Ordinarily I would be devoting this space to an appreciation of Rudolf Serkin, who died May 8 at age 88. But, as it happens, his was not the only death of note in the music world that Wednesday. A few hours earlier he was preceded by Friedelind Wagner.
We met her in 1988 at a music festival in Germany, where she was pointed out to me at intermission by one of the officials. But she didn't need to be. Even at age 70 there was no mistaking that profile: the granddaughter of Richard Wagner, the great-granddaughter of Liszt, her face familiar from the Bayreuth "Ring" telecasts she had hosted several years before.Summoning my best German, I introduced my wife and myself. Later we would discover that she preferred to be addressed in English, at least by English-speakers, to the point of having once rejected an offer from a British television producer because he had had the temerity to write her in German. ("Imagine! After I had lived in England all those years!") Still, the gap was bridged and later that night we ended up having dinner together, the first of several as it turned out.
I'm sure I wasn't the first critic she had "adopted." Not only did she like Americans (she had also spent several years in this country during the war) but she was anxious to promote her father Siegfried's music. So much so that she subsequently invited us to her home in Lucerne, where she loaded us up with tapes, CDs, librettos and scores. But not before taking us to Villa Tribschen, overlooking the lake, where the "Siegfried Idyll" was written and premiered on Christmas Day in 1870, and feeding us royally.
The sense of history one felt on entering that apartment was overwhelming. Here in many cases were displayed the originals of paintings and sculptures one had previously known only from books, most prominently of the women in the family. Thus, amid the expected mementos of Liszt and Wagner, stood portraits of Marie d'Agoult, her daughter Cosima Liszt von Buelow Wagner, Siegfried's wife Winifred and, in oils, a strikingly stylish view of Friedelind herself, presumably from her years of exile.
As is well-known, that exile was self-imposed. The second-oldest of the Wagner grandchildren, she was clearly her father's favorite and heir-apparent, and a magnificent bust in her sitting room bore witness in 1988 to the place he occupied even then in her heart.
While still a youngster she literally learned the ropes backstage at the Festspielhaus, and, one gathers, only her father's early death in 1930 - the same year Cosima died - prevented the intended transition. That and the increasing influence of another regular visitor to the Wagner home in those years - Adolf Hitler.
Ironically it was the English-born Winifred who first fell under der Fuehrer's spell. An early member of the Nazi party, she opened Wahnfried, the family villa, to him long before his rise to power. When we later visited Wahnfried and were shown the children's bedroom overlooking the drive, I could not help but recall Friedelind's stories of seeing his Mercedes pull up outside and his late-night visits to the nursery to entertain them with stories of his imprisonment and show them the 20-bullet pistol he always carried with him. Later she told me it was always her feeling that never again would he have permitted himself to be taken alive.
The result was that, under Winifred, Bayreuth in the 1930s became something of a Nazi shrine, to the point where Friedelind's brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, were formally exempted from military service as "national treasures." All the more shocking, then, when their sister openly denounced Hitler and all his works after fleeing Germany in 1940.
"What else could I do?" I remember her saying, acknowledging that even her mother made it plain that, unless she returned home, her safety could not be guaranteed. Finally with the help of Arturo Toscanini, whom she came to regard as a second father, she made her way to New York.
All that is recounted in her 1945 autobiography, "Heritage of Fire," which, much to her consternation, was recently reprinted without her permission. What is not recounted there is her uneasy reconciliation with her family following the war.
I still remember her telling me what it was like waiting on the Autobahn outside Bayreuth for her first meeting with her mother since that threat-laden parting in Switzerland. One gathers they never did really patch things up after that - ditto her brother Wolfgang. But until his death in 1966 Wieland put her in charge of the Bayreuth Festival Master Classes, a series of workshops for young singers, conductors, directors, even critics.
At the time of our meeting she had not been back to the festival since Sir Peter Hall's disastrous "Ring" of a few seasons before. ("I told Peter he should have learned German," she remembered an English compatriot of the director's saying.) And when she did visit Bayreuth she made it a point to eat only at McDonald's - and not, one gathers, only because of its smoke-free atmosphere.
"It's full of snobs," she told us one night over dinner, reverting to her native tongue long enough to disparage the current festival crowd as "lobster-Fressers," or lobster-devourers. Yet she continued to take an interest in the careers of young singers and conductors who appeared there, not least Daniel Barenboim, who when he was still a piano prodigy once asked her to marry him.
Certainly there was nothing of the snob about Friedelind. I have seen her chew out a waiter and lead a mass exodus from a restaurant because she could not abide the presence of cigarette smoke even three tables away. But I have also seen her tip that same waiter handsomely and, at another meal, suggest we bus our own dishes.
Proud, unpretentious and fiercely loyal, she did not suffer fools gladly, especially when she feared they might exploit her. Thus a few years ago she declined to participate in a BBC-TV documentary on Hitler on the grounds they would probably distort what she said and last year boycotted the Weimar Festival designed to honor her great-grandfather because of what she believed the West was doing to the East. (Personally I think she could have made an invaluable contribution to both.)
As it turns out, that would have been our last chance to see her. But we did keep in touch over the years and talked with her, via telephone, just a few months ago. At that time her health seemed to be failing but she still had great plans for the future.
My own image of her is still a vital one, tooling around Lucerne in her little red Honda and curtly dismissing a recent book that dared to be critical of Toscanini. ("I don't have time for such garbage!" she snorted.) Maybe she'd feel that way, I suggested, were I to write something about her.
For a moment I felt myself looking into Siegfried's eyes as she faced me directly, pondered a moment and said, "You can write anything about me you want."
Now I've done it and I'll miss her, even though we didn't always agree.
Leb' wohl, Frau Friedelind. Leb' wohl!