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Winnie and Wolf


Winnie and Wolf is the story of the extraordinary relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler that took place during the years 1925–40, as seen through the eyes of the secretary at the Wagner house in Bayreuth.

Winifred, an English girl, brought up in an orphanage in East Grinstead, married at the age of eighteen to the son of Germany’s most controversial genius, is a passionate Germanophile, a Wagnerian dreamer, a Teutonic patriot.


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Winnie and Wolf is the story of the extraordinary relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler that took place during the years 1925–40, as seen through the eyes of the secretary at the Wagner house in Bayreuth.

Winifred, an English girl, brought up in an orphanage in East Grinstead, married at the age of eighteen to the son of Germany’s most controversial genius, is a passionate Germanophile, a Wagnerian dreamer, a Teutonic patriot.

In the debacle of the post-Versailles world, the Wagner family hope for the coming, not of a warrior, a fearless Siegfried, but of a Parsifal, a mystic idealist, a redeemer-figure. In 1925, they meet their Parsifal – a wild-eyed Viennese opera-fanatic in a trilby hat, a mac and a badly fitting suit. Hitler has already made a name for himself in some sections of German society through rabble-rousing and street corner speeches. It is Winifred, though, who believes she can really see his poetry. Almost at once they drop formalities and call one another ‘Du’ rather than ‘Sie’. She is Winnie and he is Wolf.

Like Winnie, Hitler was an outsider. Like her, he was haunted by the impossibility of reconciling the pursuit of love and the pursuit of power; the ultimate inevitability, if you pursued power, of destruction. Both had known the humiliations of poverty. Both felt angry and excluded by society. Both found each other in an unusual kinship that expressed itself through a love of opera.

In A.N. Wilson’s most bold and ambitious novel yet, the world of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany is brilliantly recreated, and forms the backdrop to this incredible bond, which ultimately reveals the remarkable capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A bold, ambitious piece of fiction"
—Terry Eagleton, Guardian

"A subtle and captivating fiction"
The Times

"An extraordinary work whose achievements are almost Wagnerian in scale"
Daily Mail

"This novel should carry a warning: its appeal will be greatest for fans either of Wagner and European history, or of politics and philosophy"
Sunday Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428624
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A. N. Wilson was born in 1950 and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has held a prominent position in the world of literature and journalism. He is an award winning biographer and a celebrated novelist, winning prizes for much of his fiction. He lives in North London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Flying Dutchman

Die düstr’e Glut, die hier ich fühle brennen Sollt’ ich, Unseliger, die Liebe nennen?

Ach nein! Die Sehnsucht ist es nach dem Heil:

Würd’ es durch solchen Engel mir zu Teil! The Flying Dutchman

‘Are you a policeman?’

It was a disconcerting question, coming as it did from the shadows behind a life-size bust of the goddess Athene, which stood on the occasional table on the upstairs landing.

‘Only,’ the goddess continued, ‘you keep following Uncle Wolf about.’

‘Do I?’ I asked edgily.

‘I haven’t told anyone,’ said Athene.

‘Why not?’

‘It could be our secret. If you’d like.’

Friedelind, aged seven, stepped into the chiaroscuro.

‘That would be good,’ I conceded.

She was a substantial child, much larger than most seven-yearolds. Her fleshiness was disconcertingly adult and she entirely lacked shyness. When I had arrived in the household the previous year, the children had very naturally shrunk back. Time had been necessary before I got their confidence. I had been employed as a general assistant to their father, Siegfried Wagner, himself a composer, an inspired conductor, as well as the director of the Festival Opera at Bayreuth. My business was chiefly with him. I helped him with his correspondence, organized his diary and was a general dogsbody about the house, taking telephone calls and in effect acting as an unofficial valet to Siegfried and butler to the rest of them when the need arose. Siegfried needed, a fact which caused the predictable raising of eyebrows, a young man at his side. When they had asked me to do the job, Siegfried and his wife Winnie had alluded, as tactfully as possible, to the great age of his mother, Cosima, the composer’s widow. It was suggested to me that when the day came of her departure from this planet, there would be a wealth of papers for me to study. I would be given the first glimpse of such treasures as her correspondence with her great husband and be allowed to read her diaries.

