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Culture House Daily The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Bayreuth on the eve of war

23 August 2014

8:00 AM

23 August 2014

8:00 AM

The Spectator, 22 August 1914:

Inter arma silent Musae; but Bayreuth on the eve of the war showed very few signs of the coming cataclysm. It is true that on the presentation of the Austrian ultimatum to Servia a good many Austrian visitors departed, and the Fürsten-galerie was not so crowded towards the end of the first cycle as it was at the performance of Parsifal. The military were more and more in evidence in the streets: knots of officers were seen in animated conversation; groups of people circled round the newspaper offices and other places where bulletins were posted up, and, to judge from the nocturnal voces populi, a good many of the residents of Bayreuth seemed never to go to bed at all. It was interesting to listen to the regretful reminiscences of the old habitues who harked back to the early years of the Festival, when there was little or nothing to divert attention from Wagner’s music dramas. When they were not actually listening to the music, people thought and talked about it and did nothing else. The foreigners who came were real enthusiasts. They did not go to Bayreuth because it was the proper thing to do if you wished to gain a reputation for culture. All this has been changed for many years. Bayreuth is still a musical Mecca, but it has lost its esoteric character. For the last fifteen years or more the Festival has been a great cosmopolitan gathering, frequented by fashionables from all quarters of the globe, and especially by rich Americans and English. The amazing commercial development of Germany, which has altered the face of the Rhineland, and made tall chimneys as common as picturesque ruined castles, has been markedly felt in Bavaria. Bayreuth has grown and expanded into quite a large industrial centre with extensive factories for textiles and machinery. The new shops, mostly for articles of dress, are handsome and well equipped. Hotels and restaurants have multiplied, and the primitive, and even squalid, accommodation of the “seventies ” has long been a thing of the past. In private lodgings visitors find not only baths but bathrooms, and, if wedded to the tea habit, have no difficulty in obtaining it—not the straw-coloured decoction once used by foreigners for medicinal purposes, but excellent China tea. And with this improved equipment and fuller provision of amenities the prices have risen proportionately, so that there is nothing to choose in the matter of the expense of hotel life between Germany and England, while in regard to luxury Germany has no longer anything to learn from any other country. Another interesting sign of the times was the fact that even during the Festival Wagner was not allowed to exercise an unchallenged musical monopoly. A new organ has recently been erected in the Protestant Hauptkirche, and an inaugural recital, exclusively devoted to the music of Bach, was given by Professor Straube, of Leipzig, one of the greatest living virtuosi. It was the good fortune of the present writer to bear Professor Straube rehearsing his programme as well as to attend the recital, and the experience was one not easily to be forgotten. To hear a great organist interpret Bach enables one to realize the immensities of human genius more intimately than one can from any other single-handed performance.

Viewed from the musical point of view, a special interest attached to the recent Festival from its being the first since the expiry of the musical rights which secured to Bayreuth a monopoly of the stage performances of Parsifal. Wagner’s own opinion on this question was unmistakably expressed. He held that the character of Parsifal was such that it could never be given in the right spirit elsewhere. But his desire, though vigorously and loyally supported by a powerful following, was overridden last year when the attempt to secure legislative sanction for a continuation of the Bayreuth monopoly was defeated in the Reichstag. The main result so far has been to affect the character of the Bayreuth audience rather than the prestige and efficiency of the Bayreuth performances. The representations of Parsifal already given in London and elsewhere undoubtedly diminished the number of foreign pilgrims. When the present writer applied for tickets at the end of last December, lie was told that all the available seats were subscribed for twice over. All that could be offered was a place at the foot of the waiting list. Some three months later he received three serial tickets in an excellent position in the middle of the house. International complications had nothing to say to this. It was probably entirely the result of the opportunities of hearing Parsifal in London, of which intending visitors to Bayreuth had availed themselves on the principle of the bird in the hand. Anyhow, the complexion of the audience at Bayreuth in July was predominantly German.

As the first cycle drew near its close the steady crescendo of political unrest exerted a. disturbing influence which marred the enjoyment of the audience. People who set store by omens will recall the tremendous thunderstorm which burst over Bayreuth on the second night of the Festival, as though “heaven’s artillery” were foreshadowing the events of a fortnight later. And those who made the customary pilgrimage to the Eremitage, the rococo Lustschloss built in the fashion of Versailles by the eighteenth-century Margraves, will not fail to remember that the guide impressed on her charges that the ghost of the sinister weisse Dame, whose periodic appearances are supposed to bode disaster to the Hohenzollerns, was seen there this spring.

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