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Music festivals like the Bayreuth Festival are a major feature of the German cultural scene

The music scene in German-speaking countries has a long tradition of music festivals. Two of the best-known are the Bayreuth Festival, founded by Richard Wagner, and the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, which has been running since 1845. Germany alone stages more than 500 major and smaller festivals each year, covering the full spectrum of classical music.

Individual concerts and other events staged during a music festival take place in many different settings, ranging from traditional concert halls to castles, churches and open-air venues. Europe’s largest classical music festival, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (SHMF), even holds some of its concerts in barns. Some festivals focus on, say, baroque works or music by specific composers. Others specialise in different types of music, such as piano compositions or opera, or promote contemporary classical music, such as Donaueschingen Festival, which has long been a high point in the musical calendar for young composers.

Richard Wagner’s bicentenary celebrations

There will be particularly keen interest in the 2013 Bayreuth Festival, as 22 May 2013 marks the bicentenary of its founder, the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner founded the Festival as a very personal event in 1876 and is one of the most controversial composers in musical history for two reasons.

First, he broke new ground in the way he wrote the libretti and scores for his operas. During his lifetime, he polarised the musical world into passionate supporters and implacable opponents of his music. The second reason was his anti-Semitism, which Wagner expressed in much of his writing. It is, however, important to remember that anti-Semitism was fairly common in Germany in the nineteenth century and that Wagner was by no means alone in his views. Indeed, his opinions might well have attracted less public attention had it not been for the fact that Adolf Hitler was a passionate admirer of Wagner, a close friend of the Wagner family and a regular attender at the Bayreuth Festival.

The connection with Hitler was suppressed for years but remains a problem for the Wagner family to this day. The 2013 celebrations are overshadowed by repeated and widespread calls for the family to give a detailed account of its views during the Nazi period. There is also currently a lively debate around whether it is possible to separate an artist’s personality from his work. Let us know what you think in the Community.

The Bayreuth Festival

Richard Wagner needed a special stage to present his innovative operas as he wanted to, so in the 1870s, he had a festival theatre – the ‘Festspielhaus’ – built in the small southern German town of Bayreuth so that he could stage his own festival there. The Festspielhaus hosts the Bayreuth Festival to this day. Wagner received financial support from Ludwig II of Bavaria, the ‘Swan King’ or ‘Fairy-Tale King‘, who was a passionate admirer of his music.

The Bayreuth Festival is still managed by the Wagner family and stages only Wagner operas. Performance tickets are so sought after that there are long waiting lists. The 2013 Festival will be formally opened on 25 July. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to be among the many prominent guests again this year.

July 2013

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