Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II

King of Bavaria Ludwig II (Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm; 1845-1886), circa 1864
King of Bavaria Ludwig II (Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm; 1845-1886), circa 1864

We mark the death (the most suspicious death) on June 13, 1886 – 136 years ago today – of the ultimate Richard Wagner fanboy King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

The Running Man

Richard Wagner was among the least-athletic looking people to ever grace a composing studio or a conductor’s podium.  Depending upon the source, he was between 5’ 3” and 5’ 5” in heights.  His legs were too short for his torso, and his oversized square head was perched on an otherwise frail body.  In his lifetime, an unknown wag referred to him as “that shovel-faced dwarf”, an unkind if not inaccurate description of the man.

But despite his physical shortcomings, Wagner – believe it or not – could run like the wind for remarkable distances. These miracles of sustained athleticism were inspired by Wagner’s creditors and/or the law, from which Wagner was forced to flee on a regular basis.  

For example, in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”; for your information, my spell check just tried to change “liebesverbot” to “lobster pot”).Again: in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot in the central German city of Magdeburg, a warrant was issued for Wagner’s arrest due to his debts.  The 23-year-old Wagner ran away so fast that he left his shadow in the dust, and he didn’t stop running until he arrived in Königsberg, today Kaliningrad, Russia, a distance as the crow flies of 654 kilometers (or 406 miles). 

That’s an impressive dash. 

Three years later, on July 9, 1839, with his passport having been confiscated to keep him from running off, the 26-year-old Wagner nevertheless bolted from the Latvian capital of Riga, just minutes ahead of a posse of creditors who had tracked him down.  He didn’t stop running until he arrived in London, by his own account without a penny to his name, 3½ weeks later.

1849 saw Wagner living and working in the Saxon capital of Dresden.  Having gotten mixed up with a revolutionary group, a warrant was issued for his arrest by the Dresden police on May 16, 1849.  He was charged with treason, which carried the death penalty.  The now 36-year-old Wagner ran and didn’t stop running until he’d crossed the border from Germany to Switzerland.  

(For our information: among the many things Wagner left behind in Germany was yet another mountain of debt, an estimated 20,000 thalers in debt.  This for a guy whose salary at Dresden was 1,500 thalers a year.  It’s the equivalent of someone today making $150,000 a year running up two million dollars’ worth of credit card debt.  Astonishing.)

In sum: you can keep your Usain Bolt: Richard Wagner could run!…

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