Thus evil enters the house
A history of the Bayreuth Festival - Part 6
Author : Jos Hermans
The very morning after Siegfried Wagner's death, a grieving widow in Wahnfried was once again facing the enormous challenge of keeping Bayreuth's famous festival going. Siegfried's untimely death meant that the anticipated dynastic succession could not take place: his eldest son Wieland was barely thirteen years old. Winifred, on the other hand, knew the workings of the Bayreuth institution, had assisted Siegfried on several occasions and passed on his directorial instructions to the singers. On those occasions Siegfried sometimes called her "my soprano trombone." But to the guardians of Wagner's sacred legacy, it was unthinkable that a thirty-three-year-old inexperienced, unqualified, and, moreover, English lady would even consider directing Bayreuth. Winifred was considered an outsider, an interloper who had to be stopped at all costs. Cabals were formed and Karl Muck, the only remaining conductor from the previous era and therefore the personification of artistic authenticity himself, resigned.
But Winifreds position was legally strong and she knew how to take action. Steeped in the experience of her childhood as an orphan and as a young adult in a family like the Wagners', she quickly showed that she could stand her ground. In search of the artistic credibility she lacked, she surrounded herself with professional associates who could be considered untouchable for artistic and musical leadership. She found such a person first of all in Heinz Tietjen. As head of the Prussian State Theatres, including the Kroll Opera, the Berlin State Opera, and the opera houses of Wiesbaden, Kassel, and Hannover, Tietjen was Germany's most important impressario. Winifred appointed him general director of Bayreuth, effectively fulfilling a dream Tietjen had pursued for years.
As music director, Winifred had the choice between two dedicated Wagnerians: Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Both considered Bayreuth sacred ground, both were moody, authoritarian, and notorious vanities. As conductors, they were each other's opposites. Toscanini regarded a score as a written law that he tackled with fanatical meticulousness. For Furtwängler, a definitive objective score was non-existent and merely a creation in search of an interpretation. Notwithstanding Toscanini had been the hero of the last Siegfried season, Winifred chose Furtwängler primarily because of his nationality. Toscanini's devotion to Bayreuth was so great that, notwithstanding he disliked Furtwängler, he accepted the invitation to conduct Parsifal and Tannhäuser alongside his rival. Thus Winifred's first season could begin in 1931.
Ménage à trois
On his way to his first rehearsal in Bayreuth, Furtwängler was nearly killed when his two-seater airplane crashed. When he arrived in Bayreuth with a half-hour delay, he found everyone more upset about his lack of punctuality than concerned about his just-missed rendezvous with death. This incident was indicative of the Bayreuth state of mind that had Furtwängler up in arms from the very first moment. However, the mutual incomprehension ran deeper. The notion of being part of a team was completely foreign to Furtwängler.
He insisted on complete autonomy and demanded for the conductor a first-rate role. As soon as he noticed that this would not be the case in Bayreuth, he wrote to Winifred that he would withdraw. Winifred convinced him to stay and Furtwängler stayed. Hardly had rehearsals restarted or Lauritz Melchior, the Tristan of the season, who seemed to get along neither with Winifred nor with Furtwängler, threatened to quit. In the end, he did stay for two full cycles before finally breaking his contract and never returning to Bayreuth. Perhaps he was deeply disappointed by the initial press reviews that had mercilessly brought him down. Anyway, when Bayreuth made history on August 18, 1931 with the first worldwide live broadcast on radio of an opera, namely Tristan und Isolde, it was Gotthelf Pistor who took the title role.
Meanwhile, Toscanini had managed to stir up a scandal out of dissatisfaction with the fact that at a concert in memory of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, in addition to Furtwängler's conducting of Beethoven's Third, he was given only Wagner's Faust overture to conduct. During a rehearsal, he angrily broke his baton, left the opera house, and refused to conduct at the concert. Although the season was otherwise incident-free, relations between Toscanini, Furtwängler and Tietjen remained quite poisonous. At the end of the season Toscanini wrote that he would not return. Winifred tried to appease the aggrieved maestro and sent him as a token of gratitude Wagner's draft of the Flowermaiden scene from Parsifal. A moody Toscanini returned the letter unopened with the message, "I leave Bayreuth disgusted and embittered. I came here with the sense of arriving at a genuine shrine and I leave a commonplace theater."
