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The Guardian 11 August 1876 - Report from the first Bayreuth Festival
Wagner wines, collars and cravats, and the man himself in a velvet cap: our report from the first Bayreuth festivalFrom the archive, 11 August 1876: The Guardian reports from the very first Bayreuth Wagner festival, presided over by the composer himself.
Baireuth [sic] is no ordinary city. The present capital of the Bavarian district of Upper Franconia was once the residence of the powerful Margraves of Brandenburg, and shows at once their impress in almost every quarter. Broad handsome streets wind away between stately stone buildings, picturesque towers, and ancient gabled houses that vie with each other in quaintness; the horizon to every street is a sunny slope of pine-clad hill. Especially did the splendour-loving Frederick in the long line of rulers do much to decorate the place, and to him it owes its parks, gardens, and public buildings.
The district has been the home of several great men in its time, and a monument to Jean Paul, who lived and died in the house opposite the one from which I am writing these lines, ornaments the Friedrich Strasse; but Jean Paul and all of the great both before and since his day are lost sight of to-day in the great blaze of Wagner’s name. Portraits of the composer and the singers who are to take part in the approaching festival adorn every shop. From each window frame his characteristic features stare one in the face. The cigar shops are selling but one form of pipe, meerschaum carved with the heroic features of Baireuth’s present idol; wines, cigars, hats, collars, cravats, &c. are all of the Wagner brand; and from the windows float snatches of the Nibelungen music.
Wagner rushes up to a singer in the midst of his or her part to say, in a sharp voice, 'No, no, no, not so; sing it so'
Wagner has laboured for very nearly thirty years upon the work he is now producing, slowly approaching his ideal; much of the music was composed more then a quarter of a century ago. For the Baireuth festival is the legitimate outgrowth of two desires on the part of its originator: viz. to found a distinctively national type of opera (i.e. dramatic music) and then to produce this opera free from the trammels which have been created and fostered during a century and a half by the nonsensical libretti and the “machine music” that marks much of the work of the Italian and French schools.
His theories I will not enter upon here, but these two ideas bring us to the origin of the festival when grafted on a third – a desire to erect a permanent temple at which all Germany might assemble once a year as the Hellenes of Old did at Olympia, to enjoy the votive offerings of German dramatic genius.
The first grand dress rehearsal took place on Sunday night, although the first actual dress rehearsal occurred a week earlier. Joining the band of profound-looking music lovers, I strolled up to the great theatre, and groped my way to my seat in the gallery. The anxieties of a nervous spectacled gentleman who was afraid that sufficient support had not been placed beneath the gallery, were hushed at the appearance of Herr Wagner. A curt bow, a few immaterial words in a low monotone, hardly audible from where I sat, relating to the opening of the dress rehearsals, at which the clatter of the comers had ceased and the noise behind the curtain silenced, a pause, then a rap, and the wonderful waves of undulating music which introduce the prologue to the trilogy “Das Rheingold” came floating up from the mysterious depths beneath the stage. The sinking of the orchestra gave a mellowness and unison to the music, without in the least diminishing the volume or dulling the tone. It seemed to flow and follow, growing fuller and grander, like the current of some mighty stream, until the curtain parted and the realistic effect of the scenery was added to the impressive power of music, and one really thought he saw the lonely depths of the Rhine, each crested wave lit with a golden light.
Of course there were the inevitable hitches and pauses consequent on any rehearsal, yet they were few and far between, and everything went most smoothly. Wagner, as stage director, sat normally in a chair at the side of the stage. He was dressed in light clothes, and wore his velvet cap. Suddenly he would shuffle across the stage with his hands beneath his coat tails, gesticulate violently to put more force into the orchestra, or rush up to a singer in the midst of his or her part and say, in a light sharp voice, “No, no, no; not so; sing it so:” and, suiting the action to the direction, would sing the part as it should be, or throw the necessary dramatic fire into the acting. All his directions were given with the aim of producing the greatest naturalness and through this, the most perfect power. The delighted audience sat in silence, and as they streamed out of the theatre on to the terrace and into the beer-room in their festal dress, the only word heard was “Herrlich” (glorious).
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