Monday 8 June 2020

Adventures on the Green Hill: Tony Cooper explores Richard Wagner's villa Wahnfried at Bayreuth

Engraving of Wagner's motto over the front portal to Wahnfried (Photo Wikipedia)
Engraving of Wagner's motto over the front portal to Wahnfried (Photo Wikipedia)
Richard Wagner’s beloved villa at Bayreuth, Wahnfried, provided the perfect home for him and his family as Wagner aficionado, Tony Cooper, found out

The Wagner Family and friends in front of Villa Wahnfried in 1881. Above, from left to right: Blandine von Bülow, Heinrich von Stein (Siegfried's teacher), Cosima & Richard Wagner, Paul von Joukowsky (family friend); below, from l to r: Isolde, Daniela von Bülow, Eva and Siegfried (Photo Public Domain,
The Wagner Family and friends in front of Villa Wahnfried in 1881. Above, from left to right:
Blandine von Bülow, Heinrich von Stein (Siegfried's teacher), Cosima & Richard Wagner, Paul von Joukowsky (friend)
below, from l to r: Isolde, Daniela von Bülow, Eva and Siegfried (Photo Public Domain: Wikipedia)

I simply love Bayreuth and so did Richard Wagner, by all accounts, as he eventually made his home here while establishing the famous Bayreuth Festival in 1876. And by selecting Bayreuth, Wagner made it abundantly clear that his summer opera festival would be far removed from the routine and complacency of urban cultural life.

Wagner made his first visit to Bayreuth in April 1870 because he had read about the Margravial Opera House, an ornate and beautifully-designed baroque theatre which he thought would be ideal for hosting the Bayreuth Festival. But it was not to be. For a start the orchestra pit was inadequate and so, too, was the size of the stage while the auditorium was far too small with seating for only 500.

Always a thinker - and a free-thinker, too! - Wagner then toyed with the idea of building his own Festival Hall (Festspielhaus) in Bayreuth. This idea fitted perfectly the thinking of the town’s burgher-master who fully supported Wagner in his endeavours and set aside a piece of land for him to build his ‘dream’ theatre on the edge of the town but close to the railway-station on top of the Grüner Hügel (Green Hill).

An alternative to the theatres of Wagner’s day, the construction of the Festspielhaus began on the composer’s 59th birthday (22nd May 1872) - the same year in which he located to the picturesque town of Bayreuth in Upper Franconia now part of the Federal State of Bavaria. Planning and construction were in the capable hands of Leipzig architect, Otto Brückwald, who had already made a name for himself in building theatres in Leipzig and Altenburg.

Four years after the start of construction on 13th August 1876 the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was ready for performance officially hosting the first Bayreuth Festival. Sadly, it turned out to be a financial disaster thereby forcing a six-year closure of the theatre. The building of the Festspielhaus, however, was certainly a triumph for Wagner and so, too, was the building of his beloved Villa Wahnfried, nicely situated on the edge of Bayreuth’s lovely and inviting royal park (Hofgarten) which today still retains many of its baroque buildings. Wagner categorically stamped his mark on Wahnfried with a motto of his own philosophical words engraved on the villa’s façade: ‘Here, where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.’

Completed in 1874 and generously paid for by his royal patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria, the name forms a compound word from the German: Wahn (=delusion/madness) and Fried(e) (=peace/freedom). And one of its most frequent visitors was a man who turned out to be a person of considerable delusion and madness and certainly not one of peace or freedom either, Adolf Hitler.

Marking the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976, Wahnfried re-emerged as the Richard Wagner Museum and following the composer’s bicentenary in 2013 it was restored, renewed and expanded at a cost of 20 million euros. For this gargantuan sum of money the museum now has double the exhibition space, a subterranean archive and a ‘coming-to-terms’ for the first time with 20th-century Bayreuth Festival history in general and the Third Reich in particular. Additionally, the museum offers an ongoing chamber-music series as well as a series of lectures and book launches.

Everything in life for Wagner, it seems, centred upon Wahnfried and, most notably, the score of Götterdämmerung was dutifully completed here in November 1874. Immediately, he set to work on Parsifal which was to become his final and farewell work to the world. Completed in January 1882 after four years’ hard slog, the work’s inscribed with the famous last words: ‘It is finished!’
Wahnfried: the large saloon in 1900 (Photo Richard Wagner Museum, Bayreuth)
Wahnfried: the large saloon in 1900 (Photo Richard Wagner Museum, Bayreuth)

Thankfully, the second Bayreuth Festival of 1882 fared better than the inaugural festival of 1876. Just one work was featured and that was Parsifal receiving its première on 26th July 1882. Within less than a year, Wagner was dead. Although suffering from a series of increasingly-severe angina attacks at the time, Wagner was aggressive and unpredictable as ever and secretly entered the pit during act III of the 16th and final performance of Parsifal to take the baton from Hermann Levi leading the performance to its conclusion. Such action as this really showed the composer’s true grit and determination that, I think, held him in good stead throughout his turbulent and active life.