During the spring of the rest year of 1932, Furtwängler announced that he was resigning as music director. Winifred found him a vain and unreliable prima donna; Furtwängler found her -so he openly let the newspapers know- an upstart whose only qualification was her husband's will. The deeper reason was that Furtwängler had believed he would be given complete autonomy including the selection of soloists but Winifred insisted on having the last word. Two years after Siegfried's death, Bayreuth had lost three of its eminent conductors.
Partly due to the global economic depression and political instability, ticket sales had also plummeted and the future of the festival looked bleak. Winifred set her sights on a reconciliation with Toscanini, and after an endearing letter from the hand of daughter Eva and a visit to his villa on Lake Maggiore, the maestro buckled down: he agreed to conduct Parsifal and Meistersinger in the coming season. Once again, the festival seemed saved.
In January 1933, the National Socialists took power in Germany, and within weeks all Jews, leftists, and other "culture bolsheviks" were removed from opera houses and concert halls by zealous party members. Culture was immediately declared by the new rulers to be "a weapon of the state." Thomas Mann saw himself exiled for his critical essay "Leiden und Größe Richard Wagners." Opera was no longer an art form but a toy for party leaders where they could indulge their preferences, ideology or taste -or the lack thereof. In no time at all, opera scenes were homogenized into a kind of Third Reich naturalism and all productions were aimed at promoting the now official ideology. The Kulturkammer, founded by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was in control and knew only too well what the prestige of an "awakened Germany" would be served by: Germany's artistic icons would be sought out for leadership positions. Perhaps it was political naiveté that inspired Richard Strauss to accept the chairmanship of the Reichsmusikkammer as of November 15, 1933. Two years later, after the premiere of "Die Schweigsame Frau," he would resign from his post because of his collaboration with the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, which had been challenged by the Gestapo. Wilhelm Furtwängler became vice-president of the Reichsmusikkammer but he too resigned a year later after the Nazi boycott of Hindemith's "Mathis der Mahler."
The greatest strategist, however, in the relentless recovery of German culture as a lubricant for his own political ends was the leader, Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler saw himself pretty much as the reincarnation of Perikles. "For me, politics is only a means to an end. Wars come and go. What remains are cultural values alone," he used to say. All of Germany was now his opera stage, he himself the great impressario. And the supreme hero of his Third Reich, he had decided, would be none other than his favorite composer Richard Wagner.
The fiftieth anniversary of Richard Wagner's death fell on February 13, and Hitler took the opportunity to stage a grandiose memorial ceremony in Leipzig at which he invited Winifred, Wieland, the cabinet, diplomats, and all the leading non-Jewish figures of the cultural world. Within two weeks, Hitler had appropriated Wagner and made him the jewel in the crown of the Thirdch.
From heoebbels, the handy propagandist, took over. Wagner was glorified in terms that would soon degenerate into clichés - "the greatest musical genius of all time," "the embodiment of the national ideal," "the herald of National Socialism," and the like. Although Goebbels was not a Wagner lover at all, the chorus from the third act of Die Meistersinger "Wach auf, es nahet gen den Tag" had always awakened ecstatic feelings of nationalist glory in him, he claimed. Now he heard in it the triumphant sound of his own party. Building on this, he perverted the entire opera into a body-piece for the Nazi party. The day the Third Reich was officially inaugurated - March 13, 1933 - was therefore given the necessary splendor by a performance of Die Meistersinger in the Berlin State Opera with Furtwängler at the podium. And from then on the work was always performed on the occasion of important party and state affairs. And so it happened that a work of deep warmth, joy and humanity was shamelessly traduced into one of the great cultural crimes of the Third Reich.
The colossal anomaly was that except for Hitler himself, none of the party leaders were interested in Wagner. For Goebbels, Wagner's works were merely a vehicle for his propaganda; for everyone else, Wagner was just about unbearable. Hitler was determined not to keep his favorite music for himself. For the party meetings in Nuremberg he always ordered a performance of Die Meistersinger. The Berlin State Opera was then flown in and sometimes Furtwängler conducted. On that first occasion, 1000 tickets were printed and delivered to the party ticket holders. These men, however, went on drinking sprees, according to a report by Albert Speer in his memoirs. An enraged Hitler immediately had patrols sent out to all the cafés and beer halls to drag his dissident supporters to the opera. The following year, invited guests were required to attend by order of the Führer. When it turned out that these forced opera lovers got through the performance only by yawning and snoring, even Hitler gave up. Later he invited an auditorium that was a little less bored with Wagner.
