Oh, Siegfried! I was always yours
A history of the Bayreuth Festival. Part 5
Author : Jos Hermans
"My parents called me Siegfried. Well, I didn't smash any anvils, slay any dragons or conquer any flames. Nevertheless, I hope I have not been entirely unworthy of the name because fear is certainly not part of my nature." (SIEGFRIED WAGNER, Erinnerungen)
The friendly monarch
With his experience as a conductor and set designer and the full weight of Cosima's institutional legacy behind him, Siegfried Wagner was well prepared to take over the Festival, starting in 1906. Everything could have stayed as it was and the festival could have gone about its business as usual but in fact Bayreuth was in a rut. Elsewhere, the theories of Adolphe Appia and the writings of the British set designer Gordon Craig and the application of electric light had brought quite a bit of innovation to the theaters. In Vienna, under Gustav Mahler and set designer Alfred Roller, highly talked-about and innovative Wagner productions had taken place with these new techniques.
Siegfried, however, was unable to shake off the weight of a tradition, crushed as he was by a domineering matriarchy and indoctrinated as he had been since his earliest years in the Bayreuth ethos. Intellectually, he never went through an oedipal phase: his parents outlook remained largely untouchable. From set design to ideology, therefore, everything pretty much stayed the same. Siegfried dared to go his own way only by experimenting with techniques such as color, lighting and with the orchestra direction.
Emotionally, however, Siegfried could not have been more unlike his parents: he was gentle, tolerant, jovial and without the slightest hint of fanaticism in his body. With his innate friendliness and modesty, Siegfried was considered very likeable. The atmosphere in Bayreuth began to change as a result, becoming more human, more relaxed, more spontaneous. There was no longer any automatic hostility to innovation. Instead, there was a certain willingness to experiment with new technical means such as lighting. The traditionally formalized acting and singing style was less rigidly imposed as before. The strict autocratic rule of the past gave way to a friendly monarchy.
In the pre-war years up to 1914, Siegfried brought three new productions to the stage. For the 1908 Lohengrin, he based himself on Cosima's version but provided the production with more color to refresh the original which he found to be poured over with a "brown sauce." Instead of painted canvases, he successfully managed to introduce a three-dimensional citadel and a cyclorama in the second act. Group choreography was widely regarded as one of his greatest talents but his orchestral direction was coolly received. The vocal performances, on the other hand, were applauded and with Sweden's Lily Hafgren-Waag and a host of American singers, it was clear that Siegfried wanted to maintain an international cast permanently.
With Die Meistersinger of 1911, Siegfried achieved his greatest prewar triumph. Still indebted to Cosima's 1888 version, his staging was simpler and more visually attractive. Daniela designed the costumes based on portraits by Dürer and Holbein. The opera itself was presented as a pure comedy, supported in this by the elegant lightness of Hans Richter's orchestral direction. Lily Hafgren made a great impression as Eva, and Heinrich Schultz as Beckmesser proved to be a justified discovery of Siegfried. Siegfried received the most praise for his direction of the nightly street riot at the end of the second act. The entire production had such a modern feel to it that Siegfried gained a reputation as one of the greatest German theater directors. Enthusiasts compared him to Max Reinhardt, the Frankfurter Zeitung hailed him as "the greatest director of the moment."
In 1914, Der Fliegende Holländer followed. For this he spruced up the 1901 sets and granted the singers unprecedented freedom of interpretation of their roles, allowing the performance to gain some spontaneity. Once again, his orchestral direction was found to be stiff and tedious. During these years the Ring and Parsifal were also repeated in a slightly refreshed version, but with the old set pieces now beginning to wear out.
Alfred von Bary was the leading tenor as Siegmund, Siegfried and Lohengrin. Walter Soomer was an excellent Wotan and an impressive Amfortas and Sachs. Ellen Gulbranson still captivated the audience as Brünnhilde. The contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was considered the best Erda and Waltraute of her time. Bahr-Mildenburg was praised for her demonic interpretation of Kundry. Many other important roles, however, were weakly cast, giving Siegfried the bad reputation of being an unreliable judge of voices. Notwithstanding the fact that he faced heavy criticism as a conductor, Siegfried refused to invite the great Wagner conductors of his day like Mahler, Nikisch, Weingartner or Strauss. Only Karl Muck and Hans Richter remained glued to the house.
Ideologues at work
Although there were fewer foreigners among the audience in these early years of the 20th century, Bayreuth retained its aura as a place of pilgrimage. Apart from Verdi and Brahms, every significant European composer or conductor had been to Bayreuth at one time or another, if only to experience Parsifal.
