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Many music-lovers know the famous story of Richard Wagner's birthday present to his beloved wife, Cosima--the performance of a new composition in the stairwell outside her bedroom on Christmas morning, 1870. Those scholars who have read Cosima's diary might also know that the baton Wagner used to conduct the ensemble was engraved by a local artisan to memorialise the event (Figure 1). Only a handful of people, however, know that the engraved baton was found by an American soldier in the rubble of the bombed-out Wagner home in Bayreuth in April of 1945. We invite you to join the inner 'baton circle' to learn what happened to the little wooden stick after that... and how it found its way home again.

The three chapters of the baton story are recounted here through the voices of three women: Cosima Wagner, her daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, and destiny's appointed baton-guardian, Hannah Jo Smith.

The original owners of the baton, Richard and Cosima Wagner (Figure 2), were a nineteenth-century power couple--the center of a universe of their own design. Surrounding himself with disciples affirming his genius, Wagner engendered devotion to the point of idolatry. While the extraordinary family legend includes multiple scandals, adultery, out-of-wedlock births, anti-Semitism, and money problems, the Wagners maintained control of their sphere with the support of the Prince, the Emperor, and later, the Fuhrer. Hidden photographs, family arguments, and composer-worship emerge as illuminating details against the background of mythic texts and transcendent music.

Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt, daughter of the Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt, married her father's prize student, Hans von Bulow. On their honeymoon, the newlyweds visited von Bulow's idol, Richard Wagner. Years later Richard and Cosima began their love affair, and Cosima had three children with Wagner--Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried--all named for characters in Wagner's operas. A year after Siegfried's birth, von Bulow granted Cosima a divorce and she and Richard were married. The couple made their home in Tribschen, Switzerland, near Lucerne.

Here, the Wagners developed a family tradition of marvelous birthday parties.
Cosima's diary entry of 22 May 1869 describes such a celebration for
Richard's birthday: Cosima: In the night set up R.'s bust,
surrounded by flowers. Early in the morning [our friend] Richter blew
Siegfried's [horn] call. Then the children were lined up as heralds of
peace, and finally, at 10:30, the Paris quartet. R. very surprised and
delighted. In the course of the day they play the B Minor, the A
Minor, and the C-sharp Minor Quartets [of Beethoven]. I felt only like
weeping. Telegrams from the King and from Hungary. The day goes by
like a dream (1).

The Wagners married in August of 1870, and when Cosima's December birthday drew near, Richard felt compelled to outdo previous celebrations. He composed a piece combining themes from his opera, Siegfried, a lullaby he wrote for his children, and musical memories of the birth of their son. The full title in the score is 'Tribschener Idyll with Fidibirdsong and orange sunrise as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima, offered by her Richard, 1870' (2). Wagner secretly rehearsed a fifteen-member ensemble and lined them up on the stairs of the house on Christmas morning to perform.

Again, Cosima wrote about the event in her diary.
Cosima: About this day, my children, I can tell you nothing--nothing
about my feelings, nothing about my mood, nothing, nothing. I shall
just tell you, drily and plainly, what happened. When I woke up I
heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself
in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died
away, R. came in to me with the five children and put into my hands
the score of his 'Symphonic Birthday Greeting'. I was in tears, but
so, too, was the whole household; R. had set up his orchestra on the
stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! The Tribschen
Idyll--thus the work is called.--... After breakfast the orchestra
again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower
apartment, moving us all profoundly...; after it the Lohengrin wedding
procession, Beethoven's Septet, and, to end with, once more the work
of which I shall never hear enough!--Now at last I understood all R.'s
working in secret, also dear Richter's trumpet (he blazed out the
Siegfried theme splendidly and had learned the trumpet especially to
do it), which had won him many admonishments from me. 'Now let me
die', I exclaimed to R (3).

This unique performance is an oft-repeated story from Wagner's life--a story symbolising love of wife and family. The Wagners wanted a memorial of this special day and sent away the baton that Wagner used for the performance to be engraved. Six weeks later, on 2 February 1871, Cosima noted parenthetically in her diary: 'Arrival of the engraved conductor's baton used for the Idyll' (4). The couple had a souvenir of the performance.

The next chapter of the baton story is set in 1945, but many things happened in the interim. The Wagners moved to Bayreuth, Germany in 1872 and began to build the Festspiel haus, an auditorium designed specifically for the performance of Wagner's music dramas. King Ludwig II of Bavaria enabled the couple to build a home in Bayreuth, christened Wahnfried (Figure 3) and hallowed with Wagner's inscription: Here where my delusions (Wahnen) have found peace (Frieden), let this place be named Wahnfried (5).

