The 1903 fiasco of a festival for the Richard Wagner monument

Anton von Werner: Die Enthüllung des Richard-Wagner-Denkmals in Berlin (1908)

monument for Richard Wagner, and the first for any composer in Berlin, was unveiled as part of a five-day festival in 1903. (A Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven Denkmal followed in 1904.) The statue of Wagner was by the sculptor Gustav Eberlein, who had also made some of the figures of German heroes and leaders lining the Siegesallee. Wagner is portrayed as a seated figure 2.7 meters high with characters from his operas surrounding the pedestal. The figure of Wolfram von Eschenbach was added at the suggestion of the Kaiser, who also provided a sketch. The statue is located in the Tiergarten, now with a roof over it for protection.
The lurid painting of the unveiling was by another of the Kaiser’s favorite artists, Anton von Werner.1The painting reminds me of the products of Thomas Kinkade, “painter of light,” and the sculptures carved out of butter at the Minnesota State Fair. It is about 7.5 X 10.2 feet in size. The most prominent figures in the painting are of artists who were present at the ceremony. Also pictured is the Kaiser’s second son, Prince Eitel Friedrich. He is the figure stepping toward the central master of ceremonies, and next to him in the light blue uniform is the honorary president of the festival, Prince Friedrich Heinrich of Prussia (who had taken over this role after Prince Ludwig Ferdinand of Bavaria cancelled). The Kaiser himself was not present, nor were any members of the Wagner family, who did not sanction the monument or its surrounding festivities.2For the Wagner family position on the matter, see Henry Thode, “Wie ist Richard Wagner von deutschen Volke zu feieren,” Die Musik II (1903): 251.The monument was paid for by the Kommerzienrat Ludwig Leichner, who supposedly spent half a million marks for the privilege. Leichner had started out as an opera singer, but in the early 1870s resumed his studies in chemistry, which enabled him to create lead-free cosmetics. After a factory was built for large-scale production in 1873, he became extremely wealthy. Leichner conceived of the monument as a memorial to his own operatic career as well as to Wagner.

This satirical picture of the statue presents it as an advertisement for Leichner’s “Fettpuder” (greasepaint).3Die Denkmäler Berlins und der Volkswitz; humoristisch-satirische Betrachtungen (Berlin, 1904)

The Musical Courier “scooped” the unveiling by featuring the statue on the front page of its September 16th issue. After the official unveiling, the reports in some of the German music journals tried to put a positive spin on it. However, the American paper did not hesitate to pronounce that “the festival as a whole proved more or less of a fiasco, not to say a farce.”4Musical Courier, October 6, 1903. Numerous cancellations and last-minute substitutions, but also poor planning from the outset, had led to this outcome.

Due to the Wagner clan boycott, their most cautious supporters also cancelled. This included Richard Strauss, Arthur Nikisch, Felix Mottl, Karl Muck, Hans Richter, Fritz Steinbach, Antonin Dvorák, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saëns, Moritz Moszkowsky, Lilli Lehmann, Marianne Brandt, the director of the Brussels Conservatory, F.A. Gevaert, and the President of the Royal Academy of Music, Sir Alexander C. Mackenzie. Government officials who cancelled included the French and American Ambassadors, the Lord Mayor of London, the President of the Reichstag, and the Mayor of Hamburg.5Neue Musikalische Presse 12 no. 3 (10 February 1903): 50.

The guest list of international VIPs was subsequently a curious mix of various kinds of government and music officials, including the German Ambassador in Paris, Prince Hugo von Radolin; the delegate of the Italian Ministry of Education, the Count of San Marino and Valperga; Chamberlain Count A. Burén, Intendant of the Royal Theater in Stockholm; Lieutenant Colonel Don Felix Arteta, President and delegate of the Philharmonic Society in Madrid; the City of London’s delegate, the High Sheriff Sir Thomas Brooke-Hitchings; the Lord Chamberlain Sir Joseph Savory, and the chairman of the London Council of Aldermen, Sir Pratt Alliston.6Zeitschrift der Internationelen Musik-Gesellschaft 5 no. 2 1 January 1903, 83.

