Wagner and Me: Music, Nazis and wisecracks

Comedian-turned-filmmaker Stephen Fry pays tribute to a controversial composer.

Nineteenth-century composer Richard Wagner has been hugely influential. As a movie lover, it’s important to note that his impact on movie music is immeasurable. He stood out not only for his music, but because it was always wrapped up in larger philosophies about aesthetics. For example, he advocated a “total art” that would encompass music, dance, theatre, and visual art.

Not everyone loves his music, but those who do are usually fanatics. They’re the Deadheads of classical music. One of them is Stephen Fry. Just in advance of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth in 2013, Cinéma du Parc is screening Fry’s Wagner and Me, a documentary following a 2009 trip to Germany in which he visited key sites in the composer’s life, and attended the Bayreuth Festival at the theatre Wagner built to showcase his music. The waiting time for tickets is about a decade. Fry got an exclusive behind-the-scenes pass to the fest, so he’s over the moon.

Fry is also a gay Jewish atheist, which is where things get interesting. One of Wagner’s philosophical treatises about music infamously attacks “Jewishness” in music. What’s more, Wagner later became Hitler’s favourite composer. Reductio ad Hitlerum: Hitler’s fandom is still a huge issue, seemingly overshadowing even Wagner’s own treatise.

Just this year, Evgeny Nikitin was pulled out of a lead role at the festival just days before opening night because old photos of him in a metal band surfaced, showing a swastika tattoo on his chest. Last year, the Israel Chamber Orchestra performed Wagner at the Bayreuth festival, and to avoid bad taste they did not play a note in Israel, even to practice. And it still led to a debate in parliament. Playing Wagner’s music is unofficially banned in Israel; it was not performed there until 2001.

Lots of people believe Jews, or even just progressives in general, should not enjoy Wagner. That’s what Fry, who’s written an alternate history novel titled Making History in which Hitler was not born (things get worse, not better), confronts throughout the movie as he traces Wagner’s biography and has conversations with musicians, historians and an Auschwitz survivor.

It’s an interesting premise, but the BBC-produced documentary can’t shake off the tone of a TV mini-series. Fry’s voiceover doesn’t help. He also skates on the surface of the controversy, arguing that Wagner’s music can still be enjoyed by modern audiences, just as Shylock hasn’t dismissed Shakespeare from public veneration, but Fry does little to sketch out the context of the widespread anti-Semitism in Wagner’s day.

He also spends so much time depacking Wagner’s influence on Hitler that there is little said about the composer’s influence on so many others, which would, ironically, have helped Fry make his point. There’s nothing about George Bernard Shaw’s famous anti-capitalist interpretation of Wagner’s music, or Jewish composer Gustav Mahler’s championing of his music, which was largely responsible for Wagner’s popularity continuing into the 20th century. Nothing about Wagner’s influence on film composers and countless others. Fry also doesn’t talk about the dramatic fight for a memorial to Jewish singers in Bayreuth, which now exists.

Fry does keep things fun with his over-the-top giddiness as a fan and, having started his career as a comedian, he keeps the wisecracks coming. The film is at its best as a light Wagner 101 documentary made to reassure other fans that they shouldn’t feel guilty. This makes it a made-by-a-fan-for-fans project, which is too bad: the people who need to hear the argument Fry’s trying to make are the ones who aren’t already Wagner fans. ■


Wagner and Me screens Oct. 19-24 at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc)

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