Bayreuth Festival: Origin Story, Performance History, & Major Facts

Known in German as Bayreuther Festspiele, the Bayreuth Festival is an annual music festival that takes place in Bayreuth, Germany. It is primarily known for its performances of the operas of Richard Wagner, one of the most influential composers not just in Germany but also in Western music history. The festival was established by Wagner himself and has been held continuously since 1876.

Richard Wagner sought to create a unique environment for the performance of his operas, which he believed required a specific type of theater and audience. He designed and oversaw the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a specially-built opera house that remains the festival’s main venue to this day. The Festspielhaus features a sunken orchestra pit, concealed orchestra, and an arrangement that emphasizes the acoustics and visual experience of the performances.

The Bayreuth Festival has become synonymous with Wagner’s music, particularly his epic four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung). Each year, the festival presents a selection of Wagner’s works, attracting both renowned artists and enthusiastic Wagner enthusiasts from around the world.

Due to its historical significance and focus on Wagner’s compositions, the Bayreuth Festival holds a special place in the opera and classical music community. It continues to be an important cultural event, drawing audiences who appreciate the unique artistic experience it offers.

Bayreuth Festival

Bayreuth Festival Theatre (Festspielhaus) in Bayreuth, the festival’s main venue, in 2006

Bayreuth was not Wagner’s first pick for the venue

Wagner initially wanted to establish the festival in Munich. He then later considered Nuremburg as the city was the setting for Wagner’s music drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Master-Singers of Nuremberg”).

The Bavarian city Bayreuth was suggested by Austro-Hungarian operatic and orchestral conductor Hans Richter (1843-1916), who was an associate of Wagner. The city was chosen because of it had an amazing opera house – the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus). Built in the mid-18th century, the Baroque opera house is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Also, Bayreuth was chosen because it offered Wagner a great deal of financial independence as the city was not one of the German cities that rights to the performance of his own works.

Wagner chose Bayreuth because he hoped the festival would inject a bit of cultural life into the city. The composer was right, as the moment the festival was launched (in 1876), a lot of people started seeing the Bavarian city in different cultural light. Basically, Bayreuth offered Wagner the tranquility and peace to perform his works – away from the extremely bustling and busy cultural life of say Munich.

German composer Richard Wagner

The reason for constructing the Bayreuth Festspielhaus

The Wagners, who visited Bayreuth in the spring of 1870, initially wanted to use the Margravial Opera House; however, they found the opera house not to be in good acoustic state at the time. It was then decided that an entirely new opera house had to be constructed.

To secure the funds needed for the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Wagner spoke to a number of leading figures in Germany, including then German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). The meeting with Bismarck did not yield any real result. Therefore, the German composer went on a fundraising tour across Germany. The funds from the tour were then supplemented by contributions from members of the Wagner Societies through subscriptions.

Also, his former patron Ludwig II of Bavaria (1848-1886) made a handsome donation to the project.

Once the funds had been raised, the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was begun. The opera house, which was designed by German architect Gottfried Semper, was completed in 1876. The official name of the opera house is Richard-Wagner-Festspielhaus.

The Wagners

Richard and Cosima Wagner, photographed in 1872

The inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876

The first Bayreuth Festival took place in August 1876. The festival saw performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony. Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of four music dramas of Der Ring des Nibelungen, was also performed.

The inaugural event attracted many dignitaries, including Kaiser Wilhelm, the king of Prussia (reign: 1861-1888), and Dom Pedro II of Brazil (reign: 1831-1889). Also, Ludwig II of Bavaria and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attended. Nietzsche, a known associate of the Wagners at the time, however, described the event as a bit base and predictable.

Bust of Ludwig II of Bavaria

Bust of Ludwig II in front of Wahnfried, Richard Wagner’s villa in Bayreuth, which Ludwig had paid for. Ludwig was a massive patron of Richard Wagner.

The conductors who performed in 1876 include: Austro-Hungarian Hans Richter, Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, American classical composer Arthur Foote, Austrian composer and organist Josef Anton Bruckner.

