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“It was important to me, for the two exhibitions to be conceived in such a way, that we really travel back from the present, from the 21st century and from the 20th century, to their time, into the 19th century.”

Raphael Gross, President of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

Richard Wagner experienced and influenced the 19th century in many different roles – not only as a composer, but also as theatre reformer and festival founder, court musician and exile, anti-Semite and debtor, revolutionary and author, entrepreneur and critic of capitalism. As the exhibition shows, he proved to be an extraordinarily successful technician of feelings – in a position to register precisely the social and emotional conditions and to be able to react to them.

“Richard Wagner is without a doubt a great figure of modernism, a great figure of the 19th century. What we want to show, is Wagner as the inventor of modernity, Wagner as inventor of the so-called myth of modernity.”

Michael P. Steinberg, Curator

Four feelings that acted as driving forces for both Wagner’s ideas and the political and social conditions of the time form the core of the exhibition: Alienation and Belonging, Eros and Disgust. The four main chapters explore the question of how Wagner perceived these emotional conditions and reacted to them artistically.

“During the making, I was particularly amazed and fascinated, by how Wagner's story can also be told as a story of Wilhelminian times. Wagner can actually also be told as an entrepreneur of the 19th century, who places himself and his work as products on a market.”

Katharina J. Schneider, Co-Curator


Wagner was interested in the alienated individual – and here above all in the figure of the artist who derives the will to action through the experience of alienation. In his essay “Art and Revolution” – the original is on display in the exhibition – Wagner formulates his desire for both aesthetic and political renewal. This was also fed by his revolutionary experiences during the Dresden May Uprising of 1849. As a participant in the upheaval, he was wanted by the Saxon police, who counted him among the “politically dangerous individuals”. Wagner was able to flee to Switzerland and was not fully amnestied until some 13 years after the events.

But Wagner supported not only a political revolution – a far more pressing concern for him was a complete reform of the theatre. In the 19th century, theatre was present in public life in many different manifestations: from theatre of the royal court to popular forms such as peasant theatre or travelling and market theatre – as the genre painter Victor Zeppenfeld portrayed it in 1866. In the face of the precarious situation of the actors, Wagner had in mind a grassroots democratic reorganisation that would improve working conditions for the different theatre professions.

Singer Waltraud Meier and director Stefan Herheim about Alienation


Desire and possession were central concepts for Wagner and are presented in the exhibition under the heading Eros. During his lifetime the composer had already become famous, and infamous, for his many love affairs, whose entanglements and injuries are recorded above all in the correspondence with his wives and paramours. But “Eros” also plays a central role in his works.

“Klingsor’s magic garden has been found!” writes Richard Wagner on 26 May 1880 in the guestbook of the Villa Rufolo. He visited the house in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast during his stay in Italy. He was deliberately searching for a model for the garden in the so-called “consecrated stage festival play” Parsifal, which had only existed in his imagination until then – it is the place where the Flower Maidens woo Parsifal and in which Kundry wants to seduce him and lead him away from the path of virtue. The floral splendour of the garden is also visible in the model of the setting, as seen in the design by Paul von Joukowsky for the 1882 world premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth.

Singer Waltraud Meier and director Stefan Herheim about Eros


Collectively experienced emotions were of central importance to Wagner, especially since the founding of the Bayreuth Festival. He gathered his audience around him as if it were a “parish”, providing a setting for the feeling of “belonging” – and promoting the “Wagner brand” at the same time. “To found for the Germans their own theatre”, was the aim that Wagner proclaimed in his speech at the laying of the cornerstone for the Festspielhaus on 22 May 1872.

Wagner was not only thinking of his “parish” – belonging also plays a broader role for “folk” and “nation”. “For the first time I saw the Rhine, – with bright tears in the eye I, poor artist, swore eternal loyalty to my German fatherland,” wrote Wagner in his Autobiographical Sketch from 1842, and with that he meant above all his contempt for France. The nationalism of his time, particularly after the founding of the German Empire in 1871, was specially symbolised in the figure of “Germania” – who was portrayed in the visual arts, but also in everyday objects such as a pipe. Here a Wagnerian Valkyrie is enthroned on the elaborately carved meerschaum pipe stem, armed with sword and shield and crowned with oak leaves.

Singer Waltraud Meier and director Stefan Herheim about Belonging


The question of belonging leads to the further question of who should be excluded from the community – a topic of central importance for Wagner, which is presented in the exhibition in relation to the feeling of “Disgust”. With Wagner and many of his contemporaries, anti-Semitic ressentiments played an increasingly important role in the course of the 19th century. Wagner was an influential voice in anti-Jewish discrimination, which he advocated not least in the three different editions of his essay “Judaism in Music”. Shown in the exhibition are the original handwritten manuscript, the version from 1850 published under a pseudonym, a printed version from 1869, as well as a media station devoted to the topic.

With regard to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, it must also be noted that he kept contact with Jewish artists, particularly the conductor Hermann Levi, who conducted the world premiere of Parsifal on 26 July 1882, and who was portrayed by Franz von Lenbach in the manner of a medieval icon.

Also in reference to the topic of anti-Semitism in the exhibition is the installation “Schwarzalbenreich”, specially created by the principal director and intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin, Barrie Kosky. Out of the darkness of a room within a room come the strains of a sound collage of anti-Semitic Wagner quotes translated into Yiddish, mixed with passages from the antisemitically portrayed characters Alberich and Mime from the Ring des Nibelungen and Sixtus Beckmesser from the Meistersinger von Nürnberg, as well as synagogue singing.