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The Temptation of Dynasticity

Just as mathematical talent was typically thought to be inherited, so too was talent for music. Indeed, there were a number of composers whose descendants continued in their father’s vocation. The Bachs are one example of a musical dynasty, which ran from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century (Gardiner 2013, 51-90). Despite the individualistic nature of artistic production since the nineteenth century and the fact that the profession of artist is not inherited in the same way as royalty, nobility and entrepreneurship, dynasticity did not reduce its temptation. We approach this question here through a parallel study of two cases, that is, the Strauss dynasty, whose members were celebrated musicians in four generations (Kemp 1985), and the Wagner dynasty, whose founder Richard Wagner was a composer, while his descendants fabricated the Wagner dynasty by running the Bayreuth music festival created by Richard in 1876 (Carr 2008). The Strauss and the Wagner musical dynasties are of course a conventional sample—their dynasticity is common knowledge. But it is for this very reason that they deserve their place in this treatise.

The founder of the Strauss musical dynasty was Johann Strauss (1804-49), the only surviving son of a Viennese itinerant waiter who also managed a tavern. The son’s vocational choice seemed at first to accord with his father’s career: Johann started a five-year bookbinder’s apprenticeship. Soon, however, his passion for music took the upper hand. His musical talent was recognized by fellow music enthusiasts, who proceeded to set up a small orchestra. From this humble social background and these modest professional beginnings, Johann eventually rocketed to stardom in Vienna, which at the time was Europe’s centre of musical life. Richard Wagner (1813-83), Johan Strauss’s contemporary, came from a different social background. His father was a police actuary in Leipzig. Five of his seven surviving children became artists, including actors and opera singers. The whole family was thus artistically inclined, but only the youngest son, Richard, achieved fame that lasted into posterity.

A glorious beginning does not necessarily lead to the constitution of a dynasty, but in the Strauss case it did. Johann Strauss’s three sons, Johann II (1825-99), Josef (1827-70) and Eduard I (1835-1916), devoted themselves to music as wholeheartedly as their father, and they also achieved fame that matched their father’s. Originally Johan Strauss I was firmly opposed to his sons’ musical pursuits because of the insecurity of his profession. He had seen how even talented artists had failed to earn a decent living or achieve the kind of status that he himself had done. He was sure that an academic profession would provide better security. His two eldest sons first consented to their father’s wish and started their studies at the Polytechnic Institute, but Johann, the eldest son, soon dropped out to return to music. The change of profession paid well. He won worldwide fame and popularity. In a public opinion poll conducted in 1890 for the title of the ‘most popular’ European personality, Johann Strauss II was ranked third after Queen Victoria and Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck (Kemp 1985, 139). The middle son, Josef, was obedient enough to complete his studies at the Polytechnic Institute, but he too was unable to resist the call of music. The youngest son, Eduard, found himself in the shadow of his legendary father and two supremely successful elder brothers, but he, nonetheless, programmed his life very much in compliance with theirs.

The continuity of the dynasty rested on Eduard’s shoulders, because Johann II had no children of his own and because Josef’s only child, a daughter, held herself aloof from professional music. Eduard I had two sons, Johann III (1866-1939) and Josef (1868-1940). Johann III devoted himself to music in line with the family tradition, whereas his brother Josef, though a talented pianist, chose to become a garage proprietor. Johann III was a world-famous composer and conductor, but none of his three surviving children pursued a musical career. But Josef’s, the garage proprietor’s, youngest son Eduard II (1910-69) was to rescue the dynasty from extinction. Eduard II won eminence, not as a composer but as a conductor. Finally, his only son Eduard (b. 1955) is neither a composer nor a conductor but a judge who, despite his professional divergence from the Strauss tradition, maintains the dynasty’s legacy by lecturing on Strauss music and by keeping contact with different Strauss societies in Vienna and abroad.

