A personal reminiscence of Bayreuth 1954-55

By Alec Cohen, Member No. 355

Alec and Aviva Cohen
Alec and Aviva Cohen

I first visited Bayreuth in 1954 and again in 1955 with my wife, Aviva. We had just finished our university studies in Perth, WA, had married in Sydney and were off to London in late 1953 as soon as we had saved money for the boat fare. It was like sailing into heaven. The rich concert life, the theatre, the prospect of Bayreuth, of live Furtwängler concerts, created a sense of youthful euphoria which lasted 2½ years before we returned to Perth and the sun.

Believe it or not, tickets to Bayreuth, including the performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony, presented no difficulties. It's worth remembering that the times were musically very rich. Sibelius and Richard Strauss were still alive, as well as the 20th century Russian composers. Callas and Flagstad were in full flight, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was at the beginning of his long career. Einstein was still alive. However, the cold war was a reality and Europe had just come out of its nightmare, having lost 40 million of its citizens. Evidence of the terrible conflict was very obvious - food rationing in England and devastation everywhere, especially in Germany. Wahnfried was a ruin.

We approached our visit with the enthusiasm that only youth can generate. We had listened to the ABC's annual broadcasts of Bayreuth, beginning in 1951. As an engineer, I was also fascinated by the prospect of experiencing the famous acoustics of the Festspielhaus. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of Wagner's genius. How could one man write his own poetry, compose the music, direct the musicians, train the singers how to sing and act, the dancers how to dance, etc etc, and top of it all by building his own theatre to his own ideas on acoustics and create a unique sound. I couldn't wait to experience the result.

We travelled by train to Bayreuth in 1954. I recall one ugly incident. Travelling with a fellow member of the English Wagner Society, we sat opposite a young German girl who spoke excellent English. In conversation, she said: "OK. Hitler did one good thing - he got rid of the Jews". That sticks in my memory as fast as all the wonderful memories of our first and subsequent visits. But, as if to compensate, for most of the operas we sat next to a German girl of our age who was alone. We began a friendship, which has lasted to this day.

Wieland Wagner's productions of Parsifal conducted by Knappertsbusch remains the greatest theatrical experience of my life. I clearly remember that Aviva and I were both completely overwhelmed by the first act. All we could do during the interval was to sit speechless on the slope of the Green Hill, embrace and shed a few tears.

The ninth of August 1954, prior to the second Ring cycle was the date of the long-anticipated performance of the 9th symphony, conducted by Furtwängler. I recall waiting for the bus on Maximillianstrasse. When a Festspielhaus bus arrived, a gnome-like ticket inspector called out: "This way to the 9th", as he ushered us into the bus. This was repeated at every stop. Was this musical heaven? I thought at the time what a privilege it was to be going to our very first performance of that work, in Bayreuth and with Furtwängler directing. It was, of course, magnificent - listen for proof to the 1951 Bayreuth performance still available on commercial CDs.

I remain intrigued to this day as to how Wagner's performance of the symphony on 22 May 1872 sounded in Bayreuth's Markgräfliches Opernhaus which only seats about 450 people - small by any standards. Yet Wagner seems to have assembled over 300 performers on the stage. We, though, were at the next best performance.

Wieland Wagner's production of the Ring, well established by its fourth year, was the talk of the opera world. Perhaps stimulated by the lack of money, the production was minimalist in the extreme - relying on virtually no sets, simple but beautiful lighting, acting, movement and spatial illusion to recreate and revitalise the operas. I am sure the grandsons felt that they were completing Wagner's work. Despite overcoming every possible obstacle the real world could throw at him, Wagner was not able to sweep away the trappings of the 19th century operatic style. Realism giving way to imagination was, no doubt, the underlying theme of the first post-war season.

The cast included Hans Hotter as Wotan, Astrid Varnay and Max Lorenz as Sieglinde and Siegmund, Martha Madl as Brunnhilde. Wonderful singers such as Greindl, Neidlinger, Weber and, believe it or not, one Birgit Nilsson or Ortlinde! Of course, it's impossible to comment on their performances but some impressions do stay clearly in my memory: the power and glory of Wilhelm Pitz's magnificent chorus throughout the season. However, I was not thrilled by the conductor of the Ring - Joseph Keilberth. There was I, all of 24 years old, passing judgement and saying to myself: "Where is Wagner? Why isn't he in the pit - he has just conducted the 9th; he can't be too far away. Why isn't he in there, stirring up the his incredible brand of magic (and cranking up the decibels)?" I suppose that was really asking too much; it was the only part of the dream that didn't come true!

The operas we experienced in 1955 were Lohengrin (Wolfgang), Tannhauser (Wieland), Der fliegende Hollander (Wolfgang). Again, the productions were simple and magical. Birgit Nilsson was Elsa - who could possibly forget that bridal procession starting what seemed like 50 metres in stage rear, lit only by small candles held by the chorus who escorted her to her tragic fate. Who could forget Astrid Varnay as Senta, the spinning song and sailors dance and chorus. And Yes - Dietrich Fischer-Diskau as Wolfram and the Venusberg ballet dressed only in body tights.

Unfortunately, the whole world of Wagner remains the subject of endless heated and pointless debate: his great works, his own life, and the lives of his descendants, his politics, and his anti-Semitism. It seems he will never rest in peace.

However, my memory of our first visit (perhaps clouded by youthful enthusiasm) was one of relative peace in the Wagner world. The grandsons stripped Bayreuth of the nonsense of the previous 50 years and started afresh. It seemed to me that the essence of the productions was an optimal synthesis of the music and the mythology. We just enjoyed the experience and will never forget it.

Alec and Aviva Cohen, Members no. 355
21 November 2000