The first music Ludwig heard of Richard Wagner’s was the opera Lohengrin performed at the court theatre in Munich. For the romantic and imaginative and fifteen-year-old, it was almost a spiritual experience. He was enraptured.
Three years later, in 1864, Ludwig became King of Bavaria. His father was barely cold before Ludwig sent his principal private secretary, Pfistermeister, to find the composer and invite him to Munich. Wagner had been travelling around Europe, struggling to get his works performed and put bread on the table. Poor Pfistermeister had a hard time with his commission because Wagner, as usual, was having money difficulties and didn’t want to be found. It required a great deal of travel, and patience, on the secretary’s part, but eventually he ran his prey to ground, handed him a letter and gold ring from Ludwig and asked if he wanted to go to Munich. Wagner must have tripped over his feet in his rush.
The following day the two met at the Residenz for the first time and it was a dream come true for both. Thus began the odd friendship between the sensitive boy-king and the mercurial composer, thirty-two years his senior. What Ludwig saw in Wagner was a man who could bring the almost moribund tales of German folklore to brilliant life. What Wagner saw in Ludwig was a cash-cow. No, that’s not quite fair. In Ludwig, he found someone who understood him and his music as no other, with the exception of his wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt. But there is no doubt that Ludwig was a very generous patron and Wagner was a – not always grateful but always eager – receptacle of that generosity.
To Ludwig, Wagner was The Great Friend. To the people of Munich, he was a political hothead who had been chased out of Dresden for his left-wing activities. He was also seen as an impoverished parasite who was bleeding funds from their impressionable young monarch to support an extravagant lifestyle. No one saw him as the great composer he is today.
There were articles in the newspapers, gossip in the streets. Cosima, who was then Hans von Bulow’s wife, had a child that was believed (correctly) to be Wagner’s. Ludwig had no idea about the relationship between the two. Wagner finally went too far when he started interfering in politics, just as he had in Dresden, by trying to get rid of the prime ministers and the private secretary who had wandered all over God’s Acre to find him and bring him to Ludwig. The prime minister threatened to resign unless Wagner was sent away. As besotted as he was by the composer, Ludwig never allowed his influence to extend into the political arena. Wagner lost that battle and left Munich.
Between the time they first met and when Wagner was sent away, a period of nineteen months, Wagner received from Ludwig forty thousand florins, just over one-eleventh of the king’s private income for the period.
Wagner’s exile lasted six years. During that time they wrote continuously. Ludwig visited Wagner at his new home on Lake Lucerne and Wagner paid several visits to Munich. There the two discussed plans to build a new theatre in Munich that would be worthy of Wagner’s epic works. The Muncheners didn’t want it, so the foundation stone of the Festival Theatre was laid by Wagner outside the little town of Bayreuth on his fifty-ninth birthday. When the project ran out of funds, Ludwig donated three hundred thousand marks (fifteen thousand pounds).
On the evening of August fifth, 1876 the new theatre opened with the first complete performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In spite of the defects of character in both men; in spite of the demands and egotism of genius, the quarrels and separations, the friendship between the king and the composer lasted until February thirteenth, 1883, when Wagner died in Venice of a heart attack. Ludwig was deeply grieved by the death of The Great Friend. He never heard Wagner’s music played again and covered all the pianos in his palaces with black crepe.
‘I have rescued him, and now hope that I have preserved for the world, in him, one of my best works.’ – Ludwig.
In my soon to be published novella Dark Spirit I have written about the last months of Ludwig’s unhappt reign.
All pictures are in the public domain.
Attribution of the third picture. By …trialsanderrors – Wagner Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Bavaria, ca. 1895, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11160764