Richard Wagner, Samtliche Briefe. Band 18: Briefe des Jahres 1866.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is one of the most debated and controversial personalities of the nineteenth century. He is also one of the most thoroughly investigated figures of European history. In addition to his creative work as a composer, Wagner's literary output was astonishing. When his writings and poems were published as the so-called Volksausgabe in 1911-16, the book series ran into sixteen thick volumes. A matter of its own is Wagner's vast correspondence. When the first volume of Samtliche Briefe came out in 1967, the editors estimated that there would be, in sum, 5,000 letters which would need 15 volumes. When the sixth volume came out in 1986, this figure had to be revised up to 12,000 letters which would cover at least 30 volumes. Now, when the 18th book is out, the editors are silent about the number of prospected volumes. Since volume 12, each book has contained letters from one year only, and the latest one covers the year 1866, including 310 letters and telegrams to 60 different addressees. The present volume has 736 pages. It might well be that the final Samtliche Briefe runs over 30 volumes, simply because of the fact that Wagner's productive years as the master of Bayreuth are still to come. If there will be one volume per year, the series will include at least 34 parts.
The year 1866 was a decisive turning point in Wagner's life. He had been invited to Munich by King Ludwig I in 1864, but his presence in Bavaria aroused opposition. In December 1865, three petitions demanded Wagner's deportation from Munich; the longest of the three, which included the signatures of more than 800 Munich residents, was submitted to Cabinet Secretary Franz von Pfistermeister on 8 December. Wagner's political influence on the young King was considered a dangerous and intolerable threat. Soon Ludwig had no alternative, and on 7 December he was forced to issue a decree requiring Wagner to leave the city immediately. Peter Cornelius described Wagner's departure as a dream evaporating into thin air: "When his carriage disappeared beyond the pillars, it was like the fading of a vision."
When January 1866 came, Wagner was again a refugee who was separated not only from Ludwig but also from his future wife Cosima von Bulow. Despite his deportation from Munich, Wagner's relationship to Ludwig and Cosima remained close which is revealed by the fact that almost half of the letters and telegrams written in 1866 were addressed to them. Ludwig received 27 letters and 39 telegrams, Cosima even more, 66 letters and 42 telegrams. Furthermore, it seems that, while the connection to Cosima was active throughout the year, Wagner's correspondence with Ludwig decreased considerably after July 1866. There were obvious reasons for this. In spring 1866, political tension between Austria and Prussia had been worsening, which on the other hand influenced Bavaria's position. Surprisingly, on 15 May, Ludwig telegraphed Wagner about his proposal to abdicate the throne in order to remain forever in Wagner's company. The proposal horrified Wagner, who urged the King to be patient and to continue to execute his duties to his subjects (pp. 154-156).
It seems that Wagner set particular expectations for Ludwig. He hoped that Bavaria could have a stronger political role in the future of Germany. This is revealed by the fact that, in June 1866, Wagner wrote a "political program" for the King. In fact, it would have been illuminating to publish this program together with the letters of June 1866, but now there is only a short notice about this in the commentary (p. 551). The program was a part of Wagner's attempt to place his King in the role of a policymaker, even though Ludwig was more reluctant than ever to take political action. In a letter to Hans von Bulow on 4 June, Wagner stressed that "Ludwig the Bavarian" should become "Ludwig the German" (p. 170).
Wagner seems to have believed in Bavaria's possibilities, until the Seven Weeks' War between Austria and Prussia broke out on 14 June 1866. Wagner disliked Bismarck as can be seen from his letter to Francois Wille on 20 June: he describes the Iron Chancellor as an "inferior copy of the un-German character" (p. 185). Thus, Bismarck does not only represent "un-Germanness", but he is--according to Wagner--a triple negation because he is simultaneously a copy and an inferior one!
On the eve of the war, Wagner was in close contact with Ludwig. He sent 16 messages to the King in May and 12 in June, but much fewer towards the end of the war, seven messages in July and none in August. It is obvious that Wagner, despite his critical remarks on Bismarck, started to turn into the Prussian side. In the summer of 1866, Prussia proved superior to the other German states. It is amazing to notice how soon Wagner started to speak in favor of his old enemy. In his letter to Ludwig on 26 July, he asked Ludwig to negotiate with the well-known Prussian-minded politician: "Appoint Prince Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst at once,--discuss the matter in detail with him and seek his advice" (p. 200).
The political intrigues of 1866 make the Volume 18 of Samtliche Briefe especially compelling to read, irrespective of the fact that most aspects are already known from previous research. Still, these letters show interestingly how Wagner's thinking changed after the turbulent years of Munich and also how his nationalist ideas began to influence his next music drama Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg that was more and more under process towards the end of the year.
Richard Wagner's Samtliche Briefe started in 1967 as a joint project between East and West German scholars. Undoubtedly there were many difficulties in tracing and collecting Wagner's letters before the fall of the Berlin Wall and only six volumes came out before 1989 (vols. 1-4, 6-7). After the political change, the old publisher VEB Deutscher Verlag fur Musik merged into Breitkopf & Hartel which continued publication after a while. Volume 5 had remained unpublished, but was finally published in 1993. Werner Breig created a new concept for the series in 1999, and the editorial process started to speed up. During the subsequent years, every volume of Samtliche Briefe has been exhaustively researched and carefully edited, and there seems to be an unwavering belief that one day the task will be completed. The present volume is a product of the new rise of the series and does not leave much to criticize. The only minus is, perhaps, that although more than half of the pages is devoted to commentaries and indexes, the contextualizing part, thematic commentaries, is rather thin, only 48 pages. It is evident however that Volume 18, as the whole series of Samtliche Briefe once completed, will be an indispensable reference work for historians of nineteenth-century music and culture.
University of Turku