To an extent, it was bad luck for Richard Wagner that he should have become, half a century after his death, the house composer for National Socialism in Germany. One says ‘to an extent’ because with his rampant German nationalism, and his well-documented belief that the Jews posed a mortal threat to German culture, Wagner asked for it. He also inadvertently cast a spell of unpleasantness over his immediate descendants, in whom he, or rather his posthumous reputation, was unlucky. As a penniless youth in Vienna, Adolf Hitler had been introduced to, and captivated by, what in Bayreuth they call simply ‘the Work’. His love of Wagner’s music was no pose. In her thorough and at times curious book, Brigitte Hamann recounts various episodes of his poring over the scores of the operas and offering musicological insights about them; or discussing, in an informed way, aspects of productions. Whatever else Hitler was, he was not in this sense uncultured; and Wagner, his descendants and their home at Bayreuth became religiose landmarks in his own unfortunate journey from failed painter to genocidal maniac. It is hard to think of Hitler without soon evoking a soundtrack of Tannhäuser, Parsifal or Götterdämmerung.
Winifred Wagner was no Bavarian Brunnhilde sent by Central Casting to perpetuate the dynasty of the Master. She was an English girl of Welsh descent, born in 1897, orphaned early, and entrusted in her early teens to kind but distant relatives in Berlin.