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Wagner, Siegfried (1869-1930)  
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Siegfried Wagner, the son of composer Richard Wagner, was himself a prolific composer and conductor. His homosexuality (or, more accurately, bisexuality) was the source of both scandal and also of elaborate attempts to erase it from histories of the Wagner family.

The homosexual associations of Richard Wagner--especially his friendships with Friedrich Nietzsche and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, as well as the appeal of his work--are well known. In contrast, Siegfried Wagner's sexuality has received little attention.

In middle age, Siegfried consented to a marriage of convenience in order to produce an heir for the Wagner dynasty. However, throughout his life his most meaningful relationships were with men.

Understanding Siegfried and his sexuality helps elucidate the homosexual culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His connections with Oscar Wilde and his circle and the players of the Eulenburg Affair place him at the periphery of important events in glbtq history. The homoerotic appeal of the Bayreuth Festival and his widow's connections with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis are also important aspects of Siegfried Wagner's significance for glbtq culture.

Early Life

Siegfried Wagner was born June 6, 1869, the son of Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bülow. (Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, was still officially married to piano virtuoso and conductor Hans von Bülow.) With Nietzsche present at his birth, with King Ludwig as his godfather, and with a famous father and equally celebrated grandfather, Siegfried seemed destined for greatness.

After high school, Siegfried received musical training from his father's pupil Engelbert Humperdinck in Frankfurt, then studied architecture in Berlin and Karlsruhe, and, bowing to pressure from his parents, eventually settled on a career in music. His most prominent instructors were the Wagner conductor Felix Mottl and the choirmaster Julius Kniese.


Siegfried Wagner composed eighteen operas, whose subjects were often drawn from the German fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm. Unfortunately, his works were judged by his father's standards and, not surprisingly, found wanting. For this reason, even though the operas were immensely popular during his life, they were rarely performed after his death. (Moreover, Siegfried's widow wanted to discourage any competition with Richard's music dramas.)

In his operas, Siegfried Wagner frequently alludes to forbidden desire and indicts misguided justice. His characters include outcasts--such as witches burned at the stake or suicides denied burial--who possess dark secrets, show fear of exposure, and make pacts with the devil.

As a conductor, Siegfried Wagner debuted in 1893 at the Bayreuth Markgräfliches Opernhaus (the city's smaller opera venue) with excerpts from his father's Rienzi and Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz. Beginning in 1896, he conducted at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, starting with his father's magnum opus, The Ring of the Nibelung.

From 1908 to 1930, Wagner was the sole artistic director of the Festival, which was regarded as a family fiefdom. His greatest accomplishments include installing improved lighting and acoustic technology in the building, modernizing his mother's antiquated sets with the help of stage designer Kurt Söhnlein, and hiring the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.


Wagner was raised by a number of domineering women: his mother, his half-sisters Daniela and Blandine, and his sisters Isolde and Eva. His friends and relatives remember him as soft-spoken, gentle, rather feminine, and greatly attached to his mother, with whom he would take a daily stroll through the city.

As a student in Frankfurt, Wagner sometimes dressed up as a prima ballerina. And as late as 1926, when he was in his fifties, the 28-year-old Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's future propaganda minister, recorded: "Siegfried is so feeble. Ugh! The Master should make him ashamed of himself. . . . Feminine. Good natured. A bit decadent. Something of a cowardly artist."

One of the first crushes the teenaged Wagner had was on the sturdy Theodor Reichmann (1849-1903), who sang Amfortas at the world premiere of Parsifal. In college in Karlsruhe, Wagner had an affair with a fellow student, Graf von Goetzen (little else is known about him), which caused some friction with another lover of Siegfried's: Clement Harris (1871-1897).

Clement Harris, Wagner's closest male friend when he was in his twenties, was the painter of one of the finest portraits of young Siegfried and a literary protégé of Oscar Wilde. (Harris entertained and instructed Wilde by performing Richard Wagner's works on the piano).

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Siegfried Wagner with wife Winifred in 1916.
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