Cosima was saddened when financial problems led to the publication of the intimate birthday work under a new title, Siegfried Idyll. In 1883, Richard Wagner suffered a heart attack and died at the age of seventy, leaving his wife to take over the directorship of the Bayreuth Festival--a summer festival of Wagner's music--and to guide five children into adulthood. In 1915 her son Siegfried, age forty-six, married the eighteen-year-old English orphan, Winifred Williams. Cosima lived to the age of ninety-two, dying in 1930; Siegfried died just months after his mother, leaving the family legacy to Winifred.

Winifred Wagner, mother of four and widow of Siegfried, is the flawed heroine of the next part of the baton story. Like Cosima before her, she held of the flame of Wagner's music, directing the summer festival in Bayreuth and preserving the house and grounds of Wahnfried. In the 1920s, she and her family had befriended a young, charismatic politician, Adolf Hitler, who was enamored of Wagner's music and philosophical writings. Bayreuth evolved into a cultural center of Germany, and the town, along with Wagner's music, became important to the Third Reich as a symbol of German identity.

While bombs were falling elsewhere in Germany in the 1940s, Bayreuth seemed safe, because it was not a political or military center. However, it was an emblematic heart of Germany, and on 5 April 1945, bombers aimed their sights at this vital target. Winifred's role in the saga is imaginatively assembled using two sources, Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth, by Brigitte Hamann (Orlando: Harcourt, 2005) and a documentary film interview, Winifred Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried, 1914-1975, by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (Munich: Syberberg Filmproduktion, 1976).
Winifred: Oh what a terrible time it was, a terrible time when the
bombs fell on Bayreuth. Let me tell you about it and about what
happened to the master's precious belongings. When I became a member
of this family, Cosima had kept the house, Wahnfried, almost like a
living museum where not one chair, not one book was moved from where
it had been when Wagner died (6). Even his spectacles stayed where he
always left them (7). I adore Wagner's music, and I'm the head of the
family now, the head of the festival, and the keeper of the archives.
I put the archives--scores, letters, and other documents--into
fire-proof cabinets and hired an archivist from Bayreuth to organize it
all (8). So many precious things we had, from the master. And in 1945
the war was just going downhill--downhill. I hadn't seen my dear Adolf,
Wolfi, since 1940, although he did see my children. I think I offended
him by asking to save some of our Jewish singers so that they could
perform at the festival. Do you know that they put my doctor to death?
But Himmler did it, not Hitler. I don't want to think about it.
I was worried about those precious documents! And about the family. We
hadn't had any bombs in Bayreuth, but I decided to send as many
treasured scores and letters as possible to our retreat in
Warmensteinach, twenty kilometers east in the Fichtelgebirge. My son
Wolfgang and I took some valuable items and paintings to the basement
of the Hospital and other pieces to my friend's mansion, Wiesenfeld
(9). My older son, Wieland, took his family and my daughter Verena to
our house at Lake Constance with the score of Tristan and the master's
correspondence with Liszt.
Then that horrible day, the 5th of April, when the planes came with
their bombs... I rushed to the basement of the Siegfriedhaus next to
Wahnfried. Others who were out and about took shelter under a bridge.
Wahnfried was destroyed! I remember stepping out of the basement,
looking at Wahnfried, and saying 'Well, that's it then' (10). The
whole back wing of the house. Terrible, terrible. Wolfgang's wife
Ellen was expecting. I took her to our place in the mountains for her
safety, as Wolfgang began shoring up the house. But the bombers came
to Warmensteinach, and Ellen went into labor. I escaped into the woods
with my newborn grandchild, while Ellen was taken to the cellar (11).
To remember that day makes me shudder.
Back in Bayreuth the Americans came, and there was looting, you know.
Even by Bayreuthers and the liberated prisoners. Silver, linens,
pillows, clothes--the looting defied description. What a time! (12)
The American soldiers moved into what was left of our beloved
Wahnfried. Lived there for twelve years in our house. They had
entertainments every evening, German girls, dances. It was like an
officer hotel. When they moved on, hardly any of our furniture was
left (13).
At those horrible denazification trials they prosecuted me for being a
beneficiary (14), and people said, considering my friendship with
Adolf, I was lucky to get off that easily. As a result of the trial, I
couldn't run the festival or even own property any more. I had to hand
it all over to my sons.

