Tuesday, 5 January 2016


BLOG UPDATE: Don't forget to check out my post on Wagner & the "Siegfried Idyll" : CLICK HERE TO READ "A VERY TRIBSCHEN CHRISTMAS - CHRISTMAS WITH THE WAGNERS"

German Composer Richard Wagner
When it comes to stalwart admirers of Richard Wagner (historically speaking) and his modern dissidents, the name and subject of Adolf Hitler and anti-Semitism, unfortunately, never brew far from the surface. It is a thoroughly uncomfortable topic of conversation that never fails to rear it’s head during any musings on the man Wagner and his works - for both admirers and detractors of the enigmatic composer.

The common cliché shared by many a novice listener to the Romantic Period or to opera itself is one that portrays Wagner as an illusive composer, situated in a critic's no-fly zone, where he and his music exist only in terms of black and white. According to such beliefs, he is either “loved or hated” (this is often further supported by a regaling on the critical musings of composer Gioachino Rossini, who is alleged to have famously declared:* Wagner has some beautiful moments but some terrible quarter-hours!”). What is almost always overlooked is the fact that Rossini was not only a contemporary of Wagner’s, but also by default, a competitor. The lush orchestrations pioneered by Rossini and French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, then considered to be new and innovative nonetheless presented itself to critics as excessive, gaudy..uncouth.

It truly was a rather mixed bag in terms of fans and detractors. (One critic of the latter mentioned composer had famously quipped,
“The Chinese, who amuse their leisure moments by the sound of the tom-tom; the savage, who is roused into fury by the rubbing together of two stones, make music of the kind composed by M. Hector Berlioz!” ) By the time Wagner expanded on the concept of an increasingly growing orchestra, both Rossini and Berlioz had already experienced the full melange of public reaction and notoriety, something to be expected when venturing into any uncharted territory. When it comes to these Wagner contemporaries, it's easy to imagine the myriad of emotions they must have felt in dealing with such strong reactions. The innovations of Berlioz and Rossini, after all, were akin to a personal invention - one in which they had not only to endure many a distasteful review, but in contrast, enjoy a feeling of high personal achievement. In spite of the snarky commentary of critics and public detractors, the sense of pride shared by both composers in aggrandizing a ‘new sound’ for the orchestra must have been megalomanic in scope.

But then Richard Wagner came along to steal the thunder, and completely revolutionized the way we hear opera and symphony itself. Wagner’s unprecedented foray into the further expansion of orchestra (without which his operas could not be played) and the implementation of fixed seating (instrumentally speaking) is considered in modern times to be at the contributing forefront of current standardization for the opera house and concert halls in which orchestra can be enjoyed today.

A rather biting critique made famous by Rossini
has since been determined to have been at best
a misquote, and may not have even been of his
authorship. It is believed the comment was made
in reference not to Wagner, but to an ill-equipped
tenor performing in the late 19th century.
*Rossini's alleged quote, said to have been originally submitted to a press journalist at the early period of Wagner's operatic career, has undergone much analytical scrutiny since the 19th century. It has, in fact, been dissected to the degree of uncertainty regarding both authorship of the quote and the content of the quote itself. If it indeed was recorded from the mouth of Rossini, it's earliest appearance in print is now believed to have been published in the early 1860‘s (which would have been late, not early, in Wagner's operatic career) in a London periodical. It is of interest to note that the quote itself made no mention of Wagner. It was in fact directed at a tenor whose coloring Rossini apparently found to be sub-par. Yet, like any good legend, callers on the wrong end of a game of broken telephone will take the quote in the unhinged context in which it exists, and run with it as if it were the gospel truth. Of all of the composers of the Romantic Period, we so often find Wagner to be the target of such unfortunate misnomers.

