He was a real entertainer, like a Las Vegas entertainer,” Kohler said, adding that Wagner’s “genius gave him not a multiple personality because the different personalities knew of each other, but I would say he had multiple identities.

“There were really opposites in him that can’t be easily reconciled because they are opposites.”


Some of those personality traits have been passed down from generation to generation in the famously feuding Wagner clan, and all its branches, whose lives read like a soap opera that regularly commands the attention of the German and world press.

Power struggles over who would control the festival, and the Wagner legacy, have pitted mother against children, children against siblings and different branches of the clan against each other. The German state and the town of Bayreuth now run it, with family members sitting on the board of directors and having artistic control.

One great grandson coaxed the then-septuagenarian Winifred Wagner, the English-born widow of Wagner’s son Siegfried, into revealing her affection for Hitler to a filmmaker in the 1970s: “If Hitler were to walk in through that door now, for instance, I’d be as happy and glad to see and have him here as ever…”

In their way the family machinations, and the concern of some Wagner researchers, among them Millington, that important correspondence between Winifred and Hitler is mouldering away under lock and key in a Munich bank vault, out of public view, are a good public relations gimmick, archivist Friedrich said.

The documents in the vault have been “Fafnerised”, he said, referring to the dragon in the “Ring” who sits on his hoard of gold stolen from the Rhine maidens, including the accursed ring that gives its wearer supreme power. It is all part of what he called the “myth” that makes the family interesting.

Those myths, but particularly the ones Wagner fashioned out of old Norse legends and other sources, some of them brought to his attention by his Jewish friends and acquaintances, are what draw audiences to the treasure trove of Wagner today.

American stage director Francesca Zambello said she had reimagined Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for a production that focused on greed and power for Washington and on the destruction of the environment when she tailored it for San Francisco.

“I think Wagner’s music feels contemporary…The themes, the characters, the emotions, they resonate with a contemporary audience. Wagner, more than any other composer, can be interpreted in a variety of approaches because his works are mythic and mythic can mean the past, the present and the future,” she said in a telephone interview.

And Wagner does have a future in the eyes of some of the young people who will be around to mark his 250th birthday.

“I just know every opera from Wagner is very long but what I know, what I hear, I like,” Tomas Ottych, 32, of Brno, Czech Republic, said, passing a plaque mounted on a wall in Leipzig that marks the spot where Wagner’s birth house stood in 1813.

Ottych, a ballet dancer who will perform in a production to mark the bicentenary, said Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s fondness for him were beside the point.

“I mean, it’s past, and his music is forever,” he said.

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