For the Wagner family, Hitler's triumph was as much as a personal triumph. But Bayreuth's future was anything but clear in those days. In Winifred's case, the realization quickly grew that all the party officials were lower middle-class cultural barbarians who thoroughly disliked the festival with its elitist and international tradition. Hitler acknowledged the hostility to Wagner within his party and on April 1 Winifred received assurances from the newly appointed Chancellor of his undiminished support and devotion to the festival and promised to attend every year. The latter had little effect on the attitude of party functionaries - men who, when they heard the word culture, reached for their pistols. Parsifal was condemned by them as "ideologically unacceptable" while The Ring was found by party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg to be neither heroic nor Germanic.
After the war, Heinz Tietjen stated : "In reality, the leading party officials throughout the Reich were hostile to Wagner... Germany believed and believes still in a 'Hitler Bayreuth' that never was. The party tolerated Hitler's Wagner enthusiasm, but fought, openly or covertly, those who, like me, were devoted to his works - the people around Rosenberg openly, those around Goebbels covertly; a great deal more could be said about this!"
Artistically, Bayreuth was able to stay out of the hands of Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda. What saved Bayreuth, unlike all other opera houses, was not Hitler's passion for Wagner but his affection for Winifred. Never did he forget the warmth and open support he had received from Wahnfried during his early days. As a result of his friendship with Winifred, Hitler went to Bayreuth every summer, from 1933 to 1939. As a guest of the Wagners he then stayed in the Siegfried Wagner house and from the lodge of King Ludwig he experienced the complete first cycle each time, usually returning at the end of the season for Götterdämmerung. Under the protection of the Führer, Winifred was able to ward off the meddling of Goebbels and even managed to keep Jewish singers such as Alexander Kipnis and Emanuel List working in the presence of Hitler. The clearest sign of Bayreuth's independence was Hitler's resignation to the presence of Tietjen and set designer Emil Preetorius, a duo for whom he felt an instinctive antipathy. The son of a diplomat and an English mother, Tietjen had grown up in Turkey, England and Africa, was multilingual and a true cosmopolitan. Goebbels despised him and the Gestapo labeled him "politically unreliable." It was a bizarre construction that protected Tietjen both in Bayreuth and in Berlin. In Bayreuth he enjoyed the protection of Winifred who considered him absolutely indispensable. In Berlin he enjoyed the protection of Hermann Goering, who had been given the cultural guardianship of the Berlin State Opera by Hitler and used it to confront his enemy Goebbels. Determined in his intention to outdo his archrival, Goering placed talent above ideology, allowing Tietjen to have his way. Even more problematic was Emil Preetorius who was an intimate friend of Thomas Mann and a protégé of Bruno Walter. As recently as 1930 he had published a candid article against anti-Semitism. Yet he was able to keep his Jewish friends throughout the Third Reich thanks to his international fame, Winifred's support and Hitler's recognition of his artistic expertise.
Winifred's Hitler adoration provided her not only with protection but also vital financial support. Advance ticket sales for the 1933 festival were so poor that the festival was facing bankruptcy. The Führer ordered party and government agencies to purchase large quantities of tickets and granted a substantial amount as subsidies for new productions. Hitler thus became almost as great a patron of Bayreuth as King Ludwig. Only once did he refuse to concede to a request from the Wagners. In 1934, during the revision of the copyright law, he was asked, with Richard Strauss in the lead, to extend the copyright on Parsifal by 70 years. But Hitler, fearing that this would cause Germans to migrate en masse to foreign countries where copyright did not apply, decided not to keep the promise he had made in 1923 to "return" Parsifal to Bayreuth. Thus the long-cherished hope of keeping Parsifal for Bayreuth was lost forever.
Although Bayreuth benefited from Hitler's generous support on the one hand, the festival could not escape the assault on musical life on the other. The dismissal of Jewish conductors, musicians and concert managers caused an international scandal. Toscanini announced that he would no longer come to Bayreuth. He stuck to his position even after he was courteously invited by the Chancellor himself. Winifred was left with no other choice but to invite a conductor whom Wahnfried had continually ignored since 1894: Richard Strauss. The latter rather gladly agreed. Toscanini's defection was not the only problem. Superb singers like Schorr, Kipnis and List but also Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Lotte Lehmann, Gunnar Graarud, Elisabeth Schumann, Frida Leider (after 1938) and Herbert Janssen (after 1939), also dropped out. Yet Bayreuth reached its vocal zenith during the 1930s, a high point that would have been even more impressive without the loss of these singers.
