Travelogue LVI: Bayreuth III: Wagner City



August 29, 2015 Even 130 years after Wagner’s death, Bayreuth belongs entirely to him. The city is beautiful, but the atmosphere is strange: part cult, part kitsch, part ever-present and often-disturbing history. Certainly, there are other dignitaries who feature in local history–Franz Liszt, Jean Paul Richter, etc.–but they pale beside the Festival and everything associated with it. The influence of the Great Master is still inescapable.


Above, Villa Wahnfried, the home King Ludwig built for the Wagner family in Bayreuth. The name means freedom from illusion–I have always wondered what Wagner meant by that.

The Villa is a peaceful and lovely place, backed by a gorgeous park full of flowing water and walking paths. During Wagner’s time, and for many decades afterwards, it was a place of pilgrimage for the world’s artistic and intellectual elite, full of art and discussion and beauty.

Wagner's grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Wagner’s grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Of course, Wahnfried is not entirely unproblematic: during the 1930s, Hitler lived part-time with the Wagner family in a small house next to the villa. Richard himself was at that point long dead, but the Führer and everything he stood for were welcomed with open arms by his children and wife Cosima.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer  Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his son Siegfried.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his young son Siegfried.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

Back in the city, Wagner becomes a selling-point, a way to draw in tourists and maximize your selling power. Stick a Wagner bust in your window, or name your breakfast specials after Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the crowds will come. Much of this sort of advertising strays into kitsch, which is somehow hilarious and endearing at the same time.

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festpiel programs...

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festspiel programs…

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas--"Siegfried" and "Meistersinger."

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas–“Siegfried” and “Meistersinger.”


Half of the street signs in the city are named after characters in the operas, or after Wagner’s family members. Here, Valkyrie-Street.

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner!

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner! Here, Parsifal, his last opera.


During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets is booming. Here, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets booms. Above, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

Wagner-windows. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Wagner-window I. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Jewelry shop where you can buy "Der Ring," rofl. "Dein Gold" (Your Gold) instead of "Rheingold" (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Wagner-window II. Jewelry shop where you can buy “Der Ring,” rofl. “Dein Gold” (Your Gold) instead of “Rheingold” (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Wagner-window III. Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Reverse-advertising. "In this house lived Richard Wagner--never."

Reverse-advertising. “In this house lived Richard Wagner–never.”

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Despite a complicated past and kitschy present, however, Bayreuth is lovely–relaxed festival atmosphere, full of beautiful cars and well-dressed opera-goers eating in the open air cafès and reading Wagner libretti in the parks. The whole city has a sort of holiday air, a feeling of being removed from the rest of the world, shut away in a tiny universe dedicated to the power of music.

Festival atmosphere--open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Festival atmosphere–open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Travelogue XXII: Worms–Martin Luther, Richard Wagner

IMG_107129. December, 2014 Yesterday there was real Vermont weather in Mainz–clear blue skies, snow on the ground, bracing cold. I was restless and giddy from the sun, and decided to take the train to Worms, a small city about half an hour to the south.

Worms is, along with Wittenberg, a city of Martin Luther, one of the great players in the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In 1521, the city hosted the Diet of Worms, the council at which Luther was ordered to first claim authorship of and then recant his theological works. He refused, and an edict was issued several weeks later condemning him as a heretic and enemy of the Church.

Today, the city is home to the largest monument to the Reformation in the world. It was completed in 1868, and features statues and carvings of Martin Luther along with some twenty other figures involved in the movement.


Philipp Melanchthon, professor in Wittenberg and friend of Martin Luther’s.


John Wyclef, English theologian and an important early reformer.


The city of Speyer represented as a woman, here protesting against the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which condemned the spread of the Reformation.


Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, 31 October 1517.


The stone under the statues is inset with the coat-of-arms of the 27 cities who took part in the reformation. Above, Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s city.


Johann Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, with excerpts from Martin Luther’s works above them. Below, Luther himself, the statue at the center of the monument. At the base are inscribed his famous words from the Diet of Worms in 1521: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir, amen–Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God, amen. 


So much for Luther–Worms’ other great narrative stands in almost comic opposition to the stringent, overtly Christian story of the Reformation. Worms is the Nibelungenstadt, City of the Nibelunglied, the anonymous epic poem at the root of German myth. The work is a sweeping re-working of pagan Norse legend, spanning generations and playing out against a backdrop of gods and men, giants and dragons, swords and treasure.

Worms serves as the setting for much of the story. Brunhild and Kriemhild fought on the steps of the cathedral; Siegfried himself is buried before the old wall; part of the great Rhine hoard is supposedly hidden somewhere deep under the city. Today, there’s a museum and a yearly festival and a dozen monuments dedicated to the original epic and its countless reworkings over the past millennium. The boundaries between history and legend are not clear in Worms, and the myth is still very much alive.


One of the many monuments in the city. Here, Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen.

For me, it is all especially close to home. The Nibelungen saga, and more specifically Richard Wagner’s operatic rendition of it, was the story that drew me to German. The figures in the monument above have a great deal of power over me.