One of the great perks of my humdrum employment was that it allowed me to breathe in so much information about Richard Wagner and permitted me to quiz the older members of the household – the composer’s surviving daughters. Occasionally, very occasionally, I was allowed to accompany the Mistress (that is, Wagner’s widow Cosima) on her stately progress into the Hofgarten, or even to sit with her and listen to her daughter Eva read aloud to her. In Cosima’s presence, however, my questions were strictly forbidden.

It was my hope, one day, to write a book about Wagner and philosophy. All these dazzling operas, even the apprentice work in Rienzi, but certainly The Flying Dutchman and everything he had written subsequently, did not merely seem to me the most wonderful music that had ever been composed. They were also the most fascinating examples of philosophy transposed into art. They were dramatized ideas.

So, the answer to the seven-year-old Friedelind’s intrusive question was yes, I was an investigator and I did want to solve a mystery, or series of mysteries. How was it that the young revolutionary Richard Wagner who had been expelled from Dresden in 1848 for being a political subversive came, after his death, to be the hero of the most reactionary figures in Germany? Why did the grand duchesses, and margraves and lieutenant- generals resplendent in their uniforms come up the Green Hill outside Bayreuth to sit through hour upon hour of subversive operas which, if seriously considered, would have caused them all to evaporate? How did it come about that Wagner who, even in his more conservative old age, despised any political parties and was unimpressed by Bismarck himself, how did it come about that he was seen as the great hope of all these bizarre ‘völkisch’ parties who were making such headway in our poor confused Germany in those post–First World War years?

Is it possible to be apolitical? Wagner was left-wing. Then he stopped being left-wing largely because he read a philosopher called Schopenhauer. He read Schopenhauer over and over again. Schopenhauer came to believe that the only way to wisdom was by a denial of the will. He read the Upanishads and believed that Western thought (apart from Plato and Kant) had been misguided altogether. He was against Christianity, systems, tyranny, but above all the tyranny of the mob. He had once allowed soldiers into his room so that they could get a better aim at rioting students. This anecdote always haunted me. I too loved Schopenhauer, but could one want to shoot enthusiastic young people who merely desired to demonstrate against injustice or the folly of things?

Wagner had in him this need to renounce the will, but did he also have in him something of that violence? That understanding of violence? Was that partly what appealed to some of the nastier völkisch types with their desire to beat up Jews or have pub brawls with the Reds?

Was I a policeman?

‘Uncle Wolf is only staying one night,’ the child persisted.


‘He has really, really important work to do back in Munich. Partly he’s written a book which is going to save Germany. Mummy gave him the paper and pencils to do it. While he was in prison. Do only bad people go to prison?’

‘Not invariably, but on the whole, yes.’

‘That’s not an answer.’

‘Most of the people who get sent to prison are bad.’

‘Uncle Wolf is good, though?’

‘He went to prison for trying to start a thing called a revolution. He and some other men tried to throw out the government, that’s the people who rule over us, the people we had elected to rule over us. Uncle – your friend – shot men. People got killed. That is why he went to prison.’

‘Mummy says that there have been three really great Germans –Martin Luther, Frederick Grossman and Uncle Wolf.’

I forbore to wonder aloud whether Goethe, Beethoven, Hegel or Einstein deserved consideration. Instead I asked, ‘Who’s Frederick Grossman?’

‘No.’ She giggled and corrected herself: ‘Frederick . . .’

‘Friedrich der Grosse?’

‘That’s him.’

‘He was the cleverest king Prussia ever had, but very ruthless. He had lots of wars. Lots of people got killed.’

‘He is a great – is it philatelist?’


‘That’s it. He ’s a philosopher, he has really, really clever thoughts. And he is wise, and good and he’s going to save us all from the Reds and the Jews.’

‘Frederick the Great? He read philosophers. He wasn’t one himself.’

‘No, Uncle Wolf.’

‘Oh, I see.’

‘Are you teasing?’


‘You don’t sound as if you think Uncle Wolf will save us from the Jews.’

‘I don’t think we necessarily need saving from the Jews.’

‘Luther and Frederick the Great hated them too, you know.’

‘I haven’t really thought about it much, Friedelind.’

‘Only Mummy says Uncle Wolf has a bit of a bee in his bonnet and the yids we know are all right, the ones in the orchestra and dear Dr Liebermann.’

‘Of course.’

‘I like Dr Liebermann. When I had that cold last year? When it was really, really bad and Mummy said it was all in my imagination and I had to go out for my walk as usual in the Hofgarten? And Dr Liebermann came and said "I prescribe three days in bed with hot drinks and Grimm’s fairy tales".’

