How Richard Wagner almost came to Minnesota, home of “the best Germans” and “purity in racial stock”


Did you know that there is a Richard Wagner Society of the Upper Midwest? No, neither did I—until I received a letter (in appropriately old-school hard copy) announcing their upcoming presentation. On February 3 at the University of Minnesota, Foster Beyers will present an “engaging talk” on the subject of “What is a Wagner Tuba?” Will there be a demonstration? Of course there will be a demonstration.

I appreciate Wagner’s musical genius and the importance of his work, but I would be uneasy about belonging to a Richard Wagner Society—just as I would hesitate to call myself a “Civil War buff” despite my abiding interest in the military and social history of the Civil War era. I don’t really like to think of myself as a buff of war, nor would I be too comfortable calling myself a “fan” of Richard Wagner.

It’s unfair to blame Wagner for Hitler’s endorsement, but it is fair to blame him for harboring ridiculous and offensive ideas about racial and cultural purity, severely mistreating his friends and lovers, and nourishing a monstrous ego. “Wagner considered himself a genius as playwright, poet, stage director, and philosopher as well as composer,” writes critic Jan Swafford in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. “In reality, he was simply a musical genius.”

So I’m not sure if I’m ready to commune with the Wagnerites at their monthly video night, but I do owe society founder David Cline thanks for making me aware—via a history posted on the group’s Web site—of the surprising fact that in the 1870s Wagner became genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of immigrating to Minnesota, where local German-Americans were offering to help build a new Bayreuth on the banks of the Mississippi.

Wagner even went so far as to educate his son Siegfried for a future in America, writes Cline. In Wagner’s opinion, “the best Germans” had moved to Minnesota, “preserving purity in racial stock.” We can probably all be glad that the move didn’t work out—all of us, that is, except gossip columnist C.J., who would have a field day with the famously feuding Wagner descendants. What might Wolfgang Wagner get up to in the back seat of a Volvo outside Red’s Savoy Inn? We can only imagine, but it’s fair to guess that it might involve a little corruption of racial purity.

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