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My journey with Stephen Fry and Wagner

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Patrick McGrady Patrick McGrady | 09:45 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

I'm approaching the end of a journey which began nearly three years ago. In summer 2007, my company, Wavelength Films, was lucky enough to be working with Stephen Fry on a film for BBC Four about Johannes Gutenberg - the man who invented printing.

As we travelled through Germany in quest of that elusive medieval genius we found ourselves on a twisting road which ran alongside of the river Rhine. In the backseat of the crew vehicle Stephen was plugged into his iPod when a mysterious sound filled the van.

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"Rheingold! Rheingold!" The great man was singing (sort of) to the music of his favourite composer - the legendary, controversial, Richard Wagner. And what better choice for this impromptu burst of karaoke than Wagner's opera, Rheingold, the first instalment of his famous quartet of operas The Ring, which kicks off with a scene played out in exactly the landscape we were driving through?

As the journey continued the singing ended and the talking began, sowing the seeds of our next collaboration with Stephen. The result is our film Stephen Fry On Wagner, which I directed, which goes out on BBC Four Tuesday, 25 May at 9pm.

Stephen's loved Wagner's music since he was a child but over the years his passion for it has also grown more complicated.

It's no secret that his enthusiasm for Wagner was also shared by Hitler, or that Wagner himself was outspokenly anti-semitic. Stephen is Jewish, and he lost members of his family in the Holocaust, so those have always been hard facts for him to stomach. This film is his opportunity to tackle that dilemma head-on - an attempt to salvage the music he loves from its dark association with the Nazis.

It's also an opportunity for him to realize a lifelong dream by attending the Bayreuth Festival - an annual extravaganza of Wagner's music held in a theatre, the Festspielhaus, designed and built by the composer himself (never a man to trust a job to others that he thought he could do better himself). You can't really understand what made Wagner tick without visiting this extraordinary venue, so it was crucial for us to film there.

But access was tough to negotiate. The festival is still run by members of Wagner's family, who are notoriously cagey about letting the press roam free, especially in the run up to the festival, which is a time of intensive rehearsal and preparation.

Stephen Fry in a tuxedo stands by a bust of Richard Wagner

When we first approached them with our request the boss was Wagner's grandson Wolfgang. By the time we finally persuaded them to let our cameras in, the baton had passed to his daughters, Eva and Katharina. It took more than a year of meetings and discussion to agree the deal.

We first visited in the snows of winter and then, more than a year later, in the early spring sunshine. We finally began filming in June 2009, a few weeks before the festival began.

But it was worth the wait just to be there to film Stephen's first arrival at this legendary venue and watch him tiptoe his way into the rehearsal room with Wagner's extraordinarily powerful music in full swing, and the composer's great-grand-daughter Eva keeping an eagle eye on proceedings in the corner.

Over the next few days we had a chance to explore every nook and cranny of this amazing place - perhaps the most famous music venue in the world - and to eavesdrop on the singers and musicians as they prepared for the festival.

There's something slightly surreal about hearing the Ride of the Valkyries being hammered out on an upright piano whilst a gang of spear-wielding sopranos choreograph their movements in what looks like a school sports-hall.

But when they start to sing, the hairs on your neck stand to attention - even though we later discover that they weren't giving it full throttle quite yet, but saving their voices for opening night.

There were plenty of other treats in store after that - including a chance for Stephen to play on Wagner's piano (like Eric Morecambe he managed the right notes but not necessarily in the right order), and to leaf through the original score of his opera Gotterdammerung.

As we took a breather between takes, the archivist put the velvet-bound book down on a side table before casually informing me that it was worth upwards of 10 million euros - an interesting piece of trivia that I decided to share first with our sound recordist, Steve, who'd placed his coffee cup - still half full - perilously close to the score itself. Most film crews spend a fortune on coffee, but this could have been the costliest latte in history.

Away from Bayreuth we also called in at Neuschwanstein - the fairytale castle built by another Wagner fan, 'mad' King Ludwig, as a tribute to his hero.