On 14 April 1945 when a division of the American Army entered Bayreuth to clear it, the residents displayed white flags of surrender from the buildings. One young officer, Captain Robert Pearson was with the troops that day and years later swapped war stories with his friend and colleague Dr. Philip Smith, Hannah Jo Smith's father (Figure 4).
Hannah Jo Smith: Time and memory are an ethereal combination--when we
don't have all the details of a story, our imaginations provide us with
ideas to tie up the loose ends. In that light, here's the story as I
remember it:
While I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, School of
Music, I was visiting my parents during a holiday break. There was
something precious my father wanted me to see, so we walked over to Bob
Pearson's place, about three doors down from our house. Dr. Pearson had
a display case in his front room with various small treasures from
around the world. He opened the glass lid, handed me an odd-looking
stick and spoke about his time in Germany at the end of the war. He
explained that, after the bombing of Bayreuth, the troops began moving
from house to house, surveying the damage, searching for survivors and
those who might be hiding from the Americans. When they got to the big
mansion, they noted it was only partially destroyed and went upstairs
to see if anyone was still in the building. The soldiers, upon finding
SS officers' uniforms in an upstairs closet, began ransacking the
premises, throwing goods and furniture out into the rubble. Captain
Pearson came along and quieted the mayhem, reminding the men of their
duty to keep the peace, complete their assignment and not participate
in such shenanigans. When calm was restored and the troops were on
their way to the next property, Pearson bent down, picked up the little
stick and slipped it into the inner pocket of his jacket. He explained
to me that this scene had played out at the home of the composer,
Richard Wagner. In examining the stick, I noted it was engraved for
Christmas Day, and asked what 'Tribschener Idyll' might mean. I learned
that this was a conductor's baton and had been engraved to memorialise
a performance. I admired the trophy appropriately and Bob returned the
stick to the display case.
We Smiths were cognoscenti--members of the inner baton circle. We'd
hypothesise and joke about Bob's baton, suggesting he could really
impress the folks at Antiques Roadshow. While watching the epic Wagner
mini-series from 1983, my mother noted that Richard Burton waved his
hands to conduct the Christmas morning stairwell performance. She
laughed, 'They didn't know he needed a baton! It's been missing since
Sometime in the mid- to late-1990s, my parents came to Nebraska and
brought me a gift. A birthday gift? A Christmas gift? I don't
remember. My dad presented me with a small display case constructed
with a mirror along the back face. Mounted in the middle of the case,
so that one could read the engraving in the mirror, was the Wagner
Baton! For me?!? I was astounded. How did you get this, Dad?!? He
offered that he had traded some priceless correspondence for the
baton. In the '50s, my dad had done research on the use of
psychotropic drugs, and eventually wrote a book, Chemical Glimpses of
Paradise, and he had an exchange of letters with the author Aldous
Huxley, whose best-selling novel, Brave New World, told of a society
managed by soma, an LSD-like drug. The personal notes from Huxley to
Dad were extremely valuable. However it came about, I was both
thrilled and delighted to have this treasure that my dad had arranged
to get--for ME!
I took the baton to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music
to show it off a little to faculty members and my graduate student
colleagues. Most listeners were very enthusiastic, but one professor,
quashed my excitement: 'You better hope the German government doesn't
find out you have this--war booty is illegal, you know'. I took the
baton home and kept my mouth shut.
Eventually, it went to our bank vault, residing in secret darkness for
many years. My friend, Anita Breckbill, had mentioned her brief School
of Music baton-encounter to her husband David, a Wagner scholar and
regular contributor to the Wagner Journal. Dave asked if he might
'meet' the baton, and I recall going to the bank to retrieve it before
arriving at the Breckbill's home. Dave helped me to understand the
significance of this artifact, showing me the citation in Cosima's
diary and explaining how the Tribschener Idyll and the Siegfried Idyll
were one-and-the-same.
Out of respect for my father and Dr. Pearson, I kept the baton out of
sight and frankly, out of mind. After my father's death, I contacted
Bob Pearson to get a refresher course on the acquisition of the baton.
Clearly, Bob didn't want to talk much about this event. 'I stole it',
he began. 'You what?' 'Ummm, I stole it'. I started taking notes
(Figure 5): 'He stole it... Wagner's home, 1945. We were an armored
division. Several entered W's home in Bayreuth... rack of batons...
room had been bombed... artillery? Much destroyed... # of batons.
FED ACT: Loot has to be returned to the German Gov't'.
After Bob Pearson died in 2013 at the age of 90, I began to think more
seriously about the future of things in my safe-deposit box. My son's
comment was this--what good does it do for this historical artifact to
be in a bank in Lincoln? It belongs in a place where people can see it
and appreciate its significance. Take it home to Bayreuth!