Meanwhile, Wagner had become quite entrenched in the national consciousness and his operas had taken on an explicitly nationalistic gloss. The festival became embroiled in an unusually fierce ideological struggle. Conservative Wagnerians joined forces in a romantic-nationalist reaction against the newly founded Reich. Fearful of "moral decay" and concerned with the "regeneration of the German soul," they translated Wagner's operas into a national cultural religion with Bayreuth as a sacred refuge. The discussion around Bayreuth reached a climax with the approaching expiration of the copyright on Parsifal in 1913. Only in Germany and only with Wagner could such an event assume such outrageous proportions. The interest in the press in this fact was astounding and would surpass in quantity anything that had been written about Bayreuth and Wagner since 1876. The whole affair had strong symbolic significance: Parsifal-in-Bayreuth was a totem of German cultural supremacy. A petition was addressed to the Reichstag to reserve Parsifal for Bayreuth which was signed by 18000 people including Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gustave Charpentier, Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini. The Reichstag remained deaf to the request.
When Siegfried opened the 1914 season as conductor of Der Fliegende Holländer, although the weather was beautiful, the atmosphere was oppressed by the impending international crisis. On July 28, Austria invaded Serbia and 4 days later Germany declared war on Russia. Like everywhere else in Europe, the lights in the Festspielhaus were extinguished on August 1 only to be lit again ten years later.
Dynasty in the doldrums
With the outbreak of World War I, attention was diverted from a crisis that threatened Wahnfried's sole rule over Bayreuth. At the heart of the problem was a dynastic dispute. Indeed, in December 1908, an important event in family history had occurred with the marriage of Wagner's daughter Eva to the eccentric Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Chamberlain was the offspring of a British military family, a fanatical Wagnerian and an intimate friend of Cosima. As the author of the "Grundlagen des XIX. Jahrhundert," he had produced a sensational work in two volumes that summarized Western history as one gigantic racial struggle.
Under his influence, Bayreuth's passive nationalism and racism took on an aggressively militant character, and the Bayreuther Blätter and the official festival guide became mouthpieces for militant, nationalistic and fiercely anti-democratic and anti-Semitic ideas. Together with Eva, he supervised the publication of Wagner's writings and built up an archive that he manipulated to meet his ideological needs. Chamberlain's intent was to keep power over Bayreuth in Wahnfried at all costs. Crucial to this was the exclusion of Franz Beidler, husband of Isolde, and their son from Wagner's estate.
If Isolde's requests to Cosima to be recognized as Richard Wagner's daughter went unheeded - Siegfried intercepted her letters - she threatened to sue to settle the legal position for her son. Siegfried offered her a substantial sum of money to drop the case but Isolde rejected the proposal. Faced with a scandalous lawsuit that would no doubt expose Siegfried's amorous escapades and the fact that, as a 45-year-old, he was still without an heir, Siegfried made the astonishing declaration in June 1914 that Wagner's entire estate -the Festspielhaus and all its operating funds along with Wahnfried and his archive- would be transferred to a Richard Wagner Foundation for the German People. The Foundation would be run under the chairmanship of the Mayor of Bayreuth. The idea of simply giving up everything that had been so laboriously built up over the years was so extravagant that the statement could only be understood as a gigantic ruse. The proposal diverted attention from the legal dispute and could temporarily avert a potential disaster.
In that same summer of 1914, Siegfried became acquainted with Winifred Williams, a 17-year-old English orphan girl who had been raised by the Klindworth couple from the age of 10. For Winifred it was love at first sight, for the homosexual Siegfried there was enough interest to decide on a marriage in July of the following year. Winifred had four children in quick succession: Wieland, Friedelind, Wolfgang and Verena, which immediately solved the dynastic problem. The proposal to establish the Foundation was quietly dropped and Bayreuth remained firmly in the grip of Wahnfried.
On the begging trail
Catastrophic inflation after the war caused the festival to go bankrupt. To sustain his family, Siegfried had to go on concert tours and was forced to sell some works of art and jewelry. It was not until 1921 that a festival could be considered in all seriousness. Siegfried followed his father's example and raised money by selling Patronatscheine.
More than 3,000 people including the former Emperor, the former King of Bavaria and the former Tsar of Bulgaria signed up. Although 5 million marks were raised, due to inflation this proved insufficient to ensure the future of Bayreuth. Siegfried decided to appeal to wealthy American Wagnerians and organized a concert tour through the USA for 2 months. For Siegfried personally the trip was a reasonable success, financially it was a fiasco: the trip yielded only 8000 $. The Wagners were suspected of raising money for a new radical political movement led by a certain Adolf Hitler.
