You would think one of the most influential composers in the history of classical music would be buried amid much pomp and circumstance. You would imagine a fancy gravestone, perhaps, like those that adorn the remains of Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms at Vienna’s main cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof, where one can even purchase an audio guide while walking among the famous departed. You would be wrong though. I was.
All I saw, at a corner of a park in Bayreuth, Germany, was a tiny gate with a metal board on which were engraved the words ‘Zur Grabstatte,’ pointing me to the simple graves of Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima. There were no tombstones or dates, just a black slab where the composer once courted by kings now lay buried. It’s as if he knew that tombstones didn’t matter; that his admirers would continue to arrive for centuries to pay their respects nonetheless.
I was in Bayreuth for the same reason thousands of people visit that North German town of less than 80,000 people. I had come for Wagner, the composer who had lived there from 1872 until his death 11 years later. It was where he built his home, behind which he now rested forever. More importantly, it was where he built his Festspielhaus, the Festival Theatre dedicated solely to performances of his operas since 1876. I was under no delusion that I would manage to get a ticket. After all, I wasn’t visiting during the festival, conducted annually over 30 days between July and August. Even if I was to find myself in town then, tickets usually sold out 10 years in advance or were distributed among members of Wagner Societies the world over by ballot.
Getting to Bayreuth was a lot easier than it must have been in Wagner’s time though. I took a train from Berlin and switched at Nuremberg, from where smaller trains departed to my destination every hour. Wagner’s presence was unmistakable from the minute I stepped off, starting with the Festspielhaus visible from the platform itself, looking down at visitors from the top of a hill. Outside lay streets, cafes and stores named after the composer or characters from his operas, while morris columns —cylindrical structures found at street corners in most German cities — advertised concerts of his music at venues across the town.
Wagner’s life was worthy of an opera itself. Even the fictional telling of his story in the form of a film in 1983 — starring Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier among others — took over 7 hours. It was a colourful story, full of tragedy and aggression, political struggle and high art. He was revered though, during his lifetime and after, for his music. Of his 13 operas, 10 are regarded among the Western world’s most significant cultural accomplishments. Admirers sponsored his extravagances through much of his life, with one of his patrons, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, eventually paying for the theatre at Bayreuth. For an artiste, it was the equivalent of being gifted a blank cheque by a fan.
For everyone who loves his music though, it is now possible to find someone who detests Wagner in equal measure. Much of the blame for this lies with the composer himself. For a start, he published an essay titled Judaism in Music, which blamed the Jewish people for what he believed was wrong in art and society. Then there was the presence of one of his biggest fans, who began worshipping him at age 12 and grew up to become Adolf Hitler. He drew some of his theories of racial purity from the former’s writings, and was an honoured guest at Bayreuth, thanks to Wagner’s son Siegfried and his wife Winifred. Wagner’s music was played not just at Nazi rallies for years, but also by concentration camp orchestras. It’s why his operas have never been staged in Israel.
I thought about his poisonous legacy as I stood outside the locked doors of the Festspielhaus, staring up at a window from where Hitler had once waved to adoring crowds, before making my way around the building. A bust of the composer by the German sculptor Arno Breker stood in the centre of a small park outside, with one of his wife Cosima — the illegitimate daughter of another icon, Franz Liszt — standing guard at a park on the other side. Inside, the theatre boasted innovations that continued to inspire movie theatres today. Wagner had dispensed with boxes or galleries, making sure every guest would have access to the same view. He was the first to hide the orchestra, making for a more immersive, mystical experience. As for the acoustics, they continue to be regarded by audiophiles as among the finest, for performances as well as recording.
Why visit Bayreuth, I was asked by family and friends. I didn’t know where to begin framing a response. I could point out that Wagner was not just one of my favourite composers. He had influenced French and Italian opera, inspired Russian composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and changed the way symphonies were written. I could lean on support from the poet WH Auden, who had once considered the possibility of Wagner being the greatest genius that ever lived. I could mention his influence on art, literature, sexuality and modern psychology, or how film scores would have been less epic without him.
To be fair to my family and friends though, Mark Twain found this devotion hard to fathom too. Reminiscing about his visit to the Festspielhaus in the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 6, 1891, he wrote: “If you are living in New York or San Francisco or Chicago or anywhere else in America, and you conclude, by the middle of May, that you would like to attend the Bayreuth opera two months and a half later, you must use the cable and get about it immediately or you will get no seats, and you must cable for lodgings, too. Then if you are lucky you will get seats in the last row and lodgings in the fringe of the town. If you stop to write you will get nothing.”
Later that day, I went back to Wagner’s grave for a while, as his music played on my iPod. Behind me lay Wahnfried, the house he loved. I thought about what his work meant to me, and whether the love I had for it was overshadowed by the many awful things he had said and done over the course of his tumultuous life. It all boiled down to a question of whether or not my life would be poorer without his music. I knew it would, so I turned off the iPod and stood before those graves in silence, like so many thousands before me had and always will.
— First published in Mint Lounge, India, April 2017