In the Footsteps of Richard Wagner: Lucerne

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LUCERNE—It is in this idyllic Swiss city on a lake, more than anywhere I have yet been, that I have felt the presence of Richard Wagner and the sources of his inspiration. This year, I have visited places of particular significance in the life of this restless genius. His travels were occasioned not only by a desire to create but also to avoid arrest for his political activities or his inability to pay his debts. I began in Leipzig, city of his birth, and continued to Dresden, where he spent part of his youth and from which he fled in 1849 when there was a warrant for his arrest.

Wagner would then spend most of the next two decades of his life in Switzerland, with trips to Paris and Italy. He lived for nine years in Zurich with his first wife, Minna, and had a fraught relationship with his patrons Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck. This was also the time when he met Cosima Liszt von Bülow, daughter of famous pianist/composer and wife of a conductor important in Wagner’s career.

Even in the comparatively placid environment of Zurich, where Wagner was remarkably creative, he found life too turbulent. In 1858, following his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck, he separated from his wife Minna. In his pursuit of peace and silence, he went to Lucerne, specifically to the Schweizerhof hotel, in March 1859, so he could complete the composition of Tristan und Isolde. After a couple of months he changed rooms and issued the order that no children be allowed on his floor. 

While in Lucerne, he began to explore its gorgeous surroundings. His wandering in nature, much like Wotan, became a major source of inspiration for settings in the Ring Cycle, including the Valkyrie Rock and Valhalla (the Pilatus mountain that always seems surrounded by a collar of clouds) and the forest in Siegfried

The Schweizerhof had many illustrious guests, and still does. Mark Twain was there for ten days in the summer of 1878. He wrote about the Lucerne he saw from his window. I am sure it is similar to what Wagner saw and, in fact, his description still holds true today:

“Lucerne is a charming place. It begins at the water’s edge, with a fringe of hotels, and scrambles up and spreads itself over two or three sharp hills in a crowded, disorderly but picturesque way, offering to the eye a heaped-up confusion of red roofs, quaint gables, dormer windows, toothpick steeples, with here and there a bit of ancient embattled wall bending itself over the ridges, worm-fashion, and here and there an old square tower of heavy masonry.”

Twain noted that, in front of the row of hotels (of which the Schweizerhof was the most prominent) was a “broad avenue with a double rank of low shade trees” next to which is the beautiful lake of Lucerne and, in the distance, “a stately border of snow-hooded mountain peaks.” The avenue is called the Schweizerhofquai.

To get a sense of what Wagner knew, I stayed at the Schweizerhof. I spent long periods at the window of my room, in all hours and through all sorts of weather, gazing at this view, essentially the same one that Wagner saw. To a New Yorker, the gentle hum of traffic from well-muffled vehicles caused little distraction. For Wagner, even in the pre-automative era, the Schweizerhofquai, which might have had the clopping of horse hooves and a few snatches of conversation and the laughter of children, was too noisy.

When the score of Tristan und Isolde was completed, Wagner left Lucerne but Lucerne did not leave him. After his last visit with Minna in 1862, he and Cosima formally became a couple and lived in Munich. Their daughter Isolde was born on April 10, 1865 and, precisely two months later, the premiere of Tristan und Isolde took place in Munich. Wagner left Bavaria at the end of the year after a falling-out with his patron, King Ludwig II. 

In April 1866, Wagner moved into a lovely house, referred to as Tribschen, in a quiet setting on a hill above the lake  of Lucerne with a view of the mountains beyond. Now near a cluster of schools but still relatively isolated, Tribschen is easily reachable with public transport or a half-hour walk from downtown. It is now the Richard Wagner Museum and it gave me more of a sense of the composer than any residence I have yet visited. Wagner lived here for six years, and his rent was paid by King Ludwig.

Cosima visited intermittently between 1866 and 1868 but always returned to her husband. She left him permanently in November 1868 and took up residence in Tribschen.  On August 25, 1870, they were married in the Matthäuskirche, the Protestant church on the Seehofstrasse just behind the Schweizerhof.

When Cosima came to live in Lucerne, she brought her two daughters by von Bülow, Daniela and Blandine, as well as Wagner’s daughter Isolde. Wagner fathered another daughter, Eva, who was born February 7, 1867. Among those present for the birth was Hans von Bülow, which seems both quite homey and confusing. Wagner and Cosima had a son, Siegfried, who was born on June 6, 1869 at Tribschen. Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll, a work for chamber orchestra that was first performed on Christmas morning, 1870, when musicians were placed on the staircase at Tribschen to gently wake up Cosima. Imagine that you are there as you listen:

Part of the household was Verena Stocker-Weidmann (1832-1906), whom Wagner met when she was a housekeeper at the Schweizerhof. Wagner brought her to Munich and then she returned to live in Tribschen. Her nickname was Vreneli. Her son, Wilhelm Richard Stocker, was named for the composer whose full first name was Wilhelm Richard. He became Wagner’s godson and was the recipient of a lot of money from Wagner, despite his always being short of cash. This has led to some speculation that Wagner might have fathered this boy.

The Wagner Museum contains the piano on which he completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on October 24, 1867 (it premiered in Munich June 21, 1868). He also completed Siegfried and worked on Götterdämmerung. He dictated his autobiography to Cosima, kept up active correspondence and entertained many visitors. Wagner was happy and productive here, but still restless. He wanted to purpose-build a theater to house his new Ring Cycle and, when it seemed as if King Ludwig would pay for everything, Wagner pulled up roots, packed the family and moved to Bayreuth.

The legacy of Wagner’s time in Lucerne meant that music became much more part of the mix than it had been before. The Lucerne Festival, which runs from mid-August to mid-September, began in front of the Wagner villa in the gardens at Tribschen (below) on August 25, 1938, when Arturo Toscanini conducted an orchestra of renowned soloists and chamber musicians who were brought to Lucerne for the occasion. 

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The date of the Festival’s birth seems ominous. Its creation relates specifically to the fact that conductors such as Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch were unwilling or unable to perform at the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals under the Nazi regime. Neutral Switzerland, and the peaceful setting of Lucerne, offered refuge in many senses.

According to documents I have seen, the program was the overture to Rossini’s La Scala di Seta, then Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, which could be number 25 but more likely was the famous number 40. Then came Wagner music--the prelude to the third act of Die Meistersinger and the Siegfried Idyll--and, finally, Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The 75th anniversary of this concert was just celebrated on August 25 as the whole city resounded with music day and night in numerous indoor venues and outdoor public spaces.

For its anniversary year, the Lucerne Festival, now one of the most important in the world, has a theme of Revolution and the program includes music by Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and others. A highlight was last week’s four-concert presentation of the Ring Cycle, with Jonathan Nott leading the Bamberg Symphony. Other visiting orchestras came from Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Dresden, London, Munich, Pittsburgh, St. Petersburg and Vienna.

The resident ensemble, the excellent Lucerne Festival Orchestra, is led by legendary Claudio Abbado. The Lucerne Festival embraces Wagner’s plea, “Children! Create something new!” by running an academy devoted to the education of young musicians in contemporary music as part of its mission. This year the academy, which has its own orchestra, was led by composer/conductor Pierre Boulez.

In addition to the Festival Orchestra, the city also has a full series of concerts each year by the Lucerne Symphony, whose music director is James Gaffigan, a talented young conductor from New York City. They perform at the magnficent KKL concert hall, chief venue of the Lucerne Festival, about which I will write in a future article about acoustics.

WQXR is presenting broadcasts every Sunday this month from the Lucerne Festival