The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: John W. Barker recounts his Excellent Adventure about Richard Wagner’s stays in Venice during the opera composer’s bicentennial celebration year.

November 14, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger 

Here is a special posting, a commentary (with his own photos except for the Palazzo) written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

John-Barker

By John W. Barker

At the beginning of September, I had the honor of participating in a two-day conference in Venice, Italy, on that city’s image and traditions, on the strength of my two recent books on opera composer Richard Wagner’s connections with that city.  (Among other things, he died there.)

With a little time to myself, I undertook some quick re-visits to favorite sites in this city I love so much.

Wagner 166 Canal view

In particular, I sought Wagner sites. Wagner loved Venice. Taking advantage of new transportation opportunities developed in his lifetime, he travelled widely. Much was for professional reasons, but he came to enjoy travel, and foreign residences, for pleasure and recuperation.

All such travel was to Italy, and Venice emerged as his favorite city there. He visited it six times. During the first stay, in 1858-59, he composed Act II of “Tristan und Isolde” (see the YouTube video at the bottom) and the sixth, in 1882-83, ended with his death there.

In that final stay, Wagner and his family occupied some 27 rooms that he leased in the mezzanine of the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi on the upper Grand Canal.

Palazzo Vendramin

That majestic building is now the Casino, Venice’s gambling palace.  But the Associazione Richard Wagner di Venezia, Italy’s primary institute for Wagner studies, has taken over several of the rooms that Wagner used and restored them in period style, complete with some displays of Wagneriana. Guided visits are allowed there, by application, on a very limited schedule. I had visited the rooms a few years ago, but the news that two more were added prompted my desire to return, and a visit was arranged for me and a colleague.

The exhibit rooms now consist of a straight-line string of four chambers, plus a small side cabinet. These had all been reserved for Wagner’s personal use. The photo taken on my last visit shows the second room, looking toward the first.

Wagner sofa

From written sources, I had understood that Wagner had used a single large room, with drapery partitions. This represented what he called his “Blue Grotto,” his personal hideaway for purposes of isolation and work, amid the lavish luxury of the precious fabrics and perfumes that he loved. But the surviving rooms–which I am assured have not been structurally altered–indicate they were separable by doors.

So I conclude that the first room was intended for reception of visitors, the second for his personal work, and the third as his bedchamber, where he had a huge ottoman created for his repose. To that his dying body was transferred on Tuesday afternoon, February 13, 1883, after he collapsed on a sofa, a recreation of which can been seen in that photo, or up close here.

Wagner 119 sofa

The original is now in Wahnfried, the Wagner family home in Bayreuth, Germany.

From the bedroom, the view now extends into the first of two added chambers.

Wagner 123 bedroom

The distant room to be seen (with his portrait on the wall) I take to be the location of his enormous wardrobe.

There have been no signs that Wagner’s ghost haunts these rooms, but for those who love his music there is something quite moving about visiting this place where the composer breathed his last. The ARWV deserves great praise for reviving this milieu for us.

Wagner’s death was unexpected. The fact that it happened in Venice served to complete a picture of the composer’s identification with that city. For, in his own way, Wagner now became assimilated into Venice’s rich traditions. As his music proceeded to acceptance in Italy, so his memory was assiduously cultivated by Venice.  Memorial concerts were held, the anniversary of his death commemorated for decades, and monuments and markers set up. No other foreigner has so many of the latter in Venice as does Wagner.

Among those was a marble bust of the composer, mounted in the Giardini Pubblici, or Public Gardens, at the eastern end of the city.  Unveiled on October 8, 1908, in the 25th anniversary year of Wagner’s death, the monument was largely financed by a wealthy Berlin admirer of the composer’s music, and supported by the resident foreign community of Venice.

Then, on April 24, 1908, adjacent to the Wagner bust, a marble counterpart representing Giuseppe Verdi was unveiled. This monument was apparently a civic commission, and presumably represented a nationalist riposte to the previous year’s attention to a foreign artist.

The two busts are located parallel to each other in a little alcove overlooking the waters of the Lagoon.

Wagner 145 Two Busts

They are so positioned that neither man looks at the other, as if to avoid any recognition of a rival.  Verdi’s expression is one of slight puzzlement, while Wagner gazes imperiously out over Venice’s Bacino, as if in command of it.

Whenever I am in Venice I try to visit this complex, but it had special meaning this time.  For I had heard that the two busts — Wagner is below top, Verdi below bottom — had recently been defaced. Sure enough, on each bust the nose has been smashed off.

Wagner 148 bust

Wagner 152 Verdi bust

Clearly, this was not random vandalism, but a deliberate and carefully executed act of parallel animosity. Just when these defacements occurred, and just who was responsible, I have yet to find out. It is not clear if and when the damages will be repaired–things like that take a long time in Italy.

There are ever so many reasons for one to visit Venice. But, for devout Wagnerians, reminders of the Master’s intense associations with that city are very much to be kept in mind.

They certainly are for me.


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