Listen for an hour to the voluble Gottfried Wagner – the composer Richard Wagner's great-grandson, and the only political dissenter in the Wagner clan – and you're left with an anguished sense of unfinished business. I say listen, because you hardly get a word in, so urgent is his need to communicate. He dismisses as "gossip" all talk about his relationship with that clan, but he knows he can never escape it, nor can he escape the feeling of contamination that first arose when he and his nine-year-old classmates were shown a documentary on the Third Reich.
"That film was a shock," he says, "and not only because I saw the mountains of dead bodies at Buchenwald. I also saw my family welcoming Hitler into their Festspielhaus and heard my great-grandfather's music playing in the background. At that point, some of my friends started pointing at me and saying, 'He must be a Nazi, too'."
This was 11 years after the war had ended, but he and his friends in Bayreuth were "provincial, ignorant kids", insulated from the Nazi truth by their parents with an impenetrable wall of silence.
History cruelly bedevils 60-year-old Gottfried. As he points out, his grandmother Winifred delivered the paper on which Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, and even the typewriter. After the war, this expatriate Englishwoman's posthumous devotion to the man she cryptically referred to as "USA" – for Unser Seliger Adolf (our blessed Adolf) – remained undimmed. There's no evidence that she slept with him, but she never repented of the virulent anti-Semitism she shared with him. When he came to stay, it was as a member of the family, and she encouraged Gottfried's father and uncle to address him as "Uncle Wolf".
The correspondence between Winifred and the Führer, which spanned more than two decades, is, for Gottfried, itself a cause of pain: "In 1973, being curious about the past, I began to read the letters, but when my grandmother discovered, she told my father Wolfgang to stop me – and we didn't have these wonderful little cameras then. So the letters were locked away." Since then, scholars have not been allowed to inspect these vital documents, which remain in Gottfried's cousin Amélie Lafferentz's keeping in Munich. "She says they can't be shown until the whole family is in agreement about it, which is ludicrous. We can't have history manipulated arbitrarily like this, for private ends. I want those archives opened."
One family sensitivity lies in the fact that some of the letters may refer to the Wagners' involvement in the local concentration camp, where Gottfried's Uncle Wieland obediently worked to keep the Nazis sweet. Meanwhile, the Bayreuth directorship looks like devolving to Gottfried's ambitious 30-year-old half-sister Katharina, whom he regards as being obsessed with power.
"She should acknowledge her position in history, and her family's relationship to the Third Reich. Her grandmother died when she was two, yet she is defending her. What is going on in Bayreuth now is not governed by cultural criteria – it's all about individual power games." In his view, Bayreuth must open the archives, if only to cleanse itself.
As a young boy, Gottfried was regarded as the natural heir to the Bayreuth throne, but he now insists that he wants nothing to do with it. Indeed, he has spent much of his life firing broadsides against what he regards as its deeply unhealthy orthodoxy. He had a family precedent for this, in that his aunt Friedelind – following the example of her anti-fascist conductor-heroes Arturo Toscanini and Erich Kleiber – defected to America during the war, made broadcasts against Hitler, and applied for American nationality. Gottfried became ashamed of being both German and a Wagner, and at one point thought of changing his name and becoming an American citizen, but decided against this because of what he saw as the "obscene gulf" between America's rich and poor.
He settled instead in Milan, marrying and adopting a son who had been a casualty of Italy's own rich-poor gulf. By the end of the 1970s, he had withdrawn from Bayreuth altogether, taking with him just two remnants of his past: some puppets he had made as a child, and a chair, which the historian Jonathan Carr describes in his book The Wagner Clan as highly symbolic, since this was "the one used in his uncle Wieland's [production of] Parsifal to bear the guilt-plagued, salvation-seeking Amfortas into the hall of the Holy Grail".
But enough of "gossip". "My purpose in life is more serious," says Gottfried, "and I have been pursuing it for 40 years." Step by step, he has turned himself into a champion of the antithesis of everything he hates, beginning with a doctorate in the music-dramas of Kurt Weill, and culminating in an accusatory autobiography – Wer nicht mit dem Wolf heult (He who does not cry with the wolf) – which filled in the gaps left by his father's autobiography published three years previously. And from his Italian base, Gottfried has embarked on a crusade to draw post-Holocaust Germans and Jews together, in an effort to induce the world to draw lessons from German history. "Thinking in terms of enemies always ends in disaster," he says. "As it did when Hitler decided he needed an enemy to realise his aims – and the Jews were his perfect scapegoat. And there are many examples of this process going on at present – in Tibet, in Somalia – quite apart from the Israelis and Arabs. If we are silenced, we have learnt nothing from the past."
He has spent 15 years ensuring that he and like-minded Germans should not be silenced, researching and co-writing a book with the Jewish historian Abraham Peck entitled Our Zero Hour. In this, through delving into their respective family histories – Peck's family was almost entirely obliterated by the Nazis – they confront the anger, shame, and guilt that has paralysed most Germans since. "Though I and my generation are not Nazi criminals, we still share a responsibility for German historical consciousness," Wagner insists. "And we have a duty to combat prejudices. We must humanise, not polarise. We must try to prevent further genocides."
So, how does Gottfried relate to his great-grandfather's music? "He's not my favourite composer, but his music is inevitably part of my world, and I have to see how his dark sides are presented. Is this done in a seductively dangerous way, or in a critical way?" He's not prepared to let the music off the hook by arguing, as some critics now do, that the then-conventional anti-Semitism of Wagner's social views should be kept separate from the operas: for Gottfried there is a direct connection between the music and the Holocaust, which critics and directors have a duty to expose.
He's in London this week to lecture on the continuing relevance of what the Nazis called entartete ("degenerate") music, at a two-day series of talks and concerts at Cadogan Hall, where the music of external and "internal" Jewish exiles from the Third Reich will be put under the microscope. Given that Gottfried is a specialist on the music of Terezin – the Nazis' showcase concentration camp where a rich cultural life flowered in the shadow of the gas chambers – it seems sad that the music of its three greatest composers, Pavel Haas, Hans Krasa and Viktor Ullmann, will not be heard this weekend, representing a giant missing link in the history of European music. Neither will there be any Schoenberg, Hindemith or Weill.
But the works that the Cadogan Hall audience will hear instead, presented by the Artists of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, are perhaps more interesting in that they are so seldom performed. Indeed, two are getting very belated British premieres: the Blackbird Septet by the German composer Heinz Tiessen, who was fascinated by birdcalls, and Two Morgenstern Songs by Berthold Goldschmidt, who suffered a second silencing in his adoptive home in Britain, thanks to his – in the Sixties and Seventies, unfashionable – addiction to tunes.
There will also be a performance of Marc Neikrug's music-drama Through Roses, and two showings of a new documentary film by the late Jagna Wright entitled The Other Truth, in which the conventional view of Poland as a nation of anti-Semites is definitively challenged. "Jews expelled from other European countries, and who settled in Poland, were made welcome and given conditions to thrive," Wright said last year. "And Poland was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe where the mere gesture of giving a Jew a glass of water was punishable by the death penalty – not only for the helper, but also for his whole family."
Meanwhile Through Roses, which has had hundreds of performances round the world over the last 20 years, encapsulates the prison-camp experience in the most arresting way. Its focus is the spoken recollections of violinist and Auschwitz survivor Carl Stern, who witnessed the fate of fellow inmates through the foliage of the rose garden of the camp commandant. So simple, so poignant.
Music in Exile: Emigré Composers of the 1930s, Cadogan Hall, London SW1( www.cadoganhall.com), 12 and 13 AprilReuse content