Our schedule was tight, and the traffic was bad, so we arrived a couple of hours later than planned before making a whistlestop tour of this ludicrously kitsch masterpiece in the fading evening light. After racing through room after room inspired by Wagner's work we called time on the day's shoot and headed back to the hotel.

I was worried that perhaps we hadn't done justice to the location but later discovered that my concerns weren't shared by Stephen. According to his Twitter account, he felt that we had, in fact, "shot the arse off it".

Stephen Fry watches the orchestra rehearse for the Bayreuth Festival

Our filming also took Stephen to some darker places, as we explored the way Wagner's music was later appropriated by the Nazis.

In Nuremberg - scene of the infamous Nazi propaganda rallies - Stephen grappled with the stain placed on Wagner's music by this association with the Hitler regime.

Every year, on the evening before the rallies began in earnest, a gala performance of Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger was staged in the city's Opera House.

According to a historian we met, Hitler loved this opera so much that he would whistle the tunes - and what tunes they are - to his guests. On the steps of the famous stadium, which is now slowly decaying and overgrown with weeds, Stephen thought aloud and very movingly about the quandary which faces any fan of Wagner's music, comparing it to an extraordinarily complex and beautiful tapestry with one indelible stain - a stain which can't be washed out.

It was a powerful moment - not something which could be scripted or prepared in advance but the result of a lifetime's engagement with the music and the issues which surround it.

Just a few yards from where we filmed stood the podium from which Hitler would harangue the assembled masses. In the time we were there, scores of visitors climbed to this famous vantage point to take in the view.

Stephen wondered if I wanted him to go there too. I said it was up to him. He couldn't bring himself to do it. Minutes before we left, an almighty thunderstorm broke out drenching us all in the minute or two it took us to dash across the parade ground to our vehicle. We needed a change of clothes before setting up in our next location.

Before returning to Bayreuth for the first performance of the festival, there was one final visit for Stephen to make - another encounter with a special resonance for him.

In London he called on Anita Lasker-Wallfisch who was once an inmate in Auschwitz, the camp in which members of Stephen's family died. Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch was a teenager when she was imprisoned. She was also a cellist whose love for music probably saved her life, when she was recruited into the inmates' orchestra at the camp (a story which is told in her book, Inherit The Truth).

The orchestra was forced to provide entertainment for the guards, and you might think that performing under such appalling conditions would have corroded her love for music. But, as Stephen discovered, that wasn't the way things turned out, and after the war she had a very distinguished career as a cellist.

Stephen Fry with chellist and concentration camp survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Stephen also wanted to find out more about one of the darkest aspects of Wagner's legacy - the suggestion that his music was used as a psychological weapon against the prisoners on some of the camps.

He was relieved to discover that this wasn't something which she experienced, although there is plenty of evidence to show that it did happen in some camps. Stephen's conversation with this remarkable woman is, for me, one of the most powerful moments in the film.

Our film ends, just as our journey did, with the opening night of the Bayreuth Festival itself. This is one of the hottest tickets in classical music, a high point of the German social calendar.

On the balcony above the main entrance, a band of musicians summon the audience to their seats as they have done since the very first festival in 1876 and the audience - dressed in everything from traditional black tie to eurotrash chic - clutch their hired cushions to their chests in anticipation of the five hours of music to come (Wagner operas are famously long) and make their way into the auditorium.

The lights dim and the opening bars of the music emerge from out of the darkness. After spending months immersed in the story of this extraordinary composer - genius, tyrant, egotist and mythmaker - it's a memorable experience to sit in the theatre he dreamed of building and give yourself over to the music.

I can only begin to imagine what it must feel like for Stephen, who first fell in love with that music when he was just a child.

Patrick McGrady is the director of Stephen Fry On Wagner, which is broadcast at 9pm on BBC Four on Tuesday, 25 May.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant programme particularly the moments where Stephen is so genuinely filled with emotion and also when he explains his love of Wagner's music. Just one disappointment - why no mention of Cosima without whom the Ring would not have been finished nor Parsival. Please Stephen do a second programme dedicated to her.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks Stephen, best regards, stu

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm not sure this application is working properly

  • Comment number 5.

