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The fairy tale behind the genius of opera

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig II lived as a child

Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig II lived as a child

Ludwig II

Ludwig II


Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig II lived as a child

The fairy-tale castle that inspired the Walt Disney trademark really does exist. Neuschwanstein was the brainchild of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and stands high in the foothills of the Alps, not far from Germany's border with Austria.

It wasn't just with fanciful architecture that the eccentric monarch left his mark. It's fair to say that, without him, we might well have been denied the magnificence of Richard Wagner's crowning achievement - Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four opera cycle that ranks as the biggest work ever conceived for the musical stage.

Ludwig was just 18 when his father died suddenly and he was thrust into the limelight. A shy dreamer, he had grown up in another Bavarian palace - Hohenschwangau - a site associated with the medieval legend of the Knights of the Holy Grail, one of whom was the Swan Knight, Lohengrin.

Hohenschwangau - the High Place of the Swans - would have got its name from this association. The swan motif is everywhere, on the walls, in the garden in the shape of a fountain.

There's a further connection with Wagner's source material. Tannhäuser, the medieval musician who, so the story goes, fell in love with Venus, then unsuccessfully sought a papal pardon, is said to have stopped off at Hohenschwangau on his way home from Rome.

Through his childhood and adolescence, Ludwig had become increasingly obsessed with the legends of the middle ages. His passion for the period snowballed when he discovered Wagner's operas.

He was 15 when he first saw Lohengrin. That did it for the reclusive teenager. What Wagner was presenting on stage took him into a world he wanted to inhabit. Lohengrin was Ludwig. The swan became his trademark.

He wanted more. Not many months later, he was in the audience for Tannhäuser. The crown prince declared: "When I'm finally wearing my regal robes, I'll show the world how highly I rate the genius of Wagner."

He never expected to have the opportunity so soon. Barely a month after ascending to the throne, he sent his private secretary to invite the composer to Bavaria.

Wagner, who had been based in Vienna, was nowhere to be found. The composer's fecklessness in matters financial had obliged him to seek safety elsewhere. He was eventually tracked down in Stuttgart, and was happy to accept the king's invitation.

They spent two hours in each other's company. The following day, Ludwig wrote to assure Wagner that from now on, he would have his support. With relief, the composer could tell friends: "Heaven has sent me a patron!"

With his financial security assured, Wagner was able to bring his various projects to a conclusion. Tristan and Isolde, which had been abandoned at the rehearsal stage in Vienna the previous year, had its Munich premiere in the summer of 1865. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was finally completed.

And it was with Ludwig's backing that Wagner got his own opera house in Bayreuth, where the mighty Ring opened the very first opera festival there in 1876.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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