Sun shining and blue skies and birds singing as I walked through the lovely Richard Wagner Park to Wahnfried. Following in footsteps I know to Richard Wagner’s home, to Cosima Wagner’s home, to a haven for Hitler.
I still hope none of that dust clung to my shoes.
Wahnfried, this horrible straightjacketed place of immense ambition, this entombing of a man who never was, this legacy of machinations and power plays to control music, talent, creativity, the meaning of being German tied into the aristocratic and exploitative, the epic, the nationalistic, the anti-semitic… Tied into blood.
I thought about Hermann Levi begging for his release, and the contortions required of him to conduct music. I thought too of Cosima broken down by Madame Patersi and rebuilt again in stone and will and charm.
It is hard to get in, the doors to the building marked museum are all closed and there is no sign of welcome. Of the main double doors that serve as the entry, one is locked. The one I tried. If only I hadn’t been so determined. Almost everything in this town is in German. There is only the occasional nod to a non-German speaker, and that is only in English, most of what is written here is not for you. You start in a great black modern space, head downstairs to lockers for bags and great glass cases for opera costumes carefully preserved from one hundred years of Bayreuth Festivals. Art separated from complicated life.
Up and outside and over to Wahnfried itself. It feels as though almost everything is under dust covers, waiting for more important guests than myself — furniture, paintings, almost as though the house waits for Cosima’s own return. But of course not everything is under dust covers. I listen to an immensity of detail about its architecture and art. Look at old photographs of it, and realise how much of the sacred clutter is no longer here. The video shows expensive bric-a-brac piled and spilling across every surface, a profusion of wealth and a living museum of memory. Cosima still stares down from almost every surface, from walls and corners and up from displays under glass. Not hard to imagine her ghost extorting the rebuilding of the house after her great room was destroyed by the bombing and an irreverent descendant refused to return it to the way it was before. But that’s all changed now, and it has been restored to resemble this once again.
A beautiful house in its way, its great hall built for its acoustics, a house dedicated to music. Up to the second floor and down spiral staircases to the mezzanine. Notes on Wagner’s preferences for pink and blue, his fanciful dress. Liszt occasionally. I think about his holding court here to Wagner’s annoyance, his unhappiness and neglect and death in this house. Nietzsche looks on, caught briefly in this web of power and grand ideas. I realise I am moving backwards through Wagner’s life having gone the wrong way round. I need to read Nietzsche’s piece on Wagner, need to know what he thought of all this.
Nothing about Hitler here, though he loved this house.
On to Siegfried’s, Winifred’s house, a beautiful long and low art-deco house on the left as you stare down to Wahnfried’s front. They expanded the gardener’s house facing it so it wouldn’t be too ruinous to Wahnfried’s symmetry. It is wood paneled and dark with windows at the end looking out over a fountain. My first impression of a lovely house of the kind I could imagine living in. A great stone fireplace at which Hitler once stood ranting about the greatness of Wagner and Germany. He is in footage and in pictures, this is where the Wagner museum has chosen to deal with him. It is mostly about Winifred, the support the festival received, Winifred’s two appearances at Nuremburg. After all, Cosima and Siegfried died in 1930, before Hitler’s rise.
I knew some of it then, not all of it. I hadn’t finished Cosima’s biography. I don’t think it would have stopped me from going, curious to know evil a little better, understand the power of fascism to better fight it. Or just curious. I don’t know I would have expected it to affect me so much, but learning some of that while there in that space — it did. A sick feeling in my stomach, a kind of nausea that made me want to shake all over. A feeling I needed to throw up, vomit out. A physical feeling that took a long time to leave me, and that returns as I write. I couldn’t watch all the footage like the only other visitor there with me. He sat grimly on every bench and watched each film commentary through. He understood German — or he didn’t care to understand. I wonder what he was feeling. Looking back it occurs to me that someone might as easily go there to enjoy this place. Shrug off the tut tutting. Revel in the hatred that once filled these four walls to overflowing.
This feeling crept into my view of the rest of the day, the rest of the town. I tried to exorcise it looking up heroes of the resistance and finding one born here: Wilhelm Leuschner, social democrat, trade unionist, but above all he fought the good fight against fascism. He was executed in 1944. The tenement where he was born into poverty is long gone, and now there remains only a single-story building dedicated to him:
Hard to find, I walked past it first. Not like Wahnfried. Not like the statues of Wagner everywhere. I wish instead that I had been able to escape the conference on Saturday to see other things.
I also read (most of) the memoirs of Wilhelmine, Margravine of Bayreuth. She was here earlier, composed some music and held salons, built some of the massive piles of 18th Century architecture and the fabulous opera house, which drew Wagner here in the first place. Though it was too small for him. There is little in her tales of palace intrigue about Bayreuth itself, but I didn’t want to let the Wagners completely overshadow her. So I suppose I will have one more post on this place.
And from now on finally, whatever else I do, I will NOT mention the war.