The festival proved to be a huge commercial success right from the get-go. However, the success did not translate into financial success until several years later. This explains why Wagner did not hold the festival in 1877.

Regardless, Wagner managed to keep the festival above water kind courtesy of the support he received from Ludwig II of Bavaria.

A woodburytype of Austro-Hungarian composer Hans Richter by English portrait photographer Herbert Rose Barraud (c. 1880s)

Did you know…?

In 1876, he was selected as the conductor for the inaugural complete performance of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Hans Richter died at Bayreuth in 1916.

The Bayreuth canon

The term “Bayreuth canon” refers to the specific set of operas that are traditionally performed at the Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. These operas were exclusively composed by Wagner and are central to the festival’s repertoire.

The Bayreuth canon consists of the last ten operas composed by Richard Wagner during his career. Wagner intentionally omitted his first three works, namely “Die Feen” (The Fairies), “Das Liebesverbot” (The Ban on Love), and “Rienzi,” as he viewed them as early apprentice pieces that did not align with his later artistic vision.

The Bayreuth canon typically includes the following Wagnerian works:

  1. “Tristan und Isolde”: This opera is a romantic and emotionally intense tale of forbidden love between Tristan, a knight, and Isolde, an Irish princess.
  2. “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung): This epic four-opera cycle consists of “Das Rheingold” (The Rhinegold), “Die Walküre” (The Valkyrie), “Siegfried,” and “Götterdämmerung” (Twilight of the Gods). It tells a mythological story of gods, heroes, and magical artifacts.
  3. “Parsifal”: Wagner’s final opera, “Parsifal,” delves into themes of spirituality and redemption through the story of Parsifal, a knight on a quest for the Holy Grail.
  4. “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg): This comedic opera explores themes of art, tradition, and love within the context of the guild of master singers in medieval Nuremberg.

While these operas are considered core works of the Bayreuth canon, the festival occasionally includes other Wagnerian operas, such as “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin,” in its programming. The Bayreuth Festival’s dedication to presenting Wagner’s operas in a specific and controlled environment has contributed to the preservation and continued performance of these works, maintaining their significance in the world of opera.

List of directors of the Bayreuth Festival since Richard Wagner

Directors of the Bayreuth Festival since its inception in 1876. Image (from top left to bottom right): Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, Siegfried Wagner, Winifred Williams Wagner, Wieland Wagner, Wolfgang Wagner, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, and Katharina Wagner

The first director of Bayreuther Festspiele was Richard Wagner. The legendary composer served as director from 1876–1883. After his death in 1883, his second wife Cosima Liszt Wagner succeeded him. She served for about 25 years.

In April 2008, Wolfgang Wagner made the decision to relinquish his position in favor of his two daughters, Eva and Katharina. In 2015, Katharina Wagner, a great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, became the sole director of the festival.

The list of directors of the Bayreuth Festival in chronological order are:

  • Richard Wagner (1876-1883)
  • Cosima Liszt Wagner (1883–1908)
  • Siegfried Wagner (1908–1930)
  • Winifred Williams Wagner (1930–1945)
  • Wieland Wagner and Wolfgang Wagner (1951–1966)
  • Wolfgang Wagner (1967–2008)
  • Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner (2008–2015)
  • Katharina Wagner (2015–)
Cosima Wagner

Second wife of Richard Wagner, Cosima Wagner, in 1879, painted by Franz von Lenbach

Bayreuth Festival during the directorial years of Winifred Wagner, a known admirer of Adolf Hitler

Director of the Bayreuth Festival

Winifred Wagner was the wife of Siegfried Wagner. She served as director of the festival during World War II.

After her retirement, her son Siegfried Wagner became the director. His death that same year meant that his wife, English-born Winifred Marjorie Wagner (1897-1980), became the director. It is a known fact that Winifred Wagner was an admirer and friend of German dictator Adolf Hitler. The German Fuhrer was a big Wagner enthusiast himself. In the late 1930s, Winifred Wagner fulfilled the role of Hitler’s personal translator during treaty negotiations with Britain.