A vagabond as a fan
The arch-conservative Wagner family was quite disillusioned by the collapse of the monarchy. The parliamentary democracy and liberal ethos of the Weimar Republic filled them with disgust. For Siegfried and the other Wagners, the ideal was a nationalist, authoritarian regime headed by General Ludendorff. Siegfried's interest in politics did not extend further, and as head of the festival he avoided overt political affiliations. Winifred, on the other hand, was an absolute Hitler fan. Her fanaticism sprang from a personal devotion to the man. Like so many Germans, she experienced the postwar political and social "disorder" as unbearable and saw in Hitler the exciting charismatic leader who would save the country. From their first meeting in 1923, she became hypnotized by his blue eyes. Hitler was promptly invited to Wahnfried and his visit was of great significance to him.
"As a 12-year-old I saw an opera, Lohengrin, for the first time," he wrote in Mein Kampf. "Instantly I was hooked. My youthful enthusiasm for the master of Bayreuth was boundless". A few years later he saw a performance of Rienzi about which he would later say, "That was the moment when everything began." This comment is significant in that it reveals that Hitler was not so much attracted by the music as by the heroism. In Wagner's operas he found heroes, men who like himself were rejected outsiders fighting against an entrenched social order.
It is useful here to make a little digression about Frederic Spotts, the author of this chronicle. The Rienzi statement, attributed to Hitler's childhood friend Kubizek, is almost certainly apocryphal. Eight years later, in "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics," Spotts, like most historians, will dismiss Kubizek's testimony. His opinion of the nationalist, conservative forces that will turn into National Socialism seems to undergo a certain evolution over the years in favor of National Socialism, as later books show. I therefore leave his assessment of the nature and character of the Bayreuther Blätter entirely to his own credit in the knowledge that an objective history of the Third Reich and WWII -Germany's eternal taboo and object of a reprehensible censorship- has not yet penetrated the general consciousness.
After the failed Munich putsch, barely 5 weeks after his visit to Wahnfried, Hitler was arrested. Winifred openly supported him by publishing an open letter in the press. She sent him writing paper in prison which gave rise to the bizarre story that "Mein Kampf" was allegedly written on paper supplied by Wahnfried. For this open support from one of Germany's most important families, Hitler was eternally grateful to the Wagners. Although Munich and Berlin had yet to be conquered by Hitler, Bayreuth was already at his feet in 1924. Upon its reopening in the same year, the festival became an official meeting place for members of the now exiled National Socialist Party and its sympathizers. The official program booklet said less about Wagner's music than about radical right-wing propaganda. The Bayreuther Blätter, meanwhile, had become an undisguised pro-Nazi publication. At the end of the first performance of Die Meistersinger, the audience stood up and sang the three stanzas of "Deutschland über Alles." Art had now become political. The liberal press and the foreign guests were not a little shocked, so Siegfried also woke up and began to prohibit any open association with the National Socialists. The following year the following message was posted on the festival walls: "The audience is urged not to sing at the end of Die Meistersinger. Only art matters here".
Hitler visited Bayreuth in 1925 but afterwards decided to stay away as long as he seemed to embarrass the festival. Siegfried was caught between his instinctive nationalism and arch-conservatism and his equally innate tolerance and xenophilia. A political naive, Siegfried, like many Germans, allowed himself to be carried away by events. It was Winifred who formed the living hyphen between Bayreuth and Adolf Hitler. Hitler visited regularly, often on the sly without Siegfried's knowledge. He would tuck the children into bed and tell them stories about his adventures. For Hitler, who had never known the security of a home, the warm family atmosphere of Wahnfried was undoubtedly of great emotional importance. Only in Wahnfried could he be himself, and the children, who called him "Uncle Wolf," found more of a father in him than in Siegfried.
In those postwar years, Siegfried was obliged for the first time to look outside Bayreuth for a conductor. Although he had the choice of a whole range of great conductors, Siegfried was still inclined to invite only those conductors who clearly conformed to the Bayreuther Geist i.e. politically and artistically conservative, German, non-Jewish opera conductors with a sweet spot for Wagner and the festival. Once again, this left out all the great conductors : Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Leo Blech were unacceptable as Jews; Erich Kleiber was a modernist and Wilhelm Furtwängler was a concert conductor; Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Beecham and Willem Mengelberg were foreigners and Richard Strauss he hated. Only Karl Muck, Michael Balling, Willibald Kaehler, Franz von Hoeßlin, Karl Elmendorff met Bayreuth's conservative criteria. Only in 1930 did Siegfried dare to break with sacred tradition and invite the foreigner Arturo Toscanini.
