Richard Wagner – the Bayreuth Festival

Richard Wagner had scoured Germany for a large theatre to present his Ring Cycle or Des Ring des Nibelungen.  Unable to find a suitable venue, he decided to build one to his own specifications, with a permanent home for his family next to it.  Wagner had never had financial independence; and even when he found the money for his creations he generally had to sell their rights; thus, leaving him unable to perform his own works.  The constant seeking of money had been the bane of his life.

Richard WagnerAfter much searching, he finally found Bayreuth; which, although fairly large, was still unsatisfactory.  It accommodated smaller Baroque orchestras with ease but was totally unsuitable for staging the complex operas Wagner was famous for; and the acoustics were also woefully inadequate for his huge orchestras.  But Wagner and his wife, Cosima, liked the ambience of the town.  Although it had little by way of a cultural life, it offered no artistic competition and, more importantly, it was a region free from owner’s rights; thereby Wagner could perform his works when he so wished.

When the Wagners put their ideas to the Bayreuth Council, the council generously donated a vast plot of land.  Green Hill was indeed a pretty spot overlooking the (then) small town, and was ideal for their purposes, but once again Wagner needed to raise the money.  Wagner realised that no single sponsor would stump up such a huge sum and he began to think that this time the problem was insurmountable; until a friend came up with the idea of creating a ‘Wagner Society’.  Wagner travelled to towns and cities where he conducted concerts; and raised a considerable sum, but they still needed at least double the amount.  Weary of travelling, Wagner petitioned King Ludwig II and, on the third time of asking, the young, former patron and staunch Wagnerian relented and approved a loan to complete the project.

Home at Last

The family had already moved into their unfinished home, Wahnfried, so that Wagner could work, and it was here that Götterdämmerung the last of the Ring Cycle or Der Ring des Nibelungen was completed.  It had been a mammoth undertaking and had taken twenty-six years to complete as Wagner was forced to create other works to bring in more money.  His Ring Cycle consists of four separate operas: Des Rheingold (The Rhinegold); Die Walküre (The Valkyrie); Siegfried, deriving from Swedish Sigfrid and Sigfred from Danish/Norwegian; and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).  All four operas had elements of Germanic and Nordic mythology, and inspired by ancient Greek drama.

Wagner examined the building progress daily, but there was still much to do: In the plans he had included a few innovations; one was the moving of the pit so that the musicians would not be seen by the audience.  When the building was completed, he ordered that the auditorium had to be darkened during performances and that there was to be no applause after the first act.  Having eagerly tested the acoustics he and Cosima began organising the opening of the first festival.

The King

At last, on the stroke of midnight on the 5 August 1876, a train from Munich screeched to a halt.  In the darkness, in an open field, a lone figure disembarked and stepped into the waiting carriage.  It was the first time King Ludwig II and Richard Wagner had met in over eight years.  The king had specifically journeyed to view the full dress rehearsal for Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirely.  Wagner had invited the king because without his help there would probably have been no theatre, and he wished to thank his benefactor in person.  It was only right, thought Wagner, that the young king saw the work before anyone else.  Indeed, it was performed in four evenings and then the king left as furtively as he had arrived.  That Wagner had taken such a step pleased the king immensely and after an enjoyable four days the two men parted amicably.

The First Festival

Four days later, 13 August 1876, saw the inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival, with the premiere of Das Rheingold; and a very glittering who’s who it was too.  It included artists and composers such as Liszt, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky; also media, political leaders, nobility, an array of princes, grand dukes and in particular the Emperor Pedro from Brazil, and Kaiser Wilhelm I whom had kept to both of his promises of attending and providing a donation.

Artistically, the first Bayreuth Festival and the Ring Cycle proved an enormous success.  However, the critical reaction was mixed, the French newspapers were negative, whereas a Norwegian composer thought it was divinely composed.  What disappointed Wagner the most, however, was that the festival finished with a deficit of around 150,000 Marks; as such it meant he still had to take on more conducting and commissions to earn more money.

The Last

After their reunion King Ludwig II helped Wagner with his finances and the composer directed the Munich National Theatre to pay off his debts incurred by the first Bayreuth Festival, thus making Bayreuth solvent.  But not Wagner himself; he still needed to sell the copyrights to some of his unpublished works, including Siegried Idyll.  He also wrote various articles and travelled intensively to earn money.

Wagner had started his last opera almost straight after the festival. Parsifal was the only opera specifically written for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus; and the theme came from the quest for the Holy Grail from the Arthurian Knight Parzival.  Premiered in 1882, Wagner took the baton during the final act as his farewell to Bayreuth.  He had suffered with angina for years and was becoming weaker.  Shortly afterwards Wagner left Bayreuth for the last time.

The Legacy

Wagner had built the house and theatre as a legacy for Cosima and their three children; and, following Wagner’s death in 1883, Cosima saw that Wagner’s wishes were adhered to.  Cosima assumed control of Wagner’s legacy and, together with her son Siegfried, became the sole heir to all Wagner’s properties.

In 1885, Cosima took over as festival director and continued to do so for twenty-two years, overseeing thirteen festivals and gradually increasing the festival’s repertoire, all of which followed the ‘master’s’ wishes in absolute detail.

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus continues to prosper and Wagner’s legacy has passed down through the family for over 130 years, as such … Richard Wagner lives on.

Stella Milner
Taken from Stella’s Wilhelm Richard Wagner: The Man and his Music
See also article on the life of Richard Wagner and a list and description of Wagner’s operas.