Antoine Wagner: How I Came to Know My Family Heritage

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Antoine Wagner, a photographer and filmmaker living in New York, has long had a special passion for shooting landscapes and nature. But it wasn’t until he investigated a famous distant relative that he came to see deeper roots to his professional interests.

Wagner, 30, is the great-great-grandson of Richard Wagner, as well as the great-great-great-grandson of Franz Liszt. As the son of Eva Wagner, the co-director of the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, he was steeped in family history as a child.

"Growing up my mother used to work late so I’d go and hang out with her at the opera," Antoine Wagner told WQXR. “I’ve always had the opportunity to learn more about it and be part of discussions about my ancestor. But this was the first time I feel where I got a connection that was so strong."

Earlier this year, Antoine Wagner produced and starred in a documentary film with the director Andy Sommer called "Wagner: A Genius in Exile," a musical road movie in which he is shown retracing his great-great-grandfather's flight to Zurich, Switzerland after he became enmeshed in the Dresden revolutions of 1848 and 1849.

"On the barricades in Dresden, he got threatened with imprisonment and possibly the death penalty," Antoine Wagner explained. “So he packed up his belongings, got a fake passport from his friend Franz Liszt, headed to Lindau overnight and crossed Lake Constance and got to Rorschach." The composer spent nearly a decade in Switzerland, during which time he started his most important works – Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and portions of the Ring. "He basically manages to cross over the glaciers, frozen peaks and from hut to hut in Zurich."

Antoine Wagner says he was particularly interested in exploring the shielding and inspiring effect of the mountainous Swiss landscape on his relative's music and psyche. "The first sets in Bayreuth were basically copy-pastes of Swiss landscapes,” he noted.  

After reading about the composer's travels and studying maps of northern Switzerland, the filmmakers constructed a route that would take place over five weeks in the summer of 2012, extending from Lake Constance to Zurich. They also interviewed numerous musicians, scholars and other experts. The finished documentary debuted on German television in April and the filmmakers say it will be shown in 14 or 15 countries this year.

During the filming, Antoine Wagner also developed a forthcoming book of landscape photography called Wagner in Switzerland as well as a traveling exhibition of "photo sculptures" that will tour Europe this year. While his previous work has included a tour documentary about the rock band Phoenix, he says he now feels closer to his famously complex relative. "Before, I saw him more as an ancestor with a real distance, whereas now, I feel like it’s quite inspirational, it’s quite interesting to think, 'how did he do that?'"

The filmmaker has also come to realize that listening to Wagner requires an effort that goes beyond background listening. "It can't be ambient music and the soundtrack of your life," he said. "The amount of concentration required due to the subtexts and the amount of layers is endless."

Does being a Wagner provoke any special curiosity here in New York? Antoine Wagner says that since moving to the U.S. from his native Munich 15 years ago, he has often anglicized the pronunciation of his surname, if only for practical reasons. Even so, "here it doesn’t click that often — unless I go to the opera."