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In addition to monumental operas, Richard Wagner created an oddly grotesque family.

There are more reasons than a love for opera to recommend The Wagner Clan, Jonathan Carr's very well researched, very enlightening and entertaining history of the descendants of German composer Richard Wagner.

Carr is just the sort of writer this reviewer (who admits to next to no knowledge of opera) enjoys on any subject: informed, witty and irreverent, with an eye for the telling detail and the matchless quote.

Richard Wagner (1813-83) was one of those towering 19th century giants of the arts whose work and personal life defied all boundaries and restraints.

"A scoundrel and a charmer," composer Virgil Thomson called him. "Perfidious in friendship, ungrateful in love, irresponsible in politics, utterly without principle in his professional life."

Wagner's affair with Cosima von Bulow, composer Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter, led her to leave her husband, pianist-conductor Hans von Bulow, and move in with Wagner. They eventually married, and Cosima's two daughters by von Bulow were joined by two more daughters and a son, Siegfried.

Cosima, 24 years younger than Wagner, survived him by 47 years. Until 1930, she guarded his legacy and managed the festival in Bayreuth, in northern Bavaria, devoted solely to the performance of his operas.

Around the Bayreuth Festival, and the "ill-named family seat Wahnfried - which roughly translates as Peace from Delusion," Carr builds his tale. The family of Richard Wagner, large and active for more than four generations now, has mirrored the history of Germany over the past century and a half, especially in its tangled relations with the Nazi regime.

Wagner's grand nationalistic operas were matched by an ugly anti-Semitism. Carr examines at length how murky and inconsistent Wagner's prejudices were. Cosima, who set the pattern of Wagner women of foreign birth who were more German than the Germans, was inflexibly anti-Semitic, and even before the Nazis came to power Jewish conductors were excluded from the Bayreuth stage.

Siegfried Wagner, Richard's son and heir, wrote the music and librettos for 14 operas, all but the first unsuccessful. "God grant that my children be protected from the wish to be artists," he wrote in 1920.

"Spineless," Joseph Goebbels called him. Bisexual, a bachelor for years, in his forties Siegfried married Winifred Williams-Klindworth, a British woman then only 18; they would have four children. Winifred was only 33 when Siegfried died in 1930, but she had already taken over much of the management of the Bayreuth Festival.

Even before Siegfried's death, Winifred developed a passion for the frequent visitor the children called Uncle Wolf, Adolf Hitler, whom she later hoped to marry.

The rise and fall and eventual revival of the Wagner legacy, and of the family business founded by Richard Wagner, "the greed and jealousy, plotting and scrapping" that fill in the rest of this saga, Carr says, rightly, "match the most lurid episode of Dallas or Dynasty."

David Walton is a writer in Pittsburgh.


The Wagner Clan

By Jonathan Carr

Atlantic Monthly Press, 409 pages, $25