You would think one of the most influential composers in the history of classical music would be buried amid grandeur. You would imagine a fancy gravestone, perhaps, like those that adorn the remains of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms at Vienna’s main cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof, where one can even purchase an audio guide while walking among the famous departed. You would be wrong. I was.
All I saw, at the corner of a park in Bayreuth, Germany, was a tiny gate with a metal board on which were engraved the words “Zur Grabstatte”, pointing me to the simple graves of Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima. There were no tombstones or dates, just a black slab where the composer once courted by kings is buried. It’s as if he knew that tombstones didn’t matter; that his admirers would continue to arrive for centuries to pay their respects nonetheless.
I was in Bayreuth for the same reason thousands of people visit this north German town of less than 80,000 people. I had come for Wagner, the composer who had lived here from 1872 until his death 11 years later. This was where he built his home, behind which he now rests. More importantly, it was where he built his Festspielhaus, the theatre dedicated solely to performances of his operas since 1876. I wasn’t visiting during the festival, conducted annually over 30 days, between July and August. But even if I was in town then, it would make little difference: Tickets are usually sold out 10 years in advance or distributed among members of Wagner Societies the world over by ballot.
Getting to Bayreuth was a lot easier than it must have been in Wagner’s time though. I took a train from Berlin and switched at Nuremberg, from where smaller trains leave for Bayreuth every hour.
Wagner’s presence was unmistakable. The Festspielhaus is visible from the platform itself, looking down at visitors from the top of a hill. Outside lay streets, cafés and stores named after the composer or characters from his operas, while Morris columns—cylindrical structures found at street corners in most German cities— advertised concerts of his music.
Wagner’s life was in itself worthy of an opera. Even the fictional telling of his story in the form of a 10-part miniseries called Wagner in 1983—starring Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier among others—took over 7 hours. It was a colourful story, full of tragedy and aggression, political struggle and high art. He was revered though, during his lifetime and after, for his music. Of his 13 operas, 10 are regarded as among the Western world’s most significant cultural accomplishments. Admirers sponsored his extravagances through much of his life, with one of his patrons, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, eventually paying for the theatre at Bayreuth. For an artiste, it was the equivalent of being gifted a blank cheque by a fan.
For each person who loves his music though, it is now possible to find someone who detests Wagner in equal measure. Much of the blame for this lies with the composer himself. For a start, he published an essay titled Judaism In Music, which blamed the Jewish people for what he believed was wrong in art and society. Then there was the presence of one of his biggest fans, who began worshipping Wagner at age 12 and grew up to become Adolf Hitler. He drew some of his theories of racial purity from the former’s writings, and was an honoured guest at Bayreuth, thanks to Wagner’s son Siegfried and his wife Winifred. Wagner’s music was played not just at Nazi rallies for years, but also by concentration camp orchestras. It’s why his operas have never been staged in Israel.
I thought about his poisonous legacy as I stood outside the locked doors of the Festspielhaus, staring up at a window from where Hitler had once waved to adoring crowds, before making my way around the building. A bust of the composer by the German sculptor Arno Breker stands in the centre of a small park outside, with one of Cosima’s standing guard in a park on the other side. Inside, the theatre boasts of innovations that continue to inspire movie theatres today. Wagner had dispensed with boxes or galleries, making sure every guest would have access to the same view. He was the first to hide the orchestra, making for a more immersive, mystical experience. As for the acoustics, they continue to be regarded by audiophiles as among the finest, for performances as well as recording.
Why visit Bayreuth, I was asked by family and friends. I didn’t know where to begin framing a response. I could point out that Wagner was not just one of my favourite composers, he had influenced French and Italian opera, inspired Russian composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and changed the way symphonies were written. I could lean on support from the poet W.H. Auden, who had once considered the possibility of Wagner being the greatest genius that ever lived. I could mention his influence on art, literature, sexuality and modern psychology, or how film scores would have been less epic without him.
To be fair to my family and friends though, Mark Twain found this devotion hard to fathom too. Reminiscing about his visit to the Festspielhaus in the Chicago Daily Tribune on 6 December 1891, he wrote: “If you are living in New York or San Francisco or Chicago or anywhere else in America, and you conclude, by the middle of May, that you would like to attend the Bayreuth opera two months and a half later, you must use the cable and get about it immediately or you will get no seats, and you must cable for lodgings, too. Then if you are lucky you will get seats in the last row and lodgings in the fringe of the town. If you stop to write you will get nothing.”
Later that day, I went back to Wagner’s grave for a while as his music played on my iPod. Behind me lay Wahnfried, the house he loved. I thought about what his work meant to me, and whether the love I had for it was overshadowed by the many awful things he had said and done over the course of his tumultuous life. It all boiled down to a question of whether or not my life would be poorer without his music. I knew it would, so I turned off the iPod and stood before those graves in silence, like so many thousands before me had and will.
Must-visit sites to understand the musician’s life and legacy
■The Markgräflichen Opernhaus or Margravial Opera House in downtown Bayreuth was once the largest in Europe. It inspired Wagner, who actually conducted there once in 1872.
■Wahnfried—a compound of Wahn (madness) and Friede (freedom)—the home of Wagner and his wife, stands a few metres from the home of Franz Liszt. Both are now museums, with the latter housing a piano that Wagner and Liszt both performed and composed on.
■Fans can shop for memorabilia at antique stores like the Wagner Antiquariat Hanny Kopetz, which has busts, scores or bills advertising early performances.
■Nuremberg, a short train ride away, has enormous historical significance not just because of Hitler’s rallies there, but because of Wagner’s opera, ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’.
■A restaurant called Eule (The Owl) was supposedly one of Wagner’s favourites, and still serves dishes he loved. Try the local wheat beer, Hefeweizen, loved the world over.