Friendship with Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Stage Tristan and Isolde

Painting Lohengrin

Model Opera house

The king dreams again

In April 1864, four weeks after his coronation, the young King Ludwig II dispatched his cabinet secretary Franz von Pfistermeister with a ring and a royal handwritten letter to find Richard Wagner and bring him to Munich. After a small detour through Austria and southern Germany, the court official finally discovered the composer beleaguered by creditors in Stuttgart. On May 1864, in the royal residence in Munich, the 51-year-old Wagner stood facing the 18-year-old Bavarian king for the first time. Ludwig, fully 1.91 meters tall (6 feet 10 inches), towered head and shoulders over the musician.

That day marked the beginning of a most unequal, but for the composer both financially and artistically highly advantageous friendship. Under the sway of their fateful meeting, Wagner wrote to a female friend: "Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods."

The king’s adulatory words were backed up by king-size subventions. On 9 May 1864, only four days after their first meeting, an initial present of 4,ooo florins (equivalent to a ministerial assistant’s annual salary) winged its way to Wagner, then another annual emolument of a further 4,000 florins, and in June a gift of 16,ooo florins... The king gave, the maestro took, and the good people of Munich at first shook their heads and then began to grumble audibly.

Bavaria’s citizens had fresh reason to complain when it became known that their king, not content with this beneficence, also wanted to build his new-found favorite a personal opera house overlooking the River Isar. Before the fateful year 1864 was out, the architect Gottfried Semper arrived on the scene with a model of the house. Then, of course, there were delays, the intended construction site was repeatedly changed, and finally the whole project was dropped. Ludwig’s mania for Wagner had begun in 1861, when the fifteen-year-old crown prince attended a performance of "Lohengrin" in the court opera. From that evening on he fell under the spell of both the music and the world of Wagner’s operas (although his piano tutor — and later Wagner music).

Wagner received enormous sums of money, in the summer of 1864 a villa on Lake Starnberg, and later a villa in Munich. But in June 1865 he reciprocated with a commensurate return gift — perhaps the greatest day in the musical history of the Bavarian capital: the world premiere of "Tristan and Isolde". The funds continued to flow generously, enabling the maestro to complete the "Meistersingers" and the "Ring of the Nibelung". However, before the premieres of these operas had taken place, Wagner had to leave the city. The people of Munich might have accepted their king’s extravagant generosity towards the one-time Saxon court director of music, but when Wagner started to get involved in politics, they urged His Majesty to send his inestimable friend, however worthy, into Swiss exile at Tribschen. One December morning in 1865 the composer left the capital with his servants and dog. Rut that was not the end of the king’s adoration of the composer or his financial generosity towards the maestro.

Wagner needed this royal patronage above all when he came to realize his dream of a festival theatre of his own in Bayreuth. Some two years after the foundation stone had been laid, he ran out of money, and because no German ruler was willing to stump up — Bismarck did not even reply — King Ludwig II approved in spring 1874 a loan of 100,000 thalers. At the time he had enough bills of his own to pay: shortly before he had bought Herren Island on the Chiemsee, and at Linderhof work was making good progress. However, when the House on the Green Hill was ceremonially opened in Bayreuth on 13 August 1876, the Bavarian king was not among the festival guests. He had declined his invitation
— perhaps because he did not want to run into Emperor Wilhelm on the opening night — and had traveled instead a week earlier to the dress rehearsal of the "Ring".

When Richard Wagner died in February 1883, the king said to his court secretary: "The artist whom the whole world now mourns was first recognized by me and saved from the world by me." "Tristan and Isolde", the "Meistersingers of Nuremberg", "Rhinegold" and (against Wagner’s wishes) the "Valkyrie" all had their first performances at Ludwig’s court theatre in Munich.