The Foundation of the Bayreuth Festival

© Hannu Salmi

[This text is also available in German]

Wagner originally planned that Munich would be the focal-point of his music. After being banished from immediate contact with Ludwig II at the end of 1865, however, he switched his attention from Munich to Nuremberg, which he saw as especially appropriate for the performance of The Mastersingers and his other operas. Nuremberg, however, was abandoned when Wagner heard from Hans Richter that there was an excellent operahouse in Bayreuth. Margrave Frederick (1735-63), who was married to the sister of Frederick the Great, Friederike Wilhelmine Sophie, had kept court in Bayreuth. The young Margravine was active in the arts, and like her famous brother was an enthusiastic composer (for example, the operas Amaltea and L'Elliogabalo), and the Margrave had an opera-house built in Bayreuth, completed in 1747. In its time it was one of the largest theatres in the world. The acoustics were exceptionally good.

The question of performance rights made Wagner favour Bayreuth. In 1864, when short of money, Wagner had sold the performance rights of his forthcoming operas to Ludwig II. As an enthusiastic Wagnerian, Ludwig had wished to hear Wagner's music as often as possible in Munich. On Ludwig's initiative, The Rhinegold was premiered in Munich on 22nd September 1869, although Wagner was against the idea.

His problems did not end there. The Valkyrie was nearing completion and Ludwig wanted to have it performed as soon as possible. At the same time, Wagner became more and more interested in Bayreuth: Munich no longer suited his plans. On 5th March 1870, Richard and Cosima were enthusiastic about a report in the Brockhaus Conversation Lexicon about Bayreuth, which suggested the idea of a possible performance of The Ring in the famous Bayreuth opera-house. It was no wonder that after this Wagner opposed the performances of his works in Munich. He wrote a hurried letter to Ludwig's secretary, Lorenz von Düfflipp, dated 6th April 1870, in which he stressed that Ludwig had in fact given guarantees that Wagner could perform The Ring Tetralogy according to his own wishes. These words were of no avail: The Valkyrie was premiered at the Munich Court Theatre on 26th June 1871.

Wagner visited Bayreuth on his way to Berlin on 17th-20th April, and was satisfied that the town was suitable for his purposes. Unfortunately, the famous baroque opera-house proved to be technically out of date, and it could not be used for Wagner's works, which required complex equipment for the scenery. An entirely new opera-house would have to be built in the town. The city fathers were enthusiastic about the proposal, which could raise the town to its former glory. Inspired by his visit, Wagner wrote to Lorenz von Düfflipp on 20th April that he intended to choose Bayreuth as the centre for his forthcoming opera festivals.

Bayreuth, the home town of the writer Jean Paul, was well suited for Wagner's purposes. It was situated close to the northern frontier of Bavaria, and was thus almost a central focal-point of Germany: a location more advantageous than Munich, which lay too far in the south, roughly in the middle of Bavaria. Bayreuth was also preferable to Nuremberg, because apart from Jean Paul and its baroque architecture, there was nothing that could compete with the fruits of Wagnerism. In 1868, in Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik, Wagner had argued that theatre should be the core and focus of national education. If the Wagner theatre were established in Bayreuth, it would stand at the geographical heart of Germany, and people from all over Germany could make pilgrimages to the fountain of their spiritual rebirth.

Wagner's plans now proceeded quickly forward. On 11th May, he wrote to Dr. Carl Landgraf that he was planning to arrange a great music festival in Bayreuth within two years, in 1873. In addition to this, he stated that he inteded to return to German soil, to his new home town, in order better to arrange the forthcoming cultural event.

Wagner was constantly active in trying to get artistic support and patronage from the state. Nonetheless, he now began to plan a "reserve solution" based on direct popular support. Following his fruitless meeting with Bismarck on 3rd May 1871, he immediately embarked on soliciting popular support in concrete terms. By 12th May, he had already published a brochure, Ankündikung der Festspiele, publicly announcing his Bayreuth plans. The proposal was to build a large Festspielhaus in Bayreuth by the summer of 1873, when the opera-house would be opened with a performance of The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner wrote to Dr. Landgraf that he had explained these proposals to Ludwig II; the music festival was now his personal affair, and with the help of committed friends of his art, would now be implemented.

Although Wagner launched his Bayreuth proposal as a private project, he was still obsessed with social acceptance. The most important task now was to get the project started, in the hope that the German nation would then eventually understand the gift it had received. This was clearly stated by Wagner to his financial adviser, the banker Friedrich Feustel: "With this building, we deliver only the outline of the true idea; which we submit to the Nation, to be fulfilled in a glorious construction." The opera-house was to be a simple wooden building, in order to ensure funding for special equipment and decorations to create a total experience. The total costs of the project were 300,000 taler, of which 1,000,000 taler were reserved for the construction of the theatre, 50,000 for performance equipment, and 150,000 for the performance costs of the first festival.