    I am from California but recently moved to Germany . A few days ago this story came to light: "German military security firm helps Somali warlord" at https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/10148322.stm

    At that link is another to the aforementioned security firm... I was mildly shocked when I saw and heard the imagery and music on their website.

  • Comment number 6.

    Dear makers,
    though the programme on Wagner was enjoyable, I am sorry to say it was also very superficial in the way it dealt with the issue of Wagner and anti-semitism. Though the programme made the point that Hitler adopted Wagner, it completely ignored Wagner's own anti-semitism, especially his writings (Das Judentum in der Music) and his wife Cosima's extreme anti-semetic views. Mr. Fry's comparison of Wagner's music as "a beautiful silk tapestry that has been stained, but still is beautiful" is inaccurate.If you want to make a comparison it should be " a beautiful tapestry that has been stained and was made by a flawed artist, , but still is beautiful" if you are discussing Wagner and anti-semitism. Having said this, I do want to say I love Wagner's music in spite of the man and I do realise a programme about Wagner is more than a programme about his anti-semitism.
    Bo van der Meulen

  • Comment number 7.

    On this occasion Mr Fry has left me rather unconvinced. Whilst there is little doubt that Wagner has created some of the greatest art in our European culture this fact does not place him automatically “on the side of the angels”. Stephen gave not a single reason to revere the man other than for the art he created. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was surely correct in suggesting that Stephen should enjoy the music without travelling to Bayreuth, playing Wagner's piano and pressing the flesh of his grumpy ancestor. Perhaps this raises the question of whether nasty people can produce great art. Perhaps it tells us that what unites us in our humanity is greater than all the evils which divide us.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm not used to these comment forums, and didn't realise you could write here, so I've already made a formal complaint (my first ever) to the the BBC. I enjoyed the programme immensely. I am lover of classical orchestral music, but not opera, yet Fry completely convinced me that I need to make the effort to experience a Wagner opera in its entirety.
    But the end of this programme was completely ruined. As the final credits rolled, we were treated to the closing moments of the great march from Tannhauser. Some crass, insensitive, philistine idiot in the production booth faded the music out so that a continuity announcer could prattle over the top of it with a list of forthcoming attractions.
    This not only spoiled what must be, minute for minute, several thousand pounds worth of broadcasting, but it severely compromised the whole artistic thrust of the documentary, which clearly was intended to culminate in the triumph of the music over its Hitlerian taints.
    Incredible insensitivity.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks for this great program and in particular the Stephen'd great outfits. In particular the red trousers / black blazer / yellow t-shirt outfit. Did any of the Germans notice?

  • Comment number 10.

    Why do people have to dwell on Hitler's passion for Wagner. Wagner had died before Hitler was born. Wagner was anti-semitic as were many at that point in history, but he always had Jewish people in his group of admirers at any point in time so once individuals were involved he approached the topic differently. As Stephen said people now tend to look at Wagner via Hitler. For me, his music is a raion d'etre, it covers all human emotions but unlike many of his music admirers, I love the man too, just read Cosima's diaries to see his good side. He was a genius, he was kind to animals, he ... I could go on for hours - he gave us his music and his music dramas as a total artwork. I felt just as excited as Stephen to enter the theatre, to touch a Wagner, and yes I would have caught the wrong note too.

  • Comment number 11.

    To second post #10. Without wanting to in any way endorse Wagners attitudes (my grandfather helped liberate Belsen) anti-semitic views were extremely common in the late 19th and early 20th century. Other famous people with extremely anti-semtitic views included Walt Disney, Henry Ford (who paid personally to print several hundred thousand copies of the protocols of the elders of Zion) Charles Lindbergh and JFK's father Joseph Kennedy. Even Winston Churchill is on record as saying some spectacularly anti-semitic comments. Its also a matter of record that our former King Edward VIII met with Hitler several times and his wife Wallace Simpson an outspoken anti-semite. The Duke of Edinburgh's brother in law was Heinrich Himmlers personal adjudant which is why none of the German side of his family were invited to his wedding. All these points can be easily proven with quick google searches so the moderators need not concern themselves with worries about libel.