What is partially true, however, is the 'myth’ that Wagner existed largely as a debtor. Certainly, for the first half of his career, Wagner did indeed toe the breadline. This, however, is not to be interpreted as reflective of the talent with which he was so undeniably possessed, but rather, of the period of time itself. Although the ‘worth’ of a musician was arguably more valued at court than we have previously seen in my posts on Wolfgang Mozart in the preceeding century, one still had to have a whole lot of luck, and a healthy supply of patrons to accompany his talents.

Retired silk merchant Otto Wesendonck
was one of Wagner's most magnanimous
patrons, providing the composer with
many loans and even a sizable Villa. He
was also generous with his wife: Wagner
would compose for Mathilde his famous
five-song series, his most prized collection,
the 'Wesendonck Lieder'.
And patrons Wagner had aplenty. Although remaining largely in debt well after the onset of his career (a result not of a lack of supporters, but rather a penchant for living a lavish lifestyle far beyond his means), Wagner would receive loans through many anonymous and prestigious patrons of note, including future father in law Franz Liszt, Julie Ritter (mother of famed poet Karl Ritter), Jacob Sulzer (a cantonal secretary in Zurich), silk merchant Otto Wesendonck[1] and from royalty itself - in the form of a King, no less.

The patronage by the latter will be the subject of this post. Future posts to Unraveling Musical Myths will focus on the influence and use of Wagner-related material and Wagner ideology by the Third Reich in the Second World War, but for now, I attempt to divert such inquiring minds to the life and times of another equally enamored - obsessive, even - Ruler - one who actually lived at the time Wagner lived, who actually knew the man himself, and who would, through a series of extravagant wooings and sizable donations of largesse come to fund many of the composers’ infamous master works.

That Ruler - being no stranger to controversy himself - was the former Crown Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria, a descendant of the so-called “troubled” Wittlesbach line of Kings. 

Crowned King of Bavaria at the tender age of 18 following the death of his father Maximilian II, Ludwig would, throughout the course of his reign, experience much inquiry into his alleged insanity - so much so that the controversial ruler would find himself locked away without a key, straitjacketed, and dead by the relatively young age of 40. 

So mystifying was the rumor mill surrounding the mental state of the King and that of the ancestors Wittlesbach, that when Ludwig's bloated corpse was discovered alongside the body of his physician at Lake Starnberg (just on the outskirts of Berg castle, some 16 mi outside of the Bavarian Capital), it was suspected the "madman" had planned - and carried out - a murder-suicide. This was only but one theory in a slew of many. It seemed the illusive Ludwig II, much like his hero since boyhood, Richard Wagner, would himself face the prospect of becoming the subject of an interminable series of legends and myths that continue to confound students of Bavarian and indeed, European History to this day. Conspiracy theories surrounding the King’s demise and the true nature of his relationship with Wagner are legion.

When it comes to the subject of the mental health of the notorious ruler, the evidentiary factors (as will be discussed later in this post) that culminated in the psychological ‘finding’ which suggested a familial madness inherited by Ludwig from the predecessors Wittlesbach is as mysterious as the events surrounding the diagnosis made of the King (schizophrenia) itself.

The highly mystifying King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Much like the person of his idol Wagner, the biography of Ludwig II of Bavaria is highly suggestive, and open to much interpretation. Of the mostly third-party accounts that survive (only some of which is supported in diaries said to have belonged to the King), it is noted that the young Prince shared a somewhat dysfunctional upbringing at court alongside his younger brother, Otto. 

It is believed that the Prince Ludwig, ignored by his parents and later forced into 14 hour long days of royal studies, was often subject to ‘disconnecting’ with reality and would find comfort in fantasy and extended periods of ‘seclusion’ in which he would daydream. It had been accounted by contemporaries and friends of Ludwig that the future King of Bavaria would often revel in fantasies of valiant knights on horseback, damsels rescued from distress, and of manly, noble, Kingly adventures. In a scene that could be ripped right out of the pages of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an aide of the young Prince once told of an odd encounter with Ludwig in which, upon espying a common peasant of a drove of sheep in the hills of Bavaria, the young Prince declared him to be “King of the Mountains”, thereby romanticizing the peasants lowly station amongst his loyal flock. Far from the typical boyhood imaginations, these allusions of grandeur for the down-trodden and lust for the romantic ideas of knights, kings, squires and their heroic battles continued into adulthood and would manifest themselves upon his arrival at the throne of Bavaria in 1864.

