“I’m not out to make people feel guilty. It’s not my wish to have Richard Wagner banned. I’m just not one of the adulators, the incense-burners,” Gottfried Wagner told AFP in an interview.
There is no mistaking who Gottfried is descended from. The resemblance is striking. He has: the same prominent nose and high forehead that have marked out most of Wagner’s descendants.
But the 66-year-old musicologist, writer and lecturer sets himself apart from the other members of the sprawling Wagner clan by refusing, as he sees it, to sweep under the carpet the darker side of one of history’s most controversial composers.
The son of the late Wolfgang Wagner — the patriarch who ruled over the legendary annual music festival dedicated to 10 of the composer’s operas for nearly 60 years — Gottfried learnt the price of rebellion early.
“I was carted off to boarding school for spraying red paint” on the famous bust of Richard Wagner by Arno Breker, Adolf Hitler’s favourite sculptor, Gottfried explains. The bust is still in the park in front of the theatre built to Wagner’s designs in Bayreuth, which is still a place of fervent pilgrimage for Wagner lovers and aficionados.
“I was classified as difficult. But I stand by what I did even today,” even if the act of vandalism was more a gut reaction than a planned intellectual protest, Gottfried explains.
“I saw him as a threat,” he says.
Gottfried has indeed been seen as the black sheep of the Wagner family ever since, cemented by the 1977 publication of his autobiography “He Who Doesn’t Howl with the Wolf”.
In it he called for the voluminous private correspondence between Hitler and the Wagner family dating from 1923 until 1945 to be made public, as well as 27 rolls of private film footage, all still kept under lock and key.
And in his latest book, “You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me”, released this year to coincide with the bicentenary, he examines the deep-rooted anti-Semitism and misogyny that runs through the composer’s works.
“It’s not about spoiling (Wagner) for people. But there is nothing to be gained from whitewashing him and idealising him. Massive personalities such as Richard Wagner are not untouchable,” the composer’s great-grandson says.