Suppose you were the son of Richard Wagner and the grandson of Franz Liszt – would the chromosomal burden be too much to bear? We can prove the question by examining the career of Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930). He was born to Richard and Cosima Wagner (1837-1930). Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt. The marital and extramarital arrangements of Liszt and the Wagners are so complicated that it would take a long article to outline them. Liszt was not married to Cosima’s mother, in fact he was never married to anyone. Cosima was married to the conductor Hans von Bülow when she bore Wagner three children, the last of whom is the subject of this piece.
His full name was Helferich Siegfried Richard Wagner, nicknamed Fidi. He studied music under his grandfather and with his father’s student, Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hansel and Gretel. Richard died when Fidi was 14 leaving his adolescence under the sole control of Cosima. She was a woman who deferred only to Richard. After his death she was the keeper of the Wagner flamethrower and a really nasty piece of work. She ran the Bayreuth Festival until 1907 when poor health forced her to turn the leadership to Siegfried. Nevertheless she survived until 1930.
She was as viciously anti-semitic as was Richard. One of her biographers wrote, “Wagner was a genius, but also a fairly appalling human being. Cosima was just an appalling human being.” Siegfried after a brush with architecture decided to become a musician; he was both a composer and a conductor.
Cosima continually pressured her son to marry and continue the Wagner family line, but he was homosexual and resisted his domineering mother until he was 45. Given the weird irregularity of his immediate forebearers domestic arrangements, it can’t be a surprise that he avoided marriage or anything resembling it until well into middle age. He finally gave in and married an 18 year old English girl Winifred Marjorie Williams (1897-1980) a year after their arranged engagement. Siegfried was a real trooper and rapidly sired four children – one a year from 1917 to 1920. After two boys and two girls, he apparently felt he had done his dynastic duty and resumed his premarital lifestyle. Apparently, his family paid hush money to cover up the scandals that his behavior caused.
Winnie was a real Nazi, unlike her inlaws who were merely proto-Nazis. She was a great personal friend of Hitler. After Siegfried’s death in 1930, just four months after Cosima died, she became the director of the Bayreuth festival. She held this position until the end of World War II. In the post-war era her relationship with Der Fuhrer disqualified her from any official role in the Wagner festival.
What about Siegfried the musician? He was a conductor, most often at the Bayreuth Festival.But even there his appearances on the podium where infrequent: The Ring in 1896, Tannhauser in 1904, Parsifal in 1909, and The Flying Dutchman in 1914. He was very active as a composer, writing more operas than his father – 17 plus a libretto that he didn’t set to music. Like his father, he was his own librettist. He also wrote instrumental works and songs. All of his compositions are rarely, if ever, performed. I could not find a single performance of any of Siegfried’s operas in the most recent compilation on Operabase.com. A number of them, however have been recorded.
His first opera, Der Bärenhäuter (The Bearskin Man), written in 1899 had a brief period of success. Mahler conducted it in Vienna. He subsequently rejected other scores by the younger Wagner. Listening to Siegfried’s music gives the impression that he had never heard a note of his father’s scores. There’s a resemblance to the music of his teacher, Humperdinck. But there’s not much that’s memorable. This orchestral arrangement of The Devil’s Waltz from Der Bärenhäuter has some charm and energy.
Being the son of Richard Wagner must have been a weight that was close to impossible to bear. One must conclude that Siegfried did as well as possible considering the load. His works are not completely forgotten and there’s even a Siegfried Wagner Society.