‘That was kind of him.’

‘Too kind, Mummy says. But are you?’

‘Go to bed, Friedelind. You’re meant to be having your afternoon rest.’

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone. If you were a policeman. It could be our secret.’

Later that afternoon, coming back through the large entrance hall of the Wagners’ house, I could hear Wolf ’s voice, rasping and blaring from behind the closed doors of the salon. It was a very carrying voice at the best of times, but during one of his recitations for the children it rose to an extraordinary volume.

I had just walked out to the little kiosk halfway down Richard Wagnerstrasse with a haversack of paper money, hoping to buy myself the Völkischer Beobachter and a packet of cigarettes – but I did not, as it happens, possess enough for the newspaper, which was selling at thirteen billion marks. By the time I had paid the twenty billion for cigarettes there was no cash left over for the nationalist newspaper we all liked to read (it was 1925) and whose aspirations during that period – a recovered German economy, the undoing of the Versailles Treaty, the restitution of the German lands in the Ruhr region at present occupied by the French – seemed even less realistic than the ambitions of the fisherman’s wife in the Grimms’ story, which Wolf was enacting (more than reading) for the children.

You remember the folk tale, no doubt. A fisherman lives with his wife in a pisspot beside the sea – and every day the fisherman fishes and fishes. One day he catches a flounder, but the fish explains to him that he is not truly a fish. He is a prince under an enchantment, and if the fisherman will only spare his life he will grant him his wish. The fisherman goes home and talks to his wife. The fisherman’s wife is in a state of perpetual discontent. She tells him to go to the flounder and to ask for a little cottage to live in. So off he goes, chanting over the water in the Pomeranian dialect,

flow-undurr, flow-undurr, where be ye?

Come up out of that thar bubblin’ zee!

Moy woyf Ilsebill won’t be content

As oi’d ’ve wished and oi’d ’ve meant.

The wife’s discontent grows and grows. Unhappy with the cottage, she wants a palace; discontented with the palace, she won’t be satisfied until she has occupied all the land round about it. Disgruntled with owning huge estates, she wishes to be king – then emperor – then pope. With each crazy request to the flounder, and with each recitation of the fisherman’s rhyme, the sea boils more angrily and the skies darken. By the time I had slipped into the salon the wife had become pope and the poor husband was hoping to creep out of the bedroom unobserved by his ever more ambitious companion.

The three children at Wolf ’s feet were Wolfgang, aged six, Friedelind, seven, and Wieland, eight. Little Verena, aged five, sat a bit apart from them on the knee of her mother Winifred. I forget who else was present – perhaps Lieselotte the governess, perhaps not. What I chiefly recollect of the scene was the wide-eyed wonder with which the children hung upon the words of this master storyteller. Though remaining in his chair, Wolf conveyed, by stealthy movements of his shoulders and comical screwings-up of his features, that he was the hen-pecked fisherman trying to escape his wife, now transformed into the pope. But His Holiness had woken up.

"Not so faarst! " said the fisherman’s wife.’ Little Verena looked alarmed at the wife ’s sternness but the other children wriggled with ecstatic amusement. ‘"You mus’ go back to thar that flow-undurr un’ you mus’ zay"’ – he paused. His extraordinary eyes flashed. I have never seen such eyes. It was the utter luminosity of a very bright moonlight night sky. He looked to each child in turn. Two of them were giggling, two were a little fearful. After all, the wife had been a king, an emperor, a pope – how much further could her ambition take her? Hitherto, in speaking the wife ’s words, the great orator had rasped out her demands.

‘Now she whispered, "Oi want tew be – as Gard. "’

Absolute silence followed. Then came a giggle from the eightyear-old Wieland. ‘But she can’t be God!’

Uncle Wolf put a finger to his moustachioed upper lip and continued, ‘"Oi’m toired with a-watchin ur the zun a-comin’ up un the moon a-roisin’ – oi warnts to make the zun cum up uv a marnin’ un the moon tew cum up ut noights. "

‘"Oh woify, woify, oi beg yew"’ – for the husband’s voice Wolf took on a mincing effeminate tone, which bore perhaps an uncomfortable resemblance to my employer, Winnie ’s husband, Herr Wagner. Maybe I was merely imagining this for surely Wolf, with his profound courtesy and with a reverence bordering on sycophancy for the Wagner family, would never be so ill-mannered as to mock, of all people, the son of his greatest hero? ‘"Please be content, " lisped the feeble husband, "please be content to stay as the pope."