The Wagner festival of 1933 was dominated by the swastika. The street leading to the festival building had been renamed Adolf Hitler Street; Goebbels made a radio address during Die Meistersinger. Wagner disappeared into the background and Bayreuth had become Hitler's court theater. His court jesters now filled the program book. Worse still was the way in which cultural-historical research on Wagner was ideologically redirected with the intention of making the composer a precursor of National Socialism. Only those authors who produced what the Wagner family wanted were allowed into the archives: Glasenapp, Du Moulin Eckart, Zdenko von Kraft. With Bayreuth as the highest cultural symbol of the Third Reich, an association could take root in public opinion that continues to this day: Wagner-Bayreuth-Hitler-National Socialism-Third Reich. And for those who doubted such a connection, Hitler gladly added: "Whoever wants to understand National Socialism must know Wagner."
With Tietjen and Preetorius, the festival was in the hands of truly experienced professionals. New productions were designed and rehearsed in Berlin and transferred to Bayreuth in the summers. Bayreuth came to be known as "Tietjen's summer theater." Under his leadership, Bayreuth achieved its greatest vocal era. Voices that any opera house today would fight for graced the poster. Frida Leider replaced Larsen-Todsen as Brünnhilde, Isolde and Kundry; Maria Müller took Eva, Sieglinde, Elisabeth and Senta; Margarete Klose became the new Fricka, Waltraute and Erda and also sang Ortrud and Brangäne; Martha Fuchs alternated with Leider; Rudolf Bockelmann replaced Schorr as Wotan and also sang Sachs and Holländer; Franz Völker succeeded Graarud as Siegmund and was an outstanding Lohengrin, Parsifal and Erik; Herbert Janssen succeeded Theodor Scheidl as Amfortas; Helge Roswaenge sang Parsifal; Max Lorenz sang the entire repertoire for heledentenor-Siegfried, Parsifal, Tristan, Walther, Siegmund-and alternated with Völker as Lohengrin. Two further regulars were Jaro Prohaska and Josef von Manowarda. Later two foreign singers were added: Set Svanholm and Germaine Lubin.
The biggest problem was finding suitable conductors. In this respect, no season could match 1931 when Toscanini and Furtwängler shared the orchestra pit. In 1936 and 37 Furtwängler, Hitler's favorite conductor, was back on the scene. Again, dealing with Winifred proved impossible and she ensured that Furtwängler was not invited back despite the support of Hitler and of a behind-the-scenes scheming Goebbels. Tietjen therefore became first conductor, assisted by Karl Elmendorff and Franz von Hoeßlin.
The greatest triumph of those years and a legend in the annals of Bayreuth was the Lohengrin of 1936, masterfully conducted by Furtwängler and filled with the voices of Franz Völker and Max Lorenz as Lohengrin, Maria Müller as Elsa, Josef von Manowarda as King Heinrich, Jaro Prohaska as Telramund, Margarete Klose as Ortrud and Herbert Janssen as the herald. Hitler was moved to tears and was so impressed he returned to attend two more times. He offered the entire production to Covent Garden as a gift for the coronation of Edward VIII. The latter let it be known that however happy he was with the gesture he hoped his presence would not be required because opera bored him terribly.
Great progress was also made in the field of staging. Preetorius saw the late-Romantic naturalism of the earlier productions as a reflection of the taste of a bygone era. Preetorius felt that such naturalism was not essential to Wagner's works, indeed was contrary to their strongly allegorical character. A striving for timelessness characterized Preetorius's house style : sets were reduced to the essentials, beards were shaved off, winged helmets and similar paraphernalia scrapped or simplified. Costumes were kept simple without the pretense of historical authenticity. Lighting became more important than ever. But it was Tietjen above all who made the difference, managing to integrate the sets, the direction, the management of all the productions into one seamless whole. Reveling in Hitler's financial generosity, he indulged in spectacular exaggerations. The number of Gibich men was increased to 101 units; Elsa and Lohengrin were given a bridal procession of 300 men including 70 pages, each holding a lighted candle. Parsifal was seduced by 48 flower girls and the party meadow of Die Meistersinger was populated in an almost Hollywoodian extravagance by no less than 800 villagers. However, the great achievement of the Berlin team was to have steered Bayreuth into the twentieth century: it was the most drastic break with an orthodoxy that had been dragging on since 1876.