The German theater business had not stood still in the 1920s, and with the reopening of the Festival in 1924, Siegfried could once again worry about Bayreuth's artistic position. Inwardly, however, he remained torn between his artistic ego that drove him to innovation and his deepest instincts that prevented him from doing so. The paralyzing effect of institutional tradition did the rest. For example, in the 1924 program book he wrote: "Bayreuth is not here to please some hypermodern movement. This would be contrary to the style of the works themselves which, after all, were not composed as cubist, expressionist or Dadaist works. " But a few months later he could also write: "We have always kept our eyes open for good scenic and decorative evolutions" and concluded with: "This is the path we must try to take."
Siegfried's productions of those years were marked by this kind of contradiction and by a glaring lack of resources. During the 1924 season, just about everyone was a volunteer, and some of the operating costs had to be covered by a loan from the Wagner associations. The sets for the Ring, Parsifal and Meistersinger which were in a lousy state could only be dusted off. Ticket sales went well from the following year and the revenues were invested by Siegfried in structural improvements to the stage, in new lighting equipment and three-dimensional set pieces to replace Brückner's canvases. Lack of money went hand in hand with lack of daring. Only two new productions saw the light of day: Tristan und Isolde in 1927 and Tannhäuser in 1930.
"Tristan und Isolde" still largely followed the traditional stage image but the sets were simplified, the costumes were stripped of their Germanic-Celtic character, the lighting managed to capture the contrasting effect between the worlds of day and night. All this would have seemed excitingly contemporary in the 1890s; by the 1920s, however, it was hopelessly outdated.
Tannhäuser was financed by public donations. To this end, a support fund had been established by Winifred as a gift for Siegfried's sixtieth birthday. Some 1,000 people including the exiled Wilhelm II and the ex-Tzar Ferdinand contributed, bringing in the not unimpressive sum of 127,000 marks.
Cosima's production remained the basis from which, however, many baroque details were removed. The Venusberg was modeled after the voluptuous style of Rubens. The Wartburg scene was presented in the severe style of Holbein. The singing hall was a solitary, gothic room set in tones of gold. During the hunting party, real horses and real hounds appeared. More than ever, Siegfried called upon his favorite color and lighting techniques to give the production a certain "flou artistique." Most daring was his decision to leave the bacchanal to the avant-garde choreographer Rudolf von Laban. Siegfried's direction of the chorus represented a total break with the tradition of Cosima. Even the interpretation of the play - by presenting Tannhäuser as an independent artist struggling with a non-understanding society - was a substantial shift away from matriarchal orthodoxy.
In retrospect, the Tannhäuser of 1930 can be seen as Siegfried's declaration of artistic independence but the critical reaction at the time was anything but warm. The most common opinion was that the production had failed to find a satisfactory compromise between tradition and innovation. The famous Wagner biographer Ernest Newman was one of the few enthusiasts.
Musically, these years were generally outstanding. The critics found the orchestra's playing superb and were full of praise for the orchestral direction. One of the highlights was Die Meistersinger under Fritz Busch in 1924. Muck's Parsifal marked a new high point for Parsifal, even though Ernest Newman managed to report in 1930 that in Muck's hands the piece dragged on so terribly.
The great sensation was Toscanini's musical direction of Tannhäuser and of Tristan. His intense devotion to Wagner made him much loved by the Germans. But as the first foreign conductor and even more so as an Italian, he placed the conservative extremists in a difficult ideological position. Following the example of Chamberlain, who had previously declared Dante, Columbus, and St. Paul to be "de facto" Germans, they argued that Toscanini, as a northern Italian, had enough northern blood flowing in his veins to declare him an Aryan. Which led to the comical situation where the right praised his conducting for its authentic, German treatment of the score while liberal critics were intrigued by his italianità. Alfred Einstein praised Toscanini for the way he had freed Tannhäuser from the mists of German Romanticism and given the music its "ultimate clarity and precision." The Frankfurter Zeitung praised his Tristan for his razor-sharp rhythms, his mastery of Romantic passion, and his demonstration that form is as important as expression.
