Visiting Bayreuth

Tchaikovsky was distinctly unimpressed with the new Festspielhaus (Festival Theatre) in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth when he visited there in 1876 for the opening season. With its innovative design of a 1,925 seat auditorium resembling a classical amphitheatre (including a covered orchestra pit), the acoustics were tailor made for Wagner’s ambitious operas. But in a series of articles written between May and August 1876 for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости),  Tchaikovsky says “It looks more like a huge fair-booth, which has been hastily rigged up for some industrial exhibition”, adding diplomatically, “although I am not an expert in architecture, I shall nevertheless venture to remark that …  I do not think that the innovations devised by Wagner meant that the architect Brückwald had no choice but to give precedence to convenience and expediency over beauty when designing this building.”

Grumbling over the somewhat Spartan conditions at the Festspielhaus by those fortunate enough to attend productions there has become something of a tradition in itself and an exercise in sharpening exaggerated put-downs. Over the years it has been variously described as “a Teutonic steam bath” and “an abandoned non-conformist chapel in a seaside town”. Tchaikovsky also describes how the restaurants in this small Bavarian town were quite unprepared for the unprecedented deluge of international visitors, noting that “People talked much more about beefsteaks, cutlets, and fried potatoes than about Wagner’s music” and that “…negotiating your way through this maelstrom of starving humanity and actually getting something to eat requires real heroism and unflinching courage”. But the opening of the Festspielhaus was the most hotly anticipated event in the musical calendar for it marked the first complete performance of Wagner’s crowning achievement, his four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen  which had been 26 years in the making.  

Years earlier when Wagner was looking around for a suitable location to exclusively stage his works, he was drawn to the splendid Baroque Markgräfliches Opernhaus  (Margravial Opera House) in Bayreuth. Finding it inadequate for his own vaulting ambitions, he found favour with the burghers of Bayreuth who willingly donated land to construct a new opera house to his own specifications, to be funded with public subscriptions through a network of Wagner societies whose donors would (in Wagner’s own words) “…receive the name and rights of patrons at the festival stage play at Bayreuth”. The foundation stone was laid on Wagner’s 59th birthday on 22 May 1872, with Wagner himself giving a solemn oration. The fundraising was disappointingly slow and he had to cancel plans for a season in 1873. To much local opposition, King Ludwig II of Bavaria came to the rescue (again) in 1874 with a much-needed injection of funds to kick-start the construction of the Festspielhaus and, after vigorous fundraising efforts by Wagner through a series of concerts, the building was completed in time for the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876.

The 1876 festival was no ordinary affair. Accompanied by a swarm of international journalists, a glittering array of nobility attended – from the emperors of Germany and Brazil to crown princes, princes and dukes as well as the composers Liszt, Bruckner, Saint-Saëns, Grieg and of course Tchaikovsky who noted that several composers were conspicuous by their absence (namely Verdi, Brahms, Joachim, Raff and Rubinstein). On 12 August, and from an upstairs window,  Tchaikovsky watched the reception of Kaiser Wilhelm at the railway station although he did not overhear the Kaiser’s only remark to Wagner “So, you’ve actually managed to get it done”, to which Wagner replied “I’m pleased to have got it done”. Tchaikovsky writes that he saw a carriage containing “a hale and hearty little old man with an aquiline nose and fine, mocking lips – the distinctive traits of the initiator of this whole cosmopolitan artistic festival: Richard Wagner … the cheers were almost as boisterous when he drove through the dense multitude, following the Emperor in his own carriage.”

The festival was a tremendous artistic success and the brief visit of Kaiser Wilhelm bolstered Bayreuth’s image as the home for Wagner’s grand designs to create a truly national art-form.  But financially it was a disaster. After the adulation, backslapping, banquets and congratulatory speeches there would not be another festival for six years – thanks only to frenetic fundraising by Wagner to have his final opera Parsifal performed there in 1882.

The Bayreuth festival could easily have faded into obscurity and been dismissed as a passing nationalistic fad were it not for Wagner’s unique and compelling vision of music drama which continues to astonish and enthral audiences to this day, and make tickets for the festival performances the most sought after in classical music. The Bayreuth festival has always courted controversy, whether for its chequered history or for its daring productions which some feel challenge Wagner’s highly articulated vision. In the design of the  Festspielhaus, Wagner expressed strongly felt ideas of how his works should be performed (including mechanical contraptions of the day). But he would surely have embraced modern innovations: after all, his works are timeless and deal with the human condition, not paraphernalia.

Some years after Wagner’s death, the celebrated American writer Mark Twain would report on the phenomenon that the Bayreuth festival had become when he visited there in 1891. With his characteristic wit and insight he observes the almost religious fervour of the audience “For a pilgrimage is what it is. The devotees come from the very ends of the earth to worship their prophet in his own Kaaba in his own Mecca.” Echoing Tchaikovsky’s earlier observations he says “The interior of the building is simple–severely so; but there is no occasion for color and decoration, since the people sit in the dark.” But his most useful advice applies to all hard-pressed opera goers, wherever they find themselves  “If you are intending to come here …  bring your dinner-pail with you. If you do, you will never cease to be thankful.”

Kevin Painting

Written for the collector’s edition of the Wagner Ring Cycle on Pentatone, released May 2016. 


PTC5186581_3D_viewRichard Wagner
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Marek Janowski, conductor
Catalogue number PTC5186581
Format SACD
No. of discs 13
Packaging Slipcase with book and 8 pages CD carrier approx. 300 x 300 x 40 mm
Barcode 0827949058165