Monday, 15 June 2020

Richard Wagner's heir, innovative festival director, opera composer, homosexual; the complex tale of Siegfried Wagner,

Siegfried Wagner
Siegfried Wagner

Siegfried Wagner was Richard Wagner's only son and heir. He never managed to escape the influence of his dominating mother; a successful opera composer himself, his operas were never performed at the Bayreuth Festival. As director of the Festival, he introduced important innovations, yet his use of the casting couch was notorious and his homosexuality was an open secret.

Siegfried Wagner was born in 1869 at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, where Richard Wagner's patron King Ludwig II had installed him after the scandal in Munich surrounding Richard's affair with Cosima von Bülow (wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, who had been conducting the premiere of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich). Siegfried, the third of Richard and Cosima's children was born before they were able to marry in 1870. And in 1871, Richard Wagner moved to Bayreuth to pursue his dream of creating a festival to give the premiere of the Ring Cycle.

Siegfried and Richard Wagner
Siegfried Wagner
Life cannot have been easy for the young Siegfried, his father was 53 when he was born and Siegfried had to live in the shadow of his father's reputation and obsession with Bayreuth, and his mother's adoration of his father. That Siegfried might have a strange and unsatisfactory relationship with his parents is suggested by Cosima's diaries:

'At lunch a dismal occurrence; Fidi [Siegfried Wagner, then aged 9] behaves badly toward his father; the dreadful thought that he might prove unworthy of him takes possession of me, and this thought, instead of being turned against myself in resigned acknowledgement of original sin, turns inside me against my child, and I hit him, so violently that it causes bruises. No words, not even my sobs, can express the horror I feel about myself – oh, fortunate people who lived in times when one could atone! In this instance, as always, R. heavenly toward me.'
                            Cosima Wagner: Diaries. 22 July 1878

Siegfried was musical and some compositions of his have survived dating from when he was around 13. After he completed his secondary education in 1889, he studied with Wagner's pupil Engelbert Humperdinck in Frankfurt (during 1880 and 1881, Humperdinck assisted Wagner with the preparations for the premiere of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882, and he also acted as music tutor to young Siegfried). But Siegfried was more strongly drawn to a career as an architect and studied architecture in Berlin and Karlsruhe.

In 1892 he undertook a trip to Asia with a friend, the English composer Clement Harris (1871-1897), who had studied with Clara Schumann and whom Siegfried had met (and fallen in love with perhaps) in Frankfurt in 1889. Harris was something of a protege of Oscar Wilde; Harris would perform Wagner transcriptions for Wilde. The trip to Asia was Harris' idea, and it would last six months. Recent writers have suggested that Harris may well have been the love of Siegfried's life; he would die in the Greco-Turkish War.

Clement Harris
Clement Harris
During the voyage Siegfried decided to abandon architecture and commit himself to music. While on board ship he sketched his first official work, the symphonic poem Sehnsucht (longing), inspired by the poem of the same name by Friedrich Schiller. This piece was not completed until just before the concert in which Siegfried conducted it, in London on 6 June 1895.

Siegfried made his conducting debut as an assistant conductor at Bayreuth in 1894; in 1896 he became associate conductor, sharing responsibility for conducting the Ring Cycle with Felix Mottl and Hans Richter, who had conducted its premiere 20 years earlier. Since Richard Wagner's death the Bayreuth Festival had been in the hands of Wagner's widow Cosima, but in 1908 Siegfried took over as artistic director of the festival, though Cosima (now over 70) remained a strong influence.

Until the 1920s, performances were strictly in accordance with the traditions established under King Ludwig's patronage. Not a note was "cut" from any of the enormous scores; no concessions were made to the limits of human patience on the part of the audiences. Cosima Wagner preserved the productions of Parsifal and Der Ring des Nibelungen just as they had been in Wagner's day, defending any proposed changes with appeals to her son Siegfried: "Was this not how Papa did it in 1876?" (Siegfried was 14 when his father died in 1883). It was Siegfried who was responsible for introducing new staging and performance styles.

