A Pilgrimage to Bayreuth

A Life of Richard Wagner

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Preface: August 1883

   “O poverty and deprivation, you bringers of care, patron saints of the German artist (unless you happen to have reached the haven of Kapellmeister at some Court theatre!), it is to you that, in recording these sacred memories, my duty calls on me to sing in praise and honour.”
   That was the start of Wagner’s 1839 essay-in-the-form-of-a-novel, “Eine Pilgerfahrt zu Beethoven - A Pilgrimage to Beethoven.” An entirely imaginary and symbolic pilgrimage of course, given that Beethoven had been dead twelve years already. But what better way to get inside a great man’s mind than to invent a dialogue with him and root out from your own guts the words you know he would have used?
   Beethoven was one of Wagner’s first heroes, alongside Weber and the poet Heine (whose Jewishness he excused); he later added Schopenhauer and Gobineau to his pantheon. I can’t claim that Wagner is one of my heroes, though I do admire his music, and respect the innovations that he brought to the Opera (as Hans Eisler put it, “he was a great composer, unfortunately”). I can’t say that I like the man at all, though clearly there must have been something likeable, even loveable, about him, given the number of women who fell slavishly at his feet; the number of men who tolerated their wives’ passions for him and continued to support him even during the period of those passions; the number of artists, musicians, aristocrats, politicians and plain ordinary folk who gathered round his charisma as disciples. Yet he was just as clearly a narcissist, a sponger, a misanthrope, a foot-stamping, sulking master of the tantrum, a tyrannical taskmaster and a hedonist par excellence. He treated his first wife dreadfully, acted with spite and contempt towards anyone who didn’t hail him as the genius that he knew he was, and expected everyone to provide his needs and expectations with unfailing loyalty, servility and immediacy. His jealousy knew no bounds. His contempt for the French, the Italians, the Germans was only a reflection of his contempt for all Mankind; his anti-Semitism was really no greater than his hatred of any other race or nation that fell short of his exorbitant expectations of humanity – as all inevitably did. Yet he fought in revolutions for the cause of freedom (whose existence he denied), and democracy (which he was opposed to), believed in Love and Purity (both of which he sullied constantly), created masterpieces (most of them flawed), and strove as perhaps no man before or since has ever striven to create a culture and a civilisation in which the highest and most sacred potentials of humanity might be the norm; an übermensch civilisation, which unfortunately manifested itself as National Socialism some years after his death, and claimed him, when he couldn’t have defended himself (though he probably wouldn’t have wanted to) as its Muse. A mass, in other words, of contradictions, usually (as I’ve tried to demonstrate) in the same sentence. Could a man truly be a god and a demon at the same time? It seems he could, if his name was Richard Wagner. One of the reasons for undertaking this pilgrimage to Bayreuth was to try to find out.
   As a Jew I’d had a long-standing difficulty with Wagner’s anti-Semitism, which was so fastidiously exploited by the Nazis that his name has become synonymous with the Holocaust. I grew up associating “The Ride of the Walküre” with the Messerschmitts of the Blitz of London in 1940, and “Valhalla” with that bunker in Berlin where twilight did eventually wipe out the would-be gods. I was living in Israel in 1981, when Zubin Mehta, then conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, offered a Wagner encore at the close of a subscription concert, inviting those who wished to leave to do so, those who wished to listen to remain; but the first group stayed to protest, rioting broke out, some of the audience tried to shout down the music, even ripped out chairs and threw them at the stage, forcing Mehta to abandon the attempt. Daniel Barenboim has made similar efforts since, with greater success but much the same controversy. Like them, I’ve always felt that we should be able to get beyond our hostility towards the man, as we’ve got beyond our enmity towards the German nation, and appreciate his music, which is something that transcends the man and stands on its own plinth in full view of the world. Perhaps we might even try to understand him. That was the second reason for undertaking this pilgrimage to Bayreuth.