    Its slightly odd that Wagners music is permanently tainted with nazism but Walt Disney's movies or Ford Cars or even Fanta orange drink and the VW beetle (both developed with Hitlers backing), aren't.

  • Comment number 12.

    I saw this on BBC iPlayer following a friend's recommendation. I hesitated because of a recent allergy to all things Fry - mainly his pointless siding with the "New Atheists". It really is dull listening to someone going on about what he doesn't believe in. He clearly loves Wagner as I do. I'm a relatively recent convert and watch the Patrice Chéreau Centenary Production of The Ring (The actual recorded performances were in 1979/80 I think) on DVD. It's quite astonishing when one finally experiences one's whole being resonating with the drama and the music. The program was balanced and for him great music outlives evil politics as with me. I was quite touched by his description of Bayreuth as Sancta Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies and of Wagner being on the side of the Angels. Well... he clearly believes in something. So.. if you can't do God, do Wagner!

  • Comment number 13.

    I would like to support John Sopwith's complaint that the cut-away and voice-over completely undermined the raison d'etre for this programme.
    Maybe Patrick McGrady would like to tell a dedicated audience how 'Continuity' was allowed to massacre his film's finale and, out of respect for this audience, insist on the restoration of the intended ending.

    A formal complaint would, I suspect, only elicit the usual bromide written by someone who thought Richard Wagner was an American TV actor.

  • Comment number 14.

    I thought Stephen was very brave to do this but the reason I am writing is that when I did my degree in english it was then unfashionable to draw on biographical details when writing a critical essay on a writer's work and perhaps this is how we should view Wagner's music, i.e. purely on its merits regardless of what we know of his life and opinions. That said, I think we are all still suffering immensely from Hitler's impact and I can't put Wagner's connection with him to one side when considering his music. For me it is for ever tainted and I am a gentile.

  • Comment number 15.

    I really was taken by this program that I caught in passing and it caught me watching the program to the end. I feel Stephen was brave and reasonable in facing the dilemma he faced in loving Wagner who is so linked to Hitler. for me it has stimulated me to explore the Wagner rings mythology opera as a comment of human condition. hearing bits and pieces of the music I realise that have listened to Wagner my whole life but never as a complete piece of work.
    Well done Stephen. can we have more please!

  • Comment number 16.

    Can BBC2 do any BBC4 stuff?

  • Comment number 17.

    I was hugely disappointed with this programme. I was hoping Stephen Fry would provide an interesting perspective on Wagner the man, the musician or the dramatist but almost everything discussed most with a passing interest in Wagner would already know. Made me left thinking he did it all for the free Bayreuth ticket....lucky man!

  • Comment number 18.

    Thank you Stephen Fry for another amazing bit of insight with the Wagner programme. I am so glad you explored the whole area of Hitler and his obsessions, but also tempered it with your own thoughts. I have to agree, Wagner can in no way be responsible for the actions of someone who came along later and exploited him. In addition, it all needs to be kept in context. In Wagner's time, people were trying to find unification and a national identity when Europe was still very fractured. We always have to remember the context. And we really must not take our own experiences or those of people from Hollocaust days and somehow imagine that people, even as gifted as Wagner, understood what was to come in the future and wrote their music in the light of that. That would simply be to give Wagner and his ilk the kind of insight that only comes with clairvoyancy and telepathy. This means also putting his so called "nationalism" into context. Myth and storytelling are one of the ways we communicate the parameters of our culture to each other. They are the expression of rights of passage, of understanding the world around us, of dealing with the major emotional moments, such as death, birth, marriage. Wagner summed all of these up in a time when national identity needed clarification. Is he to blame that someone came along later and exploited those views, and sadly, was the greatest exploiter of human intention the modern world has ever known?
    No, of course not. Never forget, hindsight is a wonderful thing, except, it is not, by definition, available at the time you need it most.
    People like Hitler are exploiters. They use people's basic emotions. Even today you will hear people say that despite everything, he was a great orator.
    Forget Hitler and enjoy Wagner. And again, remember context. This music was written in a time when myth and storytelling were so, so, so important. No tv, no radio, no gramophones, no internet, no public libraries, no "lots of other things we take for granted today", and lots of low or non-existent literacy. Clearly Wagner was a genius, but the only way to understand where he was coming from, is not to put a 21st century hat on, or a 1940's Hitler hat on, but the hat he himslef would have been wearing when he wrote his exceptional music.

