Wagner Festival Confronts Controversial Past

Bayreuth Looks Back at a History of Music and Politics

Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.
A.J. Goldmann
Blue Man Group: This year, Wagner gnomes are ubiquitous at the Bayreuth Festival.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published August 02, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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On the occasion of the Bayreuth Festival the Grüner Hügel, or Green Hill, that is home to the Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus was littered with 500 multicolored “mini-Wagners” — garden-gnomelike figurines of the composer, hands raised as if ready to conduct. These cute statuettes share the hill with an outdoor exhibition, “Silenced Voices,” honoring 53 Jewish singers, musicians and conductors who performed at the festival before World War II. One of the earliest was conductor Hermann Levi, who led the premiere of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final, mystical opera, in 1882. To the left and right of the massive bust of Wagner, designed by Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, are the biographies of Bayreuth musicians who perished in the Holocaust. At the top of the hill is the Bayreuther Festspielhaus, the opera house designed by the composer himself both as the perfect performance venue for his operas and as a den of worship for his most ardent admirers.

For much of the festival’s history, the spirit of levity coupled with introspection evidenced by the Wagner-gnomes and the “Silenced Voices” exhibition would have been unthinkable. This mixture of irreverence about the cult of Wagner, alongside the sobriety of the festival and the role it played during the Third Reich speaks volumes about the character of the modern-day festival, which opened on July 25 with a performance of Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”).

Bayreuth is still the most exclusive and prestigious cultural event in Germany, and both Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and its president, Joachim Gauck, attended the opening of the festival. This year’s installment has been especially momentous because of the composer’s bicentennial. The Wagnerjahr, as it is succinctly called here, is being celebrated throughout the country with a seemingly endless spate of operas, concerts, magazine cover stories and newly published books. Bayreuth’s new production of the “Ring” cycle by the controversial Berlin director Frank Castorf is the undisputed climax of the Germany-wide Wagner-rama.

Wagner’s notorious (and notoriously public) anti-Semitism, coupled with the high-ranking Nazis who held his works in great esteem, has left a deep stain on his reputation and that of his music. To this day, Israel still famously observes an unofficial ban on performing Wagner. But the history of the Bayreuth Festival, run exclusively by members of the Wagner family since its opening in 1876, is far more damning of its reputation than either the composer’s racist beliefs or Hitler’s musical tastes.

Though Wagner built the Festspielhaus as a shrine to himself and his music, the festival embraced reactionary politics well before the Nazis took power in 1933. Unlike many other cultural institutions that operated during the Third Reich, the involvement of the Bayreuth Festival went far beyond merely lending cultural prestige to the regime. In the wake of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, the festival became a haven for members of the then-banned Nazi Party and their supporters. The 1924 festival in particular, which General Erich Ludendorff, one of the key players in Hitler’s 1923 putsch, attended as a guest of honor, had the character of a Nazi rally. The festival program that year described Wagner as “The führer of German art.” One could say that Bayreuth supported Hitler long before Hitler supported Bayreuth. Hitler never forgot the Wagner family’s friendship and support, and remained lifelong friends with Winifred — the English-born wife of the composer’s son Siegfried — whom he would visit annually. He would play with the little Wagner children, Wieland and Wolfgang, who called Hitler “Uncle Wolf.”


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