Wagner and Me: Separating Art from Artist

Wagner and Me

Wagner and Me (2010) is a look into the history and importance of one of the most respected and controversial composers in modern times. British national treasure, Stephen Fry, is our guide on this educational and entertaining voyage. Fry first heard Richard Wagner’s music at the tender age of 11, and has been hooked ever since. For him, Wagner was not only an incredible composer, but also a man who spoke to his emotional core. In Wagner and Me, Fry embarks on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Wagner’s own opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, in order to witness a yearly festival that pays tribute to Wagner’s work. However, Fry’s love for Wagner is anything but simple. Before he can continue, he must examine the moral quandary at the core of his passion: how can Fry, a Jew, embrace the music of an avowed anti-Semite, who was adored by Hitler and whose work may have played a role in the formation of Nazi Germany.

Director Patrick McGrady’s film takes us deep into Wagner’s history, examining both his contributions to the arts, and his flaws. Indeed, Wagner was a brilliant artist who has become shrouded in the dark deeds of history and his own repugnant beliefs. Not only was his music famously used at Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, but he was also Hitler’s favourite composer. On top of this, Wagner also wrote of his own anti-Semitic beliefs. Wagner’s beliefs and connection to Nazism is a stain on his work, which for some people will entirely ruin their ability to enjoy it.

At the core of this film is the moral predicament that unpleasant and, sometimes, outright terrible people can create beautiful art. The film asks: should our moral compass prevent us from enjoying the art of someone we disagree with, or worse, find abhorrent?  It’s a difficult question, and one that every individual must answer for themselves. In order to find a conclusion that he was comfortable with, Fry journeys through Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and back again, following Wagner’s footsteps and helping us understand how his career was shaped.

Admiration for Wagner is not a difficult thing to muster. The man was truly a master composer. He strove for Gesamtkunstwerk, aka the perfect mix of the arts: music, dance, verse, costume all working together to create a perfect art form. Wagner’s music was experimental and often considered avant-garde. Fry helps us understand the importance behind Wagner’s key contributions. For instance, the ‘Tristan Chord’ from his Opera Tristan und Isolde was a revelation to audiences at the time. If you don’t know what it is, look it up.  It perfectly illustrates Wagner’s dedication to the harmony of drama and music. Wagner was also the first conductor to turn his back to his audience and face the orchestra. What is now common practice and may seem like common sense was revolutionary for the time.

Fry is a fabulous guide, and it’s his passion for Wagner’s music that really keeps the film flowing. It is rare to have a guide so invested in their subject that some of that passion is passed through the screen! Although I know little of Wagner’s work outside of Ride of the Valkyries, and had never had any inclination to learn more, Wagner and Me quickly piqued my interest. However, informative as it is, at times it can be quite dry, and I fear that people who have little interest in music should really give this a pass. The film dragged in the last third, and could have used some tighter editing to hustle the whole thing along.

In all, the film feels a little like a treasure hunt; finding gems throughout time as we jump from one important moment in Wagner’s life to the next. History aside, it’s the films philosophical core that really makes it stand out. An eye opening adventure into the life of a German musical master, Wagner and Me dissects both the origins and limits of admiration.