The first in a short series of posts commemorating Wagner’s two-hundredth birthday, which falls on May 22nd. Above is the title page of Wagner’s “Grosser Festmarsch,” also known as the “American Centennial March,” written for the celebrations of 1876.
In his last years, Richard Wagner often spoke of immigrating to America. The composer had enthusiastically greeted the founding of the German Empire in 1871, but in the following decade, as Bismarck and the Kaiser failed to provide funds for his nascent festival at Bayreuth, his chauvinism waned, and he entertained the idea of escaping to the New World. Cosima Wagner, his second wife, wrote in her diary in 1880: “Again and again he keeps coming back to America, says it is the only place on the whole map which he can gaze upon with any pleasure: ‘What the Greeks were among the peoples of this earth, this continent is among its countries.’” In consultation with Newell Jenkins, an American dentist who had become a family friend, Wagner drew up a plan whereby American supporters would raise one million dollars to resettle the composer and his family in a “favorable climate”; in return, America would receive proceeds from “Parsifal,” his opera-in-progress, and all other future work. “Thus would America have bought me from Europe for all time,” Wagner wrote. The pleasant climate he had in mind was, surprisingly, Minnesota.
What might have happened if, against all odds, Wagner had realized his American scheme? The outcome is almost impossible to imagine, although some historical novelist should give it a try. Somehow, one pictures Wagner winding up in California. In the event, of course, he stayed put. “Parsifal” had its première at Bayreuth, in 1882, and the composer died the following year, his name and work destined to be woven into the fate of the German nation.
During his tempestuous life, Wagner lived in many cities across the Continent, leaving an indelible imprint on all of them. In Leipzig, Dresden, Paris, Zurich, Lucerne, Vienna, Munich, and Venice, among other places, you can go on Wagner walking tours, seeing the houses where he lived, the concert halls and opera houses where he conducted, and the meeting-places where he held forth and caused trouble. In recent weeks, as a kind of thought-experiment, I have been following ghost traces of Wagner in New York, a city that he never saw and probably would have hated. A case of authorial obsession is to blame for this peculiar undertaking: I am working on a book called “Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music,” an account of Wagner’s cultural impact. To be candid, the itinerary is often pretty dull, but it picks up interest toward the end, as signs emerge of hidden links between the Rockefellers and the Holy Grail.
Because of the heavy influence of German immigrants on nineteenth-century America, the stateside cult of Wagner started early. In 1854, while in Swiss exile, Wagner wrote delightedly to Liszt that he had heard tell of “Wagner nights” taking place in Boston; he was referring to a Grand Wagner Night presented by the Germania Musical Society, in December of 1853. The musicians of Germania, pictured above, had come to America in 1848, many of them left-wing idealists who, like Wagner himself, had taken part in revolutionary activity. Forty-eighters, as the revolutionaries were known, made up a significant portion of the German-American population; chief among them was Carl Schurz, who supported Lincoln, was elected a senator from Missouri, and served as Rutherford B. Hayes’s Secretary of the Interior. Interestingly, Wagner read about Schurz’s American career and approved of it, calling Schurz a “proper German.” Schurz, for his part, displayed a healthy ambivalence toward Wagner. Stopping in Zurich after his own flight from German lands, he steered clear of the composer, finding him an “excessively presumptuous, haughty, dogmatic, repellent person.” Many years later, though, Schurz fell under the spell of “Parsifal” at Bayreuth. “I now beheld something like what I had imagined Heaven to be when I was a child,” he wrote in his memoirs.
The putative tour begins on the south end of Manhattan, at 12 Old Slip, where the 77 Water Street office tower now stands. Here, in the eighteen-thirties, a young German merchant named Otto Wesendonck joined William Loeschigk in launching a textile-import firm, specializing in the finer silks. The company, later based on Broad Street, prospered, with Wesendonck returning home to serve as its European representative. In 1848, he married the poet Agnes Luckemeyer, who was persuaded to change her name to Mathilde, which happened also to be the name both of Wesendonck’s deceased first wife and of his beloved sister. (Chris Walton’s book “Richard Wagner’s Zurich: The Muse of Place” tells more of this curious marriage.) In the 1850s, the Wesendoncks settled in Zurich and built a grand villa on a hill outside the city. Wagner entered the household and, as was his wont, created disarray. Otto was exceedingly generous in his support for Wagner; Wagner, in turn, became exceedingly infatuated with Mathilde, although their relations probably remained chaste. He set to music five of her poems—the “Wesendonck Lieder”—and then incorporated some of that music into “Tristan und Isolde,” which became a kind of medieval mirror image of the affair in progress. Thus was Wagner’s supreme creation, the most revolutionary musical work of the nineteenth century, made possible in part by the firm of Loeschigk & Wesendonck.remains. In a curious coincidence, Guardian’s current headquarters are located directly across from Old Slip, a few dozen feet away from where Otto Wesendonck began to build his fortune. I wandered into the lobby, hoping to strike up a conversation about Wagner and the Wesendoncks, but, when asked what business I had being there, I could think of no plausible reply, and retreated.
