Richard Wagner in Switzerland

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Speech by Ambassador Martin Dahinden on the occasion of the Wagner Evening at the Ambassador's Residence in Washington, D.C.

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Ambassador Martin Dahinden opening remarks at the Wagner evening at the Residence in Washington, D.C.
Ambassador Martin Dahinden opening remarks at the Wagner evening at the Residence in Washington, D.C. © Embassy of Switzerland


I am especially pleased to have you at the Embassy of Switzerland tonight for an evening of Richard Wagner’s operatic arias and songs.

Switzerland played an important role in the life and work of Richard Wagner. Wagner began, worked on, or completed many of his most important works during his time in Switzerland. However, it is neither a linear nor an easy story to tell. Therefore, I will limit myself to some outlining remarks.

Richard Wagner arrived in my hometown of Zurich as a political refugee in May of 1849. Wagner participated in the May Uprising in Dresden, one of the last events of the Revolution of 1848. He had just lost his position as Court Conductor (Hofkapellmeister) and had escaped the police. At that time, Switzerland was the only republic except for the United States and therefore a natural refuge for politically persecuted persons, which very often resulted in difficult relations between Switzerland’s neighbors.

Seeking refuge in Switzerland was also obvious for another reason. The German speaking part of Switzerland has always been part of the wider German, cultural space. It therefore comes as no surprise that Wagner, like many other refugees, found an environment beneficial to pursuing his work.

After his escape from Saxony, Richard Wagner lived in Zurich for nine years. Those years were a defining, and perhaps the most productive, period in his life. He defined his ideas of art and artistry in a series of publications, the most well- known of which is his momentous work Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future). Tristan und Isolde, composed in Zurich, is considered the beginning of modernity in music.

During his stay in Zurich, Wagner lived with his wife, Minna, in the house of the German industrialist Otto Wesendonck. Wesendonck’s wife, Mathilde, became his muse at that time. The Wesendonck Lieder remind us of that complicated relationship. They are songs by Wagner based on poems written by Mathilde Wesendonck. The Villa Wesendonck was a meeting place for the intellectual elite of that time. You can still visit the Villa today, but its name has changed and it is now a famous museum for non-European Art (Rietbergmuseum).

The idea of a Wagner Music Festival was first proposed in 1853 during that time in Zürich many years before Bayreuth.

I tried to find a link to the United States, as I always do. It was not easy, but eventually I found one. The Wesendoncks gave Wagner a gift of a golden fountain pen and an inkpot produced by a U.S. manufacturer. Wagner reportedly used that pen to make a clean copy of the score of Das Rheingold. I do not know whether he also used the American fountain pen to compose Lebe Wohl, the song at the conclusion of Die Walküre, which we will have the pleasure of listening to this evening.

During his stay in Zurich, Wagner visited Lucerne and the central part of Switzerland several times. In those years, the region became an important destination for the then-emerging tourism in the Swiss Alps. During a visit to Switzerland in 1866, Wagner discovered a villa outside Lucerne with a splendid view: the Haus Tribschen. It became his home for six years. The Haus Tribschen was an open house with many prominent guests, including King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Gottfried Semper and Franz Liszt. Friedrich Nietzsche even had his own room on the second floor.

Richard Wagner continued working on the Ring Cycle and composed many musical works such as the Siegfried Idylle and he finished the score of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Although Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is not part of tonight’s program, I want to share another interesting Swiss connection with you. Meistersinger Hans Sachs was not only the author of some 4,000 master songs. He was also a master shoemaker and an example of solid vocational education. That reminds us for a moment of the growing interest in the United States in apprenticeships as practiced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

With that I wish you a wonderful evening.


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