‘And at this’, continued Wolf, ‘the wife became extremely angry. Her hair flew wildly around her head and she ripped at her corsets and she gave the fisherman a great kick and she screamed and she yelled, ."Oi won’t stand for this any more! Oi want to be Gard."’ – and then Wolf really bellowed. ‘"Oi want to be Gard. ."’

Another long silence and everyone in the room, including myself, was spellbound, solemn.

He continued the story, not in the Pomeranian dialect in which it is preserved by the Brothers Grimm but in his own southern Bavarian voice, a voice that possessed an extraordinary range, both of tone and of pitch. ‘Outside, the storm raged on, as the fisherman made his way back to the seashore. And the houses and the trees were falling all around him, and the mountains, they shook, and the great boulders were rolling into the sea. The skies had darkened so they were black as pitch . . .’

If he had cleverly impersonated the fisherman and his wife, he did more than convey the storm. He became it. I think everyone in that room sensed Wolf ’s tempest, his elemental powerfulness. When the fisherman had to shout against the noise of the billowing ocean, Wolf himself bellowed, and it was as if we heard in that cry, not only the noise of the man, but of the elements themselves against which he contended. For, of course, this time the flounder cannot answer the wife Ilsebill’s outrageous request, and replies, ‘‘"Go home, man! She is back sitting on her pisspot . . . " And there they sit to this very day!’

All the privileges the wife had won for herself had been withdrawn; she and the fisherman were back in the same abject squalor as before. The story was over and with something of the air of a great conductor who comes to the final bars of a symphony Wolf bowed his neck – as if it were over the score – and then threw back his head. His face was gleaming with sweat. For a few seconds he stared at the ceiling with an expression of such solemnity that I thought he was on the verge of tears. Then he looked around at his company and smiled at each child in turn.

Those who never met him suppose that Wolf, like Napoleon or Stalin, was noticeably small. This was not the case. He was an average sort of height. Winifred Wagner by contrast was tall, large-boned, with beautiful clear skin, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a well-developed chin. She invariably wore her blonde hair wound round her head in a loose bun reminiscent of pre-war, really of pre-twentieth-century, fashion.

Wolf ’s friends in the Party, when they came to know Winnie, eulogized her Teutonic good looks, but she did not to my mind look remotely like a German. Archaeologists and anthropologists observe among the Celts two quite distinct physiological types. There are the short, squat brachycephalic Celts, usually dark-haired and recognisable in the Basque country, in Brittany and Ireland. There is also a quite different physiognomy, dolichocephalic, noticeably tall and usually with fair or light-brown hair. I imagine that it was to this body type that King Arthur’s Guinevere belonged, and if you think me fanciful you will at least concede that I had spent a very long time contemplating Winnie’s appearance. Even now, over twenty years after we last met, she fills my head. Perhaps one should not put down such thoughts on paper. The comrades have taught us all that the movements of the human heart are no more than the twitches of the bourgeois corpse in its death throes. For me, however, Winnie, whose father’s name had been Williams, was the embodiment of romance in its fullest sense. Her passion for Wolf caused me agonies of jealousy at the time, as did her other liaisons – of which we shall no doubt hear in the course of this narrative. But I reckoned that the pain of watching her devote so much intense emotional energy to the worship of another man, Wolf, was just about requited by the chance, almost daily, to be in her presence.

He sat bolt upright in the modern square-backed upholstered chair with which Winnie and Siegfried had lately furnished their wing of the house. You might consider it superfluous to describe his appearance. It was that, I should say, of a kindly soldier. The fine hair was as always immaculately combed and brushed with the parting on the right of his head. He wore a cheap navy-blue serge suit, shiny at the arse and frayed at the cuffs; a white shirt and a silk tie which must have been the gift of an admirer. His shoes were always highly polished and I used to wonder at what stage of his career he found someone else to shine them for him. At this date he was a mere thirty-six years old and although he had an entourage of followers, some of whom seemed sinister, some of whom were merely crackpots, we hardly ever saw or heard of them. His visits to our small town, certainly at this stage, were made alone and he was never to my knowledge anything but courteous and friendly to his company, preferring when he was among us to discuss music rather than politics, and enjoying – at the Villa Wahnfried, Richard Wagner’s house – the company of Winnie and her children or, when at the Golden Anchor Hotel in Market Place or one of the restaurants in the town, sitting around with the performers and members of the orchestra from the Festival Theatre discussing the finer points of Wagner’s musicology.

