It is more than 20 years since I made my way down a long row of packed seats in the hallowed amphitheater. When the doors slammed decisively shut (were they then bolted as mischievous legend had it?) the silence was palpable, unsullied by any whir of air circulating in the 110-degree summer heat. Then, over a low drone, unseen instruments began their watery rocking, evoking subterranean undulations of the river Rhine.
Such was the opening of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle as I heard it in 1994 in Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, the theater Wagner designed and built for its performance. Wagner’s calculated acoustic gave his music—some 15 hours of it over four nights—an almost tactile quality. It seemed physical: urgent and intimate and enwrapping. Bayreuth’s sound still stays with me, the powers of the Festspielhaus almost making up for the absence of interpretive coherence in the performances I heard. The music was as deeply connected to the place as the sound of an organ is to the cathedral in which it is built. And above it all loomed the genius loci, Wagner himself.
The Morgan Library and Museum’s exhibition “Wagner’s ‘Ring’: Forging an Epic” (through April 17) is focused on that theater, on the path Wagner’s “Ring” took to its first performances there in 1876, and on how the “Ring” then made its way to the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1889. The gallery is dominated by a blown-up etching of the Festspielhaus in 1876. And while the exhibition can’t hope to reproduce the uncanny effect of the place itself, it does remind visitors of the many forms of power exerted by the man and his work: musical, social, political, financial. With a modest but rare collection of manuscripts, letters, scores, costumes and photographs—gathered by the Morgan’s curator, Frances Barulich, from Bayreuth, the Morgan, and other sources—we get a broad yet subtle portrait that also sheds light on the formative years of New York’s high operatic culture.
Ardent Wagnerites will rejoice in relics like pristine printed tickets to all four operas of the “Ring” at one of the cycle’s August 1876 Bayreuth premieres, or the bejeweled ivory baton that Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, presented to Wagner (bearing, naturally, the Bavarian coat of arms). There are also documents that might seem too slight for a biographer’s notice but contain allusions that give us pause, including Wagner’s invitation to friends to come hear him read from an early libretto of the “Ring” in 1853, along with a handwritten postscript noting that even children under the age of 1 were welcome (his personal copy of that privately printed “Ring” text is also here, marked with his corrections).
Another curiosity: An 1874 letter from the pianist Karl Klindworth reports that he had to redo parts of his piano-vocal reduction of “Götterdämmerung” because the copy he mailed from Russia went not to Bayreuth but to Beirut. There are unusual traces, too, left by Wagner’s own hand, notably a draft of the opening of “Das Rheingold” with calligraphy so elegant and limpid it reminds us that Wagner could achieve that uncanny effect in sound, even with grandiose forces called into play. Clearly, though, some felt the opposite true: In an 1869 caricature by André Gill, Wagner is wielding a hammer the way Alberich might while forging the Ring, but the composer is using it to drive the chisel point of a musical quaver into a giant ear spurting blood. The exhibition reminds us what the tumult was all about by providing samplings of historical performances and video excerpts of important recent productions.
The Bayreuth-New York connection made by the exhibition is also intriguing. The overripe hyper-Romantic stage designs Wagner commissioned from Joseph Hoffmann are on display; their landscapes and character influenced both the Bayreuth and early Metropolitan Opera stagings. The costumes commissioned by Wagner from Carl Emil Doepler also became the standard for Met productions (an outfit for Brünnhilde shown here is the epitome of Teutonic-spirited Grecian-gowned kitsch). Given prominent display too are four full-page dispatches from August 1876 editions of the New York Herald treating the “Ring” premieres as world-historical events, illustrating each with a page from the score.
For a few decades after Wagner’s death, in fact, some aspects of New York musical life—including its active German immigrant community—made it seem a kind of Bayreuth Bilbao, an off-shoot of the cult’s main temple. Anton Seidl, who had been one of Wagner’s assistants at Bayreuth and who spent six years living with the Wagners, was principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera from 1885 to 1891 and then led the New York Philharmonic until his death in 1898. He conducted the American premieres of the “Ring,” “Tristan und Isolde” and “Meistersinger” and referred to his proselytizing for Wagner as “missionary work.” As Joseph Horowitz has shown in his book “Wagner Nights: An American History” (1994), he also paved the way for a Wagnerian entrance into the American Valhalla.
Such influence was also due to more profound attractions, unexplored by the exhibition. Wagner said, when beginning the “Ring,” “I shall perform it only on the banks of the Mississippi.” America provided the lure of a new world for him, one that was attractively post-Götterdämmerung. Conversely, in the U.S., early listeners heard an American character to Wagner’s transformations of Nordic and Germanic legend. One American critic, Henry Krehbiel, saw Siegfried as a “prototype” for the American people, and found in Wagner’s characters “that vital energy which made us a nation.” Even John Philip Sousa, the paragon of American band music, was ardently Wagnerian.
How do we reconcile this American vision with the genius loci of Bayreuth? How do works so intimately tied to the notion of a mythic past become so closely associated with the possibilities of a revolutionary future? Are there aspects of Wagner that evoke the new world imagined by late 19th-century America? Are there aspects of American possibility that made it into the Wagnerian vision? It is likely: There is even something about Bayreuth’s acoustic, with its unadorned physicality and devotional practicality that seemed surprisingly familiar to me. We have become so used to tracing Wagner’s influence in the Germanic lands, scarred by the ardency of the Nazi era, that we may be missing aspects of his work that hinted at other preoccupations and imaginings which, for a while, gave it a second home.
Mr. Rothstein is the Journal’s Critic at Large.