Despite the Nazi regime’s control, the Bayreuth Festival managed to maintain a degree of artistic independence. Ironically, Hitler himself attended performances that featured Jewish and foreign singers, even though they had been prohibited from performing at other venues throughout Germany. This included the acclaimed German heldentenor Max Lorenz (1901-1975), who, although was homosexual, was married to a well-known Jewish woman called Charlotte (Lotte) Appel. In a letter dated March 21, 1943, a senior Nazi party and government official Hermann Göring stated that the Lorenz’s were under his personal protection and explicitly instructed against any measures being taken against him, his wife, or her mother.

The Wagners' villa in Bayreuth

Wahnfried – The Wagners’ villa in Bayreuth, Germany

While Winifred Wagner maintained a strong personal loyalty to Hitler, she consistently denied any support for the Nazi party. Their relationship became so intimate that rumors of an impending marriage circulated by 1933.

Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner residence in Bayreuth, became a favored retreat for Hitler. He provided government assistance and tax exemptions to support the festival and treated Wagner’s children with care and consideration.

According to biographer Brigitte Hamann, Wagner was said to be “disgusted” by Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jewish population. In one of her letters during the late 1930s, she intervened and prevented the Gestapo from arresting German actress Hedwig and her husband Alfred Pringsheim. The couple’s daughter Katia was married to German novelist and philanthropist Thomas Mann.

READ MORE: How Hitler became Chancellor of Germany

The “New Bayreuth”

During the last days of World War II, Bayreuth suffered significant destruction due to American bombing, resulting in the loss of two-thirds of the town. This included the rotunda, living room, and guest room of Wahnfried, although the theater itself remained unharmed.

After WWII, Winifred Wagner, due to her affiliation with the Nazi Party, received a probationary sentence from a war court. Additionally, the court prohibited her from serving as the director of the Bayreuth Festival and its assets. In the end, the responsibility for the festival and its administration fell to her two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland.

During the period of American occupation after World War II, the theater was repurposed for recreational activities and other social services for American soldiers.

Director of the Bayreuth Festival

Wieland Wagner was director of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1966

After the Festival House was transferred to the city of Bayreuth in 1946, it was utilized for concerts featuring the Bayreuth Symphony Orchestra and performances of various operas such as “Madama Butterfly,” “Tiefland,” “Fidelio,” and “La Traviata.” Discussions about the possibility of reopening the Wagnerian Festival emerged during this time.

Ultimately, on July 29, 1951, the festival officially reopened with a performance by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, featuring Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This was followed by the first post-war rendition of Wagner’s opera, “Parsifal,” as per tradition.

Under the leadership of Wieland Wagner, a new era known as the “New Bayreuth” emerged, bringing about a truly revolutionary transformation. Traditional elaborate naturalistic sets were discarded in favor of minimalist and modern stage designs. These changes were even more radical than the alterations made before the war. Notably, the Bayreuth audience, for the first time in the festival’s history, expressed their disapproval by booing at the end of certain productions. This marked a significant shift in audience reaction and demonstrated the challenging and thought-provoking nature of the new artistic direction pursued by Wieland Wagner.

Wieland’s approach to the festival was met with criticism from some who claimed that he stripped it of its traditional pageantry. Conservatives, in particular, saw the departure from the “sacred German tradition” as nothing short of an outrage.

Wieland’s decision to remove the Germanic and historic elements from Wagner’s works has been interpreted as an effort to distance Bayreuth from its nationalistic past and create productions that possess universal appeal. While initially met with mixed reactions, over time, numerous critics have grown to appreciate the distinctive beauty found in Wieland’s reinterpretation of his grandfather’s works.

Did you know…?

The Bayreuth Festival was not always held annually; however, since 1951, the 75th anniversary season, the festival has been held annually.

Significance of the festival

The festival’s significance lies in several aspects. Firstly, it is a celebration of Wagner’s musical and theatrical genius, presenting his operas in a dedicated and meticulously designed theater, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The festival’s exclusive focus on Wagner’s works creates a unique immersive experience for attendees, capturing the essence of his visionary compositions.