She was twenty-eight on that afternoon when Wolf told the story of the fisherman and his wife – and a very youthful twenty-eight, no more corpulent than suited a woman who had given birth to four children, all still quite young, in quick succession and who liked her food. She sat with little Verena on her lap and held the five-yearold’s hands in hers as she clapped and said rhythmically, ‘Bra-vo! Bra-vo!’ She lightly kissed the top of the child’s head.

It had been a truly bravura performance.

Of course, one of the great difficulties which faces me in setting down my recollections of these events is the knowledge brought from hindsight, in a divided, twice-defeated Germany. I live in D—— in the Communist East, where I have lately retired as a schoolmaster. I am in my mid sixties. I would not be writing these words to you if I did not want them to survive.

I call him Wolf, since that is what Winnie and the children called him. In other parts of this narrative, which will relate perhaps to his more public persona, I suppose I shall revert to the polite German convention of referring to him merely by the initial letter of his surname. I believe, even at the time in 1925, that I noted what a very distinctive interpretation Wolf had given of the famous Grimm tale. Is it a story about avarice, or about ambition, lust for power? One version, printed in 1814, two years after the Grimms printed it in their incomparable collection, sees it as an allegory of Napoleon’s ambitions and fall. Wolf was right to see it as something more than a misogynistic comedy about a man giving in to a nagging wife. Had I been reading the story – and I would prosaically have read it to the children, rather than appearing to recite it, as Wolf did – I should, in common with almost all other readers or narrators, have made the fisherman and the flounder have reasonable voices; and I should have given to the wife an even more shrewish and irrational tone, as she played for ever bigger stakes and as the skies grew ever blacker. But the wife ’s demands, culminating in her wish to displace the Godhead, were invested with something like heroism by Wolf ’s rasping baritone. His smile was most triumphant when she had so overplayed her hand that the fisherman’s wife had lost everything – the lands, the castles, the imperial titles – and ended up back on the pisspot. Wolf made you feel that the struggle would not have been worth it unless it had gone too far. You sensed that he thought the wife a greater being than her husband for the very reason that she was prepared to stake all and to lose.

The sea storm provoked by the greed of the fisherman’s wife led my day-dreamy and instinctual mind to other wrecks and tempests, not least those evoked by Richard Wagner himself. As you may imagine, although he had been dead for a long time before I was born (eighteen years to be precise), his ghost haunted our town. I lived and breathed (much to my father’s scorn) Richard Wagner’s music. And now I was working in his house, and living among his books and pianos. His children, now grown-ups, and grandchildren still filled the place. His tall widow, now powdery, papery, wispy and vague, was still alive in her apartments at the top of the Villa Wahnfried, and Wagnerian ghosts and spirits were never far from us, not least when that most ardent of Wagnerians, Wolf, was among us.

Wolf supposedly told his Viennese flatmate (as far as we can tell the only friend of his youth) that it was while attending a performance of Rienzi at the Linz opera house that ‘it’ began – whatever ‘it’ was. His power mania, one must assume. Yet Rienzi is poor stuff compared with the opera composed only a year or so later, The Flying Dutchman. Rienzi, which tells the story of a medieval demagogue being swept to power by a wave of popular support, would have an obvious appeal to our friend, but the music is pastiche, mingling Weber and Donizetti. It is in The Dutchman that you first hear the authentic Wagnerian noise. In this piece for the first time we have the winning formula of mythologized autobiography translated into tormented musical language of tragic intensity.

Richard Wagner was twenty-four when he was engaged as a conductor in Riga. He had lately married the leading actress at the theatre in Königsberg – Immanuel Kant’s home town – Minna Planer, a woman older than himself. From the start it was a difficult marriage. Wagner, considerably shorter than his long-haired beautiful wife, feared, with every justification, that she was unfaithful to him. She found his attitude to money intolerable – from the earliest days together they were always on the run from creditors.

In Germany it was bad enough, but in Riga, then in the Russian Empire as it is once more today, heavy penalties awaited anyone arrested for debt Wagner’s passport was confiscated and he was told that his contract as conductor at the Riga theatre would not be renewed.