The tour now heads north along the Bowery. In Chinatown, we pass the site of the first American performance of a Wagner opera: “Tannhäuser” was given at the Stadttheater, at 37-39 Bowery, in 1859. The conductor was Carl Bergmann, who led the Germania Musical Society for much of its existence. The theatre was obliterated long ago; Confucius Plaza now stands on the spot. On the north side of Union Square is another monument to the power of the Wesendoncks: the 1911 headquarters of Germania Life Insurance. The twenty-story Renaissance Revival structure was noted in its day for its rooftop neon sign. It is now a W Hotel, but a plaque honors the building’s origin.
One could go looking for traces of Gilded Age Wagner in the area of the old Metropolitan Opera House on West Thirty-ninth Street, but it would be wiser to skip Times Square and take the subway uptown. Disembarking at 110th Street, we walk over to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of whose architects, Ralph Adams Cram, was a fairly mad Wagnerian. “I do not suppose it is possible for anyone who is not a follower of Wagner to understand how he is taken by those who love him,” Cram once wrote from Bayreuth. “They find here . . . something they have wanted all their lives.” On West 107th, we stop at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, a shrine to the once-notorious painter and mystical guru; Roerich, too, had Wagnerian tendencies, although these were soon overwhelmed by Theosophical emanations. We then go up Broadway toward Riverside Church, whose Bayreuthian resonances require a fair amount of explanation.
Riverside’s tower contains a magnificent seventy-four-bell, five-octave carillon, which was donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in honor of his mother, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. The work of the storied Gillett & Johnston foundry, in Croydon, England, it originally resided at the old Park Avenue Baptist Church in 1925, and was reinstalled at Riverside at the occasion of the opening of the church, in 1930. Its bourdon bell, a very low C, is, at twenty tons, the heaviest tuned bell in the world. For decades, the carillon marked the passing quarter-hours with a sequence based on the bell motif in Wagner’s “Parsifal”—the figure that sounds repeatedly as the knights of the Holy Grail approach their shrine at Montsalvat. This is from Christian Thielemann’s recording of the opera, with René Pape as the elder knight Gurnemanz:
The Riverside bells took those four recurring notes through a series of permutations, with the intervals falling in the first half-hour and rising in the second half-hour, in imitation of the minute hand of a clock. The pattern is notated in Percival Price’s 1983 book “Bells and Man”:
Today, the same four notes ring out, but, oddly, the order has been scrambled: you hear the Wagner element only at the end, before the hour strikes. Also, the “E” is currently having trouble.
How did the Montsalvat motif find its way to Riverside, and what has become of it? One would probably need to be Dan Brown to get to the bottom of the matter, but on the first point, a side-trip to the Rockefeller Archive Center, in Sleepy Hollow, New York, proved instructive. The archive holds hundreds of pieces of correspondence relating to the Riverside carillon and to a similar array that Rockefeller donated to the University of Chicago, his father’s proudest creation. The philanthropist devoted an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and money to his bells, employing as his musical adviser Frederick C. Mayer, the organist and choirmaster of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Mayer, it turns out, created the Wagnerian sequence especially for Rockefeller’s carillons, calling it the “Parsifal Quarters.”
An imperious gentleman who could bang out a four-page single-spaced letter at the slightest provocation, Mayer explained in one missive why he felt that Wagner was essential. He wished to break away from the familiar Westminster or “Big Ben” pattern, which he dismissed as “trivial and sentimental,” the product of “the most unmusical people in Europe.” The “Parsifal” figure, on the other hand, evoked the mythical Temple of the Grail, “traditionally located in a wild section of the Pyrenees in northern Spain.” It is, Mayer claimed, “the only music written by a really great composer for bells.” Rockefeller, in a 1931 letter, pronounced himself “delighted” by the “Parsifal Quarters.” While Rockefeller was not, as far as I can tell, a fanatical Wagnerian, he esteemed his bell expert and was inclined to grant his wishes. When, in 1934, subordinates reported that Mayer had been paid forty-five-hundred dollars, plus expenses for campanological expeditions across Europe, Rockefeller decided to send him twenty-seven-hundred dollars more.
Officials at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago discarded Mayer’s “Parsifal” pattern in 1961, explaining that the four dedicated bells had suffered too much wear and tear; the composer Easley Blackwood created a new sequence. As for the situation at Riverside, my inquiries have so far gone unanswered. The chimes remain mystically evocative, even if their Wagnerian essence is obscured. On a recent visit to Riverside, I had trouble hearing them from the ground level, so I went up to a little meeting room at the top of the tower. I found myself looking down on Grant’s Tomb as the bourdon boomed:
I thought of paying a visit to the tomb, on the grounds that President Grant had attended the first performance of Wagner’s “American Centennial March,” in Philadelphia, in 1876. Then there’s the patch of the Bronx that contains streets named Lohengrin Place, Siegfried Place, Parsifal Place, and Valhalla Drive. But enough was enough, as Wagner never said.