The composer Richard Wagner lived in Zürich, Switzerland, from 1849 to 1858. This was not exactly voluntary, since he was facing prosecution in Germany for his part in trying to organize the short-lived revolution of 1848. But when he and his wife got to Zürich, they were taken in and befriended by a wealthy couple named Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, who fed and housed them and gave Wagner the leisure he needed to go on composing.
Wagner, true to form, fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonck. To get an idea of how he felt about her, listen to the opera Tristan und Isolde, which he wrote with her in mind. In a letter to her when he finished it, he said that he thought it would be banned, and that a good performance of it would drive people crazy.
Well, I’ve seen several good performances of it lately (mostly in Frankfurt, but also once in Copenhagen), and I don’t think it has driven me crazy (no crazier than I was before, in any case), but I must admit the music keeps going around in my head at odd times, such as when I am cycling home at night after seeing some other opera entirely. Tristan und Isolde is said to be the most advanced music Wagner ever wrote, ‘advanced’ meaning atonal, foreshadowing the ‘modern’ music of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Wesendoncks’ hilltop villa is now part of the Rietberg Museum, which has nothing to do with Wagner. Rather, it is devoted to “the traditional and contemporary arts and cultures of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania”, in other words the entire world apart from Europe.
According to its website, the Rietberg Museum is “one of the largest art museums in Switzerland” and has “some 23,000 objects and 37,000 ethnographic photographs in its collection.” The museum is housed in “three nineteenth-century villas and a coach house” as well as “a twenty-first century underground extension crowned by the Emerald, a glass pavilion that opened in 2007”.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2022.