How much of the catastrophe of the nineteenth century can be measured in terms of its attitude to debt. For Karl Marx it was the capitalist’s ultimate whip hand over the debt-laden bourgeoisie, ultimately to be withdrawn when capital itself imploded. For hundreds of nineteenth-century families the ignominy of debt shaped the whole character of life itself. It was a world without state support or state benefits. If you fell out of work and into debt you were a non-person: if you were proletarian you were fit only for the workhouse; if bourgeois for the gaol.

And in my time, the time which I am describing and in which I first met Wolf, our country itself was a debtor. Germany had become like one of those grotesques in the novels of Dostoevsky or Dickens, like the Marmeladovs in Crime and Punishment reduced to any level of indignity by sheer inability to pay for food, beer, coal, clothing. We felt ourselves, we the impeccably respectable and provident middleclass Germans, free-falling with the giddy improvidence of paupers. Money in the bank is more than the ability to buy a new suit of clothes or a leg of pork for dinner. It creates, or at any rate confirms, a solid attitude of mind, a belief in family, the Ten Commandments, cleanliness, order. You put your solid handmade leather shoe in front of you and knew you trod on solid German ground.

When, lo and behold – after the Versailles Treaty and our betrayal by the November criminals – that political sole trod not earth but air. France had insisted upon war reparations. Our economy was in ruins. Inflation had soared to surreal levels. The life savings in the bank, which before the war would have been enough to maintain an entire Buddenbrook household of respectability, were no longer enough to buy a box of matches. We fell, fell, fell all of us, Icaruses, bits of papery ash falling through dusk after the German Reich had been bonfired out of existence by French and Bolshevist guile.

No wonder, in 1925, we heard the youthful Wagner of 1839 speaking to us. Minna had returned to her young husband from one of her amorous escapades and he persuaded her that the only way out of the present crisis was flight. A friend from Königsberg offered to whizz the Wagners across the Russian border to East Prussia in his coach. It was a tight squeeze since Wagner, ever the obsessive dog lover, could not be parted from Robber, his Newfoundland, which was the size of a small donkey: almost taller than he was.

Wagner was naturally accident prone. At the Prussian port of Pillau the coach overturned, hurling him out into a pile of manure. Eventually, Minna, Robber and Wagner got on board the Thetis, a small package sailing boat whose captain agreed to let them make the eight-day voyage to London without passports. The weather in the Baltic was fine when they set out on their voyage westward, but squalls soon broke out and a journey that should have lasted a little over a week took three times as long. The dog was half-starved. Richard and Minna Wagner were devastated by seasickness. The weather became so bad that the captain eventually decided to put in to a Norwegian harbour.

‘And how relieved I was,’ Wagner tells us, to behold that far-reaching rocky coast, towards which we were being driven at such speed! A Norwegian pilot came to meet us in a small boat and, with experienced hand, assumed control of the Thetis, whereupon in a very short time I was to have one of the most marvellous and most beautiful impressions of my life. What I had taken to be a continuous line of cliffs turned out on our approach to be a series of separate rocks projecting from the sea. Having sailed past them, we perceived that we were surrounded, not only in front and at the sides, but also at our back by these reefs, which closed in behind us near together that they seemed to form a single chain of rocks. At the same time the hurricane was so broken by the rocks in our rear that the further we sailed through this ever-changing labyrinth of projecting rocks, the calmer the sea became, until at last the vessel’s progress was perfectly smooth and quiet as we entered one of those long sea-roads running through a giant ravine – for such the Norwegian Fjords appeared to me. A feeling of indescribable content came over me when the enormous granite walls echoed the hail of the crew as they cast anchor and furled the sails. The sharp rhythm of this call clung to me like an omen of good cheer, and shaped itself presently into the theme of the seaman’s song in my Flying Dutchman.

Here he is before us, Richard, and I dare say that his ghost will often visit these pages, as it visited Wahnfried in those days when I observed its day-to-day life, and as he visits this earth each time one of his music dramas is once again performed on the stage. He came to our little town of Bayreuth when his career as a composer was all but over. He had endured exile, poverty, vilification; but the worst torment of all was that he had been unable to find any theatre suitable for the performance of his Ring cycle. Eventually, the means came to build a theatre and a stage to his own specification. But this was in the 1870s when Wagner was tired, prematurely old and married to the much younger Cosima.