It was King Ludwig II’s first order of business to send for his hero since boyhood - his idol and muse, German romantic composer Richard Wagner. It would take some time to find the evasive musician. A royal messenger would discover him in Zurich, living in a self-imposed exile, such was the extent of his debts. Of the circumstantial evidence that survives from the Wittlesbach dynasty regarding the so-called 'familial madness' now coursing through the veins of the young Ruler of Bavaria, it can arguably be considered quite appropriate to attribute the monuments and largesse given to Wagner as a sign of an obsessive nature in the newly crowned King. So enamoured with the composer was Ludwig that no form of wooing was too lavish to entice the German virtuoso to his royal court. Upon receiving the messenger sent by the King and hearing out his proposal, Wagner is said to have broken out into hysterics, weeping into the arms of friend and fellow composer Wendelin Weissheimer, for included with the invitation was a lavish object of enticement: an exquisitely cut large ruby set atop a flawless ring of gold. The impoverished Wagner, overcome with emotion, famously declared through a streaming of tears “That this should have happened to me, and that this should have happened now!

Wagner was overwhelmed at the
generosity of the King.
Ludwig II proved to be Wagner’s most generous patron, immediately setting up for the composer upon his arrival at the Royal court a lavish residence in Munich, an annual income, funding for Wagner’s epic work-in-progress - his "Gesamtkunstwerk”: Der Ring des Nibelungen (the famous ‘Ring cycle’), and most prudent to Wagner, the fanatical King completely paid off the composers outstanding debts.

The nature of the relationship between King and Composer was certainly mutually beneficial, Wagner would receive the funding needed to escape his creditors for good and focus on his behemoth works and unprecedented operatic visions, and the King could have close at hand for himself a confidante who by all accounts appeared to him to share an affinity for mythical Teutonic legends that so often found themselves the basis for the composers epic operas.

Ludwig would even go on to showcase his adulation for Richard in a series of royal shrines in honor of their shared interest in the valiant knights, mythical beasts, elves and fairies, and the heroes and heroines of Nordic folklore through a dedication to the composer - in the form of painted frescoes at the Scloss Linderhof and Scloss Neuschwanstein (the “Swan-on-the-Rock:” the so-called 'fairytale' “castle in the air” ) - just two of many such spectacles of epic proportions on which the King would use as a backdrop with which he could publicly display affection for - and pay homage to - his hero.

By the abruptful end of his time on the throne, and through his patronage of his idol Richard Wagner and the monuments dedicated to him, it is estimated the King himself became a debtor, sinking Bavaria into a deficit of an estimated 14 million marks (over three times the King’s annual income!)

The Linderhof and the Neuschwanstein, respectively.

This stretching of the royal coffers simply would not do for the nobility at court, and indeed, for the Bavarian public, who demanded Richard be ousted from court and banished from Bavaria and the enamored King’s grip. Behind the scenes of idol-worship and public outcry, courtly machinations were already taking place. A royal archivist, one Count Leinfelder, having gotten wind of Wagner’s affair with Cosima von Bülow (wife of conductor and friend to Richard, Hans von Bülow and daughter of prolific composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt), ran to inform the jealous and possessive king of the pregnant adulteress’s plan to wed Wagner in secret. Leinfelder’s plan worked like a charm, with little reservation from Ludwig: the jealous king declared Cosima an enemy of the court and refused to attend performances of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser - eventually refusing altogether an audience with the composer himself.