Secondly, the festival has played a crucial role in shaping the interpretation and understanding of Wagner’s works. Over the years, renowned directors, conductors, and performers have contributed their artistic visions, leading to various innovative and thought-provoking productions. These interpretations have sparked discussions and debates, contributing to the ongoing evolution of Wagner’s legacy.

Furthermore, the Bayreuth Festival has become a symbol of tradition and heritage in the world of opera. It upholds Wagner’s artistic ideals and serves as a platform for nurturing new talent and fostering artistic growth. Many distinguished artists have made their mark at Bayreuth, enhancing their reputations and enriching the festival’s artistic legacy.

Lastly, the festival’s historical significance cannot be ignored. It has weathered numerous challenges and changes, including World War II and the post-war period. The controversies surrounding the Wagner family’s involvement with the Nazi regime have added a layer of complexity to its history.

However, the festival’s resilience and commitment to preserving Wagner’s artistic vision have allowed it to endure and remain a prominent cultural event.

Questions and Answers

Bayreuth Festival

Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1882

Here’s what you need to know:

What is the Bayreuth Festival?

It is an annual music festival held in Bayreuth in northern Bavaria, Germany. The festival sees the performances of operas by Richard Wagner.

Who conceived the idea for the festival?

The festival was established by Richard Wagner in 1876. The German established the festival in order to showcase his works to the public. It’s also said that the festival was Wagner’s way of establishing his financial independence after his expulsion from Munich.

What is the Bayreuth canon?

The Bayreuth canon comprises the final ten operas that Richard Wagner completed in his career. Wagner himself excluded the first three operas he composed – “Die Feen” (The Fairies), “Das Liebesverbot” (The Ban on Love), and “Rienzi” – considering them as early apprentice works and not representative of his mature artistic vision.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

The festival’s purpose was to showcase Wagner’s works as intended, with a focus on artistic integrity and a comprehensive approach to staging and performance.

Where is the venue for the Bayreuth Festival?

The festival is held annually at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house located in Bayreuth, Germany. It is renowned for being the purpose-built theater specifically designed to showcase the operas of Richard Wagner. The opera house was commissioned by Wagner himself and was constructed between 1872 and 1875.

Designed by the architect Otto Brückwald, under the guidance of Wagner’s vision, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was intended to provide an ideal acoustic and visual experience for Wagner’s music dramas. It features several unique design elements, including a sunken orchestra pit, hidden from view of the audience, which allows the music to emerge unobstructed. The auditorium has a horseshoe shape, providing excellent sightlines and focusing the audience’s attention on the stage.

Wagner was closely involved in the construction and design process of the Festspielhaus, ensuring that every aspect of the theater would contribute to the immersive and transformative experience of his operas.

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus was inaugurated on August 13, 1876, with the first complete performance of Wagner’s epic four-opera cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung).

Who is Richard Wagner?

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was a German composer, conductor, and theatrical director who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Western classical music. He is best known for his innovative approach to opera, his grand scale compositions, and his profound impact on the development of the art form.

Wagner’s works were characterized by their epic scope, complex musical structures, and integration of music, drama, and poetry. He sought to create what he called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “total work of art,” where all the elements of a production—music, staging, set design, and libretto—would come together to create a unified and immersive theatrical experience.

Some of Wagner’s most renowned operas include “Tristan und Isolde,” “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” and “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung), a monumental four-opera cycle. His compositions often explored themes of love, destiny, mythology, and the human condition.

Wagner’s ideas and theories about music and drama, as expressed in his essays and writings, had a profound impact on later composers and thinkers. His influence extended beyond the realm of music and into philosophy, literature, and cultural theory. However, Wagner’s personal life and political views, including his anti-Semitic beliefs, have also been the subject of controversy and debate.

Richard Wagner

To this day, Richard Wagner’s operas continue to be performed and celebrated worldwide, and his legacy as a groundbreaking composer and visionary continues to shape the world of opera and classical music.


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