   Taking my cue, then, from that 1839 essay-novel, I decided to pay Wagner a visit at the Wahnfried, his magnificent home in Bayreuth – a visit rather than a pilgrimage, but I couldn’t borrow the title (and he wouldn’t have let me in) if I didn’t claim it was a pilgrimage. It was August 1882. He and Cosima had returned from Italy in May, in time to celebrate his sixty-ninth birthday and make preparations for the première of his final opera, the culmination of his life’s work, “Parsifal”. Now that was behind him – sixteen performances, commencing on July 26th and ending on August 16th – and he was supposedly resting, though Wagner didn’t know the meaning of that word. The house was crowded. Gobineau was there, but sick with apoplexy, and left soon afterwards. Liszt arrived the following day, then Wagner’s niece Johanna, who had created the part of Elisabeth in the first performance of “Tannhaüser”. Mathilde Maier was there, now stone deaf. So was Blandine, one of Cosima’s daughters, with Gravina - Count Biagio Gravina – whose wedding on August 12th had coincided with the birthday celebrations of Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig of Bavaria. I carefully avoided mentioning that I was a Jew, fearing that Cosima would deny me entry on those grounds alone. Yet Hermann Levi was there too, the man appointed to conduct “Parsifal”, and if Wagner could allow the son of a Jewish Rabbi to conduct his final work, then perhaps his anti-Semitism was overstated. I also studiously avoided mentioning the name of Nietzsche, and left my copy of “The Gay Science”, which had recently been published, and which included the first articulation of his version of the Götterdämmerung, the infamous “God is dead”, in my hotel room.
   I have to say that Cosima was sceptical, when I arrived from the future, carrying a laptop and a digital tape-recorder, claiming I was there to write the great man’s biography – she liked the term “great man” but could see little point in the biography, having spent years helping him write his own version, and editing it extremely carefully, to make sure it gave posterity the portrait she required. She didn’t seem too much impressed by my credentials either, but I told her I had made an English translation of the “Ring” in narrative form, that it was founded exclusively on Wagner’s libretto and stage directions, and that its purpose was to make the work accessible to people not familiar with either the mythology or the music; she seemed to think “the Maestro” would appreciate that. I also told her that I knew the von Bülow family in England – which happened to be true; I worked with Hans’ great-grand-daughter when I was teaching in Bristol in the 1990s. She was feeling rather positive about her ex-husband at that moment, having received news that he’d emerged from several years of clinical depression and become engaged to an actress in Hanover, was therefore no longer a burden on their guilty consciences. With some disdain, and telling me I couldn’t stay for supper or be provided with a bed, she let me in.  
   The house was terribly formal, but magnificent. Its name means “Freed from Delusions”, which may have been a statement of aspiration rather than a description of reality, though there was an engraving on the façade that offered the continuing delusion that he’d achieved it: “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.” A large square building in the Romanesque style, it was far more attractive from the back than from the front, where it had the dark formality of a mausoleum – Wagner called it that himself: “My dwelling place. My temple. Or perhaps my mausoleum.” In the entrance-hall, each on a pedestal of two steps, a pair of marble columns exhibited busts depicting him and Cosima. Above them a frieze of all the heroes of his works. Cosima’s drawing room was on the left, with all her mementos, family portraits, others of the King, Stemper’s water colour drawing for the Munich theatre. Plus all manner of gifts the Wagners had received from their admirers: wreaths, gold and silver cups, paintings, books. To the right of the hall the dining room. Beyond it the drawing room, with splendid views out to the garden and the Margraves park. All his books were here, a valuable collection too, plus the concert grand, portraits of Schopenhauer, Cosima and himself by Lenbach. Upstairs a landing, opening out of a circular gallery. A study, bedrooms, quarters for the children. A set of three rooms kept for his father-in-law, Franz Liszt.
   It was in the upstairs study that I found him, musing over ancient papers as though in preparation for my arrival. Where Cosima had been sceptical, Wagner was positively welcoming. He liked the adulation, I guess. The knowledge that somewhere in the future there were people who thought enough of his work to want to write about it, and him. He had entered, he told me, a phase of nostalgia, was thinking about his life a great deal, would enjoy recounting it to somebody. “I have written my own biography, of course,” he said. “With a little help from Cosima. But one never stops recalling and assessing. It’s how one grows. I talk to the inner biographer continually.” He offered me a piece of carrot cake, which I declined, and scarcely gave me time to boot up my computer before he was embarked.


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