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The Bayreuth Festspielhaus: The Metaphysical Manifestation of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 20 August 2015 | 7:59:00 pm

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus: The Metaphysical Manifestation of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen

Matthew Timmermans, University of Ottawa


This essay explores how the architectural design of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus affects the performance of Wagner’s later operas, specifically Der Ring des Nibelungen. Contrary to Wagner’s theoretical writings, which advocate equality among the various facets of operatic production (Gesamtkuntswerk), I argue that Wagner’s architectural design elevates music above these other art forms. The evidence lies within the unique architecture of the house, which Wagner constructed to realize his operatic vision. An old conception of Wagnerian performance advocated by Cosima Wagner—in interviews and letters—was consciously left by Richard Wagner. However, I juxtapose this with Daniel Barenboim’s modern interpretation, which suggests that Wagner unconsciously, or by a Will beyond himself, created Bayreuth as more than the legacy he passed on. The juxtaposition parallels the revolutionary nature of Wagner’s ideas embedded in Bayreuth’s architecture. To underscore this revolution, I briefly outline Wagner’s philosophical development, specifically the ideas he extracted from the works of Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer, further defining the focus of Wagner’s composition and performance of the music. . The analysis thereby challenges the prevailing belief that Wagner intended Bayreuth and Der Ring des Nibelungen, the opera which inspired the house’s inception, to embody Gesamtkunstwerk; instead, these creations internalize the drama, allowing the music to reign supreme. From this research I hope to encourage scholars to critically examine the connections between theatre design, composition and performance so that we may better understand the process by which works are manifested in performance.

Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, is distinguished by its unique design, as it was built to realize Wagner’s artistic vision for Der Ring des Nibelungen. 1 This intimate connection between music and architecture—which fulfills one operatic vision but excludes all others—has made Bayreuth one of the world’s most controversial structures. By analyzing the inspirations behind Bayreuth’s construction— specifically Wagner’s opinions, writings, philosophical background, and compositional style—we can expand our understanding of its purpose and potential, thereby eliciting an analysis of Bayreuth that reflects who Wagner was as an artist. This essay will define Wagner as two contrasting composers: Wagner the Librettist, who believes an opera’s drama— narrative events and emotional tensions—is rooted in the text; and, Wagner the Musician, who expresses drama through music. Through this distinction, we can understand which Wagner constructed Bayreuth and how this effects our interpretation of its function. Wagner’s philosophical development, from anarchist to Schopenhauerian, chronologically and creatively parallels the transition from Librettist to Musician in his operas. As Bayreuth’s construction also spanned this conversion, it follows that performances at Bayreuth should reflect the influences of this transition; however, since their inception, Wagner’s operas have evaded conclusive interpretations. Cosima Wagner’s productions express the ideas of Wagner the Librettist, while Pierre Boulez’s interpretations demonstrate those of Wagner the Musician. Through an analysis of acoustic theory; Wagner’s compositional style and philosophical development; and, the performance history of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth, I will demonstrate that Bayreuth’s architecture was originally conceived to fulfill the vision of Wagner the Librettist. However, reflecting Wagner’s aforementioned transition— from anarchist to Schopenhauerian—it ironically elevates the music above the libretto, fulfilling the vision of Wagner the Musician.