I just finished watching Stephen Fry's gorgeous documentary: "Wagner & Me".
And it's evoked in me so many memories.
My Great-Grandmother (on my Father's Maternal side) was Margaret Wagner.
We are cousins of Honus Wagner. And my Gram loved to tell tales about what a hard guy he was. His famous refusal of baseball cards because they were in cigarette boxes and he didn't approve.
The family lore surrounding the cards. Worth so much when we all were folk of modest means.
Family to be proud of.
The stories of Margaret's second husband William Runyon (My Gram's step dad) and his famous writing relation. I remember the stories being my Great-Grandpap's brother. But I don't know for sure. One day I'll track all the history down.
There was always music in my Gram Audrey's home. I lived with her for a goodly portion of my life. First as our only neighbor then in my Dad's small crowded house. I loved music. And especially opera as a small kid. Classical music was a 'safe' form allowed and encouraged by my Mom.
My two favorite pieces of orchestral music were "Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky. And "The Funeral of Sigfrid" by Wagner.
Independent of the opera I listened to a recording of the Ring Cycle Orchestration in my deepest times of distress as a child. Ad nauseam to help lull me into sleep as a hyper vigilant insomniac I played this music.
Until one night my Gram pulled me aside and asked me to stop.
I was in high school. I was obsessively researching the Second World War. I was driven to delve into the madness of the Holocaust. I read everything. I watched the news reels. I sat through lectures and hours of Nazi propaganda film. I took a special history course specifically on WWII.
All through this the sounds of Richard Wagner soothed the pain in my heart nightly. The horrors of the war were a way to struggle through the nightmare of my own early days. I talked to my Gram about being a teenage girl during the war.
She brought out the original family copy of "Mein Kaumpf"( which my Dad and Uncle had punched holes into Hitler's eyes) and told me about our family. And my obsession with the war and the man who wrote the music I loved.
My Gram said that at first the family had received the book written by Hitler from relatives still in Germany. They saw him early on as a force of healing for Germany. But my Gram was mostly raised by her Grandmother Rose. Rose didn't like that "nasty filth book" or it's author.
My Gram revealed that she had been raised Catholic by her Grandparents. This was a shock for me. We always identified as Protestant though my Gram never once went to church that I recall. And being Catholic was somehow unsavory to our family.
More astounding was the idea that were were related to Wagner. But something made our family intensely dislike him.
I knew no history of Richard Wagner. I knew only the notes played. The story in liner notes. The intense pitch of the Valkyrie "Hi ya ah". The Bugs Bunny in drag of Wagner.
Gram told me of his antisemitism. She told me that was why he wasn't allowed to be played in Great-Grams house.
And then the story went deeper.
My Gram told me that her beloved Rose was Jewish. She converted to Catholic to marry my Great-Great Grandfather. This was Never spoken of and would be denies as high treason by the older generation. No Jews in there good German line. (This was in the early Thirties as related to my young Gram)
Margaret died when I was a small child.
My Gram only spoke of these stories once to me. Then showed me photographs of my German Wagner relatives. Honus and the brothers and back to the family Wagner who came to Heidelberg Pennsylvania from the old country.
So here I was a kid immersing myself in the history of the Holocaust. Trying to understand the culture of a people who some how survived. And now I find out that I lost family too. I had lost Jewish cousins and there was strong ties for an against Nazism in my close family tree.
I found out the music I so loved was written by a man who hated Jews. Who hated the idea of my Grandma Rose. Who's music was much beloved by Hitler who used the Ring story to feed his madness. Wagner's, I learned tonight, son in law openly embraced that hatred. More history to trace.
So I watched Mr. Fry who too loved the music as I do struggle with the Nazi taint to Wagner's work. I saw a gay, Jewish man come to terms with the spaces where Hitler stood to bask in Wagner's work.
And I understand better now bits of my own history.
Now did my Gram tell me the truth? Or is the connection to Wagner in name only. I'll never know. She and all the family are gone.
But I choose music. I am choosing to love the music. In itself for itself. And I feel pretty much like Mr. Fry in the end.