Wagner, Friedelind (1918–1991)

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Wagner, Friedelind (1918–1991)

German author and lecturer, granddaughter of Richard Wagner, who broke with her family's tradition of nationalism and racism and fled Nazi Germany while maintaining her influential link with Wagnerian scholarship . Born in Bayreuth, Germany, on March 29, 1918; died in Herdecke, Germany, on May 8, 1991; daughter of Siegfried Wagner and Winifred (Williams) Wagner; granddaughter of Richard Wagner and Cosima Wagner (1837–1930);had brothers Wieland, Wolfgang and sister Verena; never married.

From the day of her birth in 1918, Friedelind Wagner had little choice but to cope with the legacy—and burden—of being a descendant of one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time, Richard Wagner. The fact that the Wagner legacy was not only a musical one but also represented a cultural and political agenda, one that emphasized a German mission that was hostile to Jews and other alien influences, represented another challenge. A final issue facing Friedelind as she grew up was her mother Winifred Wagner 's uncritical support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi ideology. That she was able to survive and even prevail over these challenges is a testimonial to her strength of character.

Friedelind Wagner was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on March 29, 1918. Her name, Friedelind, was derived from the female heroine in her father's opera Der Schmied von Marien-burg (The Smith of Marienburg), the composition he was working on at the time she was born. From birth, her family legacy was an extraordinary one. Her father Siegfried Wagner was the only son of Richard Wagner and Cosima Wagner , whose father had been another of the musical giants of the 19th century, Franz Liszt. Friedelind's mother Winifred was born in England in 1897, but at age ten she had been adopted by a German musician, Karl Klindworth, whose wife was a cousin of Richard Wagner.

Friedelind grew up in Bayreuth, home of annual Wagner Festivals since 1876, in a bustling environment that included her sister Verena Wagner and brothers Wieland and Wolfgang. The Wagner household included not only four children but three maids, a gardener, a cook, a nanny named Emma Baer , a music teacher, Fräulein Anna Mann , and two servants for the elderly lady always looming in the background—Siegfried's widowed mother Cosima. Friedelind and her siblings were instructed never to mention Richard Wagner in their grandmother's presence, but this did not prevent them from playing with items The Master had left in his study when he died in 1883 and which had lain untouched there ever since. Friedelind adored her father Siegfried, who not only ran the Wagner Festivals but was a conductor and composer of operas in his own right. He allowed her to attend rehearsals, and was always patient with her, never acting as if his precocious daughter were in the way. As a child, Friedelind was known in family circles as Mausi (little mouse) or Die Maus (the mouse), an affectionate nickname she was to retain throughout her life within a growing clan of Wagner nieces and nephews.

The Wagner Festivals attracted music lovers from all over the world, but for some Richard Wagner embodied not only great music and musical drama but a message of cultural and political redemption as well. Among Wagner's less attractive traits was his ability to hate. For much of his life, Richard disseminated a political message as well as an artistic one, the most unattractive element of which was his hatred of what he was convinced were destructive Jewish influences in modern civilization. In his essay Das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism in Music) and elsewhere, Richard Wagner attacked Jews as the enemies of all that was profound and authentic in culture. After his death in 1883, Cosima kept her husband's "ideals" alive, and her son-in-law, English-born Houston Stewart Chamberlain, wrote influential books that fleshed out Wagner-ian anti-Semitism along more modern racist lines. Cosima would remain loyal to these doctrines until her death in 1930. Even more important, Cosima's daughter-in-law Winifred, who married Siegfried in 1915, became an uncritical believer in such extreme views. In the early 1920s, she was attracted to Adolf Hitler's fledgling Nazi Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP), becoming one of its pioneer members.

Siegfried Wagner, on the other hand, never shared his wife's ultra-Teutonic racist beliefs. As early as 1921, when an influential Viennese critic and anti-Semite advocated that as director of Bayreuth Siegfried should prohibit Jews from performing at or even attending the festival, Siegfried refused. In an eloquent letter of response, Siegfried repudiated the anti-Semitic argument, emphasizing Bayreuth's freedom from racial bias and formulating its aim as being that of "a true work of peace." Until his sudden death in 1930, many Jewish singers such as Friedrich Schorr were invited to perform on the Bayreuth stage.

