Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Stroll in Richard Wagner's Zürich

Strolling through Zürich's old town late the other evening I photographed a number of places associated with the great Richard Wagner during his stay here from 1849 to 1858.

Wagner fled, a political fugitive, from Dresden, the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, and spent his first night in what was then the Hotel Schwert, pictured below.

The hotel had a long history, going right back to the 14th century.  Down through the ages its guests had included Montaigne, Casanova, Mozart, Goethe, Napoleon III and Victor Hugo. Today it is the home of Dolce and Gabbana and carries not even a plaque to commemorate any of its earlier visitors, nevermind Wagner.

He lived for about nine months on the bottom floor in this house:

Here he wrote The Artwork of the Future (Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft)

He spent most of 1850 living just outside the town centre in the suburb of Enge.  The building he lived in then is long gone, but it was close to this sign:

It was here that he penned his infamous anti-semitic tract The Jew in Music (Das Judentum in der Musik) and worked on the poem that would become Götterdämmerung.

From 1853 until 1857 he lived on the second floor of this building:

Today it houses the Portugese consulate, but just above the flagpole you can find a plaque that remembers Wagner's time here.

It was in this building, where sometime later Johanna Spyri, the author of Heidi, would live, that Wagner worked diligently on The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Niebelungen).  By 1853 he had finished the poem that would become the libretto for the 15 hour long opera.  On four consecutive evenings he would read the entire poem to invited guests at the prestigious Hotel Baur au Lac, pictured below:

One memorable evening in 1856 an invited audience at the Baur au Lac enjoyed the first ever performance of the first act of Die Walküre, with Franz Liszt playing piano and Wagner himself singing.

Throughout these years Wagner was a frequent visitor to the music store Hug, which is pictured here:

and the nearby bookstore that published some of his shorter prose works, Schultess:

In 1857 Wagner and his wife were offered lodgings by his benefactor Otto Wesendonck in this house in the suburb of Enge:

The house underwent major renovations in the late 19th century - it was far smaller in Wagner's time.  Nevertheless, this was almost heaven on earth for Wagner.  Here he had the peace and quiet to allow him to compose undisturbed and, another advantage, this was the view from his house:

View of Villa Wesendonck from Villa Schonberg

The view, as you can see, looks onto the neighbouring house, the Villa Wesendonck.  Here lived Wagner's benefactor Otto, who combined being rich and generous with having a young and beautiful wife, Mathilde.  Wagner was in love with Mathilde and Mathilde in love with Wagner, and their close proximity made for a heavy brew during the next one and a half years.

Villa Wesendonck, today the Rietberg Museum

Wagner now gave up work on The Ring and began composing Tristan und Isolde, which contains many of his sublimated feelings for Mathilde.  He would compose in the morning and then run over to Mathilde's villa (above) to play for her what he had just created.

This couldn't go on forever and Wagner's marriage reached crisis point in August 1858. He left Zürich in disgrace though he did return to visit the Wesendoncks a number of times.

There are of course many more sights in Zürich that would interest the Wagnerite, but only so much can be taken in during a leisurely evening stroll...

See also my Wagner and Buddha: Tristan and Isolde


  1. Super post. The idea of creating an artist’s trail, covering his house, school, university, studio, favourite restaurant, favourite cabaret etc is a brilliant one. I have been on artist trails for John Constable, Agatha Christie and Dylan Thomas, for example, and found it a fine way for both interested tourists and scholars to track the life of their hero.

    And of course they were all flawed people. I followed Caravaggio through Rome, Naples and Malta, even knowing he was a drunken, sexually promiscuous man who murdered another and died young himself.

    Yet Wagner is somehow different. Despite Wagner’s attempt to dismiss all Jewish influence in the German arts, I didn’t think he would be able to get at Felix Mendelssohn. Felix’s family hadn’t been Jewish for two generations already and in any case, the young man was dead (d1847). It should have been nearly impossible to besmirch the reputation of someone whose life work is already “out there”. Nonetheless Wagner successfully rewrote musical history :(

  2. Thank you Helen. actually, as a sideline I do conduct walking tours in Zurich - historical, literary, artistic walking tours, mainly for corporate businesses and university visitors. So if you are ever in the area please let me know.

    Wagner's greatest foe (in his own mind) was the Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer was the most famous opera composer of the age and he dominated the musical scene in Paris, with his Grand operas. Wagner's experience in Paris was entirely negative and he felt excuding by the clique, which he considered a Jewish clique. This in no small measure contributed to his anti- Jewish feelings. As always, with such a self-centred character as Wagner, he extrapolated from his own experiences and turned them into a world view.

  3. Very interesting. Perhaps you could do a similar post for Lenin or Joyce. Have you been to Wagner's museum/house in Luzern? By the way, where did you find out all these details? Is there a Wagner biography or general survey of musical history of the period you could recommend? I know you liked Ross' The Rest is Noise, but I'm not aware of a comparable book on this period. Have you read anything by Bryan Magee on Wagner? I read his Aspects of Wagner some time ago, but haven't read his Wagner and Philosophy.

  4. I'll certainly write about Lenin and Joyce in the future - so keep an eye out for them. Yes, I've read both Magee books. You should read Wagner and Philosophy (also published as Wagner and Schopenhauer). I've been reading up on Wagner for a number of years now and have accumulated a small Wagner library, so my info on Zürich comes from a variety of sources. I wrote a longish article (still unpublished) on Wagner and the Zürich background to Tristan and this is the blibiography:
    Eva Martina Hanke. Wagner in Zürich: Individuum und Lebenswelt. (Barenreiter, 2007); Laurenz Lütteken (Editor). Kunstwerk der Zukunft: Richard Wagner und Zürich (1849-1858). (Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2008). Bryan Magee. The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy. (Henry Holt and Co., 2001); Barry Millington. Wagner. (Oxford University Press, 2000); Wolfgang Osthoff. Richard Wagner’s Buddha Project ‘Die Sieger’ (‘The Victors’). (Museum Rietberg, 1996); Roger Scruton. Death-Devoted Heart: sex and the sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. (Oxford University Press, 2004); Chris Walton. Richard Wagner’s Zürich: the muse of place. (Camden House, 2007).

    I hope you can find some of these in China. Thanks a lot for your comment Matthew.