Siegfried and Winifred

Siegfried and Winifred Wagner
Siegfried and Winifred Wagner
Siegfried was bisexual, and for years, his mother urged him to marry and provide the Wagner dynasty with heirs, but he fought off her increasingly desperate urgings. But around 1913, pressure on him increased due to the Harden-Eulenburg Affair (1907–1909) where the journalist Maximilian Harden accused several public figures, most notably Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg-Hertefeld, a friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II, of homosexuality. In this climate, the family found it suitable to arrange a marriage with a 17-year-old Englishwoman, Winifred Klindworth, and at the Bayreuth festival of 1914 she was introduced to the then-45-year-old Siegfried.

Siegfried and Winifred married on 22 September 1915, and they would have four children. Though the marriage provided for the dynastic succession, the hope that it would also bring an end to Siegfried's homosexual encounters and the associated costly scandals was disappointed, as Siegfried remained sexually active with other men

Winifred Wagner was 18 when she married Siegfried. Born in England, she was German by adoption having been taken in by German relatives in Berlin. Her adoptive father was the pianist and composer Karl Klindworth who was a great friend and supporter of Richard Wagner, and he brought Winifred up as the 'perfect Wagnerite'.

Siegfried died in 1930, only four months after his domineering mother. He was 61, his wife would outlive him by nearly 50 years. His early death left the Festival in Winifred's hands, with conductor Heinz Tietjen as artistic director (Tietjen has also been romantically linked to Winifred)

Turning Bayreuth pink

Max Lorenz as Siegfried at Bayreuth in 1934
Max Lorenz as Siegfried at Bayreuth in 1934
As the director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1906 to 1930, Siegfried was in a powerful position. He was aware of his power, he joked about it in public interviews, and seems to have privately used his fame and position to seduce young men. There are reports of Siegfried using the “casting couch” approach with many Wagnerian admirers: giving them jobs as interns, scenic designers and rehearsal pianists and there are letters to his lover in which he offers a position in Bayreuth. He also selected many soloists via his network of gay friends: most famously helden-tenor Max Lorenz, whom he discovered at a private audition in Berlin in 1925.

There are reports of his tailor having sexual intercourse with Siegfried every time he came to measure him up for new suits.  A pamphlet entitled Eine Lüge um Bayreuth? (A lie at Bayreuth), published in 1925, describes Siegfried trying to seduce a young music lover in Wahnfried.

Then there is baritone Herbert Janssen who was hired by Siegfried in 1930 as Wolfram for the fabled Tannhäuser production conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Both had legal trouble because of §175 [the former German law criminalising homosexuality], which is why we know about their homosexuality today.

In 1930, Siegfried produced what was, for the time, a daring new production of Tannhäuser, emphasised the sexual elements of the opera. There was a special 'pink' lighting design for the Venusberg, with homoerotic elements in the bacchanal, both Wolfram (Herbert Janssen) and Tannhauser (Sigismund Pilinszky) were homosexual, and Siegfried's homosexual friend Kurt Söhnlein did the set designs.

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser - final scene at Bayreuth in 1930
Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser - final scene at Bayreuth in 1930
Siegfried's operas


Siegfried wrote 18 operas, between 1898 and 1929, of which he completed 12. Many were premiered in Munich and Hamburg, but none was ever performed at Bayreuth. But then Cosima never allowed any of Richard Wagner’s early operas to be performed there either, the Bayreuth festival was (and IS) devoted to the canon of Richard Wagner’s mature works. Like his father, Siegfried wrote his own librettos, but Siegfried's teacher Engelbert Humperdinck seems to have been a big influence, particularly in the way Siegfried used fairy tales and legends as his inspiration. Even in his lifetime his operas were not greatly esteemed — they sounded like the work of a Wagner student, Debussy said, “whom his teacher did not consider very promising” — and they are now largely forgotten, often seens as oddities for occasional revival.

Siegfried seems to have completed little after the war, apart from Der Schmied von Marienburg (1920), all his completed operas date from the period 1898-1915, and he left four unfinished works dating from the 1920s. Perhaps his responsibilities at the Festival were too much, or perhaps family life left little room for composing; but there is also the possibility that Siegfried was aware that his style (with its strong influences from Humperdinck and from his father) was starting to look a little dated in the inter-war years.

