Letter from Munich: Wayne Gooding Looks for Wagner in the City That Drove Him out Soon after Taking Him In

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"You know that the young King of Bavaria sought me out," Wagner wrote excitedly from Munich in May 1864, "I was taken to him today. He is so beautiful and intellectual, so spiritual and noble, that, alas, 1 fear lest his life be doomed to fade in this vulgar world like some Fleeting dream of the gods ... I am to be my own absolute master, not a Kapellmeister, nothing but myself and his friend ... I am to be relieved of every want. I am to have what I need; only I am to stay with him."

Things famously didn't turn out quite so well. Political opposition to Wagner's influence over the young Ludwig II, alarm over the costs of some of their artistic schemes and a growing scandal over Wagner's fully consummated relationship with the married Cosima von Bulow forced the composer out of the city by the end of the following year.

The eccentric Ludwig remained loyal, of course, until his own mysterious death by drowning in 1886. Their relationship had its ups and downs, but there's no question that Wagner's brief sojourn in the city changed the course of his life. Although not written for Munich, four of his works had their premieres there, including Tristan und Isolde in June 1865, Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg in June 1868, Das Rheingold in September 1869 and Die Walkure in June 1870. Wigner was none too happy about these last two, the first installments of his epic Ring cycle, but Ludwig insisted and would not be denied. Extensive plans were also made for a new theatre in Munich to perform Wagner's works and the establishment of a German school of music, but they were never realized. Nonetheless, Wagnerites owe a great deal to Ludwig's enthusiasm for Wagner and his music and acknowledge the debt today. If you go to St. Michaels Church on Neuhauser Str., where generations of Bavaria's ruling Wittelsbach family are buried, Ludwig's final resting place is easily distinguished from his ancestors' by all the fresh flowers left by grateful visitors.

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There are plenty of traces of Ludwig in and around Munich, not least in the fantastic palaces he built such as the Her-renchiemsee complex and--a bizarre embodiment of Wagner characters and themes in its interior design and the inspiration for Disney's fairytale castle logo--Neuschwanstein, about 130 km, southwest of the city. Curiously, however, there's little direct trace of Wagner. There's a monument, unveiled in 1913 the day before the 100th anniversary of his birth, which sits near the Prince Regent's Theatre, which opened in 1901, but was designed to Wagner's specifications and was intended as a festival stage for his operas. There is also a plaque at 31 Brienner Strasse, just opposite Richard Wagner Strasse, marking the location where Wagner lived from October 12, 1864, until December 10, 1865. The theatre where his Munich premieres took place is long gone, replaced by the current National Theatre (the third on this site), which is a post-World War II reconstruction that opened in 1963. There's a reconstruction of the festival theatre Wagner and Ludwig planned to build in the Munich StadtMuseum. Designed by Wagner's architect friend, Gottfried Semper, also responsible for the opera house in Dresden, it was to overlook the Isar River, quite close to the site of the Prince Regents Theatre. The Stadtmuseum has a four-minute video realization of the planned theatre, a grandiose, temple-like pile with a causeway entrance that would have dominated the city's landscape.

Too bad it was never built, because it looks like a perfect companion to Ludwig's other architectural fancies. It would also have been a fit companion to other imperial-looking, neo-Classical buildings around Munich, including those built by the National Socialists, who regarded Munich as the capital of their movement. The city doesn't shy away from positioning itself as a tourist destination for those interested in the darkest 20th-century chapters of German history (including Dachau, the first concentration camp, about 17 km away). …