Wagner at Bayreuth

By J. L. G.



Richard Wagner (7551 bytes)

The Wagner Library

Edition 1.0

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About this Title


Wagner at Bayreuth
By J. L. G.

Scribners Monthly
Volume 12 Issue 3
Pages 361-367
Published in 1876

Original Page Images at Cornell University Library

Reading Information

This title contains 3990 words.
Estimated reading time between 11 and 20 minutes.

Page numbers are indicated using square brackets, like [62], while footnotes are indicated using parenthesis, like (1).

Wagner at Bayreuth

by J. L. G.

[Gap: The first page of this article is unavailable from the mass-archive (1 page) ]


Alberich gained possession of the bright and beautiful gold of the Rhine, the Rheingold, from which he made a ring that gave him power over all the Nibelungen. Thus he became their master, and forced them to collect for him the rich treasure of the Nibelungen, the chief jewel of which was the Tarnhelm (helmet), by means of which one could assume any figure that he pleased. The great cunning of the gods succeeded in the capture of Alberich, and he was compelled to give the treasure as ransom for his life. The gods, knowing the power of the ring, took that from him. Then he laid a curse upon it, that it should prove the ruin of all who should possess it. The giants forced it from the god Wotan, and left it on the Guita plain under the guardianship of an enormous dragon. The soul and freedom of the Nibelungen lay buried beneath the body of the dragon. But Wotan could not expiate the wrong without committing a new injustice. Only a free will independent of the gods themselves, which could take upon itself all the fault and do penance for it, had it in its power to loose the enchantment, and the gods saw the capability of such a free will in man. They sought therefore to infuse their divinity into man, that they might raise his strength so high that he, conscious of this power, might withdraw himself even from the divine protection in order to do, according to his own will, what his mind suggested to him. So the gods educated men for this high purpose, to be the expiators of their crime; and their object was to be attained when they had lost themselves in this human creation—that is, when they must give up their direct influence to the freedom of human consciousness. Mighty races sprang from this seed, who steeled their strength in strife and conflict. At last Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglinda (twin brother and sister) was born. Siegmund was slain by Hunding, the enraged husband of Sieglinda. For interfering in this combat Brunhilda was expelled from the company of the Valkyres (Walküre), and banished to a barren rock, where she, the divine virgin, should be given in marriage to the man who should find her there, and wake her from the sleep into which Wotan had cast her. But she begged as a boon that Wotan should surround the rock with the terrors of flame, that she might be certain that only the bravest of heroes could win her.

Reigin brought up Siegfried; he taught him the art of the smithy; told him of the death of his father; and produced for him the two pieces of the latter's broken sword, from which Siegfried, under Mime's direction, forged the sword Balmung. Mime urged the youth to the destruction of the dragon, but Siegfried determined first to avenge the death of his father. So he sallied forth and after killing Hunding slew the dragon and took possession of the ring and helmet. As he put his finger heated with the dragon's blood into his mouth, the taste of the blood gave him knowledge of the language of the birds, who warned him against Mime, and he slew him. The birds also counseled him to win the heart of Brunhilda, the most beautiful of women. Siegfried immediately penetrated to her rocky fortress, and she recognized in him the noble hero of the Volsung race, yielded herself to him, and he wedded her with the ring of Alberich. They swore truth to each other, and he left her.

Another race of heroes living on the Rhine was that of the Gibichungen. Among them were Gunther, his sister Gudrun, and Hagen, a natural son of their mother. The Gibichungen looked to Hagen to get the Nibelungen ring, and he laid a contemptible plot to trap Siegfried. Gudrun, inspired with love for Siegfried by the praise which Hagen had lavished upon him, gave Siegfried, by Hagen's advice, a goblet of welcome prepared through Hagen's art in such a way that it caused Siegfried to forget his life with Brunhilda and his espousal with her. Siegfried sought Gudrun for his wife, and Gunther consented on condition that he should aid him to gain Brunhilda, for she possessed the magic ring. Siegfried by the power of the helmet changed himself into Gunther, penetrated into Brunhilda's fortress and took the ring and carried her to Gunther, and they all returned to their home upon the Rhine. When Brunhilda saw that Siegfried had deserted her for Gudrun, she was very angry and swore to be revenged. She declared that she was Siegfried's wife, and he declared that she was not. Gunther, in the deepest shame and wretchedness, seated himself apart and covered his face; and Hagen approached Brunhilda and offered himself as the avenger of her honor; but she laughed at him as powerless to conquer Siegfried. Then Hagen said that she must tell him how Siegfried was to be overcome. She, who had hallowed Siegfried, and had secured him, by secret charms, against wounds, advised Hagen that he must strike him in the back; for, as she knew the hero would [363] never turn his back to his foes, she had not made that also enchanted. A plan for his murder was arranged between Hagen, Brunhilda and Gunther,—the latter urged on against his better nature by Hagen's entreaties and Brunhilda's jeers. Hagen's desire was to possess the Nibelungen ring, which Siegfried would let go at his death. Hagen planned a hunt for the next day, at which Siegfried should be killed. As Siegfried was riding to the meet he was accosted by three water-sprites, who warned him of approaching danger, but he only laughed at them. Soon the hunters approached. Gunther was gloomy and depressed, while Hagen was noisy and jolly; Siegfried tried to cheer Gunther by telling him stories of his youth. Two ravens flew swiftly over their heads. "What do those ravens tell thee?" shouted Hagen. Siegfried sprang quickly up; and Hagen continued: "I understood them that they hasten to announce thy coming to Wotan." With that he thrust his spear into Siegfried's back.

