Monday, 14 September 2009

South Bank Show: The Wagner Family, 13 September 2009

I shall probably regret this, given the risk of eliciting knee-jerk reactions from the monstrous regiment of Wagner-haters. However, I felt I could not simply remain silent after the quite disgraceful treatment of Wagner on last night's South Bank Show.

Directed by Tony Palmer, The Wagner Family was at best a confused mess, with little apparent direction - in any sense - and little ostensible point beyond muck-raking. I cannot imagine that anyone without prior knowledge would have understood what was going on, still less why this might be of any importance. The tedious yet all-too-expected reference to the dreadful clan as Germany's 'Royal Family' was made, and indeed much of it resembled the assemblage of gossip we have come to expect from anything concerning the real thing. But really? I have never met anyone, from Germany or elsewhere, who thinks of the family as deserving anything like that level of attention. One can well understand why Wieland Wagner's children and the elder children of Wolfgang Wagner would feel bitter; it seems pretty clear that they have been wronged. I hold no brief for Wolfgang. As a director, he is at best a non-entity, though his administrative skills clearly helped Bayreuth. I certainly hold no brief for his younger daughter, whose attempts at direction seem at best risible. But would it not have been proper to have someone put their side of the story? It hardly seems credible that anyone would have changed his mind on the relative merits of the brothers; indeed, it would surely have strengthened the case. And surely Katharina Wagner's declaration of intent to open the family archive should have been mentioned, if only sceptically.

That was one thing; it is difficult and doubtless not worth the effort to feel sorry for Wolfgang. But the initial treatment of his grandfather, the one who matters, was nothing short of a disgrace. As sole commentator on Parsifal, there was Robert Gutman, whose extremism on the subject would embarrass even those inclined to a racialist interpretation. His assertion, for this was no argument, that Parsifal was somehow about 'racial purity' was never questioned, let alone challenged, likewise his assertion that there was nothing Christian to the work. The latter is a complex issue, but it deserves proper consideration or otherwise leaving alone. As for the claim that Wagner somehow - at least Joachim Köhler argues his case - led to Hitler and even to the Holocaust...

In many cases, I should be tempted to shrug my shoulders, and ask, 'so what?' None of this, nor indeed Hitler's enthusiasm, has any effect upon the greatness of Wagner's works, any more than the teachings of Calvin or John Paul II detract from the message of Christ. What it does influence, however, is the general public's understanding. What people who have never encountered the dramas themselves 'know' comes from pieces such as this, which in turn has consequences for funding and, in the notorious case of the State of Israel, de facto prohibition. Wagner deserves better, even if many of his descendants do not.

We were also treated to the bizarre rantings, unquestioned throughout, of Gottfried Wagner. One can only feel sorry for him on a personal level - or at least I can - but his claim that successive mayors of Bayreuth had banned him from the city was surely more than enough to discredit rumours of even relative sanity.

Watch instead the riveting Confessions of Winifred Wagner by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Give someone enough rope...