Poor Siegfried

Being Richard Wagner's son can't have been easy. Being a homosexual probably didn't help. At all, really. And wanting to be a composer - well that just sounds like a recipe for disaster.

No, being Siegfried Wagner never was the easiest thing in the world.

I first heard his music in '94 in, of all places, Bayreuth. Bayreuth might at first seem the natural place to encounter the music of Siegfried: it not only being his hometown but the seat of the family dynasty and quite unequivocally the town of Wagner.

Well it wasn't and it isn't. Bayreuth is such a small town there's hardly enough room for Richard, who - truth to be told - does demand rather a lot of space. There simply isn't room for two Wagners in Bayreuth, not two composers of that sacred name and certainly not two Wagners both of whom write operas.

Still, they can't ignore him completely. He is the master's son, after all. So in '94 there was a Siegfried exhibition in Haus Wahnfried and they even played bits and pieces of his music. To me they sounded quite interesting, fascinating even. Problem was, in those faraway days there just weren't many recordings. Not recordings one could lay one's hands on anyway.

So Siegfried remained a mystery, a weak and fairly ludicrous character. The man who was eternally in the shadow of his gigantic father. The man completely dominated by his bullying mother, Liszt's daughter, the formidable Cosima. The man who was, pretty much against his will, forced to marry a Welsh orphan in order to play down his sexual indiscretions of the blatantly sodomite variety - which after all were a fairly serious crime in the Germany of the day.

The man whose audacious wife openly flirted with this deranged Viennese nobody Hitler. When Hitler was put behind bars for a while after the disastrous Munich putsch, Siegfried's wife Winifred supplied him with paper and writing materials with which to occupy his time in gaol in a productive fashion. Herr Hitler proceded, on those pure white sheets presented to him by the Wagner clan of Bayreuth, to write a nifty little shocker: Mein Kampf.

This slow and slovenly man who never ceased to look like a soft and pampered schoolboy; as overgrown as he was overfed. This man who seems to have despised the vulgarity of Hitler and what he stood for, yet covertly been mesmerised by the brutal ideology. Which, had he lived, certainly would have crushed him without a trace of pity, son of the divine Wagner or not.

This man whose operas nobody took seriously.

Who did he think he was - bloody Wagner?

But Siegfried never gave up, never gave in, writing some sixteen operas all in all. He also wrote his own libretti, just like his father had. There weren't many performances. The opera houses weren't interested. They already had a Wagner. The real thing. Why on earth would they want a cheap copy? Some of Siegfried's operas never went on during his lifetime. Oh there were plans, grand plans, but somehow they never materialised.

When at long last I came across one of Siegfried's operas I at once purchased it. Der Heidenkönig was written in 1913. The premiere was in 1933, three years after Siegfried's death.

As the CD (published by the Naxos owned label Marco Polo) wasn't furnished with a libretto I have only a very hazy idea of what the action is about. It's mediaeval. Something to do with Balticum and Christianity. And Teutonic knights. Not, as such, particularly promising stuff.

The music, however, is quite strong and forceful, extremely Wagnerian in the overly ripe romantic manner with lots and lots of boisterous brass and warlike manly singing, with the occasional high dramatic soprano hysterically butting in. Bits of it easily could have been written by old Richard. Still it doesn't actually sound derivative or unoriginal. It just isn't particularly original.

By no means is it bad. There are haunting melodies in it, strains and chords that will not go away. That keep on echoing in one's head. Dark, mournful and sombre melodies. Simple but highly effective dirges. And they just won't go away. Then one slowly begins to like them.

Der Heidenkönig seems to be, if I'm not very much mistaken, Siegfried's Parsifal, his holy and sacred opera, maybe even his magnum opus. What he's best known for is comic opera. His first, Der Bärenhäuter, is probably his most performed and best loved piece. But Siegfried was a deeply religious man and the Christian message was vitally crucial to him. No doubt he, therefore, would consider Der Heidenkönig far more important than Der Bärenhäuter.

I'd dearly like to know what precisely it was I heard in Bayreuth. Whatever it was it sounded fresh and dynamic, and a bit quirky. Der Heidenkönig often sounds stale and stuffy, a bit claustrophobic, as if its own importance were suffocating and slowly draining the life out of it, so it certainly wasn't Der Heidenkönig. Could it in fact have been Der Bärenhäuter? I'm beginning to wonder.

Parts of Der Heidenkönig I grow tired of very quickly, other parts I cannot get enough of. Odd.

Having heard only the one opera by Siegfried Wagner I obviously can't say anything very definitive about him as a composer. I do have a hunch though. I strongly suspect that were his surname not Wagner both he and his work would be far better known.

On the other hand. Without his surname he might have disappeared completely.

I'd quite like to proclaim him a forgotten genius. I'm very much afraid he's no such thing. Not even slightly. Then again, very few composers are. Geniuses, I mean. Forgotten or otherwise.

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