In an interview with SPIEGEL, Nike Wagner talks about her ancestors Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, her family’s friendship with Adolf Hitler, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s one-sided taste in opera.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Wagner, you are descended from two important composers. Are you closer to your great-great-grandfather, Franz Liszt, whose 200th birthday is this October, or his son-in-law, Richard Wagner?
Wagner:Definitely Liszt, even though I discovered him late in life — and then only through the praise of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. What a multifaceted, fantastic and experimental body of work he created! I have therefore put Liszt at the center of my art festival in Weimar for years now. I like his spirit: Noble, eccentric, European.
SPIEGEL: Many people consider his work to be second-class.
Wagner: His works may not all be of the same quality, but Liszt is underestimated and underrepresented in our concert halls. His contemporaries loved his virtuosity. He made them ecstatic in a way matched only by Paganini. The musicians he promoted — Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz — did nothing for him, and his revolutionary late works were decried as the product of a senile old man. What’s more, two world wars changed musical tastes. Eventually Liszt was seen as too emphatic, too loud, too pious. It’s also quite possible that the heavyweight Wagner deliberately tried to overshadow Liszt.
SPIEGEL: How did Liszt meet Wagner?
Wagner: He had heard his opera ‘Rienzi,’ whereupon he considered Wagner a genius. And Liszt stood by this assessment, no matter how badly Wagner behaved. Liszt kept his friend above water both financially and emotionally, especially in the ten years of Wagner’s political exile. During that time, Liszt performed his friend’s works in Germany, and defended him. In fact Liszt — the most famous of the two composers — stood by Wagner’s side right up until the Bayreuth Festival was founded. But from Bayreuth’s point of view, Liszt only ever gave Wagner a leg up, and that’s the image that has persisted and been passed down, an injustice that Liszt’s daughter Cosima — Wagner’s wife — also helped to perpetuate.