There is a flexibility and strength to this myth, to all myths. Over the past thousand years, the story has served as a study of Medieval courtly love, of Jungian psychology, of German nationalism, of Gesamtkunstwerk, of Western politics. The events of the narrative are big enough to contain the entire world, yet small enough to fit within a single human psyche.


The Nibelungenlied in the Renaissance: courtly love and Medieval customs. 


Fritz Lang’s silent film from the 1920s: ground-breaking artistry, unfortunate overtones of German nationalism.


Arthur Rackham’s illustrations: Nibelungenlied as romance and fairytale. 



Achim Freyer’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered in Los Angeles and is now playing in Mannheim, Germany. Jungian psychology, modern politics. Mythology for the 21st century.

Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit

Bayreuth, July 21, 2012

It was almost exactly four years ago that I heard Richard Wagner’s music for the first time. I had bought a CD on a whim at a July 4th book sale–Das Rheingold. I suppose it is fitting that the opera began with Wagner’s creation story:

In Wagner’s music I find something too problematic to love, too compelling to hate. The composer’s art and thought have been a constant in my various explorations–a driving force forward to those he influenced, from Freud to Thomas Mann and Mahler, and backward, to his own sources–Goethe, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy.

Who would have guessed that some four years after that July 4th weekend I would be standing on a damp train platform in Germany, headed to Bayreuth.

Bayreuth is Wagner’s city, the home of the opera house he designed especially for performances of his works alone. The theater is an acoustic and architectural marvel–and today, the waiting list for tickets to the festival in August is over ten years long.

But first, the train ride there. Anna, you will be especially happy to note my reading material below. 🙂 Don’t worry, there are plenty of other articles about one Ms. A. Netrebko…

The first view of the Festival House, from the train station. The larger city was not overly exciting, very industrial and down-to-earth–nothing like Rothenburg’s brand of cultivated, touristy beauty. But it was immediately clear that this place, some 150 years after the composer’s death, was still Wagner’s city. “Bayreuth, die Stadt des großen Meisters, grüßt seine Gäste,” read the enormous sign at the station. Bayreuth, the city of the great Master, greets her guests.

In the train station, between the tabloids and chewing gum, one could purchase Wagner’s complete libretti, copies of his essays, of Nietzsche’s Der Fall Wagner.

Along the road up the Festival Hill. The road signs are all references to Wagner’s operas, characters, or family members.

The feel of the whole city was rather odd, part cult, part kitsch, part unnerving and ever-present history. It seemed as if all the shops had to have some compulsory reference to Wagner, as if marketing potential could be increased by sticking a familiar marble bust next to the wares in the display window, or by calling the breakfast omelet special Siegfried and the wine Isolde.



Breakfast specials!

Every book store in the city had a large selection of Wagner CDs and books–and not just the usual “Opera for Dummies” types, but academic folios on Wagner and Nietzsche or Thomas Mann, published conference proceedings, three-volume biographies, Cosima’s complete diaries….

In the local Hugendubel (the German version of Borders or Barnes and Noble) I drank my chai across from a two-story poster of the composer’s face…

And the history…on the slope before the main entrance to the festival house, before one could climb the last set of steps to enter the building, there was an exhibition on antisemitism in Bayreuth. Of course we all know it and have struggled with it already, the noxious quotes from Cosima, the pictures of Hitler and Goebbels, the biographies of singers shunned from Bayreuth and later murdered. But seeing the pictures and the writing there made it all the more real.

But again, this is Wagner. It would be too easy to take one’s seat in the house and just listen to the music.

The Festspielhaus itself, finally. After the countless ornamented and excessively beautiful buildings we have seen these past few weeks, it looked very plain, almost Spartan. Inside, the walls were simply painted. The only furnishings I could see were a few benches. In the actual seating area, which I didn’t get to look at, all the seats are good–no royal box, no elaborate set-up to make the guests more interesting than the music. Bravo Wagner.

Here’s the place to be….

The Festival House is surrounded by lovely gardens, very green this time of year.

From the Festival Hill I went down into the Old City, and eventually to Villa Wahnfried, the home of Wagner from 1872 until his death in 1883. Unfortunately, the house (and thus the museum) was closed for renovations. But I was there!

The front facade, with a statue of the crazy King Ludwig, Wagner’s obsessive (but, luckily for the composer, totally loaded) supporter and patron. Again, the place was surprisingly unpretentious, for the home of one of the greatest figures in 19th century Europe. The house was not overly large, with that same boxy construction as the Festival House. I went and sat on the front steps for a long time.

Wahnfried literally means free from illusion or delusion. Wagner’s motto is written on the front of the house: “Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand – Wahnfried – sei dieses Haus von mir benannt.” (“Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) I can’t help but wonder what he meant by that.

Below, the fresco or painting above the front door. It shows Wagner in the middle as Wotan, king of the gods, with actress and lover Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (I think…) on the left as Drama, and wife Cosima on the right as Music. The little child is Wagner’s son Siegfried.

