When I arrived in Luzern (aka Lucerne) I was surprised to see a sign pointing to a Richard Wagner Museum. I had come to Luzern to see an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, and had completely forgotten that Wagner lived here off and on during his long exile from Germany resulting from his involvement in the abortive German ‘revolution’ of 1848.
Verdi and Wagner were both born in the same year, 1813. By mid-century, they were both well established as the leading opera composers in their respective countries. To this day, they are both among the most-often-performed opera composers worldwide, according to statistics on operabase.com. In the 2021/2022 season, Verdi topped the list with 2,019 performances of 385 productions, while Wagner was fourth with 704 performances of 177 productions. (Second and third were Puccini and Mozart.)
The Richard Wagner Museum in Luzern takes up two floors of a three-story manor house on the Tribschen Peninsula, overlooking Lake Lucerne. This was Wagner’s residence for six years, from 1866 to 1872, before his final move to Bayreuth.
Wagner did not own the Tribschen house. He rented it — furnished — for 3000 Francs per year, which as usual was paid by his devoted fan and benefactor King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Among the many photos, paintings and documents on display in Tribschen is this photo of Wagner with his second wife Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt. It is no accident that she is sitting and he is standing in the photo. Wagner wanted it that way, to disguise the fact that she was taller than he was.
After the Wagners moved out, the Tribschen house stood empty for many years or was rented out as a summer home. In 1930 it was acquired by the city of Luzern for use as a museum, which opened in 1934. In one of the upper floors there was a furnished apartment, paid for by the “Swiss Friends of Bayreuth,” for use in the summers by Richard Wagner’s descendants. Wagner’s daughter Eva (1867-1942) lived there for the next six summers, along with her half-sister Daniela (1860-1940).
Upstairs, I was surprised to find that the museum had a text panel and some photos of my favorite Wagner-descendent, Friedelind Wagner (1918-1991), the only one of the composer’s many grandchildren to denounce the Nazi regime and eventually go into exile in the United States to avoid retribution.
The English-language version of the text panel begins: “She had a deep distaste for the pompous cultural industry (‘What should I do there? — Show my profile?’). She flatly rejected pretentious ingratiation from Wagnerian fan clubs (‘If you want to rent a Wagner, don’t call Friedelind’).”
The museum text doesn’t give any details of her childhood and emigration, but I recalled from reading her autobiography (and from other sources) that her mother Winifred had been a fanatical follower of Adolf Hitler since 1923, ten years before his rise to power, and that Hitler — a lifelong fan of Richard Wagner’s operas — had been a frequent visitor to the Wagner family in Bayreuth in the 1920s and 30s. The children called him “Uncle Wolf”.
At the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, Friedelind was twenty-one years old, living temporarily in Switzerland and already well-known for her anti-Nazi opinions. When her own mother threatened to have her locked up for the duration of the war, she realized she could not return to Germany.
Reading about this threat reminded me of the French sculptress Camille Claudel (1864–1943), whose family committed her to an insane asylum for the last thirty years of her life. Camille’s own view was that she was not the slightest bit insane, but was being punished for living alone with her cats.
Friedelind Wagner stayed in the Tribschen house several times in the 1930s, when she went there to visit her elderly aunts. In 1939-1940 she spent the winter there (the first winter of the war) as a guest of the city of Luzern. After that, she moved first to England and then, with the help of the orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini, to Argentina.
In 1941, she flew with Toscanini and his wife from Buenos Aires to New York, where she applied for American citizenship and eventually wrote her autobiography in English with the help of an American writer, Page Cooper. Friedelind dedicated the book to: “My two fathers, Siegfried Wagner and Arturo Toscanini”.
The book was first published in New York in 1945 under the title Heritage of Fire, with Page Cooper being given full credit on the cover as co-author. If the book had appeared a year or two earlier, it might have caused a sensation, but in 1945 the war was over, Hitler had committed suicide and Friedelind’s accounts of his tantrums and tirades in the 1930s were no longer of any particular interest to most readers, so the book went more or less unnoticed.
A German translation of the book was published in 1945, but only in Switzerland. It was long out of print before it was finally published in Germany in 1999 under the title Nacht über Bayreuth (Night over Bayreuth) with no mention of Page Cooper’s contribution.
In later years, Friedelind Wagner continued to show an interest in the Tribschen house, and in 1983-84 she paid to have her grandfather’s Erard grand piano restored and tuned. It is now on display in the salon, where it is played occasionally for concerts.
From the museum text on Friedelind Wagner, I learned that for the last seven years of her life she lived “in Luzern in a house with a view of the Tribschen Peninsula, the birthplace of her father Siegfried, whose work she promoted throughout her life.”
One of the smaller upstairs rooms is now equipped to show a film called Richard Wagner in Venedig — Liebe, Leben und Tod (Richard Wagner in Venice — Love, Life and Death) by Ute Neumerkel. Wagner visited Venice several times, and Venice was where he died in 1883.
What I especially liked about the film was the music in the background, consisting of piano transcriptions of some of the well-known themes from Wagner’s operas. These piano transcriptions had a full, romantic sound to them, and they turned out to be from piano rolls that had been cut in the early 20th century by the prominent concert pianists Alfred Grünfeld (1852-1924) and Józef Hofmann (1876-1957).
As I have mentioned elsewhere, a piano roll was a long roll of strong paper with holes to record the notes, so the performance could be reproduced automatically on a player piano aka pianola. These player pianos were completely mechanical, so they were often used in houses that had no electricity. Energy was provided by someone pumping the foot-pedals, enabling the piano to play itself. Even the keys moved up and down as the music was playing, giving the illusion that it was being played by the ghost of some long-dead virtuoso.
(See also: Look ma, no electrons!)
For those who can’t visit the museum in Luzern, Ute Neumerkel has uploaded her film to YouTube.
My photos and text in this post are from 2022.