As customary, following the festival, the Wagner family set off for Venice for their usual winter’s holiday and on 13th February 1883, aged 69, Wagner died of a heart-attack at Palazzo Vendramin, a villa overlooking the Grand Canal. His body was transported to Bayreuth (by gondola and train) and buried in the garden of his beloved Villa Wahnfried.

Although Bayreuth’s mostly known today for its association with Wagner this lovely and inviting picturesque town owes much of its beautiful baroque buildings, parks and other monumental treasures to the era of the Royal Margrave couple, Friedrich and Wilhelmine, the sister of Frederick the Great (Old Fritz) and the eldest daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover. She was also a granddaughter of George I of England.

Friedrich was a minor member of the house of Brandenburg-Bayreuth (the latter name, incidentally, was the chief town of their principality) but his fate changed in 1726 when his father inherited the principality of Bayreuth after a lengthy dispute with the kingdom of Prussia over the rights of succession. The 16-year-old Friedrich then became the hereditary margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth and on his father’s death in 1753 became the new margrave.

But if Friedrich and Wilhelmine left their legacy on Bayreuth by the stunningly-designed 500-seat Margravial Opera House (commissioned by Wilhelmine) and other such fine baroque buildings, Wagner followed in their wake leaving a rich legacy, too, not only by the founding of the Bayreuth Festival but also of the 1,925-seat Festspielhaus, too.

Absorbing everything there was to absorb in Bayreuth, Wagner greatly enjoying sharing Wahnfried with his second wife, Cosima, the daughter of the world-famous Hungarian pianist/composer, Franz Liszt, who lived just round the corner from his son-in-law. Therefore, if Wagner wanted to entertain his father-in-law, he didn’t have far to go.

Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth
Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth
Before relocating to Bayreuth, though, Wagner and Cosima - who ran the Bayreuth Festival for a further 31 years after her husband’s death - lived in a villa at Tribschen by the shore of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland where their son Siegfried was born on 6th June 1869. They married the following year in August 1870. Wagner’s first wife, incidentally, was the German actress, Christine Wilhelmine Planer nicknamed ‘Minna’. She died in January 1866. Married for 30 years, the last decade of their marriage saw them living divided lives and often apart.

Between them Richard and Cosima had five children. Cosima had two from her first marriage to conductor Hans von Bülow (Daniela and Blandine) while her union with Richard produced two daughters (Isolde and Eva) and, of course, the son and heir, Siegfried, the name Wagner gave to the main character featured in the third opera of the Ring.

Dangerously trailing in his father’s wake, Siegfried took lessons in composition with his father’s pupil, Engelbert Humperdinck, but found himself more drawn to a career as an architect and studied architecture in Berlin and Karlsruhe. But following a tour of Asia in 1892 with the English composer, Clement Harris (a piano student of Clara Schumann) he decided to abandon architecture altogether and commit himself totally to music.

His first work was the symphonic poem, Sehnsucht, inspired by the poem of the same name by Friedrich Schiller. It was just completed in time before the work’s première in London on 6th June 1895 which Siegfried conducted. Although he wrote numerous other pieces none really made it to the core repertoire and his operas, basically, are forgotten about, too.

Siegfried then turned to conducting making his début as an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in 1894 and became associate conductor in 1896 sharing responsibility for conducting the Ring cycle with Felix Mottl and Hans Richter, who conducted the Ring’s première 20 years earlier.

The influence of Wagner’s music on the National Socialist movement was enormous especially Der Ring des Nibelungen. A self-proclaimed anti-Semite, Wagner damned Jewish music in its entirety saying ‘that it is bereft of all expression characterised by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense’. Such a brash and unattractive statement as this has tainted him and his music ever since.

All these ideas together with the ultra-nationalistic character of some of his operas provided a fertile breeding-ground for Nazi ideology and their cultural conception which, of course, finally led to the catastrophe of the Second World War. Only after 1951 could the ‘New Bayreuth’ return to the aesthetic essence that Wagner envisaged when founding the Bayreuth Festival in 1876.

Winifred Wagner with Adolf Hitler, and her sons Wieland and Wolfgang at Bayreuth
Winifred Wagner with Adolf Hitler, and her sons Wieland and Wolfgang at Bayreuth
Obviously, the Bayreuth Festival centres upon the Wagner dynasty and Wagner saw the leadership of the festival being passed from one generation to another. Therefore, his son, Siegfried, inherited the top job in order of succession but as a closet homosexual he showed little or no interest in marriage to sire an heir to eventually take over from him. But that problem was professionally solved by Cosima who arranged a ‘blind date’ for him with a young English-born Welsh girl from Hastings at the Bayreuth Festival of 1914. Her name: Winifred Marjorie Williams.

