Exciting new book on Villa Wahnfried

Splendid Book on the New Wahnfried

While in Bayreuth this past August I paid my first visit in five years to Wahnfried, and was delighted to find that it had not been eviscerated, which the construction site a few years ago seemed to presage.  I miss the chairs, the piped-music and the tranquility of the great room that I first entered with my now-deceased brother in 1981, to the shimmering strings of the Parsifal Vorspiel, but I recognize that’s nostalgia.  Live long enough, you can convince yourself that everything around you is lesser if only because it’s not as it was.  The home is informatively and tastefully laid out, and the discrete new structure to the right of the home – the new Wagner Museum – is almost invisible, yet full of richness inside.

I have never gotten my hands around what is in that building.  Yes the stage models, yes the portraits, the library, the death-laden settee.  Yes the helmets and the costumes and the props and the letters (some of them anyway).  But there still seems to be no publicly available catalogue of the holdings of the museum that Cosima, Siegfried, Winifred, Wolfgang and others labored so hard to collect and preserve.  Katarina and Gottfried will tell you it’s a function of a history of purposive secrecy.  I have a sense (for some uninformed reason) that it’s a result of simple neglect, and lack of accountability.  The Barnes Foundation operated like that for decades – simply curated all this art, with no sense at all of any obligation to make it accessible to society and, indeed, a strong predisposition that showing it to the public would be a mild desecration.

I did pick up an absolutely splendid book that tells you all you could possibly want to know about this fabulous building (if not its contents).  Wahnfried: Das Haus von/The Home of Richard Wagner by Markus Kiesel and Joachim Mildner (ConBrio2016) is meticulously researched, beautifully bound, and felicitously translated in German and English.  It explains the “why” of this distinctive building in terms of European architectural development, Wagner’s psychological needs, and the municipal ambitions of mid-19th century Bayreuth.  The developing story of the family’s residence mixes with the enterprise of the Festival, with Wahnfried pictured on ealy 20th century tourist postcards with similar frequency to the Festpielhaus itself.  Clear and muscular prose traces the design and construction; the period immediately after Wagner’s death; Cosima’s dominance yielding to Siegfried’s leadership; the addition of the Siegfried House and its eventual modifications to accommodate visits by Hitler and, later, the banishment of Winifred; the spectacular and heartbreaking destruction in April 1945; Wieland’s returning to the upper stories of the gardener’s house and his family’s abrupt and utter banishment upon his death; and the two efforts to address reconstruction of the building for non-residential purposes, one in the 1970s and the other just recently completed.

Like any good building book, it deftly mixes art, personality, money, history, ego, landscaping, social accountability and humor.  The book is a singular success and I recommend it without reserve.

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