The Flying Dutchman is the work of a young man. A child of the theatre, a man of the theatre, he was born into a family where money was always uncertain. He was in exile from the solid commercial middle class. If we were being loyal comrades we should no doubt see the exiles who people his works as economic projections. He knew what it was to be a wandering Jew, an accused outcast. As with all great artists his life was an allegory of his time so that his actual exile from Germany post-1848 – his life as a political revolutionary – is mirrored by the extraordinary mythological projection of his own socio-economic exclusion. Shaw – foolish old bearded Irishman – and the comrades here see Wagner’s allegories as to be explained in terms of capital and class struggle. When he went on to rewrite the medieval legends of The Ring of the Nibelungs Wagner was, as they would think, drawing an allegory of the rise of capitalism – (the gods, that is the old aristocratic order of Europe, making spurious contracts with capital – Alberich the dwarf who will exploit the masses, the Nibelungs, for the enrichment of both). The struggle between Old Order and New Money will ultimately lead to the destruction of both. Yet if this was all Wagner’s music dramas were about, why did he go to the immense labour of orchestrating them, why not simply write a political pamphlet? Do not these ‘political’ readings of Wagner get things precisely the wrong way around? Is he not a great artist precisely because he sees so clearly what all the revolutions and changes of his time had done to the soul – are we allowed to use that word these days? – of humanity itself?

One of the things which, in those days (when I still thought of myself as a philosopher) interested me about The Flying Dutchman was Wagner’s extraordinary dramatization of something, as far as I know, not represented on the stage since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. It is actually a very simple and daily observable fact, about which philosophy has never really made up its mind, namely that there is a gulf fixed between our interior world – our psychological history, our daydreams, our preoccupations – and the world out there – the world of that elusive concept, an objectivity, a reality. Most, but by no means all, philosophers have taken it for granted that the world out there – matter etc. – has a reality. One of the problems of philosophy, known as epistemology, was to ask how what is going on inside our head – our thoughts, perceptions, ideas – relates to that reality: how we can be said to know that the table or the garden exist. My friend from university days, who had helped me with my own thesis and was about to become a philosopher of fame, Martin H——, thought that the problems of knowledge were not ‘problems’ at all; that the ‘problem’ stemmed from the Plato who had set the whole of Western philosophy on a wild-goose chase with the observer, the human mind or eye or senses as subject taking in the object – the external reality. The Greek philosophers who were earlier than Plato, the pre-Socratics, had – in common with some of the great texts of Hinduism and Buddhism – not made this distinction. The real mystery was Being itself and we were all, observers and observed, part of this ‘Being’. (I think Martin H—— derived some of his earliest thoughts about all this from Schopenhauer, whom Richard Wagner claimed to be the guide of his second phase of life.)

Anyway, coming in my early twenties to the realization that I was never going to get very far with philosophy, I came to believe more and more that very many of the problems confronting philosophers in the twentieth century had already been addressed by Wagner in the nineteenth century. And that process began, really, with The Dutchman. The story is a very simple one. Into a small Norwegian seaport comes a ship. The strange, pale, dark-clad captain approaches Daland, the captain of another ship, and makes him an offer. Daland can have all the treasures on the stranger’s ship – gold, pearls, precious trinkets – in exchange for a night in Daland’s house. Has Daland a daughter? He has. Then in exchange for Daland’s daughter, Senta, in marriage, the greedy sailor can have a shipload of treasure. Daland can’t believe his luck.

Senta, a dreamy maiden notionally the girlfriend of a dullard sailor called Erik, is obsessed by a picture on her father’s wall of a pale, dark figure, the legendary flying Dutchman. While the other girls merrily sing a chorus over their spinning wheel, Senta wants to sing the ‘Ballad of the Flying Dutchman’. This is the story of a man who has made a pact with Satan that he could achieve immortality and be able to sail and sail around the world. The privilege is of course a curse since he sails on and on unable to die. Every seven years he comes ashore to seek a faithful wife. Were he to find one his curse would end – but he never does so.

When Senta has finished the song she tells the other maidens that she would like to be that maiden. Needless to say, the stranger who has struck the bargain with Daland is the Dutchman. Although at the end he says he cannot involve his cursed life with that of the innocent Senta, she sacrifices herself voluntarily and hurls herself into the sea.