Gunther, guessing by Siegfried's story the truth of his incomprehensible relations with Brunhilda, and suddenly recognizing from it Siegfried's innocence, had seized Hagen's arm to save the hero, but without being able to avert the stroke. Siegfried raised his shield to dash down Hagen with it, but his strength failed him and he sank groaning to the earth. Hagen had turned away; Gunther and his men gathered, sympathizing and agitated, about Siegfried,when he opened his eyes once more and cried: "Brunhilda! Brunhilda! Thou glorious child of Wotan! How fair and bright thou comest to me! * * * Brunhilda! Brunhilda! I greet thee!"

Thus he died. And the men raised his corpse upon his shield, and, led by Gunther, bore it away in solemn procession over the rocky heights.

They set down the dead hero in the hall of the Gibichungen, the court of which opened at the rear upon the banks of the Rhine. Hagen had called forth Gudrun with a loud cry, telling her a wild boar had slain her husband. Filled with horror, Gudrun threw herself upon Siegfried's body; she accused the brothers of his murder; but Gunther pointed to Hagen; he was the wild boar, the murderer of the hero. And Hagen said: "If I have slain him, than whom none other dared touch, what was his is my rightful booty. The ring is mine!" Gunther stepped before him:—"Shameless bastard! the ring is mine—Brunhilda meant it for me! Hear me, all of you!"

Then Hagen and Gunther fought, and Gunther fell. Hagen sought to draw the ring from the body, but it raised its hand threateningly. Hagen shrank back in horror—Gudrun shrieked aloud. Then Brunhilda strode solemnly between them:

"Silence your clamor; your idle rage! Here stands his wife, whom you have all betrayed I demand my right, for what was to happen has come to pass."

Wretch!" cried Gudrun, "it was thou who wrought us ruin."

But Brunhilda said, "Silence, miserable one! Thou wast but his mistress; I am his wife, to whom he swore faith before he had ever seen thee! Woe is me!"

Then cried Gudrun: "Accursed Hagen, why didst thou advise me of the draught by which I stole her husband from her? For now I know it was the draught that made him forget Brunhilda."

Then Brunhilda said: "Oh, he is pure! Never were vows more truly kept than he kept them. And Hagen has not slain him, he has but marked him out for Wotan, to whom I now lead him. For now I, too, have done my penance; I am pure and free; for he only, the noble one, has had me to wife."

Then she had a funeral pyre built upon the bank to burn Siegfried's body; no horse, no slave was to be sacrificed with him: she alone would offer her body to the gods in his honor. But first she took possession of his inheritance; the helmet should be burned with him, but the ring she herself put on.

Amid solemn songs Brunhilda mounted Siegfried's funeral pyre; Gudrun bent in bitter grief over the murdered Gunther. The flames rose above Siegfried and Brunhilda; suddenly they streamed up in the brightest luster, and above a dark cloud of smoke arose a glory, in which Brunhilda, armed and mounted upon her steed as a Valkyr, led Siegfried by the hand. At the same moment the waves of the Rhine rose to the entrance of the hall; the three water-sprites bore away upon them the helmet and the ring. Hagen rushed madly forward to tear the treasure from them; but they seized him and bore him to the depths below. (1)

The story is as dramatic as it is fantastic, and the spectacular effects in the last scene can be made as beautiful as a bit out of fairy-land.