Wagner, now accustomed to the lavish lifestyle he felt he deserved, and fiscally free to set to work the projects he had only been able to mastermind back in Zurich, was in no mood to be forcibly expelled from the Bavarian Capital or ostracized from the King - and he certainly would not play willing victim to such a betrayal. He went on the counter-attack, going after the Prime Minister (one Ludwig von der Pfordten) in an ill-guided attempt to extract from the kings inner circle any dissenters to his new found fortunes.
 Pfordten was prepared however, and threatened the King with his resignation should Wagner not be immediately expelled from Bavaria.

Cosima von Bülow, "enemy"
of the State.
The boy-like king Ludwig was not accustomed to such threats and reluctantly agreed, delivering the news himself to the couple. Wagner and Cosima would depart for Switzerland in December of 1865.

Much of the biography of Ludwig II travels in a rather haywired direction from this point.

It is said that within seven months of Wagner departing for Switzerland, the lonesome and wounded King himself threatened to abdicate, having sunk into a deep depression at the loss of his beloved hero.

Ludwig would never marry, although he would come close, in 1867 when he was made engaged to the daughter of Duchess Ludovica of Bavaria - a 19 year old princess named Sofie. There is substantial evidence to suggest the king did share a mutual fondness for his intended, professing love at the announcement of his engagement on new years day of that year, and attaching to her the pet name of “Elsa”. Wagner however, was the true object of affection in his heart, and whose influence and person was never far removed from the king’s innermost thoughts: “Elsa” was the name of the heroine in Wagner’s Lohengrin. The fiancées exchanged many letters - of particular note was one in which Ludwig declared “The god of my life, as you know..is Richard Wagner.”

Ludwig and his intended, Princess Sofie.
The stalwart Sofie initially saw this as merely the infatuations of a heroic figure that Ludwig had held since boyhood, but would soon come to question the nature of the King's obsession as their wedding day drew near. It was nearly two months before the nuptials, and the only event in which Ludwig could show excitement was for the return of Wagner, who he had defiantly planned to request a return to Munich. The wedding was twice postponed by the King as he tried to muster the courage to send for his idol - including during the month the nuptials were set to take place - until finally, the reluctant groom called the whole thing off in a letter to this betrothed.

By all accounts, the relationship between King and Composer never recovered. It is said the King attempted to find love in the form of a royal stablehand, appropriately named Richard, and in the design of homosexual persuasion (the King’s sexuality, much like the circumstances surrounding his death and the sanity of both himself and his younger brother Otto, remain hotly contested) as the troubled ruler began an alleged and rapid decent into madness.

So ‘disconnected from reality’ was Ludwig and his younger brother, heir to the throne Prince Otto, both would see themselves declared unfit to rule, and both would be confined against their wills and stripped of all royal power (a humiliation unseen since the pathetic abdication of the grandfather to the kings, Ludwig I of Bavaria, following his disastrous infatuation with socialite and dancer Lola Montez who fatefully interfered in state politics some twenty years prior. There too, an infatuation with a character commonly viewed as unsavory by the public (acting and dancing was akin to prostitution in 19th century Europe) proved to be the undoing of a reigning King). 

History would be far crueler and punishments far harsher to the brothers Wittelsbach. And for posterity’s sake, far more suspect than any scandal previously known to the troubled dynasty.

Prince Otto of Bavaria: a King who never ruled.
Of all of the ‘accounts’ that survive of the royal kin, only two things are for certain:

1) Both brothers were diagnosed by a Dr. Bernhard von Gudden (whose corpse would later be found alongside Ludwig’s), and, in Ludwig’s case, a diagnosis of Schizophrenia was made, appallingly, in absentia, and it’s conclusion only made through the regalings of third hand accounts of various members at court, each with their own potential political agendas.

2) The Austrian Empire was engaged in war (external link; see: wikipedia article on Austro-Prussian War): in short, King Ludwig was a staunch supporter of Austria and the independence of Bavaria, as was his brother Otto, who was so stalwart in his defenses of his motherland and hatred of Prussia that he served in both the current war, and as a colonel in the resulting Franco-Prussian war in 1870, which left him permanently traumatized and unable to get a decent night’s rest until the end of his days.

