As the years creep by after one reaches the age of 70, mortality looms and every travel plan comes with a codicil: will this be the last time for all eternity I go to this place? Destinations will respond with varying degrees of “maybe – maybe not”. A few will be pretty definite “no”s. Since yesterday, such a one is Bayreuth, home of the Wagner Festival. This prestigious orgy of Richard-Wagner-worship is now run, still largely as a family business, by the composer’s great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner.
But, wait, you say – the great man died in 1883, his son Siegfried was born in 1869. How can the latter’s granddaughter still be only 45? That kind of thing happens when old men sire children. I knew somebody who had known someone who said to him, “Well, as Louis XIV said to my grandfather...” Gay Siegfried Wagner was forced into a late marriage with an Englishwoman, born 14 years after her father-in-law’s death – a woman who later yearned to re-marry with Adolf Hitler, and who until the end of her long life used the acronym USA to refer to Unser Seliger Adolf. Her son Wolfgang spawned Katharina after his second marriage to his secretary.
While trimming a hedge decades ago I was listening to the opening day of the Bayreuth Festspiele on my transistor radio. All the politicians and celebrities were making their appearance on the red carpet. The commentator asked Wolfgang Wagner whether he thought these people actually enjoyed his grand-dad’s music. “But this music wasn’t meant to be enjoyed,” says WW, “it was meant to be food for thought.”
I have certainly never enjoyed much of it. That endless “recitative” using confused, too-rapid modulation tricks which were already old hat when C. P. E. Bach put them to better use, mainly employing diminished 7th chords with appoggiaturas, interrupted at intervals with banal cadences – full, plagal and deceptive; any section longer than ten seconds (at least as regards the later works) displaying poverty of idea, lacking development, and usually insisting on one or two portentous chords; his way of dangling exotic orchestral colors like shiny children’s toys in front of the musically uninstructed – the equivalent of modern cinematic special effects, relying heavily on the brass section and tympani; and the constant wild leaps for the singers, which led via Richard Strauss to the lockstep post-war idiocies, where any interval less than a seventh was denounced by the enfants terribles as counter-revolutionary. Mark Twain called these vocal gyrations “gymnastic”. He thought Wagner should have let the singers perform in pantomime and just leave everything to the orchestra.
And the librettos! The “Ring” is a puerile fantasy that never rises to the level of a “Harry Potter and the Fateful Sword”, in spite of all its quasi-socialist allegory. How a fine scholar I knew could call him a “great German poet” I will never comprehend. Stabreim (alliteration)? Holde hehre heiligen Helden...horse---t. And the “Ring” takes the greatest monument of medieval German literature, the Nibelungenlied, and twists it out of all recognition. What ever happened to “honor your old German masters”, the final chorus of Die Meistersinger?
That precept was even violated by grandson Wieland, whose post-war stagings radically departed from Wagner’s express command that nothing of his Gesamtkunstwerke (“comprehensive works of art”) be altered, ever; a command that had been faithfully honored by Wagner’s wife Cosima (Franz Liszt’s daughter, hence Katharina’s great-great-grandfather) and daughter-in-law Winifred as long as they maintained control. I’m not saying things have never been improved upon since Wagner’s winged-helmet, steel-cone-brassiere and bearskin days, but to completely throw the poor man’s stories and stagings overboard seems harsh. Why not go ahead and change the music and texts as well? Let’s have a “Hamilton”-style, hip-hop Parsifal, cut to 90 minutes on streaming video.
Meanwhile: in 2023 tickets were going begging, whereas until recently you had to wait some four years to get in, or pay big money for priority ticketing as a member of the “Society of Friends of Bayreuth”, whose name equates the town with the festival. This is a result of an aging audience for all classical music, but more to the point, a consequence of Katharina’s crazed choices of stage directors, including herself. People are slowly giving up all hope of seeing anything good at Bayreuth. As for hearing – if you like the music (said by a 19th-century American wag to be “much better than it sounds”), there is nowhere comparable. The acoustics are the best of any opera house, and the orchestra is separated from the audience by the famous hood, giving the singers a chance to occasionally relax from maximum exertion.
Also for the first time this year, buyers were not forced to buy tickets for all four evenings of the “Ring”. Having seen the last three in Pierre Audi’s fascinating stagings in Amsterdam*, I decided to complete a career slam and go to Das Rheingold. The train is slow, what with the 1850s right-of-way following the winding rivers. But the final stretch led through the late-summer-dark-green hardwoods and dying-pine-forest hills of what is called – without a trace of irony, as far as I am aware – Franconian Switzerland, to the little town Wagner selected as his place of pilgrimage.** The route even throws in a stop at the German Steam Locomotive Museum in Neuenmarkt-Wirsberg, where an old Black Beauty is usually seen standing under steam.