So what is an American to do with a precious artifact picked up in World War II that she would like to return? We proceeded cautiously, drafting an e-mail to Sven Friedrich, the director of the Richard-Wagner-Museum Bayreuth. The holder of the baton remained anonymous while her colleague made the initial inquiry.

Ownership of the Idyll baton was unclear. It was war loot, and certainly could not be sold on the open market. The Wagner family archive, which would have included the baton had it been present, was sold in 1973 by Winifred and Wolfgang Wagner to the Richard Wagner Foundation, becoming public property and the core of the Richard-Wagner-Museum Bayreuth (15). Was the baton 'owned' by Hannah Jo Smith? By the Richard Wagner Foundation? By the Wagner family? We were delighted when Dr. Friedrich graciously replied to our e-mail immediately, making no argument regarding ownership of the artifact, but showing a strong interest in acquiring the baton for the museum.

As a result, 2018 was a remarkable year in the life of the baton. As guardians and couriers, we exhibited the baton at events of Lincoln's Symphony in Lincoln, Nebraska, and presented a form of this paper at colleges and professional organisations in the Lincoln area. At the University of Nebraska, our presentation was enhanced by an ensemble from the school performing Siegfried Idyll. NET, our statewide PBS and NPR stations, broadcast a radio story on the baton's return and are creating a piece for the television show, 'Nebraska Stories'. School-age children learned the story of the baton at a public library event, where they practiced conducting with their own batons made of paper straws. A form of this paper was presented at a regional conference of the Music Library Association in Reno, Nevada, and at the annual conference of the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML) in Leipzig.

At the conclusion of the IAML Congress, we traveled to Bayreuth, where the baton was presented to the RWM Bayreuth at a noontime reception on 31 July (Figure 6). Before a gathering of dignitaries in the Saal at Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth Festival music director, Christian Thielemann, took the baton to lead festival musicians in a performance of Siegfried Idyll. As honored guests, we Americans were treated to some perquisites--a personal tour of Wahnfried, access to the Wagner Museum, lunch with Maestro Thielemann and Dr. Friedrich, and a performance of Die Walkure at the Festspielhaus. We reveled in German media coverage of the baton's reception. Returning home, we met with a local columnist, Cindy Lange-Kubick, who wrote a feature on the baton for the Lincoln Journal Star (16). Just before Christmas we received confirmation from Dr. Sven Friedrich that the baton had been installed on permanent display in the Tribschen room at the RWM Bayreuth.

We often reflect on the German idea of Fugung--that is, destiny, coincidence or fate--and our good fortune in sharing the saga of the little wooden stick. This precious artifact, this magic wand used in the performance of Siegfried Idyll on the steps of Richard and Cosima's home, this symbol of their love--and of fabulous birthday parties--has returned to its home in Bayreuth, Germany to resume its place of honour and find its rest at Wahnfried.

Dr. Anita Breckbill is music librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Hannah Jo Smith is a member of the voice faculty at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska.

(1.) Cosima Wagner's Diaries, Vol. 1, 1869-1877, ed. and annotated Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 98.

(2.) 'Tribschener Idyll mit Fidi-Vogelgesang und Orange-Sonnenaufgang als symphonischer Geburtstagsgruss seiner Cosima dargebracht von ihrem Richard, 1870'. Richard Wagner. Siegfried Idyll, Bd. 1 (Luzern: Edition Rene Coeckelberghs, 1983), prefatory pages.

(3.) Cosima Wagner's Diaries, Vol. 1, 312.

(4.) Cosima Wagner's Diaries, Vol. 1, 331.

(5.) 'Hier wo mein Wahnen Frieden fand--Wahnfried--sei dieses Haus von mir benannt'--front facade of Haus Wahnfried.

(6.) Nike Wagner. The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty, trans. Ewald Osers and Michael Downes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 175.

(7.) Brigitte Hamann. Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Heart of Hitler's Bayreuth, trans. Alan Bance (Orlando: Harcourt, 2005), 123.

(8.) Ibid., 150.

(9.) Ibid., 390.

(10.) Ibid., 396.

(11.) Ibid., 399.

(12.) Ibid., 400.

(13.) Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. Winifred Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried 1914-1975 (Munich: Syberberg Filmproduktion, 1976), documentary film, pt. 2.

(14.) Syberberg, pt. 2.

(15.) Richard-Wagner-Museum Bayreuth (1982) and The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vaszonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 326.

(16.) Links to media coverage may be found at, accessed 29 June 2019.
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Author:Breckbill, Anita; Jo Smith, Hannah
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2019

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