His own favourite amongst his operas was his third opera, Der Kobold (premiered in Hamburg in 1904); like many of his other operas, this is a very dark fairy tale, and like many of Siegfried's operas the plot is unecessarily complicated. Yet it has disturbing aspects, the goblin of the title is in fact the ghost of the heroine's dead baby (murdered by her mother because it was illegitimate), and the opera has a chorus of ghosts of other murdered babies.

The operas were in fact regularly performed in the early 20th century, e.g. by Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera, and more recently there have been moves to re-evaluate them. Some think Siegfried’s operas can be read as autobiographical; the scarce intimate expressions of a man who otherwise kept silent about his private feelings, for fear of being blackmailed or prosecuted because of §175.

In the 1920s Siegfried's operas were misused by right-wing circles as an example of “Germanic contemporary” music as opposed to the degenerate “modern” and “Jewish” music of the avant-garde. As director of the Festival Siegfried walked a narrow tightrope. Because he feared for the reputation of the festival and the absence of foreign visitors, Siegfried avoided public closeness to the Nazis party after 1924, and he promised that “the festival will remain free from political influence. At the same time, he did not prevent the publication of extremely right-wing articles in the official festival guide of 1924: "Foreigners, especially the racially less northern types, have no real connection with the art of Richard Wagner—at least not the real Bayreuth connection."

Winifred and the Nazis


Wieland, Winifred, Wolfgang Wagner with Hitler at Bayreuth
Wieland, Winifred, and Wolfgang Wagner with Hitler
at the Bayreuth Festival
In the 1920s, well before the rise of the Nazi Party, Winifred Wagner became a strong supporter and close personal friend of Adolf Hitler; her correspondence with Hitler has never been released by the Wagner family. She had befriended Hitler even before his failed 1923 putsch and he remained close to the Wagners, the family would use the informal ‘du’ with him. She and other festival leaders were members of Nazi chief ideologue Alfred Rosenberg's Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur, which actively suppressed modernist music and works by "degenerate" artists. Winifred's influence with Hitler was so strong that Hitler even wrote a letter (at her behest) to anti-fascist Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, begging him to lead the festival. Toscanini refused.

It was under the Third Reich that the Festival made its first break from tradition, abandoning the deteriorating 19th century sets created by Richard Wagner for The Ring and for Parsifal. Many protested at the changes, including prominent conductors such as Toscanini and Richard Strauss, and even some members of the Wagner family. In their view, any change to the Festival was a profanation against "the Master" (Wagner). Nevertheless, Hitler approved of the changes, thus paving the way for more innovations in the decades to come. It was these significant changes in stagings, and Siegfried Wagner's innovations in the 1920s which paved the way for Wieland Wagner's post-War staging

Winifred seems to have been intelligent, handsome, determined, obstinate and simply horrible.

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and Winifred Wagner in 1976
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Winifred Wagner in 1975
Winifred Wagner did not die until 1980, but but post-war the family kept Winifred well out of the way, and it was Winifred who took the fall for the Festival's links to the Nazis, leaving the way clear for her sons Wieland and Wolfgang to take over the festival. But in 1975 she was filmed secretly by film-maker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg; Winifred talked of her love for her friend and Fuhrer, whom she would gladly greet again if he walked through the door [released as a film in 1976, Winifried Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried von 1914-1975]


Siegfried Wagner’s operas

Der Bärenhäuter - 1898, Munich
Herzog Wildfang - 1901, Munich
Der Kobold - 1904, Hamburg
Bruder Lustig - 1905, Hamburg
Sternengebot - 1908, Hamburg
Banadietrich - 1910, Karlsruhe
Schwarzschwanenreich (written 1910) - 1918 Karlsruhe
Sonnenflammen (written 1912) - 1918 Darmstadt
Der Heidenkönig (written 1913) - 1933 Cologne
Der Friedensengel (written 1914) - 1926 Karlsruhe
An allem ist Hütchen schuld! (written 1915) - 1917 Stuttgart
Der Schmied von Marienburg - 1920 Rostock
Rainulf und Adelasi - 1922 unfinished
Die heilige Linde - 1927 unfinished
Wahnopfer - 1928 unfinished
Das Flüchlein, das Jeder mitbekam - 1929 unfinished

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