Germany 3: Bayreuth, Part 1 – The town, and the Wagner Museum

Quiet Charm and Culture

On our first evening in Bayreuth, we walked from our hotel down into the old part of town for dinner. En route, we passed Wahnfried House, where the Wagner Museum is located, and Neues Schloss (New Palace), both of which we would tour two days later. The streets were quiet, wide and cobbled, and even where people had gathered, they seemed to have done so on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. When we took a bus through the downtown area on our way to the concert at the Festspielhaus the following day, we noticed that the central part of Bayreuth looks much more urban than does the older area, but it’s still open and spacious, with a small-town feel.

The population of Bayreuth is 73,000. The town operates, I am guessing, like other single-focus tourism centres like Stratford, Ontario and Park City, Utah, upon which thousands of people from all around the world descend for several weeks each year to enjoy an annual festival ­– filling up all of the hotels and B&Bs, shopping, dining and asking stupid questions (“Why does this bus go this way when I want to go that way?” “Is a German dumpling like an English dumpling?”) then leaving the place in a state of relative peace and quiet for the remainder of the year. Festival attendees must drive the locals in these places nuts, but I’m sure we’re also essential to their municipal bottom lines.

We chose to eat at a popular restaurant named Manns Bräu. The outdoor patio was totally packed, so we sat inside, where we shared a table with a couple who’d come from a town near Cologne to hear the entire Ring Cycle, which started two days later and ran for four nights. They’d been coming to Bayreuth for decades.

Thanks to the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we were able to share our passion for Wagner’s music and our dismay at his antisemitism: all of this over sauerbraten mit sauerblau und Kloß (yes, a lot of sauer there, and a lot of calories), bratwurst, apfelsaft (apple juice) and beer (“What is the German word for lager?”) Sharing tables with strangers is a lovely custom.

On our second day in Bayreuth we attended the Tannhäuser opera that I have written about already, which was quite enough activity for one day. On our third, we toured three of Bayreuth’s cultural offerings, each of which was impressive and totally distinctive.

Haus Wahnfried and the Richard Wagner Museum

As I mentioned in my Tannhäuser post, after considering several options, Richard and Cosima Wagner decided on Bayreuth as the location for Wagner’s opera theatre and their own home, the latter of which they named Haus Wahnfried. (Wikipedia tells us that the name is a compound of the German words for delusion or madness [Wahn] and peace, freedom [Fried]. The inscription over the door provides a bit of explanation: “Here where my delusions have found peace, let this place be named Wahnfried.”) Built between 1872 and 1874, the home is now a museum featuring not only some of the original furnishings, tableware, etc. set out in their original locations so you get a feel of what it must have been like to live there, but also displays of Cosima’s diaries and letters, and Richard’s writing implements and musical scores. Part of the house was destroyed by bombs during World War II but has been restored. Some of the artifacts within the house were also destroyed (including Wagner’s writing desk) but Richard and Cosima’s daughter-in-law Winifred managed to put most of the furniture and art in safe locations in advance of the air attack.

The basement of Haus Wahnfried has been renovated to include technological displays that offer insights into how Richard Wagner created his music, and how the score is transformed into sound.

There is also a separate home that Cosima (a widow by then) had built for her son Siegfried and his wife Winifred; Winifred lived there until she died in 1980. Siegfried and especially Winifred were fierce supporters of the Third Reich in all of its ugly manifestations, and this home was for an extended period a favourite place for Adolf Hitler to take a break from his efforts to conquer and transform Europe. A failed artist, he apparently loved to hang out here with the Wagner family and with Bayreuth musicians. Displays in this house explore the relationship between the Wagner-run Festspielhaus and the National Socialists. Throughout our visit to Germany I was impressed with the way the country has acknowledged and confronted the demons in its past.

The dining table at Siegfried House where Adolf Hitler often ate. Just looking at it gave me the creeps.

A third building on the site is new and very modern. It houses a separate museum less focused on Wagner himself and more on his operas and on “Wagnerism” in general. There we saw costumes, props and miniatures of sets from various productions of Wagner operas at Bayreuth. There was also a fascinating collection of the kind of bizarre objects that have appeared all over the world since Wagner died, either in acknowledgement of Wagner’s extraordinary talent or in an attempt to profit from association with his fame. There is also a cinema in the building.

Out back of the villa itself is the smooth polished piece of marble (outsized, of course) that marks the site of Richard’s and Cosima’s graves (he died in Venice in 1883, she at Bayreuth in 1930.) Nearby are those of several of Wagner’s favourite dogs. The secluded area which is the location of these graves opens up onto an extensive civic park, formerly part of the new palace of the Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (see next blog post), which gives visitors a sense that the Wagner property is much bigger and more pastoral than it is.

(This post is getting a bit long and I still have two significant sites in Bayreuth to write about so stand by for Part 2. 🙂

One response to “Germany 3: Bayreuth, Part 1 – The town, and the Wagner Museum

  1. I love learning with you on your travels. Thanks so much for sharing. Bayreuth sounds like a place I would love to visit and stay for a long time.

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