Saturday, 12 April 2008

Wagner, King Ludwig and Bavaria

Wagner had, unsurprisingly, immense physical energy and, like his predecessors Beethoven and Schubert, he spent many hours hiking in the woods and mountains of his native Germany. Later, when he was based in Switzerland he walked the Alps with Frederick Nietzche.

In The Ring of the Nibelung, he takes us through the forests, along the rivers and up to otherwordly summits to which both his imagination and his immense physical stamina had led him. He has a festival dedicated entirely to his work in Bayreuth which nestles in the gentle hills not far from Nuremberg. But a traveller in search of the natural world that inspired The Ring, Lohengrin, Tannhauser and Tristan will also find it in the land and castles of Wagner’s patron Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Wagner was living in Stuttgart and was, as ever, up to his eyes in debt when Ludwig sent his secretary to summons the creator of Lohengrin to his presence. Suspecting a creditor’s ruse to gain access to him, Wagner refused to see the man. When he finally agreed, a chapter in his life opened up that left even Wagner, with his grandiose self-image, dazed. He was soon staying at the king’s residence at Hohenschwangau where the mythical world of his operas helped feed the fantasy world of a monarch who already had considerable problems facing reality.

Wagner was now in a position at the Bavarian court where he could order Wagnerian motifs to be played from the turrets in the morning. He had royal greetings performed by oboists of the First Infantry regiment and pulled off his greatest coup when he recreated Lohengrin’s Arrival for the king alone. On a cool November evening in 1865 a shimmering figure emerged from the mist of the lake below Ludwig’s castle. Wagner had arranged for the adjutant general to dress as Lohengrin and sail across the Alpsee in a boat pulled by a small skiff covered by a wooden swan. A delighted Ludwig ordered a repeat performance.

Wagner’s piano still stands in a room in the castle that overlooks the lake. On a winter’s day when tourists are few, snow covers the pines, the Alpsee is frozen and Ludwig’s dream castle Neuschwanstein drifts in and out of the mists, then, in a quiet moment, the true spirit of the composer can be felt as myth and nature entwine.

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