Until he wrote The Dutchman Wagner was still an apprentice, learning from the Italian bel canto composers and from Weber. Operas were dramatized stories, often very silly stories, interrupted by musical ‘numbers’. The heroine could sing a long aria while dying of stab wounds, fall to the stage, receive a round of applause, get up and sing her dying song as an encore. Wagner, compelled to earn his bread and butter conducting such absurdities in Leipzig, Riga, later Dresden, where he ’d been to school, was to pioneer something quite new, the music drama in which the opera was seen as a whole and the music itself expressed the inner lives of the characters. In The Dutchman, the choruses of Norwegian sailors and their maidens with spinning wheels, and the raucous tenor Erik are all production line operatic types – they could have been dreamed up by Weber or Meyerbeer, a second-rate operatic composer whose success ate into Wagner’s soul. Senta and the Dutchman, doomed from the beginning to their fatal union – redemptive in her eyes, destructive in his – inhabit a new musical world and communicate their inner lives to and through us and themselves by a completely new music.

It is a strange fact that when my lovely Winnie, when Winifred Wagner first arrived in Germany, at the age of nine, her adoptive parents immediately changed her name and called her . . . Senta, Senta Klindworth. When they had journeyed over to England, the child they picked up at the orphanage door in East Grinstead was named Winifred Williams. Knowing no German, and no family affection or happiness either, Winnie discovered both in the company of this strange old couple, Henriette, who was also an English-speaker and some sort of cousin, then aged seventy, and her ancient, white-bearded husband, Karl Klindworth, then aged seventy-seven.

I remember once walking up the Green Hill in Bayreuth towards the Festival Theatre, alone with Winnie at my side. Visitors to our town will remember that at the foot of the gentle ‘Green Hill’, a little way out of the town centre, is a row of sedate villas, built shortly after the Wagners had established themselves here and set on the sloping Franconian hillside on which stands the opera house where his works might, at last, adequately be performed. One of these villas bears an inscription,

Deutches Haus im Deutschen Land Schirm dich Gott mit starker Hand. 1900.

Standing beside the gate and lighting up yet another cigarette, Winnie declaimed the little prayer to me and then, with a theatrical swing of the arm, she giggled.

May God protect with Mighty hand A German house in German land.

‘It’s just what I felt about Germany, almost the moment I arrived,’ she said. ‘Safe. No more cruelty. No more nuns’ – the orphanage was run by a Church of England sisterhood – ‘devising punishments simply for being alive. In this country I found safety. Security. Kindliness. That was what I found.’ Looking up at the house again: ‘Seven years after that was built.’

On another occasion, during a rehearsal for The Dutchman in the Festival Theatre, she told me, ‘They called me Senta because old Grandpa Klindworth was transcribing the opera for the piano when I arrived in the house. Was he preparing to offer me up as a sacrifice, a ransom, to a dark stranger?’

Questions like this from Winnie’s lips were always answered by chesty laughs interrupted by coughing.

One of my earliest jobs had been playing the piano at the old Electric Odeon, the first cinema to open in our small town. Naturally, the early Wagner films were shown there. It might strike the modern reader as paradoxical that silent movies were made of Wagner’s operas, and there would no doubt be those, my father among them, who considered the silence an improvement on the music. My father was shocked by my earning my living in a cinema, a place he considered on the edges of seediness; not completely respectable if not actually immoral. He minded even more that when I might have been perfecting Beethoven’s sonatas for piano, or mastering another piece by Haydn, I was working up Karl Klindworth’s piano version of the Ring cycle for regurgitation in the cinema.

Karl Klindworth was one of the star pupils of the Abbé Liszt and he had founded the Karl Klindworth Music Conservatory in Berlin. My father, with his intense fastidiousness, had been aware of the group during his own upbringing and education in Berlin, and viewed their ideas, both about politics and about music (the two intermingled) with shuddering disdain.

At the time they adopted Winnie, Karl and Henriette Klindworth lived in a cranks’ commune where they could devote themselves to fruit-growing, vegetarianism, extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism. Each member of the group lived in his or her own little house, but the fruit-growing was communal, and the different members of the group came together in the evenings for music and conversation. Klindworth was a star among them, not only because he had been taught by Liszt, but also because he had been part of Wagner’s inner circle, and he was still in close epistolary touch with the widow of their hero, Cosima. It was this tall, beaky-nosed, strong-minded woman, Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s second wife, who was regarded as the High Priestess of the Wagner shrine.

Excerpted from Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson.

Copyright © 2007 by A.N.Wilson.

Published in 2007 by publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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