By the spring of 1871, Wagner had already started to raise money. Before his return to Triebschen in May 1871, he visited Leipzig, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, and Heidelberg to inspire his supporters.

In the beginning, the work was greeted with great enthusiasm by his Berlin friends. One of the most active was the Polish-born pianist Karl Tausig. Tausig's energy seemed to be inexhaustible. He made speeches on behalf of Wagnerism in the capital, where the message of Wagnerism had only partly reached people. Tausig's sudden death of typhus at the age of 29 was a serious loss. After Tausig's death, enthusiasm in Berlin weakened considerably, partly due to the realization that Wagner intended to base his festival in the distant town of Bayreuth.

By the end of 1871, it was evident that merely waiting for the money was not enough. Wagner's account had not increased by much: something had to be done quickly, if the first festival was to be arranged in 1873. To speed up the collection of money, Wagner decided to issue a thousand 'patronage certificates' (Patronatenschein), priced at 300 taler. The high price of the certificates proved problematic, however, and it became imperative to create a parallel channel for low-income Wagnerians to support the project. A useful proposal was put forward by a Mannheim music publisher, Emil Heckel, who established a Wagner society in his native town in June 1871. On Heckel's suggestion, Wagner decided, without delay, to establish Wagner societies throughout Germany, with the purpose of arranging events and occasions for raising funds. The societies could purchase patronage certificates on behalf of those members who could not afford to invest 300 taler. The proposal seemed promising, and the foundation of such associations guaranteed that all enthusiasts would now have the opportunity to support the project.

The foundation of the societies soon started. By the end of 1871, the Mannheim Society had sister societies in Leipzig, Vienna, and Berlin. Wagner drew up a written proposal, stating the main goals, and affirmed that he had always striven to contribute to the "genuine Essence of the German spirit".

In Berlin, the Academic Wagner Society published at its own expense two special supplements in the Musikalisches Wochenblatt (April and July 1872), and was hard at work raising financing for the project. The Wochenblatt supplements offered introductions to Wagner's world philosophy, expounding Wagner's art and the significance of the music festival to the German public, summarizing the subjects of Wagner's operas, and offering further advice on how to study the master's thinking. The strategies used in these appeals show interesting parallels between Wagner's art and the unification of Germany. Wagner was the Bismarck of art, who had sacrificed his life to the German cause; it was therefore incumbent upon the nation to arrange a suitable environment for Wagner's works in Bayreuth. Germany could become a new Hellas, if only politics and art could go hand in hand:

A tragic collapse lay behind the birth of the German Empire; in the thunder of battle, where enthusiastic German youth was victorious, the noblest ambitions of many centuries came to fruition.

Today, the leadership of this completed undertaking lies in the hands of a powerful man; the burning desire for national unity has been fulfilled. With all the greater confidence, therefore, German students are now able to participate in our national spiritual and intellectual undertaking. To this spiritual arena the undersigned summon their fellow students.

In Hellas, the supreme flowering of the State went hand in hand with that of Art; so too the resurrection of the German Empire should be accompanied by a massive artistic monument to the German intellect. In the field of politics, the German mission in the history of the world has recently enjoyed its second triumph - now its spiritual victory is to be celebrated, through the German Festival in Bayreuth.

Richard Wagner, the great poet and composer, whose unerring innovations in the field of art are the parallel to Bismarck's political achievements, - Richard Wagner, the bard of German greatness, will dedicate his lifework to the German Fatherland. It is up to the People to ensure its worthy reception.

This appeal by the Academic Wagner Society shows how clearly Wagner's goals had been grafted on to the tree of political unification. Because of his enormous efforts, the German nation owed this to Wagner.

During 1872, the societies rapidly spread throughout Germany. Once enough money had been collected, the essential work could begin. In summer 1871, Wagner and his family moved to Bayreuth, to be nearer the place of work and to be able to lead the project. With solemn ceremonies, the cornerstone of the forthcoming opera-house was laid on 22nd May 1872, on the hill close to Bayreuth.

Although the cornerstone had now been laid, Wagner realized that the music festival could not be arranged for the following year. Much money still needed to be raised. The design of the opera-house needed revising, and the last part of the tetralogy The Twilight of the Gods had not yet been orchestrated. It was probable that the festival would have to be postponed at least until 1874.

