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Wagner’s famous piano to be lost to Bayreuth once more?

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 22 December 2011 | 3:12:00 pm

The centre of the argument
Bayreuth and Leipzig may not be such good bedfellows after all

As everyone knows, King Ludwig II adored Wagner. Indeed, a story told so many times that I have no need to tell here once again. Equally well known, is that as part of this adoration he was forever showering Wagner with gifts. One such gift, presented to Wagner on his 51st birthday, was a Bechstein piano (interesting piece of trivia, the first time a Bechstein piano was used in a public performance was by Hans von Bülow playing Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor in 1857!). Now of course Wagner had more than one  piano, including his beloved Steinway acquired later – yet it is certainly of historical interest and was used, at least in part  and perhaps overall all -   to compose Meistersinger, Siegfried Act 3, Götterdämmerung and Parsifal.. As such, it is an important part of the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth. But surprisingly it hasn’t been there for that long

Upon Wagner’s death the piano naturally fell into the ownership of Siegfried and then of course into the ownership of Winifred. Sometime early during WW2 Winifred sent the piano to a company in Leipzig for repair. However, in the ensuing chaos of the war the piano become lost and its whereabouts unknown. Then in 1998 Sven Friedrich, director of the Bayreuth Wagner Museum, happened to be visiting the Museum Of Musical Instruments in Leipzig when he happened across it – it is after all difficult to miss as it bears a rather large brass plague across the front with the words (in German) "Built for Richard Wagner in 1863 - Fixed in 1925"!

Negotiations quickly ensued between both sides and finally the piano was returned to Bayreuth in 1999 – albeit on “loan” for ten years.

Now, this is where things start to get messy:  the loan agreement, a binding contract, has now expired and either the piano should have been returned or a new agreement signed but Bayreuth is having none of it and refused to return it, perhaps understandable given the circumstances. Leipzig Museum responded by suing the Wagner foundation for the return of the piano but this November they lost their case and Bayreuth gained ownership. The museum in Leipzig is now appealing.

Wagner's Steinway
Now, all of this may seem messy enough, but this is the famous Wagners we are discussing and things can only get more complicated. In a surprise, but highly tactical move, Iris Wagner, daughter of the late Wagner's grandson Wieland Wagner, is now suing both Bayreuth and Leipzig for ownership of the piano! Her claim is that the piano is the personal inheritance of the Wagner family and should come into joint ownership, of her, Nike, Catherine. Etc. The plan is that they will then present it to the Wagner Museum as a permanent display.

The City Of Leipzig is of course unimpressed, with Hans-Georg Fieseler, General Counsel of the Leipzig culture department saying, he cannot understand the actions of the Wagners and Bayreuth Foundation, as they have clearly broken an agreement between museums. He went on to say that  Leipzig had informed the Wagner Museum they would renegotiate the loan agreement and extend it willingly but that this had been ignored.

The Wagners have declined to comment

Whatever the moral arguments - on both sides -  it is now firmly in the hands of the German court system. Nevertheless, one cannot help wonder how this will influence the working relationships between both cities during the tightly connected bicentennial program in 2013?

More as things develop.