  • Comment number 19.

    I liked the programme pretty much and with such key talent as Stephen Fry yes ... however I thought that the relation between Wagner and for instance Nietsche was completely forgotten it may have helped to explain much of what the programme tried convey for such long time, Wagner dislike for the 'weak race'.

  • Comment number 20.

    I thought this was a brave and fascinating programme, and I feel just like Stephen Fry. I love the music, but it's hard to separate it from Hitler. However, two comforting facts: first, ONLY Hitler liked Wagner, and most other Nazis didn't and had to be dragged to the opera by Hitler. And by the mid-40s even Hitler had swapped over to Lehar, whose music most people drink in without a qualm (I know I did). Frederick Spotts is great on this. Secondly, most camp orchestras were much too small to play Wagner's music. It needs a biiig group. This doesn't solve the problem, of course... But let's beat Hitler by saying he was WRONG about Wagner!

  • Comment number 21.

    I really enjoyed this programme and agree with some of the comments that there is scope for another programme. The personal approach by Stephen Fry was fascinating and his attempt to balance his passion for the music with his knowledge of Wagners'difficult character and personal views made for compelling viewing.
    I worked at Bayreuth when I was a student, I think it was 1975 and the BBC were making a film there at that time. I wonder if any of that footage is available. perhaps it was in preparation for the Gerbau production which was being planned at the time.
    And a pedantic note, I know, but I always thought that the seats in the Bayreuth auditorium were hard because this was considered (by Wagner)to be essential to the accoustics of the theatre. Only Winifried Wagner (his daughter-in-law) was ever allowed to take a cushion into the auditorium.

  • Comment number 22.

    Correction, I meant Patrice Chereau not P. Gerbeau. Sorry!

  • Comment number 23.

    Just to endorse "john sopwith" and later "Keeshond"'s sentiments - total crass obliteration of exciting and climactic music perfectly illustrating Mr Fry's passion with the Beeb's continuing eye on commerce by spoiling an existing production with advance advertisement of another one. And one starring the "National Treasure" too. Check out the real commercial channels and most wait for full credits before the "filthy lucre" begins. Appalling.

  • Comment number 24.

    I just saw the film on the iplayer - very good work as usual from Mr Fry and Wavelength Films.

    Can someone please remind me of the title of the piece Stephen listens to in the house in Switzerland? I've gone and deleted the film from my iplayer and can't download it again??

  • Comment number 25.

    Speaking as a big fan of Stephen Fry I have to say I found this program a huge dissapointment. I think the fault was mostly with the editor.

    Mr Fry's beautifully crafted prose is always a pleasure to listen to... but...(there had to be a but)

    Stephen admits himself that he has absolutely no musical ability whatsoever. The part with the highly skilled German pianist playing and talking about Wagner whilst Mr Fry writhed, gurned and simpered next to him, I found toe-curlingly embarrasing to watch. The part where he hit the wrong note at the very end of an amazingly skilled bit of piano playing should have been cut from the program completely and almost made me switch off.

    I think even the most die-hard fan of Stephen Fry's would admit he tends to let his brain-the-size-of-a-planet intellect get the better of him sometimes. Just such a case was the interview with a member of the Wagner family which was akward and I think failed completely. The interview with the concentration camp survivor at the end was rather more about Stephen Fry than this remarkable woman and didn't really work at all.

    Finally the outfits! What was he wearing? I know SF is a bit of an eccentric and with his shape I imagine buying clothes must be a challenge, but honestly red trousers with a yellow polo shirt?

  • Comment number 26.