Wagner's plans were too optimistic. By the end of 1872, it had become clear to Wagner and his financial supporter Feustel that the Wagner societies, despite all their efforts, had failed to raise adequate funds, and no improvement was in sight. By the August of 1873, only a third of the patronage certificates had been subscribed. The situation seemed to be hopeless. Wagner could do nothing but try once again to seek the support of the state. On 24th June 1873, he wrote a humble letter to Bismarck, and straightforwardly asked for financial support, but Bismarck was unbending; no money was forthcoming.

Ludwig II had from the very beginning regarded the Bayreuth project as absurd and unrealistic. Wagner was aware of this, and had therefore decided to push ahead with the project without a patron; but he now needed to relinquish this principle, and request Ludwig's assistance. At the end of January 1874 Ludwig made a grant of 100,000 taler.

Ludwig's support was decisive. In a letter to Lorenz von Düfflipp, Wagner estimated that the theatre would now be completed by the summer of 1875. This plan, too, however, had to be extended, and it was not until 1876 that the opera-house was ready to admit the first festival audience.

"Wagner's iron will made it possible to realize the idea", wrote Marie zu Hohenlohe later, in her memoirs. Without Wagner's iron will, indeed, the opera-house would never have come into existence. During the opening ceremonies on 13th August 1867, Wagner was able to state that the utopia had at least in part been achieved: Germany now had her national theatre.

The Bayreuth Festival was a unique cultural event in Germany, which Emperor Wilhelm I honoured with his presence. A surprise guest to the festival was the Emperor of Brazil Dom Perdo II, who was touring Europe at that time. Only Bismarck refused to attend.

All of Wagner's most enthusiastic supporters came to the festival, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Tappert, Ludwig Nohl, Richard Pohl, Gottfried Semper, and Karl Klindworth. Professional musicians came from all over the world, the most famous of them being Edvard Grieg from Norway and Peter Tchaikovsky from Russia. Grieg wrote a cycle of articles for the Norwegian paper Bergenposten and attended not only the performances, but also the rehearsals.

The festival started with the performance of The Rhinegold to an audience that filled the entire auditorium. For many Wagner enthusiasts, the experience was unforgettable. The Festspielhaus is still today one of the largest opera stages in the world. Wagner had designed the theatre to resemble a classical amphitheatre; the auditorium was designed in the shape of a sector, which allowed for equal visibility from every seat. No boxes were built. The Orchestra was separated from the audience by a large parapet: one could not therefore see where the music came from. In addition to this, the auditorium was solely constructed of wood, which had been shown by Semper to be the best material in terms of acoustics. The "maiden" audience thus experienced something not possible in any other opera-house. This unique feature was associated with Wagner's idea of making his festival a ritual which resembled religion. Art could be followed in Bayreuth with a devotion peculiar to that of Ancient Greece. It was no wonder that Richard Pohl remarked: "It was a new Olympia."

When the last performance of the festival was over, The Twilight of the Gods, Wagner made a short speech, the point of which will not have been unclear to any in the audience. Wagner's last words were: "If you wish, we will have our own Art." Responsibility for continuity was now transferred to the audience, the German people. The 1876 festival was the result of the work of many years, and Wagner now realized that the arrangements for the following festival would again be very demanding. In Wagner's inner circle the continuity of the festival was the subject of lengthy discussion. Wagner himself believed that the next festival could be held the following year, if only permanent support from the state, or at least from the societies could be guaranteed. Wagner's friends, Liszt and Bösendorfer, also believed that permanent support could be ensured. A more pessimistic view was argued by the impresario Angelo Neumann, who considered the schedule too tight, and in the end Neumann proved to be right. Permanent support for the festival was not found. Not until 1882 could the Wagnerians again gather in the Festspielhaus.

Before his unexpected death in 1883, Wagner had succeeded in arranging only two festivals. Nonetheless, he had achieved his goal of a German fusion of arts (Gesamtkunstwerk) which he believed would guide the German nation toward her own identity; as he saw it, he had found the spring of a new rebirth which would pave the way for an entirely revitalized society. In his utopia, art and politics would be united; the marriage between Berlin and Bavaria was necessary. This union was never achieved in Wagner's lifetime; it did not come about until the 1930s, and then not in the sense that Wagner had meant, for under Nazism art was merely a means of politics.

After Wagner's death, Richard Pohl crystallized in 1884 the heritage that Wagner had left to his supporters in the words:

Richard Wagner himself built a monument for himself: it stands in Bayreuth. To continue further this festival theatre in his spirit, through devoutly performing the Master's works, must be our next goal.

The continuation of the festival was thus dependent on the forthcoming generations. Wagnerians had been entrusted with an enormous challenge for the future: the marriage of power and art.

From Hannu Salmi's book Imagined Germany. Richard Wagner's National Utopia. German Life and Civilization, Vol. 29. General editor: Jost Hermand. Peter Lang Publishing: New York 1999, pp. 172-178.

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