Wagner lives on in Eisenach | Wagner 200 | DW | 16.01.2013
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Wagner 200

Wagner lives on in Eisenach

Richard Wagner was a traveler, but not always by choice. Creditors, jealous husbands and police were just some of the people who ensured Wagner was often on the move. One of his many adventures took him to Eisenach.

"The next station is Eisenach," announces the conductor over the loudspeaker. A moment later, the brakes squeal and the train judders to halt. But anyone wishing to disembark at Eisenach, located in the center of Germany, has to be quick; just a minute later, the high-speed ICe train is already shooting off into the distance.

Roll back to April 1842. Then, Richard Wagner's arrival in the overcast valley of Eisenach was achieved by a slightly different means of transport, namely a horse-drawn coach. By the time he arrived, he already had a long and arduous journey from Paris behind him. But his ultimate destination - Dresden, where his opera Rienzi would be premiered later that year - wasn't so far off. Yet before even that, a fateful event transpired, one Wagner himself would later describe as a "symbolic incident."

It was in the gray Eisenach valley that the storm clouds overhead suddenly tore apart, immediately clearing the skies. Wagner - whose mind was preoccupied with his then work-in-progress, the Tannhäuser saga - was taken aback by the mountain ridges and Wartburg Castle situated atop a precipice.

Auf Wagners Spuren in Eisenach

Wartburg Castle, where the legendary Minstrels' Contest is said to have taken place in 1206.

What flashed through Wagner's mind at that moment, say his biographers, was the legendary singing competition, the Sängerkrieg or Minstrels' Contest, which was supposed to have taken place at the castle hundreds of years before. Two legends instantly fused into one in the composer's imagination: "Tannhäuser" and the Wartburg singing contest. Once this flash of inspiration had passed, the storm clouds duly closed again overhead and the rain once poured down on Wagner's coach. The moment was over, but the work lives on.

Culture at every turn

Eisenach lies in the northwest of Thuringia Forest. These days, the bustling town has a population of over 42,000. Its streets are filled with people and traffic, but old meets new in this town. Trendy fashion stores are located in the city center's classic buildings, yet time stands still on the main market square - with its castle, Renaissance-era Town Hall and the 12th-century Church of St. George, where Martin Luther preached and Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized. These names can be seen time and again in Eisenach: on information boards, in the names of numerous bars and cafés and, of course, referenced in several exhibitions.

Auf Wagners Spuren in Eisenach

The city gate and entrance to the Old Town in Eisenach.

Richard Wagner, however, never lived in Eisenach. But he did return to Eisenach after his unforgettable coach ride through the valley to visit Wartburg Castle. His connection to the town was immortalized in a fresco by artist Moritz von Schwind, who depicted Wagner lolling between the minstrels Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide. Von Schwind was tasked with painting the restored Wartburg Castle beginning in 1854, and had the idea of immortalizing famous figures such as Goethe, Schiller, Lither, Liszt and indeed Wagner in his depiction of the key scene from the Minstrels' Contest.

Wagner again and again

Today, an endless stream of visitors are guided through the long history of Wartburg Castle - through the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods, through its history of princes, dukes and so on. Up on the second floor, visitors can listen to excerpts from Wagner's "Tannhäuser" opera in the banqueting hall. Franz Liszt, composer, pianist, conductor and father of Wagner's second wife, Cosima, had a hand in the design and excellent acoustics of the hall. Liszt even conducted the hall dedication concert in 1867, which Bavaria's King Ludwig II attended incognito. Ludwig was so impressed by the hall that he had a slightly smaller version modeled for his own Neuschwanstein Castle - one which served as a backdrop to depict scenes from works by Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired and sponsored.

Auf Wagners Spuren in Eisenach

Richard Wagner surrounded by minstrels in a fresco by Moritz von Schwind.

These days, Eisenach is an important business hub and industrial town, which boasts an automobile construction history stretching back some 100 years. Around 1,800 skilled workers currently produce the Opel Corsa car there.

The historic city center lies in a basin. In the period between 1862 and the beginning of World War I, many wealthy retired people, industrialists and artists moved to the town in Thuringia and built spacious homes of rare architectural design there.

At home with Reuter

The poet Fritz Reuter was also a fan of Eisenach. Relying on massive profits from his book sales, he was able to construct an opulent, Italian-style villa there beginning in 1866. Today, visitors are free to explore the ground floor of the property, tread over creaky floorboards, sit at Reuter’s desk and gaze out of the window at a magical landscape. But it's not just the tourists of today who find peace and tranquility at Reuter's former homestead. Someone else was also able to find sanctuary there - none other than Richard Wagner!

Auf Wagners Spuren in Eisenach

Fritz Reuter's Italian-style dream house in Eisenach.

Collector and avid Wagner fan Nicolaus Oesterlein (1841-1898) put together a vast collection of more than 20,000 Wagner-related items, including a vast library, 200 busts, sheet music, thousands of newspaper articles, personal correspondence and a cabinet full of curiosities related to the composer. But Oesterlein overspent and sadly, in 1895, he was forced to sell everything.

Yet fate stepped in and saved the collection. Professor Joseph Kürschner, also an admirer of Wagner, recalled the composer's connection to his town and, with funds raised through a foundation, was able to purchase the entire collection.

The oldest museum in town

Kürschner was also responsible for ensuring that the house passed into possession of the town of Eisenach after the death of Reuter's widow, Luise. In 1897, the Reuter Wagner Museum opened and today is regarded as the oldest museum in Eisenach. Its atmosphere of time standing still holds a very special appeal. A bust of Wagner welcomes visitors as they step into the museum's lobby and indeed into another world. Here, they can view treasures such as construction plans for the first festival hall in Bayreuth, "Rheingold" champagne labels, Wagner's pipe case and a copy of his death mask, yellowing theater programs, cartoons, early stage design sketches and sheet music featuring Wagner's handwritten notes.

If a coach and horses were to trundle by in the street outside, nobody would be in the least surprised.