Far from avuncular: Prince Luitpold of Bavaria,
and later his son, would overtake both of his
Nephews' seat on the Royal throne.
Both brothers shared an arguably duplicitous uncle, Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, who, along with family doctor Bernhard von Gudden shared a rather convenient friendship, based in part on an overwhelming support for Prussian advancement and dominance.

It was these two mysterious characters, along with Luitpold’s son (the brothers’ first cousin and the future Ludwig III) who would forever change the Wittelsbach dynasty as the Austrian Empire knew it when von Gudden had both brothers locked up for insanity. It is said that Ludwig, upon hearing his diagnosis, became understandably enraged, decrying “How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before!” a sentiment he would repeat to anyone who would listen. It was of no use: the social status of von Gudden (renowned by many as a pioneering ‘psychiatrist’ in a then-burgeoning field), when combined with ‘historical’ details of alleged displays of madness said to have been witnessed of the King possessed enough clout in the eyes of the public (sadly, a tradition that continues to carry over to this day) to justifiably declare the King of Bavaria unfit to rule, and carried enough weight to strip him of all powers and privileges awarded his position, and, most exceedingly humiliating to the now former Ruler of Bavaria, enough sway to remove from the ex-Monarch all remaining traces of dignity when Luitpold ordered him imprisoned within his own apartments, forced to witness it’s fortification and finally, had him shackled within a straitjacket - an attempt to thwart any suicidal attempts of the deposed Regnant. In a series of carefully planned machinations that reeked of a Coup d'état, Ludwig’s Uncle Luitpold made himself Regent and ruled in the disgraced King’s stead.

Physician Bernhard von Gudden, along with
Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, was instrumental
in the fates of both deposed Kings in
the brothers Wittlesbach. His methods were
considered controversial even in the
nineteenth century,
Three days later, Ludwig would be found dead.

The popular version of the tragic tale of Ludwig’s demise is one that suggests an emotionally unsettled former King. Having first reacted quite ‘violently’ at von Gudden’s ‘diagnosis’ and his forced abdication, Ludwig slipped into a state of repose, seeming to onlookers to have resigned himself to his fate as a prisoner of his own castle. So complacent was the former King, it was said that Dr von Gudden himself became so satisfactorily convinced of his ‘well-mannered behavior’ that he not only removed Ludwig from the constraints of the straitjacket, but allowed for short walks among the castle grounds at the disgraced former King’s request. Seeing that Ludwig had obeyed all of the physicians orders and maintained a steady appetite, von Gudden unflinchingly agreed to Ludwig’s request to walk with him on the castle grounds, unaccompanied by the policemen who were assigned as guards and hired to watch over him. It would be a fateful decision for the questionable doctor, who, after informing his assistant Dr Müller that the duo would return to the apartments by 8 o' clock that evening, would be found dead by the same guards hired to protect the royal prisoner, who discovered the physician's bloated corpse floating in the lake adjacent to the castle alongside the lifeless body of the very King von Gudden had made imprisoned and deposed by mere word of mouth.

The initial report into the deaths of both men stated that the pair drowned. This is in stark contrast to the findings made by the medical examiner during autopsy, in which no water was to be found in either Ludwig nor von Gudden’s lungs. It may be inconsequential, but dissenters of popular theory at the time found it prudent to note that Ludwig and von Gudden were found in only ‘waist deep’ water; the medical report further describes the doctor as having several contusions: a possible black eye and bruising about the throat. It does not, however, account for these injuries, or the circumstances surrounding the former King prior to his death.

Contemporary Bavaria was aflutter with wild and fantastical theories, ranging from a failed escape attempt by the former monarch who was either in cahoots with von Gudden or engaged with the latter in a fight to the death, to the devious orchestrations of a politically ravenous uncle who had both men killed by assassins (the doctor’s position on the Austro-Prussian war made him the perfect scapegoat for a fatal coup d'état - after all, who would suspect Luitpold of having ordered a hit on a political ally?) Of the many conspiracy theories that exist regarding the fates of these two illusive characters, a murder-suicide orchestrated by an insane king continues to be the most popular, and among the most debated theories to this day.