After Siegfried Wagner's death, the situation at Bayreuth rapidly changed. Friedelind, only 12 at the time, was devastated by the loss, and her sole consolation was the beginning that year of a lifelong friendship with the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, about whom she would later write, "It was as if in the hour of my father's death, heaven sent me another." The aged Cosima Wagner died that same year, and Winifred Wagner found herself thrust into a leadership role in both the family and the Festival. Winifred became ever more intoxicated with the Nazi movement, which was now aspiring to power in Germany, and enjoyed a close relationship with Hitler (unfounded rumors circulated about their imminent marriage). What was certain was that in the early 1930s Hitler was indeed a frequent visitor in the Wagner household, and with Winifred's encouragement he assumed the role of a surrogate father for the Wagner children. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Friedelind would sometimes lunch with the Führer. On these occasions, the bright and intellectually independent teenager sometimes offered her criticisms of Nazi policies, which not surprisingly would enrage Hitler.

By the time she was in her late teens, Friedelind Wagner's personality was fully formed. Years later, she characterized herself in a few words: "I was always stubborn and independent." Like others in her family, she was not only intelligent and artistically inclined but strong-willed as well. Her antipathy toward the Nazis had increased over the years, and she differed with her mother not only over Nazi ideals and policies in general, but in particular over the blatant propaganda uses Hitler and his regime had made of the Wagner Festivals. She was particularly upset when, during the Festivals, the Wagner family villa, Wahnfried, and its grounds were filled with ominous-appearing SS troops and Hitler's personal bodyguard, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Friedelind not only disagreed with her mother over Nazism, but found Hitler abhorrent, noting: "I had only to listen to Hitler rant and rave to be disgusted and horrified."

On the eve of World War II, Friedelind decided to leave Germany and a family environment in which she could no longer live. Fortunately, she had a place to escape to, Lucerne, Switzerland, where she was given refuge by her two aged aunts who resided at the Triebschen villa that had long since entered into Wagnerian lore as the site of the first performance in 1870 of Richard Wagner's tender serenade for his infant son, the "Siegfried Idyll." In the summer of 1939, only weeks before the outbreak of the bloodiest war in history, Friedelind and her aunts found themselves among a few invited guests for a unique performance of the "Siegfried Idyll" conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Uncertain about whether she could continue to stay in Switzerland, Friedelind was assured of safety when Toscanini arranged with the mayor of Lucerne that she could remain in the country. Some months later, with Europe already engulfed in war, Friedelind was visited by her mother Winifred. Winifred told her daughter

that her anti-Nazi views, which were being reported in the European press, were a cause of regret not only to her but to the Führer, particularly because they came from the lips of a descendant of Richard Wagner. Winifred made it clear to Friedelind that henceforth she would have to be silent, or return to Bayreuth. Failing that, she was informed, "If these measures fail, the order will be given. You will be exterminated at the first opportunity."

Sensing that the warnings her mother had personally delivered to her were serious, Friedelind took advantage of an offer from Arthur Beverly Baxter, a British journalist and member of Parliament, to get her admitted to Great Britain on an emergency basis. However, after arriving in London in the spring of 1940, Friedelind was frustrated in her plans to continue her war against the Nazis by making BBC broadcasts to Germany when she was interned with thousands of other anti-Nazis, many of them Jewish refugees, on the Isle of Man. Concerned about the possibility that some of the émigrés might be Nazi spies, a panicky Winston Churchill had decided simply to intern all of them, indicating on a memo that officials should "collar the lot." Released after three months, Friedelind found herself in a London now under relentless aerial attack by Hitler's Luftwaffe. Once again her friend Toscanini came to her rescue, pressuring British officials to let her go to Argentina, which she did in March 1941. Toscanini also was able to use his influence to get a United States entry visa for Friedelind, who arrived in New York from South America at the end of 1941.