The conductor was the young Finn Pietari Inkinen, whom we had seen lead the most riveting Brahms Symphony no. 1 I ever heard, some years ago in Frankfurt. There was a weaker Brahms 3 more recently in Tokyo, because of the inferior orchestra where he is chief guest conductor. At that time he had to cancel an appointment to have a drink together, but the other day as we were sitting waiting for the doors to open we saw him heading for the pit, and I reflexively called out, “Pietari-san! How are you?” He turned with a smile, said, “I’m fine”, and headed on down to work in his Nibelheim. Maestro Inkinen conducted Rheingold brilliantly, as far as I was able to judge through the miasma of bad air in the notoriously ill-ventilated Festspielhaus.*** Several people had to leave mid-performance. Whether they couldn’t breathe or were turning away in revulsion from the unspeakably vile staging I cannot tell. Suffice it to say that in the present Rheingold, Wagner’s magic hoard of gold is a little boy, initially guarded beside a swimming pool by three maidservants, and that pedophilia, child abuse and misogyny are thematized.
After those hours in the anteroom of a hellish Valhalla, a visit in the next morning’s cool air to Margavine Wilhelmine’s Neues Schloss was sheer paradise.****(See articles 85 and 87.) I had forgotten how lovely “Bayreuth Rococo” is. Naoko had visited more recently and urged me to give it another chance. In that world all is lightness and charm. Wilhelmine was deeply involved in planning the “New Castle”, and one of its specialties is fake trellises bearing small, multicolored flowers against a white background. In contrast, the “palm room”, where Wilhelmine’s husband held his Masonic Lodge meetings, is veneered in bookmatched walnut, with fronds reaching into a white sky populated by birds, butterflies and benevolent dragons. This seems to be the oldest preserved Masonic lodge in the world.
The margravine’s bedroom was decorated in motifs inspired by Japan, and the last thing she saw on the ceiling above her when falling asleep was a fantasy portrait, possibly of herself, of a Japanese kami. I’m not sure exactly where she died, but it may have been the last thing she ever saw. The little palace was only finished the year she died (1758). Her gray stone sarcophagus is located in the chapel of the Altes Schloss, the “old castle” where, after arrival in Bayreuth, Wilhelmine suffered years of impoverished misery under the rule her mad father-in-law. Her close friend Voltaire wrote a poem on her death, shown there on a brass plaque.
Ode sur la mort de la Princess de Bareith’ , que VOLTAIRE lui a dédiée en décembre 1758.
Pour moi, dont la voix tremblante
Dans ma vieillesse pesante
Peut à peine s’exprimer,
Ma main tremblante, accablée,
Grave sur ton mausolée:
CI-GÎT QUI SAVAIT AIMER!
(On behalf of me, whose trembling voice
in my heavy old age
can hardly express itself,
my trembling hand, overwhelmed,
engraves upon your mausoleum:
“Here rests one who knew how to love!”)
The “divine monkey of Ferney” (sic Will Durant) was exaggerating as usual; he lived another 20 years. To Naoko’s photos of the Neues Schloss below, I will add one from last year of his tomb in the Paris Panthéon.
A final note from me regarding Wilhelmine: she and her husband founded a university at Bayreuth in 1742. It was closed a year later and moved to Erlangen after protests from the populace about student misbehavior.
The last word goes to the immortal Mark Twain. Here is Sam’s dispatch to the Chicago “Daily Tribune”, after a visit to Bayreuth in 1891:
“Yesterday's opera was "Parsifal" again. The others went and they show marked advance in appreciation; but I went hunting for relics and reminders of the Margravine Wilhelmina, she of the imperishable "Memoirs." I am properly grateful to her for her (unconscious) satire upon monarchy and nobility, and therefore nothing which her hand touched or her eye looked upon is indifferent to me. I am her pilgrim; the rest of this multitude here are Wagner's.”
August 24, 2023
* In an email to me, Pierre railed against Katharina for never hiring him.
** The choice fell on Bayreuth after Wagner travelled there in hopes that the stunning rococo theater built by Frederick the Great’s sister Wilhelmine might answer for his projected festival. It was rejected as far too small. The town then purchased, without Wagner’s knowledge, the present site, and offered it as a gift. The man’s monumental ego was offended, and he had to be persuaded to accept.
*** His review in “The New York Times” was excellent.
**** The spacious music room is decorated with pastel portraits of Wilhelmine’s court musicians, and one of Voltaire in a place of honor above a door. A few contemporary instruments are shown behind glass in the wall cabinet where she kept her scores, many of her own composition. The information panel says that none of her own instruments are known to have been preserved. In the center of the room stands an antique harpsichord. Nobody on the staff could tell me anything about it, but they kindly contacted the Bavarian office responsible for all state-owned monuments. Garbled information was forthcoming later in the day by email. John Koster confirmed the instrument was by an early 18th-century Brussels builder, Hieronimus (Jérôme) Mahieu, whose instruments were mostly transformed into fake attributions to the Antwerp school in the 19th; in this case, to two different members of the Ruckers dynasty. Some of these deceptions have been swallowed whole down to the present day, leading to persistent errors in the organological literature.