Monday, 12 December 2016


“How did such sublime music come from such a warped man? Maybe art really does have the power to ferret out the best in us.” – Anthony Tommasini 

Richard Wagner was born in Germany on May 22, 1813, went on to become one of the world’s most influential (and controversial!) composers. He is famous for both his epic operas, including the four-part, 18-hour Ring Cycle, as well as for his anti-semitic writings, which, posthumously, made him a favourite of Adolf Hitler. There is evidence that Wagner’s music was played at the Dachau concentration camp to “re-educate” the prisoners. Wagner had a tumultuous love life, which involved several scandalous affairs. He died of a heart attack in Venice on February 13, 1883.

Wagner is not one of favourite composers, although some of his music can be rousing and emotionally charged, occasionally sublime and in some instances abhorrently noisy. You can either love or hate Richard Wagner, but in any case he is not one to ignore. It is perhaps unfortunate that Wagner was the favourite composer of Adolf Hitler, who claimed to have seen Wagner’s opera “Rienzi” at least 40 times. This coupled with the use of Wagner’s music for Nazi ceremonial occasions and “rehabilitation” purposes of concentration camp inmates have stained Wagner’s reputation in terms of anti-Semitic sentiments.

We watched the 2010 Patrick McGrady documentary “Wagner and Me” starring Stephen Fry in which Wagner’s life, oeuvre and life perspective are explored in terms of Fry’s reaction to the man and his music. As such, the documentary examines more Stephen Fry’s life and psychology rather than Wagner’s. It is very much Wagner viewed through Fry’s eyes, or more importantly, listened to via Fry’s ears.

Stephen Fry first fell in love with the music of Wagner when he was 14 and thus began a lifetime’s intense enjoyment and involvement for the music.  The complicating factor is that Stephen Fry is Jewish and has lost family members in the Holocaust at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Therein lies the conflict in Fry’s enjoyment of the music of a man who clearly had hateful views about the Jews and whose music was tainted by its association with the Nazis later on.

The documentary is beautifully shot and offers amazing views of Bayreuth in preparation for the annual Festival in which performances of operas by Wagner are held. There is also footage of Nuremberg, which is famous for Hitler’s massive Nazi rallies. While many historians, musicians, Holocaust survivors and performers are interviewed, the documentary is primarily Stephen Fry’s. It is an almost apologetic and embarrassing admission by Fry that despite everything he still loves Wagner’s music…

While there are glimpses of Wagner’s life and some performances of small parts of his work, Wagner music lovers may well be disappointed by this documentary because it more about Fry than about Wagner. Nevertheless, we found it an excellent introduction to the composer and his music, with the ambivalence of Fry’s views acting as a means of resolving the thorny of issue of balance: On the one hand there is artistic and creative genius, and on the other political views and prejudices that may influence the listener’s perception of the music…


  1. I had to look up his music as I wasn't sure if I knew his music but it didn't appeal to me. I saw that the video was forbidden in Israel which I understand when i read your post.
    I don't like a lot of classical music. my favourites are Bach, Beethoven, schubert, Liszt and Chopin
    I do love contemporary classical music a lot as well. if you can call it classical I refer to Saint Preux (a French composer) Abel Korzeniowski (a Polish composer) Levon Minassian & Armand Amar (armenian composers) and Songs of a secret garden which is a blend of classical and celtic music.

  2. I feel sorry for Fry because he had to judge Wagner's musical skills, while ignoring the man's obnoxious philosophies. I had the same problem with Charles Dickens - great novelist but he impregnated his wife 10 times then left her for being too fat. Left her for HER sister.