Innovations, however, were not limited to the stage productions themselves. With her strongly contested decision to lift the hostile attitude toward the press, create her own press service, and create facilities for the international press, Winifred introduced a new management style that opened the festival's doors to the modern world. Indeed, her public statement was that Wagner's scores allowed for a multiplicity of interpretations and that she believed conductors were free to affirm their artistic personality in them. For all advocates of the hard line -mostly National Socialists and fanatical opponents of change- this was a major jaw-dropper. At the moment of their political triumph they were facing a cultural catastrophe. The music press was in the impossible situation of openly disapproving of those productions that were enthusiastically attended by the great leader. Outside the media, criticism of Winifred, Tietjen and Preetorius was unusually sharp. Opposition exploded when it was announced in 1933 that the next new production would be Parsifal. In order to preserve the original sets "on which the master's eye had still rested," Eva and Daniela launched a petition that gained a 1,000 signatures including those of Toscanini, Strauss, Ernest Newman and ex-Tzar Ferdinand. Completely ignored by Winifred, the petition was presented to Goebbels and Hitler. But the old guard miscalculated considerably in assuming that Hitler would take their side. Although Hitler thoroughly disliked modern art and expressionist stage sets, his attitude was not conventionally reactionary. At that time he was strongly influenced by Paul Ludwig Troost, a Munich architect whose neoclassical style had a great influence on the architecture of the Third Reich. As for Wagner operas, Hitler proved to be a great fan of Alfred Rollers productions in Vienna. In his younger years as an aspiring artist, Hitler had been kindly treated by Roller, and his sketchbook from those years contains a drawing of Roller's 1903 Tristan staging. Thirty years later, Hitler had not forgotten Roller. Not only did Hitler insist on bringing a whole new Parsifal to the stage, he himself suggested Alfred Roller as set designer.
Roller, whose artistry had been dulled by excessive alcohol consumption, delivered a design barely different from the original, and the 1934 production was widely regarded as a fiasco. Wieland, who had just turned 20, was therefore asked to build new sets for 1937. The result was another embarrassment. Wieland's design was stylistically so old-fashioned that it clashed with all the other ongoing productions, and nothing suggested that a special talent had been at work here.
The Parsifal episode raises the question of Hitler's personal role in Bayreuth. Certainly the temptation to intervene must have been very great at times. Albert Speer's memoirs and diaries describe Hitler as someone whose greatest desire was to be a designer of opera sets. Most of all, he saw himself as the general director of Bayreuth. But what was a dream for the failed artist Hitler in Bayreuth was reality in Berlin. Here he spent endless hours together with his favorite set designer Benno von Arent, who produced all kinds of spectacular theatrical effects that Hitler loved. He repeatedly asked Winifred to replace Preetorius with Arent. Winifred refused to have anything to do with Arent. After the war, both Winifred and Tietjen claimed to have been able to act completely independently. The closest Bayreuth came to a political opera was the Lohengrin of 1936. It was the year that the Berlin Olympics were held and foreigners were expected at Bayreuth for the first time since 1933 - but barely 100 or so Americans and Britons showed up.
From Winifred's correspondence one can see that she consulted Hitler on all important matters and often held hours-long discussions with him after the performance. But it should be clear that, unlike all other German theaters, Bayreuth managed to maintain its artistic independence. Winifred Wagner, Heinz Tietjen and Emil Preetorius managed to resist both the reactionary taste of the old Wagnerians and the overtly Nazified style that prevailed everywhere else in the Third Reich.
The corruption of the Festival was on a different plane - in the overall pollution of cultural life. And in this context Bayreuth provided National Socialism with its most distinguished aesthetic cover. Was it possible to perform opera in those years without making propaganda for the Third Reich? Thomas Mann did not think so. In 1945 he wrote to Walter von Molo: "It was not right, it was impossible, to go on producing culture in Germany while all the things we know of were taking place. To do so meant palliating depravity, extenuating crime. Among the torments we suffered was the sight of German literature and art constantly serving as window dressing for absolute monstrousness. Strangely, no one seems to have felt that there were more honourable occupations than designing Wagner sets for Hitler's Bayreuth. "