Once in America, Friedelind made many friends in the music world, including Jewish artists who had fled the Nazi regime she detested. She deepened her friendship with the Toscanini family, not only with her surrogate father Arturo, but with the conductor's daughter Wally Toscanini as well. To support herself, Friedelind wrote articles in the musical press, spoke out in the media against Nazi Germany, worked on a book that would be published at the end of the war under the title Heritage of Fire, and, when funds were scarce, made ends meet by giving lectures, working as a secretary, and even by waitressing for a time. In 1946, Friedelind was able to fulfill a dream by producing a version of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

In 1951, the Wagner Festivals resumed under the direction of Friedelind's brother Wieland. Wieland, a gifted man of the theater, modernized the staging of Wagnerian music dramas, transforming them from stuffy Victorian relics to modern and powerful works of musical art. In 1953, having been invited to Bayreuth by Wieland, Friedelind made the difficult decision to return to what had once been her home. To the citizens of Bayreuth, as well as to her mother Winifred, who would live in Bayreuth until her death in 1980, Friedelind Wagner would remain controversial. For some, she was a brave woman who had defied not only her family but an evil regime as well. To others, however, she was little more than a traitor who had abandoned her country in wartime to side with its enemies.

Friedelind ignored the gossip and intrigues, plunging eagerly into a new career as a lecturer and organizer of master classes at Bayreuth, which were first given in 1959. With her knowledge of music and opera, she was able to attract advanced musicians from throughout the world for ten weeks of intensive study. Under her tutelage, Friedelind's pupils immersed themselves not only in Wagner, but in the whole art of opera. In an interview at the end of her life, she described the philosophy that underlay her master classes as "a complete program of training" designed to present all facets of "Richard Wagner's ideal of total theater," which included conducting, stage design, direction, acoustics, and lighting—the end result being that, having mastered these areas, the graduate would be more confident in organizing "every aspect of a theater from the inside out." Friedelind was given a rare opportunity to put her own ideas into theatrical practice when she produced Lohengrin at Bielefeld in 1966.

Over the years that she gave her master classes, from 1959 through 1966, Friedelind Wagner's manic energies and magnetism enabled her to win over countless visitors to Bayreuth, including such celebrities as Agatha Christie , who visited and became a good friend. Although she had lived there only briefly at the start of World War II, Friedelind reserved a special place in her heart for England. Among her ambitions was one of establishing a permanent experimental theater where she could try out her own and other artists' innovative ideas. The nearest she would ever come to fulfilling this dream was at Norton Priory on Teesside in the north of England, where she resided for some years at Stockton-on-Tees. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was a regular visitor to the Wagner performances given by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum. On these occasions, she gave many talks on her grandfather's musical achievements, charming all with a manner that was both outgoing and warm. American music lovers also were given the opportunity to benefit from her decades of musical experience when in her later years she taught at the Southlands summer school in Cleveland, Ohio. Friedelind's last opportunity to produce a musical work occurred in 1975, when she organized a concert performance of her father's opera Der Friedensengel (The Angel of Peace).

Once more sensing that Bayreuth was not a congenial place in which to live, in 1984 Friedelind Wagner again decided to "emigrate" from Germany, choosing as her final home a house in Lucerne with a fine view of Triebschen. On her last visit to Bayreuth, in April 1990, she accompanied her good friend Leonard Bernstein. Only months before his death, and doubtless with mixed feelings about Richard Wagner, the great Jewish-American musician had decided to visit the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus in the company of the composer's granddaughter ("the landlord was absent," he said). After that last visit to her former home, Friedelind Wagner died a little over a year later, in the Ruhr city of Herdecke, on May 8, 1991.


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Sutcliffe, Tom. "No Love Lost for Uncle Adolf," in The Guardian [London]. May 10, 1991.

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——, and Page Cooper. Heritage of Fire: The Story of Richard Wagner's Granddaughter. 3rd ed. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

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related media:

"Family of the Ring: Siegfried. Introduction by Friedelind Wagner" (3 VHS videos), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1981.

"The Making of the Ring: A Documentary" (video, includes interviews with Friedelind Wagner, Wolfgang Wagner and others involved in Patrice Chéreau's centenary Bayreuth productions, 1976–80, of Richard Wagner's "Der Ring der Nibelungen"), Philips Video Classics, 1987.

Syberberg, Hans-Jürgen. Winifred Wagner and the History of Wahnfried House, 1914–1975 (348 min. documentary film in 6 episodes), Syberberg-Filmproduktion, co-produced with Bayerischer Rundfunk and ORF Wien-Österreichischer Rundfunk, 1975.

Wagner, Friedelind. "Wagner's Ring" (video), Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1982.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Wagner, Friedelind (1918–1991)

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