Bayreuth, Germany – Wagner’s Festspielhaus

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A young man, asking for advice on how to succeed in life, was told to “be born the eldest son of the Duke of Westminster”.  The Duke is reputed to be Britain’s richest man.  While this advice was obviously of no help to the young man, it must be rather pleasant to have the certainty of success by the time one arrives in this world.  And as with people, so it is with buildings.  Pat and I saw last weekend a building, the success of which was assured before its first brick had ever been laid.  It opened in 1876 but, even today, it very difficult to obtain tickets to watch a performance there.  Demand for tickets outstrips supply by a factor of ten to one.  Applicants must apply for tickets every year and eventually, after about ten years if one is fortunate, one reaches the top of the list.  Miss an application one year and one has to start all over again.  Traffic in tickets is forbidden and may result in the eventual buyer being refused admission.

Wagner's Festspielhaus - Bayreuth, Germany
Wagner's Festspielhaus - Bayreuth, Germany
Interior - Wagner's Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Germany
Interior - Wagner's Festspielhaus

The building that we saw was the Festspielhaus in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. This is the opera house that was specially built for the performance of the operas of Richard Wagner, then and now seen as one of Germany’s greatest composers.  Every summer, tens of thousands of Wagner fans are attracted to the Festspielhaus and its annual music festival at which only operas by Wagner are performed.  Wagner did not have a well ordered existence because of his political activities, his poverty and his hectic love life.  He was always occupied in running away from his creditors. He was fortunate that Ludwig II of Bavaria became king in 1864. We have already written elsewhere on this website about Ludwig and about our visits thirty years ago to his “fairy tale” castles at Neuschwanstein and Linderhof.  In any event, Ludwig loved Wagner’s operas and became his patron.  Wagner lived for a time in Ludwig’s capital city of Munich, but in 1870 was forced to move on for the usual reason and decided to settle in the relatively small city of Bayreuth, which lies 150 miles to the north of Munich.

King Ludwig and Richard Wagner
King Ludwig and Richard Wagner

Today the population of Bayreuth is only about 75,000. Wagner chose Bayreuth because its existing 18th century opera house, the Margrave which we also saw, had the very large stage essential for the performance of his works.  However he must have been frustrated to discover, after relocating to Bayreuth, that the Margrave’s orchestra pit was too small to accommodate his large number of musicians.  His solution was to build in Bayreuth a new opera house, the Festspielhaus, exactly to his specifications.  The foundation stone was laid on May 22 1872, which was Wagner’s 59th birthday.  He managed to have the project funded by Ludwig, who by this time was almost as short of money as Wagner.

Orchestra Pit in the Festspielhaus
Orchestra Pit in the Festspielhaus

Many of the ideas which Wagner incorporated into the design of the Festspielhaus were highly innovative.  For example, the darkening of the auditorium during performances and the locating of the orchestra in a pit out of the view of the audience were unknown elsewhere at the time.  The acoustics are generally considered to be superb.  The premiere performance at the Festspielhaus took place on August 13 1876.

Just as a person with great advantages at the start of his life, such as the Duke of Westminster’s heir, has very superior godparents present at his baptism, so it was with this building destined for success.  The opening of the Festspielhaus was attended by numerous royals and members of the nobility including the Kaiser, the King of Brazil and of course Ludwig of Bavaria.  Many famous composers also attended, including Tchaikovsky from Russia who correctly predicted that “our children and grandchildren” would be around to see the Bayreuth festival.  The 1876 festival was an artistic triumph, but a financial disaster. Yet, over the years, the Festspielhaus has survived this and other adversities.   In particular, it survived the Second World War undamaged, even though a large part of the city of Bayreuth was destroyed by allied air raids.

Click on player below to see Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, 2nd act, Bayreuth Festspiele (1990) [Part 4] with English subtitles

One particular adversity that the Bayreuth festival could well have done without was the enthusiastic support of the Nazi regime during the 1930s. Wagner died in 1883 and is buried in Bayreuth but, during his lifetime, he publicized his anti-semitic views.  Adolf Hitler, who was born after Wagner’s death, found these views very much to his taste.  Hitler became a great lover of Wagner’s music and made frequent visits to Bayreuth, where he became friendly with members of the Wagner family. The family, then and now, is responsible for producing the festival each year and has inevitably been tarnished by this connection.  To this day, there is an unofficial ban on the playing of Wagner’s work in Israel.  It’s not illegal to play it. It’s just not done to play it. There is no suggestion that Wagner’s work is not of the highest quality or that he was personally responsible for activities of Nazis over 50 years after his death.  It is simply that Wagner and his music are seen by many to be symbols of a regime under which they or their ancestors suffered.  Wagner’s great-granddaughter Katherina, who presently manages the festival, has recently invited Israeli orchestras to play at the Festspielhaus, but this is probably a situation that only time can cure.

Katharina Wagner
Katharina Wagner