Day One: The festivities began on 30 September at the Reichstag, a questionable and acoustically unfavorable location. The opening reception “was a most inauspicious not to say inappropriate affair from a musical viewpoint”: after the Wagner Kaisermarsch there were “several music creators of pronounced anti-Wagnerian tendencies.” Most of the soloists were past their prime, with the exception of Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who sang Schubert’s “Die Allmacht.”

Day Two: The ceremony for the monument’s unveiling on the following day began with 400 military musicians playing Wagner’s Kaisermarsch. This was followed by the final chorus from Die Meistersinger, “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister,” in an arrangement for Männerchor with military band; 900 members of German singing societies combined for this piece. After the monument was revealed, the gigantic male chorus intoned the hymn from Die Meistersinger, “Wach auf, es nahet gen den Tag.”

Day Three: On Friday October 2, three concerts took place with three different orchestras. The morning concert was supposed to feature Beethoven’s Ninth with the Königliche Kapelle under Weingartner, but instead a small audience heard the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Karl Pohlig from Stuttgart. The afternoon concert was performed by the Festival Orchestra of Braunschweig, conducted by H. Riedel. This program included Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and the Brahms First Symphony. The evening concert of Berlioz and Liszt had been announced as the Berlin Philharmonic under Nikisch, but was instead conducted by Gustav Kogel, who programmed Berlioz and Strauss.

The only indisputable success of the festival was a “glorious” performance that evening of Die Meistersinger at the Königliche Oper, conducted by Richard Strauss and with Ernst Kraus as Walter, Emmy Destinn as Eva, and Theodor Bertram as Sachs.

Day Four: Sunday’s activities began at noon with a sacred concert at the Singakademie, and in the evening there were two concerts at the same time. One was made up of Wagner overtures and excerpts sung by “famous singers”; the other was a gala of conductors and singers from all over the world. As part of the latter, the Musical Courier reported,

Winogradsky, the acrobatic conductor from Kieff, gave a gymnastic reproduction of Tschaikowsky’s much too lengthy and hapless “Francesa da Rimini” fantasy, managing to keep his coat on all the while, although he split his swallowtail, knocked off his eyeglasses several times and vainly tried to jump out of his own skin.

The festival concluded that evening with a big traditional closing celebration with two orchestras, chorus, and military band.

Besides the problems with the Wagner family, the timing of the festival clashed with two other music congresses that did not wish to be associated with the Wagner event. The Musical Times reported, “The intention of holding an international musical congress during which the Festival connected with the unveiling of the Wagner monument in the first week of October does not meet with the approval of many eminent musicians. A document to that effect bears among others the names of Dr. Joachim, Max Friedlaender, E. Vogel, F.X. Haberl, H. Kretzschmar, W. Nagel, A. Sandberger, Ph. Wolfrum, Generalmusikdirektor F. Steinbach, and Prof. J. Stockhausen.”7Musical Times (September 1, 1903): 610. It was also reported that Joachim had been invited to be part of the festivities as a member of the international committee of honor, but he declined, claiming Cosima Wagner would not wish it.8Musical Courier 47 (1903): 11-13. Both the International Music Congress and the Music Pedagogy Congress were eventually rescheduled for later in the month.

Joachim had been central to the establishment of monuments of Bach (1884), Schumann (1880),  Mendelssohn (1892), and the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven monument (1904). He was an extremely successful fund raiser for these, his favorite causes. This will be the topic of another post!

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5 thoughts on “The 1903 fiasco of a festival for the Richard Wagner monument

  1. So, why exactly was it a fiasco? Was it because the Wagner family boycotted? (Why exactly did they not participate?). Why did so many not want to be associated with it at a time when Wagnerism was at a high point?. Really interesting case study.

    1. The Wagner family was offended that a cosmetics manufacturer was the sponsor. The Musical Courier referenced a pamphlet by Henry Thode that explained that this was not the way for Germany to honor Wagner. I just added to the post a cartoon of the statue covered with slogans for Leichner’s face powder.

      1. Interesting. I don’t think Richard would have minded at all. He didn’t seem particularly squeamish about the source for his funding.

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