Before going any further it might be well [364] to give a few dates from the life of the composer: Richard Wagner was born in Leipsic on the 22d of May, 1813. His father died when he was six months old, and his step-father designed him for a painter; but he showed little or no talent for that art. As he grew older he wanted to be a poet, and projected ambitious tragedies, that were strangled at their birth. Shakspere was his model, and he learned English for the sole purpose of studying that master. On hearing Beethoven's music he decided that he must write like him, and so, against the wishes of his family, who thought he had no talent, he began the study of music. In 1839 he left Germany completely discouraged, and traveled with his wife to Paris. There he had the friendship of Meyerbeer, but the enmity of almost every other musician. Reduced to the verge of starvation, he wrote articles for the "Gazette Musicale" which attracted considerable attention. He gained experience in Paris, if nothing else, and left that city in 1842 to direct the production of his "Rienzi" at Dresden. This opera met with success, and he was made Kapellmeister at the Dresden Opera-house.Being a man of liberal political opinions, he was an active leader in the agitation which led to the revolution of 1848, and was compelled to flee to Zurich for his life. During his residence in Switzerland, where he was well received, he completed "Lohengrin," and the libretto and part of the music of the "Nibelungen." He left Zurich in 1858 and resided in Italy, Paris, Vienna, and Carlsruhe. "Lohengrin" was produced unsuccessfully during his residence in Paris. Returning to Germany, he had the good fortune to win the favor of King Ludwig of Bavaria, an enthusiastic musical amateur. From this time success crowned his efforts, and on the 22d of May, 1872, the corner-stone of his theater at Bayreuth was laid with imposing ceremonies. Wagner's library. WAGNER'S LIBRARY.

Wagner had passed the best part of his life before meeting recognition. Even when the performance of his "Tannhäuser" was ordered in Paris by the Emperor, it had to be withdrawn from the boards of the Grand Opera through the outrageous treatment of the Jockey Club and the press.

Liszt was the first musician of rank to introduce Wagner's music to the public. The friendship between these two is strong [365] and of long standing, and every year Liszt is a guest at Bayreuth in Wagner's house.

Wagner is now in his sixty-fourth year. He has not a few of the eccentricities of genius, in dress and manner. He is about the medium height. His face is strongly marked, and in it one can well read the character of the man. His brow is high and bold, and he wears his iron-gray hair pushed straight back from it. His eyes are deep-set and of a piercing gray-blue, though they vary in color with the passing emotion. A large, slightly Roman nose stands guard over a broad mouth, so firmly compressed that only a thin line of red defines the lips. The chin is prominent and wide. The face is clean-shaven with only a fringe of beard running close to the throat and passing up to the ears. The countenance is intellectual, and the features, though stern when in repose, soften occasionally into a smile. Wagner is not a morose man, nor is he a despot; yet he likes to have things "his way," because he believes that his ideas are right. In conversation he is affable and agreeable, though his manner is somewhat that of a preoccupied man. There is nothing trifling in his nature; his life is real and earnest, and he is looking a long way ahead. At home he usually dresses in a loose coat or gown of black velvet with a high-cut waistcoat of the same material. His shirt collar is of no particular style, and his tie is a scarf of ribbon carelessly hung about his neck and the ends tucked under his waistcoat. He generally wears short breeches and leggings. On his head is a velvet cap, somewhat like a Scotch cap, only fuller and more baggy. This, as has been stated, is his dress in his own house, and not in public; away from home he dresses like other people. A friend of mine, who attended some of the rehearsals at Bayreuth, says that his appearance would remind you of the familiar German professor: "Short, wearing spectacles, nervous in his movements: but his manner in directing is the most determined of any person I ever saw,—stamping his foot if the least fault is detected, singing the part as it should be, and every five minutes taking off and putting on his black velvet cap."

At ten o'clock Wagner retires and the guests generally leave at that hour. He sleeps with his gas burning brightly all night. By seven o'clock in the morning he is up and has a cup of coffee; but the business of the toilet does not begin much before ten.

Wagner has much inventive genius, and now and then tries his hand at some new instrument. He recently invented a brass horn, the largest ever made,—the lowest tones of which were to be as rich and powerful as an organ. When he had it completed and raised it to his lips it would not make a sound. But he was not discouraged. The theory, he declared, was right, and he would accomplish his object yet.

Mme. Wagner, or Frau Cosima, as she is generally called, is a fine-looking woman about thirty-seven years of age. She is the daughter of Liszt, whom she very much resembles, and was formerly the wife of Von Bülow. She is an intelligent and accomplished woman. Frau Cosima is devoted to her husband, takes charge of many of his affairs, and attends all his rehearsals. She has several children, some of them by her former husband.

Wagner's house at Bayreuth is just finished, and, as will be seen by the foregoing picture, is as plain as it is odd-looking. It is built of pure white marble. A bust of King Ludwig, father of the present King, more famous even than his son as a patron of music, stands on a pedestal before the front door, surrounded by an iron railing. At the rear of the house the grounds are laid out beautifully, and adjoin the Royal Gardens. The most singular thing about the place is the tomb erected for the composer and his wife, which stands but a stone's throw from the house. It is all ready and waiting for its occupants. The inscription is engraved on it, and only needs the dates of death to make it complete. Guests are constantly taken out to visit it by the host and hostess. Directly over the door of the house a group in bass-relief is cut out of the marble and the name "Wahnfried" engraved beneath it. Over one window are engraved the words "Hier wo mein Wahn Frieden fand," which when freely translated mean "Here the troubled mind has found rest," or "Here my ideal has been realized"; and over the other window "Sei dies Haus von mir genannt;" "Let this house be named by me."

