The most beautiful stretch of the river Rhine provided much of the inspiration for composer Richard Wagner’s finest music. And 2013 is his 200th birthday.
It is not easy to like Wagner, the man. Famously anti-semitic, rather self-centred and opinionated and something of a troublemaker, the composer had to spend some time in exile in Switzerland after he antagonized Saxony’s ruling dynasty.
But the composer’s music transcends his lifestory, and is particularly associated with a very beautiful section of Germany’s landscape. This main regional association is not with the area around Leipzig, where he was born, or Dresden, where he did much of his early work, but the stretch of the Rhine south of Bonn. This is where the river Rhine meanders its way between steep valley sides, lined with sloping vineyards, punctuated with attractive villages of half-timbered houses and dominated by the stern-looking fortresses and castles of robber barons, some of which date back to as early as the 9th century.
Every cruise boat on the Rhine will play snatches of Wagner
This combination of fabulous landscape, long history, and a treacherous, powerful river has spawned a lot of story-telling. Much of the Rhine legend was seized up on by Wagner as good material for his operas, particularly the story of the Loreley, a beautiful siren who would sit on the clifftop high above the river, combing her hair and singing seductively to passing boatmen. His Ring cycle of four operas is a story of a battle between the Gods, played out between the Nibelungen, a Burgundian race said to have lived on the banks of the Rhine. The Ring itself is forged from gold stolen from mythical Rhinemaidens.
Virtually every cruise boat on the Rhine will play snatches of Wagner – the ride of the Valkyries, or Siegfried’s funeral march – at some stage in their journey, but the composer himself didn’t hang around the Rhine valley. After his exile in Switzerland he was lucky to find a patron in the form of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II, and Bavaria was to become his home, eventually building his ideal opera house in the town of Bayreuth. This is where the Ring cycle is still performed every year, as part of the Wagner Festspiele, a month-long festival of only Wagner’s music. This exclusive festival is run by Wagner’s great grand-daughter, and attracts a cross section of Europe’s intellectual and cultural elite, although some high profile Germans can still be hesitant about attending. First-time visitors must apply in writing by October 15 the preceding year, and may wait years before they are granted tickets.
With 2013 the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, a whole series of concerts are planned for both Bayreuth and Leipzig. Details can be found here.