Edward Downes at Bayreuth

Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth. Brigitte Hamann (Author), Alan Bance (Translator)(Photo: N/A)
Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth. Brigitte Hamann (Author), Alan Bance (Translator)(Photo: N/A)

Here are more of the memoirs of musicologist and broadcaster Edward Downes (1911-2001) from taped interviews he gave me in New York in 1995.  Edward lived in the Dakota, he’d lived there since 1925, and died there.

The apartment building at 1 West 72 St. was infamous both for the filming of  Rosemary’s Baby there in 1966 and tragically for the shooting death of John Lennon in the courtyard in 1980. John Lennon lived on the floor above Edward’s, and Yoko was still there in the 1990s. I never saw her, but Edward knew them both. There’s a story there, for another time.

Edward was devoted to the music of Richard Wagner, if not always to the composer or his family. He did become quite close to Wagner’s granddaughter Friedelind (1919-1991), the daughter of Siegfried Wagner and his British born wife, Winifred Williams Wagner. Winifred went down in infamy as an early devotee of Hitler’s. The Fuhrer made Bayreuth his unofficial summer home and was very close to Winifred and her four children.

Edward was the long time host of Texaco Opera Quiz on the Metropolitan Opera’s beloved Saturday afternoon broadcasts. His father, Olin Downes (1886-1955) was the Chief Music Critic of the New York Times from 1925 until his death.

Here’s Edward speaking on tape about Bayreuth:
My father sent a letter to Winifred Wagner. He said among other things, “You will gauge his seriousness by the fact that he is traveling with the orchestral scores of the operas he’s going to see this summer” (and they weighed a ton!).

I got to Bayreuth and it wasn’t difficult to smuggle myself in because there was a time and place when all the orchestral musicians streamed in, but one day I made the mistake of asking where Frau Wagner was. Then it became clear that I didn’t know her by sight, and I was quickly booted out.

I found Frau Wagner drinking coffee in the Bayreuth restaurant.  That was the year Siegfried died (1930), leaving her a widow with four children. She was English and had been orphaned, and was raided in Germany acquaintances of the Wagner family. She became thoroughly German. She was very gracious to me, having read my father’s letter.

She wrote in pencil on a slip of paper. “Admit to any rehearsal.” I still have the slip. (CP: And he did. He showed it to me. Creepy)

I had heard Siegfried Wagner conduct in New York and I must say he was not a very good conductor. He had conducted the Ring at Bayreuth a few weeks before he died. Toscanini was there conducting Tristan and Tannhauser. It was a total revelation! I loved Tristan and the Ring, and then Parsifal.

…I expected Tristan with Toscanini to be the highlight of the Festival, but I was disappointed with it! I found the interpretation too precisely planned and balanced, controlled and lacking in impetuosity, passion and spontaneity a good performance of Tristan must have.

But Toscanini’s Tannhauser was a revelation! The performance had all the qualities I missed in his Tristan, and Siegfried Wagner’s sets, costumes and stage directions seemed absolutely right. Everything about that production worked.

The last pre-war memory I have of Bayreuth was in 1936 when Hitler was a regular visitor. I did see him there.

There as an episode typical of my father. If Hitler was there we knew he’d be in the Wagner family box, usually with Winifred on his arm. Hitler would be driven in from the Wagner family home, Wahnfried. There was a little square and a right angle turn up to the Festpielhaus. My father paid the cab driver to wait at this turn. He said, “When the Fuhrer comes along there’ll be a lot of people ahead of him. He’ll come in at the end, and the house lights will go down. But I want to see the Fuhrer go by, and I want to follow in right after him.”

So the cabbie said, Okay. The parade came in with the usual shouting and salutes. Hitler never walked in just quietly, everything was in state. Three or four cars ahead of him and three or four cars behind, all with SS men. As they passed by, our cab swept right in, directly behind the entourage.

All of these people were crowding and yelling and screaming, and they must have been wondering who these people in the taxi were.They were craning their necks. My father took off his hat and began bowing to the crowd. He got some very dirty looks from the cavalcade in front of us. My father thought it was all very funny and richly enjoyed every moment.

If I had wanted to meet Hitler, it would have been possible with my father’s connections. The authorities were well aware of the advantages The New York Times could bring them.

(CP: The world never forgave Winifred Wagner for her support of Hitler. By the time she died in 1980 Winifred had never repudiated Hitler. Quite the contrary. Bayreuth became a Nazi shrine. To this day they continue to try and live it down. Winifred’s son Wieland did go on to become one of the great opera producers and stage directors on the post war era. He died at 49 in 1966.)

Edward continues:
After the war, Winifred was in disgrace. She took the whole Nazi era right in her stride. I got a message the first year I went back (1959) that Frau Wagner knew I was in Bayreuth and would like to see me. I thought, Oh Christ, what do I do now? I had never seen Winifred since that day in the Bayreuth restaurant in 1930. And now thirty years later here she was.

I sent a note back saying it was very nice of Frau Wagner, and we met once many years ago, she couldn’t possibly remember me. Back came a message. Oh yes, she remembers you very well and she knows you are here and she would like to see you.  So I went to Friedelind and said, What the hell do I do now? Friedelind said Mama receives on performance days. I’ll take you over tomorrow.

Frau Wagner was very chirpy and urbane and seemed at peace with her life. Years later, in a long TV documentary shortly before her death she said, “Yes, I was Hitler’s friend, certainly, and we were very fond of one another. If he came knocking a the door now I would run to meet him as I would a dear friend.”

She made these absolutely flat statements that Hitler never knew anything at all about the horrors that were going on. And I sat there thinking, does she think I’m totally stupid? Or is she pretending an ignorance she can’t possibly have?  She seemed like a very bright woman. I never heard her apologize [or] repudiate Hitler in any way. And this went on until she died in 1980.

She had quite the shot as we left. As she and Friedelind kissed and cooed, she turned to me and said, “What do you think of our Wieland’s productions? I think he does it just to be different, don’t you?” I tried to be as neutral and as non-committal as possible, since I thought his productions were just marvelous.”

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