The Wagner dynasty started out in a similar way as the Strauss dynasty—both Richard and Johann were famous composers—but they evolved differently. Richard’s descendants did not achieve eminence as creators of music, but as guardians of Richard Wagner’s glorious legacy, above all through the Bayreuth music festival. It is true that Siegfried, Richard’s only son, composed some operas, and his first opera even was a hit when it premiered, but his operas would be overshadowed by his father’s. Siegfried’s ultimate job would be to serve as director of the Bayreuth music festival, that is, to set on stage what his father had created and what the public craved for. The rest of the family followed in Siegfried’s footsteps. Thus, the Wagner musical dynasty was formed around an enterprise whose profits and losses depended first and foremost on the popularity of Richard Wagner’s operas, but also on the capability of the festival directors to create spectacular performances with famous conductors and opera singers and so to inspire and attract the public.

Despite its uncertain beginnings, Richard’s second wife, Cosima (1837-1930), took charge of the festival after Richard’s death, though with the assistance of her adviser and the children’s guardian. As the only son, Siegfried (1869-1930) was heir apparent, whereas the daughters were excluded from the directorship. At the age of 46, Siegfried married the English-born 18-year-old Winifred Williams (1897-1980), who bore him four children, among them two sons, who secured a clear line of succession in the third generation. Before their entrance onto the scene, it was once again time for a widow to take the reins of the festival, and again with the assistance of an adviser on her side. In his will, Siegfried treated his four children as equal heirs after Winifred, but she made it plain that the future director would be the eldest son, mother’s favourite Wieland (1917-66), although he was reluctant at the time to take the directorship. After the Second World War and trials against the Wagner family for Nazi sympathies, Winifred had to refrain from organizing, administering or running the festival. At that time Wolfgang (1919-2010), Winifred’s younger son, also showed an interest in sharing power at Bayreuth. The struggles for power between Wieland and Wolfgang died down when they decided to share responsibility according to their own interests and dispositions: Wieland was the visionary and hence took charge of artistic direction, while Wolfgang was more practically oriented and therefore concentrated on the business side. The two daughters were ignored and sidelined by their brothers. All these manoeuvres were similar to those seen in entrepreneurial dynasties at the time. Women were minor characters on the scene where big business was being done and great art being produced.

The fourth generation with a total of 12 cousins had numerous claimants to the throne, but the search for prospective heirs eventually turned to the families of Wieland and Wolfgang, the two co-directors, so that the reins of the festival could remain in the direct line of succession after Siegfried. Gottfried (b. 1947), Wolfgang’s only son, might have ended up as director of the festival, and indeed he showed interest in the post, even though he was very critical of the Wagners’ anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies (Wagner 2000), but Wolfgang rejected his son because of his ‘wanderer’ lifestyle (Carr 2008). Gottfried finally made his career outside the Bayreuth festival, by drifting from one opera project to another, by lecturing and writing articles on Richard Wagner and his anti-Semitism and by giving interviews to the media (Wagner 2000). Wolf (b. 1943), Wieland’s only son, showed serious interest in taking up the Bayreuth sceptre and believed that Wolfgang could not stop him, but it so happened that Wolfgang, his uncle, prevented him from taking over the music festival. Wieland’s premature death in 1966 significantly reduced his offspring’s prospects as heirs. Wolfgang ran the festival as sole director until 2008, despite the changes in ownership. The century-old family empire was subsumed in 1973 into the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth. After Wolfgang’s retirement in 2008, two women from the fourth generation, Eva (b. 1945) and Katharina (b. 1978), half-sisters from Wolfgang’s two marriages, were elected as joint directors.

Dynasticity was differently constituted in the Strauss and the Wagner families. In the Strauss family, dynasticity depended on extraordinary individual gifts for music, assiduous work and the immense popularity that the six men in four generations won as musicians. They feature in the main role in The Strauss Family, Portrait of a Musical Dynasty by P Kemp (1985). The family members employed outside the domain of professional music are mentioned in Kemp’s book only in passing. We do not know, for example, how the garage proprietor’s life turned out, not to mention his children’s lives, except for Eduard’s who continued the Strauss tradition as an outstanding composer. In the Wagner family, on the other hand, dynasty was built up by those family members who advanced to the directorship of the Bayreuth music festival, seven in all after Richard Wagner. This position was like an office that had to be filled over and again, regardless of the claimants’ personal capabilities. This kind of dynasticity was comparable to that in entrepreneurial dynasties when directors were chosen from amongst family members, and essentially different from the kind of dynasticity that was based exclusively on personal talent.

 
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