In tragic circumstances, Winifred found herself in Germany after losing both her parents - John Williams, a journalist/critic and his wife née Emily Florence Karop - in infancy. Initially, she was raised in a number of homes in East Sussex before being sent to Germany to be adopted by a distant German relative from her mother’s side, Henrietta Karop, whose husband, Karl Klindworth, was a pianist/conductor and a good friend of Richard Wagner.

Therefore, a year after their first meeting, Fräulein Klindworth at 18 years of age married Siegfried who was much older at 45 on 22nd September 1915. It was hoped that with Siegfried marrying it would end his homosexual encounters and the associated costly scandals they caused. The marriage only did the trick in respect of offspring and they had four children in quick succession: Wieland (1917-66), Friedelind (1918-91), Wolfgang (1919-2010) and Verena (1920-2019).

Following Siegfried’s death on 4th August 1930 at 61 years of age coming just four months after his mother’s death on 1st April 1930 aged 92, the effective head of the family - Siegfried’s widow, Winifred - took over the Bayreuth Festival controlling it with an iron-fist mentality until the end of the Second World War.

However, her reign was severely tarnished by her association with Adolf Hitler whom she first met in 1923. Their relationship grew so close that by 1933 strong rumours were circulating of impending marriage highlighted, perhaps, by the Führer’s frequent visits to Wahnfried which became one of his favourite retreats. Winifred, in fact, made the Bayreuth Festival the summer gathering-place for the Nazi élite from 1933 to 1939.

Bayreuth: The Festspielhaus decorated and illuminated to celebrate Hitler's birthday: April 20, 1939
Bayreuth: The Festspielhaus decorated and illuminated to celebrate Hitler's birthday: April 20, 1939
The collapse of the Third Reich, however, ushered in rapid change and Winifred found herself banned by a war court from running the Bayreuth Festival for passively supporting the National Socialist régime. She had no choice other than to pass the mantle on to her sons, Wieland and Wolfgang, who were successful in re-launching the Bayreuth Festival in 1951.

After Wieland’s untimely death in 1966 aged 49, Wolfgang (who was presented with a flashy Mercedes car by the Führer after passing his driving test) stayed at the crease notching up a remarkable 57-year tally retiring in 2008 one day ahead of his 90th birthday. Wolfgang’s daughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, succeeded their father but since 2015 Katharina has been the sole Bayreuth Festival director following Eva’s retirement.

A strong-minded person, Winifred wasn’t afraid to speak out against Hitler and was reported to be ‘disgusted’ by his persecution of the Jews and in one notable incident in the late thirties a letter from her to Hitler prevented Alfred and Hedwig Pringsheim (their daughter Katia was married to the German writer, Thomas Mann) from being arrested by the Gestapo.

There’s so much known about the Nazi years in Bayreuth’s chequered and colourful history but correspondence waiting to be seen and studied centres upon the close relationship Winifred enjoyed with Hitler. Very close, indeed! For instance, when the National Socialists staged a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner in 1933, Winifred and her eldest son, Wieland, were the Führer’s guests of honour.

According to the German-Austrian biographer, Brigitte Hamann (who died in October 2016 aged 76) author of A Life at the Heart of Hitler’s Bayreuth she raises the question of Winifred Wagner’s membership of the Nazi party. Vehemently denying such an accusation, Winifred, happily enough, confessed her admiration and friendship for Hitler.

For instance, when he was jailed for his part in the Munich beer-hall putsch, it was Winifred who came to his rescue. She sent him food parcels and stationery on which to write his autobiography, Mein Kampf. A further book by Hamann - Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, published in 1996 - examines Hitler’s anti-Semitic stance during the time he spent in Vienna between 1908 and 1913.

Winfred Wagner with the film maker, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg in 1976
Winfred Wagner with the film maker, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg in 1976
Winifred died in Überlingen on the shore of Lake Constance on 5th March 1980 just short of her 83rd birthday. She was interred at Wahnfried resting by the side of Wagner and Cosima while Wagner’s Newfoundland dog, Russ, is buried at his master’s feet. Incidentally, Russ’ whip can be viewed at the Wagner Museum in Tribschen.

And it was at Tribschen where Wagner completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and also wrote Das Judenthum in der Musik, an essay which attacks Jews in general and, in particular, the composers Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Published under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of Leipzig in September 1850 it was reissued in a greatly-expanded version under Wagner’s name in 1869.

Whatever the criticism levelled at Wagner - and there’s a lot both politically, socially and morally - he proved to be one of the most influential composers in music history and left the world a wonderful musical legacy which includes the famous ‘Bridal Chorus’ from Lohengrin which many a bride has happily marched up the aisle to.

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