Wagner and Cosima’s grave, entirely unadorned. When I got there it started to pour rain, which was fitting.

Of course such a place is remarkable not only for the presence of the artist himself, but for all that has happened afterwards, for all those who have visited to hear the same music, to see the same house and grave. Even while Wagner was alive, of course, Europe’s intellectual and artistic elite took their way to the city, as friends, enemies, pilgrims, lovers. Franz Liszt was one such visitor, supporter, and later Wagner’s father-in-law. His house is across the street from Wahnfried.

The place is now a museum, and, probably to compensate for Wahnfried being closed, has the piano that Wagner composed much of Parsifal on. Imagine!

And that was all. I ate dinner in a tiny cafe next to the train station and then flew back to Würzburg, at 200 kilometers per hour in a nearly-empty train, into the sunset. It was a good day. I’ll be back soon, with a ticket.


Tomorrow, Bayreuth!
After some three hours on two buses and one train, headed East, Bayern weekend ticket in hand, with books and a packed lunch of good Würzburg wine, bread, and cheese….a real Abenteuer, to the one place on earth I have most wanted to visit. Wish me luck!





Germany is full of beautiful churches.

I am not sure if “beautiful” is the correct adjective. The actuality is both more sublime and more disturbing. Centuries ago, in towns of just a few thousand people–what prompted those in command to dedicate so many lives and fortunes to these buildings? They seem to me to be the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke (Total Works of Art), equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped in turn by religion, music, politics, Zeitgeist. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Here is the Marienkapelle in the center of Würzberg, surrounded, oddly enough, by the local farmers’ market. The inside, as in all the churches we have visited, is ever cool and still, a forest or a whole universe of stone, light, and glass.

Many of the churches have an odd mixture of old and new artwork, as many original structures were destroyed in World War II. For instance, the windows here below date from the restoration after the war. They are stunning, but look somehow out of place with the old architecture.

Neumünster, also in Würzburg.

Below, one of the many gorgeous organs. In München, we found a cathedral where someone was playing Bach high above our heads, far behind us. When I went to the mass in the Frauen Kirche, the choir and organ sent vibrations through the stone floor and wooden pews. Such music is somehow more than tone, more than sound–something one can feel in the air, almost touch.

Frauenkirche, München.

Michaelskirche, München, where we heard the Bach.

Asamkirche, München. This one was truly insane, as Rococo as they come–all fine metal work, dense murals, gilt, and twisted stone columns of some sort of red polished marble. The effect was ultimately one of claustrophobia, of the walls closing in above one’s head. The building dates from 1746, when the Baroque movement was in its last and most extreme stages.

This last church, especially, raises interesting questions. I know people (ahem…Dr.G…) who dislike various late-Romantic artists and composers because they are too bombastic. But isn’t this, dating from the early 1700s, just as “bombastic”  as, say, Wagner? Or even Thomas Mann, whose novels aren’t exactly examples of restraint and minimalism?  Isn’t this earlier artistic spirit just as over-the-top, though of course very different aesthetically?
And if we are discussing music, check out the marvelously insane Cecilia Bartoli below, singing a piece from roughly the same Baroque/Rococo period. It sounds like the Asamkirche.

Bombast? Beauty? The sublime? Or all together?

München: Musik

Most important things first, right? München (Munich), exponentially larger and more overwhelming than Würzburg, is truly a city of music.

We made a quick tour of the downtown area after our arrival Friday afternoon–and what do we pass first, right around the corner from the bus stop? Joseph Calleja himself (one of my favorite tenors…), rehearsing O Soave Fanciulla (my favorite Puccini duet…) for a concert Sunday night, in the beautiful outdoor Odeonsplatz. Wow.


Odeonsplatz below.

The poster for the concert.

…And now note the poster above, for the City Opera summer Ring Cycle….Siegfried opened Friday night, but was utterly sold out, alas.

More Wagner, and the opera house itself.

Look who else you can see…

A. and I walked back to Odeonsplatz Saturday night, to hear the München Philharmonic in another outdoor concert of Russian music. We were too poor to buy tickets, so we sat on a window-ledge on a side street and read our German homework and listened for free–along with a couple dozen other assorted students and young couples, who brought picnic blankets and wine to make a night of it.

The city was also full of street musicians, many of whom were absolutely fantastic. Like this group, for instance, who played some sort of crazy Vivaldi mash-up as if they were possessed by devils (in the words of Prof. G.!):


Up next: Cathedrals, Thomas Mann, and Cy Twombly!

Aber was mir am wichtigsten ist…

Check it out. Der Meister selbst.

Wagner’s house was literally the first thing pointed out to us when we stepped off the bus into downtown Würzburg the first night. And then I knew I was in the right place, for sure! I had forgotten that he lived here for a short time while composing his first opera, Die Feen. Here’s the whole building:

We walk past it every morning on our way to our classroom.

There’s also another building with his name on it that we pass in the bus every time we leave the apartments…

Also eine wunderschöne Stadt, oder?