By Mike Walsh
The Bayreuth Festival symbolises Europe’s centuries old struggle for its existence. Richard Wagner, (1813 – 1883) the great German composer, chose Bayreuth for a number of sound reasons. Primarily, the maestro believed that his unique works should not share the same stage with the music of others. The Bayreuth Festival was destined to showcase only Wagnerian epics.
Attracting funding to finance the project was problematic. The Bayreuth Festival was unlikely to be other than an unfulfilled dream. Finally, the almost estranged King Ludwig II of Bavaria stepped in and provided the necessary resources. Bayreuth theatre was finally opened in August 1876 much to the relief of the great German composer and others who shared his vision. The first performance was Das Rheingold.
Artistically the pioneering venture was a fabulous success. It would be difficult to identify a single head of state, let alone accomplished musician, who failed to make the pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival. Unfortunately, the annual event fell short of being a box office success. Rescue was at hand; the doyens of great music and culture were generous. The show goes on and on and on.
Wahnfried was the name given by Richard Wagner to his villa in Bayreuth. The name is a German compound of Wahn (delusion, madness) and Fried (e), (peace, freedom). The house fascia reveals Wagner’s motto Hier wo mein Wähnen Frieden fand, Wahnfried, sei dieses Haus von mir benannt. (Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.)
Siegfried Wagner (1869 – 1930) followed in his father’s footsteps and excelled as both composer and conductor. Siegfried served as artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1908 to 1930. The Bayreuth Festival’s orchestral conductor was the maternal grandson of Franz Liszt. From the Hungarian-born German composer Siegfried received some instruction in harmony.
Winifred Williams (1897 – 1980) born in Hastings, England, was destined to marry both Siegfried Wagner and the festival of Bayreuth.
It was an unusual destiny for an English-born orphan. Winifred lost both her parents before she was two-years old. The child was initially raised in a number of homes. When she was eight-years old Winifred was embraced by a distant German relative of her mother, Henrietta Karop; her adoptive mum was married to musician Karl Klindworth: Winifred’s adoptive parents were friends of Richard Wagner.
Siegfried Wagner was 45-years of age when on September 22, 1915 he placed the wedding ring on the finger of his 17-year old bride. The couple were to have four children; two sons and two daughters: Wieland (1917 -–1966), Friedelind (1918 -1991), Wolfgang (1919 – 2010) and Verena (born 1920)
After Siegfried Wagner’s passing on in 1930 Winifred Wagner took over the management of the Bayreuth Festival and she maintained the position until the war’s end. Winifred’s respect and admiration of Adolf Hitler over many years developed into a close relationship that many thought might end in marriage.
The Führer, dressed in gala, on the way to the Opera Theatre in Bayreuth.
The spirit of the Bayreuth Festival infused the National Socialist German Workers Party’s (NSDAP). Symbolic of Europe’s traditions, culture, virtues and struggles, Wagnerian epics encapsulated the divine purpose and enduring nobility of National Socialism.
Of Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler said; “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.”
During the 1930s until its military defeat in May 1945 the National Socialist religion was universally acclaimed as a harbinger of peace and a force of salvation from collaborating Capitalism and Communism (Bolshevism). Throughout the world, National Socialism was embraced as a religious phenomenon. Adolf Hitler was perceived by many as evidence of the Second Coming.
Adolf Hitler accompanied by the Wagner family. Wolfgang Wagner (second left) with his brother Wieland (right), his mother Winifred at Bayreuth, 1937.
The relationship between the Führer, Winifred Wagner and Richard Wagner’s music is intense. The German President and Chancellor from 1933 to 1940 attended all Bayreuth festivals.
The German leader stayed on average ten days at each Bayreuth festival. However, on the occasion of the 1940 Festival the Führer said: “This year, unfortunately, due to the demands of the war that England does not want to end, I will only remain in Bayreuth today.” The Führer on another occasion said; “In Bayreuth I have lived some of the most beautiful moments of my life.”
At Wagner’s residence, where he has been received as a guest year after year, the poet, artist and visionary enjoyed authentic family life.
Adolf Hitler with Verena and Friedelind Wagner in 1938.
Hitler treated Winifred and Siegfried’s children as family. The siblings knew their mentor and patron as Uncle Adolf. Neither of the Wagner sons would serve in the armed forces. It had already been decided that “Germany could not be allowed to lose Richard Wagner’s heritage on the battlefields.”
August Kubizek was a boyhood friend of Adolf Hitler. Having much in common the teenage idealists were absorbed by great classical music. Their taste however was consumed by the works of the Leipzig born musician, Richard Wagner.
During his short stay in Bayreuth during 1940 the Führer had occasion to meet again his childhood companion. To his friend he entrusted the following words:
“This war is depriving me of my best years. You know how much I still have to do, what I still want to build. You know better than anyone all those plans that kept me busy from my youth. I have only been able to carry out a small fraction of it. I still have a lot of things to do. Who would if not?”
Left the young Hitler and to the right Kubizek.
The Führer, an idealist, poet and lover of the arts, constantly yearned to create a great German social state. He held the view that the pseudo-democratic plutocracies, envious and fearful of someone demonstrating that things can work otherwise, imposed upon him a war of annihilation.
During their youth the two friends shared rooms on the same student floor in Vienna. It was the Führer who at 18 years of age had convinced Kubizek’s father to let his son go to the city and study in the conservatory. This act of wisdom and true friendship changed the life of August Kubizek and allowed the dreamer to fulfil his dream of becoming orchestra director.