And as for ‘uncle Luitpold’? The Prince Regent of Bavaria would rule over his nephew Ludwig’s rightful throne until his own death, some 26 years later in 1912.
 His hold on the royal throne and in the minds of the Bavarian nobility did not end even in death. Otto, younger brother to Ludwig and now the rightful King, was still holed up in the prison Luitpold and von Gudden had awarded him before his brothers untimely demise. He too, had been declared by the now deceased von Gudden as a 'schizophrenic unfit to rule'. 
 The public, unsure what to make of the mysterious deaths of Ludwig and his physician almost thirty years earlier, offered no protest when Luitpold’s son, also named Ludwig, succeeded him in Otto’s place. If Luitpold did indeed act out of political aspirations, his plan would have been ingenious. Through his son, Luitpold’s own dynastic aspirations would come full circle when his own offspring - the newly crowned Ludwig III - was quite rapidly allowed to rule in his own right following his accession to the throne.

Not to be outdone by his father Luitpold,
Ludwig III of Bavaria earned the distinction
of ruling in his own right following the death
of the Regent Luitpold in 1912. The 'real' King,
Ludwig II's younger brother Otto, remained
locked up in seclusion - a sentence carried out
by his late father and Dr. von Gudden.
In reading any of the numerous accounts of the life and times of Ludwig II, one is easily overwhelmed by a barrage of contradictory opinion, depending on what side of the war one’s ancestors supported, how much clout they place into the real advancements and very real quackery of a 19th century mental health care system, then still in it’s infancy (and, arguably still somewhat archaic in practice and thought today), and in the political scandal and intrigue that surrounded the royal house and the contemporary Bavarian people. It is in this vein that one must also view Wagner, who, posterity has shown has more in common with the inscrutable former monarch than just a penchant for ancient pagan gods, mythical beasts and tragically heroic figures of legend.

In Ludwig, Richard Wagner had found a fellow man of iconic stature and a seemingly endless controversy that has endured through the ages.

If we can separate the man from the myth, the past from the present, the hyperbole from the rational - and focus on things prolific men like Ludwig and Richard Wagner left behind that we can see, touch, hear and smell..monumental castles that inspire the likes of Walt Disney[2] and which amass small fortune for the State of Bavaria (Neuschwanstein alone is said to have brought in a revenue of at least 7 million Euros in a one year span in the early 21st century) and such exquisitely lush orchestrations and ethereal mind-body nirvanas as experienced when listening to the Gesamtkunstwerk of a musical genius in the architectural marvel which both King and Commoner built to behold them[3], and if the modern student of music or indeed European history can approach each subject from a neutral perspective, contrasting the time in which their subjects lived and the state of that subject’s nation, perhaps we can showcase such overwhelming beauty to a wider audience who, because of quotes taken out of context, third-party embellishments and fictions, outdated clichés and one sided viewpoints would never have even given such aural and visual splendours a chance, and never know such intoxicating beauty.

[1] It was to the wife of the Patron Otto, Mrs. Mathilde Wesendonck, that Wagner would later compose the
Wesendonck lieder, a set of five German songs for piano with female accompaniment which the composer
considered to be his best work.

[2] Disney would use the Schloss Neuschwanstein as the model for his 'Sleeping Beauty' Castle and other structures
at theme parks around the globe.

[3] Ludwig generously donated 100, 000 Thaler to help commence construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

The exquisite "Einsam in Trüben Tagen" from Wagner's Lohengrin. It was this opera
that first captured a young Prince Ludwig's attention, resulting in an adulation that
would last a lifetime. Sung here by the effervescent Austrian soprano Gundula
Janowitz, whose ethereal vocal lustre helps to remind any admirer of the works of
Wagner of the sheer cosmic beauty to be found in his oeuvre.


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