Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Jonathan Carr The Wagner Clan

Finally I’ve got round to reading Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan. Carr was a top journalist with the Economist and the Financial Times. The Wagner Clan distils a lifetime of knowledge into 350 succinct pages. Carr’s direct, fluent style makes the book an easy, pleasant read but it springs from understanding the social and political background which created the phenomenon that is the Bayreuth Festspiele.

Much of the material isn’t new, but it’s put together with wisdom. Carr demonstrates how much of what we assume to be Wagner's views were in fact created by Cosima and others. Like The Master himself, Cosima was rootless, in denial of her own past, “more Catholic than the Pope”. Significantly the Wagner Idea attracted others similarly alienated – Houston Chamberlain and his curious assumed persona, Hitler the outsider with a monumental chip on his shoulder. Poor orphaned Winifred was doomed from birth, one feels, given that she too was rootless, raised by fanatics, as if genetically engineered to serve the "Wagnerian" image. Wagner’s image takes on projections that aren’t necessarily in his music, which is perhaps why it's so dangerously potent.

Carr is perceptive about Siegfried, reading between the lines of his ostensibly casual memoirs. Siegfried was heroic in his own lowkey way because he tried to extend his heritage. His descendants have each in their own way had to do the same.

Carr does not shy from confronting the Hitler connection. He sorts out myth from reality with cool analysis. Hitler for all his big talk had other things to deal with, alas. No one emerges clean, not even Friedelinde, for such were the times. Just before the book was completed, new material from British archives on her transatlantic ventures were released. They’re interesting reading. Friedelinde tries but the odds are against her.

Given Carr’s special expertise in postwar Germany, he’s particularly good on the complex politics through which the family retained control over the Festival. It’s a lesson in itself how such an institution can continue to be run on autocratic lines, without complete state direction. Carr passed away soon after the book was published, but the issue of succession haunts this account throughout.

Carr’s distinctive, warm hearted style and intelligence earn this book a special place even among the many volumes already written about the Wagners and Bayreuth (many by the protagonists themselves). I make no apologies for saying I loved reading it because it reminded me of the author, who was kind to me in bad times. So when you read this, remember that the man himself is reflected in the senstivity and fair mindedness with which the book is written.

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