    I'm writing to thank everyone who has posted a comment on the film. As the director of the programme it is very good to get such direct feedback - good or bad! I'm really pleased that the film has provoked such interest. Wagner is such a huge figure, and the issues raised by his life and legacy are so complex and important that it is impossible to do justice to them all in a single 60' film. It's for that reason that we didn't talk about Nietsche or Cosima for example - both of whom were extremely important figures in Wagner's life. My company, Wavelength Films, is thinking of making a longer version of the film which would allow us to fill in some of the gaps, so please keep your eyes peeled for that. Bo, I'm sorry you don't think we spent enough time examining Wagner's own anti-semitism. We did talk about this in the sequence filmed in Switzerland, and also discussed his infamous article 'Jewishness in Music'. We decided to juxtapose this with the beautiful chamber music he wrote inspired by his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, since this seemed to highlight one of the big questions which always arises in discussions of his work - how could a man capable of producing such exquisitely beautiful music also hold such obnoxious political views? And can one enjoy the former without excusing the latter? By the way Paul, the piece that was played here is called Traume (Dreams). Re the ending of the film, and the continuity announcement which interrupted the final piece of music - I agree it's frustrating when this happens. In the BBC's defence, an hour long programme on the BBC runs for 59 minutes. By comparison, on C4 or ITV it is more like 49 minutes (allowing time for ads etc), so the challenge the BBC face is to squeeze in as much continuity information as they can in the space that remains. Finally, just a reminder that the film is also to be shown on BBC2 on Saturday July 17th.

  • Comment number 27.

    I was away all the time this programme was shown, and for the week on iPlayer and really would like to see it, as I am both a devoted Wagnerian and have great appreciation for Stephen Fry.

    Any chance ?

    Garfield Southall, Chester, UK

  • Comment number 28.

    I noticed that when Stephen Fry was talking about the Nazi era at Bayreuth, he used the expression " some of Wagners family", refering to those that supported Hitler. In fact it was only Winifred Wagner, Seigfrieds widow, who was an active supporter of the Nazis. She was, in fact, British, and joins Unity Mitford as some of our home grown fascists. Her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, both despised and mistrusted Hitler from the start.

    My other point is that Wagners anti semitism , at least later in his life, was more anti establishment, especially organised religion. His choice for the conductor of the first performances of Parsifal at Bayreuth was in fact a jew and the son of a rabbi (Hermann Levi). His opera, Parsifal, is an extraordinary mixture of Christian beliefs and paganism. People are still arguing to this day whether it is basically sacred or profane. I think it was very clever of Wagner to leave us such a puzzle as his last public statement. His unpleasant essay "Jewery in music" can really be dismissed as the ravings of a disillusioned young man. We should judge him by his mature works.

  • Comment number 29.

    Dear Stephen, many thanks,belatedly I'm afraid, for your very interesting programme on Wagner.Unfortunately while my father was alive we never heard a note of this wonderful composer and this was before the last war.The reason being that Richard was morally a very bad man and had nothing to do with Hitler and his liking for the composer. Unfortunately my father died in his early 50's and, because he spent much of his working days travelling, I never really knew him very well. It is perhaps a little illogical that he passionly loved Beethoven. I was only ten when he took me to the Albert Hall to hear the great Missa Solemnis and I was thrilled!
    I was extremely envious of seeing you enter the marvellous theatre in Bayreuth. Many years ago I made my only visit to that city and walked up the hill to the theatre. Alas all was quiet as the season had finished. We tried to look though the windows but had no success. Around the back everything was sealed up and there was just a sheet of polystyrene lying on the ground, gently moving in the breeze.
    Looking back, my father gave me a love of music but I feel his life would have been richer had he listened to Wagner's great music and forgotten about his morals.

  • Comment number 30.

    I was a bit disappointed by the fact Stephen Fry was so submissive about Vagner's lineage when faced with a holocaust survivor and didn't even walk up to Hitler's vantage point to experience the whole journey. I don't have any ounce of sympathy with Hitler, but I thought it might be objective to put himself in that position to make his point of view a little more poignant. I would also have liked to have seen him show a little more conviction and state his admiration for Vagner even though she had experienced the horrors of the holocaust. The point being that it was an indelved part of human history before it was abused. It was a time before every part of heresay was exploited.

  • Comment number 31.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 32.

    Wonderful - no one could have presented this appreciation of these monumental works with greater eloquence or passion. Thank you Stephen.


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