The interior of "Wahnfried" is as luxurious as the exterior is plain. You enter at once through a large door into a square hall or vestibule, with a mosaic marble floor. Around the walls are pedestals on which stand statuettes in marble of scenes from Wagner's operas; above these are frescoes made of similar subjects. On each side of the door leading into the main room are busts of Wagner and Mme. Cosima Wagner on pedestals. A door on the right leads to a little reception-room and Mme. Wagner's private [366] apartments, which are most luxuriously furnished. On the opposite side is the dining-room. The grand room of the house is called Wagner's room, and is situated in the rear of the building, and runs nearly its entire length. It is lighted by an immense bay window which looks out into the park, and which is hung with rich curtains in lace and damask. The ceiling is heavily ornamented with carvings and paintings. Heavy curtains hang across the door-way leading into the hall. Book-cases line three sides of the wall and are filled with rare musical scores as well as books of general interest. His musical library is complete and very valuable. All his books are bound in rich bindings. Portraits of King Ludwig and other of Wagner's friends hang upon the walls. The carpet is of the softest velvet, and although there are not two pieces of furniture in the room of the same color or design, the general tone is a warm red. Rich rugs lie before the luxurious sofas, and elaborately upholstered chairs invite the visitor to try their comfortable depths. A large and oddly shaped table strewn with bric-à-brac occupies one side of the room. At the edge of the bay window stands the grand piano whose cold, white keys have warmed under the touch of Wagner and of Liszt. A porcelain stove, upon which stands a bust of Schnorr, the first "Tristan," hides itself in a corner of the room; and near it stands the table at which Wagner composes. Before him on the table are seven portraits of his wife; growing plants in the window, his own park, and the royal park outside, make a pretty picture. In the upper part of the house is the composer's bedroom, which is hung in pink silk. Contrast the scene here sketched with the one drawn by himself of the musician's wretched surroundings in "An End in Paris." Wagner's theater at Bayreuth. WAGNER'S THEATER AT BAYREUTH.

The famous opera-house stands on an eminence within easy walking distance of the heart of the town of Bayreuth. It is strikingly queer in appearance. No particular style of architecture has been followed, and the exterior is made subservient to the interior arrangements. The front, which contains the auditorium, is rather ornamental, but very odd. The high part in the rear is directly over the stage, and is intended for scenery; the wings at the rear and sides are also intended for that purpose. The foundation of the building is of sandstone, and the upper part of different-colored brick. The stage is much larger than the auditorium. It is 100 feet wide by 103 feet in height, and 83 feet in depth. Back of this is another stage of 50 feet in depth that may be used on grand occasions.

The auditorium is exceedingly plain. There are no galleries or boxes to break its monotony. The seats rise one above the other as in an ancient amphitheater, but they are only in the center of the house. The sides are perfectly bare, being broken only by a few columns. At the rear there is a row of royal boxes, or fürsten logé.


One of the first things the visitor will notice is the absence of seats for the orchestra. If he will wait a moment he will hear the music coming up from the "mystic gulf." It is one of Wagner's peculiar ideas that the orchestra should be kept out of sight, as it destroys the illusion when it intervenes between the audience and the stage. In his speech made at the laying of the corner-stone of the theater, Wagner said: "You will perhaps miss with surprise the simple decorations with which festive halls used to be beautified. But then, in the proportions and arrangements of the hall itself and the auditorium, you will find a thought expressed which will establish between yourselves and the play you came to see, a new relation very different from that which previously existed. Should this effect be simply and completely produced, then the mysterious entrance of the music will prepare you for the unveiling and plain exposition of scenic paintings, which, appearing to come out of an ideal world of dreams, will acquaint you with the full reality of the ingenious deceptions whereof the art of painting is capable. Here nothing will even provisionally speak to you with mere hints; so far as is permitted by the artistic possibilities of the times, the most perfect representation will be set before you in scenic as in mimic play."

The first Richard Wagner Society was established in Mannheim, and the name created a great deal of amusement among the enemies of the composer. It was not long after this that similar societies were established in Vienna, Pesth, Brussels, London, New York, and many other cities. The avowed purpose of these societies is to advance Wagner's music, and the interest of his Bayreuth enterprise, and, if possible, to attend the performances. The month of August will find Bayreuth filled with musical enthusiasts, and the quiet little town so long asleep among the hills will awake to the music of Richard Wagner, and to fame. Tablet in front of Wagner's house. TABLET IN FRONT OF WAGNER'S HOUSE.



See "Art Life and Theories of Richard Wagner. Selected from his Writings and Translated by Edward L. Burlingame." Henry Holt & Co.