Jews on stage
There were also problems with casting. Beginning in 1924, Siegfried was under strong pressure to keep Jews and foreigners off the stage. "It is a matter of complete indifference to us whether a person is Chinese, Negro, American, Indian or Jew," Siegfried claimed. Not only did he place foreign soloists in leading roles but, for the first time at Bayreuth, also Jews. Siegfried spent endless hours together with his singers and brought an angelic patience to coaching singers like Lauritz Melchior and Alexander Kipnis who were poor actors. He adjusted the vocal style away from Cosima's declamatory style in favor of a more lyrical approach, with a greater emphasis on tonal beauty and purity of phrasing. Perhaps his greatest contribution as festival director was to allow the soloists greater room to develop more spontaneity and personal interpretation.
Under the direction of Hugo Rüdel, the choir was once again the best in the world. It added lustre to every performance. The vocal performances were rather uneven. Some soloists were outstanding, some were barely good enough for a provincial theater. In the better-than-average year of 1930, Ernest Newman wrote: "Surely it would be easy to find better singers than some of those we have listened to during the last ten days. A few of them have style but no voice; others have a voice, of a kind, but no style; while others have neither voice nor style...Moreover, more than one performance has come dangerously near disaster through the shortcomings of some singer or other. In the third act of Siegfried, Melchior had a lapse of memory and for a time could only gesticulate; while Gunnar Graarud, the Siegfried of Götterdämmerung, came so near to complete loss of voice in the last act that probably Hagen saved his life by killing him when he did."
Outstanding vocal performances nevertheless came from Nanny Larsen-Todsen as Kundry, Brünnhilde and Isolde; Maria Müller as Elisabeth; Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Hagen; Emanuel List as Hunding and King Marke; Heinrich Schultz as Beckmesser, Frida Leider as Brünnhilde, Lauritz Melchior as Siegfried and Tristan; Herbert Janssen as Wolfram; Rudolf Bockelmann as Kurwenal and Friedrich Schorr as perhaps the greatest Wotan of all time. Adolf Hitler complained that he had been sickened by the performance of "that Jew Schorr" at the 1925 festival. But in 1930, Josef Stolzing-Czerny, the music critic of the Nazi party magazine Völkischer Beobachter, wrote: "We, as always, honour the truth and declare that, regrettable as it is that the leading Germanic god should be sung in Bayreuth by a Jew - namely Friedrich Schorr - he offers a performance that in singing as well as acting is of the highest Bayreuth standard."
By the end of the 1920s, most of the conservative Wagnerians were entrenched in the National Socialist camp. There was a huge resurgence of the notion of redemption. In the last years of the Weimar Republic the emergence was seen of a powerful and deep desire in which Wagner and Hitler together took the place of the messiah. Siegfried's sword and later Hitler's swastika became symbols of the right. The Bayreuther Blätter spewed out articles full of hate and paranoia, fueled by a nationalist reflex that bordered on the mentally deranged. The official festival guide was full of racist and proto-fascist propaganda disguised as operatic commentary. "The unthinkable has occurred," wrote the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1928, "Since the war, the right wing has proclaimed Richard Wagner its special artistic culture god."
Even worse, the content of the operas themselves was being Nazified. The Völkische Beobachter presented the Ring of 1930 as a parable recognizing its own time. In it, Fafner symbolized the laziness of the upper circles of Wilhelm II's time who had not seen the revolution coming. Hagen symbolized the politicians who had betrayed Germany in 1918. Siegfried was a symbol of the young Germany now getting ready to clean up the remnants of the collapsing bourgeois Marxist state and found a new Germany - the Third Reich. Bayreuth was described as the last bastion of true German values as opposed to modernism alias cultural Bolshevism.
By the end of the 1920s, Siegfried seemed to quietly realize the danger Bayreuth was in. Wasn't his decision to invite Toscanini - given the right-wing opposition to foreign singers and conductors - an act of political resistance? Did he begin to realize what awaited Bayreuth and German musical life if his wife's friends came to power? Wasn't the clause in his will stipulating that his assets would be passed to his children in the event of his wife's remarriage intended to prevent his inheritance from falling into the hands of the mustached vagabond?
Like Wotan, Siegfried found himself hopelessly entangled in the nets he himself had stretched. He was spared, however, from witnessing the downfall of his Valhalla. During a concert tour in January 1930 he suffered a heart attack. The following month he became very tired at a Ring production at the Scala. In April, his mother died. Preparations for the 1930 festival summer were hectic and particularly hard on him. During the final rehearsal of Götterdämmerung he suffered another heart attack. Three weeks later he died on August 4 without having seen his Tannhäuser.