Richard Wagner in Sicily 1881–1882

Hôtel des Palmes - now: Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes, Palermo, Sicily

Richard Wagner and his family arrived at Hôtel des Palmes (now: Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes), on 5 November 1881.
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net

 

A bust of Richard Wagner in the foyer of Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes (aka Hôtel des Palmes).
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net

5 November 1881

Richard Wagner and his family arrives at Hôtel des Palmes (now: Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes), occupying room 24, 25 and 26.

The journey to Palermo started 1 November and went via München, Verona and Napoli.

 

 

7 November 1881

   

 

R. had a restless night, since he had taken medicine, but he is looking well. He arranges his worktable in the salon, and the situation pleases him. In the afternoon we drive to Monreale. [Added on the next page, under Tuesday: "Yesterday, on the journey to Monreale, R. notices a small and very independent poodle, a favourite breed of his, and in the evening he is still thinking of the little creature, having been struck by its intelligence."] Sublime impression: "What people they must have been to build such a thing!" R. exclaims. We are enchanted by the cloisters. The valley of oranges is like a fairy tale, and when we return home we feel that nothing less than Shakespeare will do. — We begin H[enry] VI, Act I, the children showing great interest. As he reads, R. looks so wonderfully young that I have to tell him so. And when we are discussing this first act, he says, "He is the greatest of them all." — "What images!" he exclaimed as he reads Exeter's "Like captives bound to a triumphant car."
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

The Cathedral in Monreale, Palermo, is inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net
More photos from Sicily here: www.wondersofsicily.com

9 November 1881

"It is stormy in the morning, but at noon the sun comes out. […] We go for a drive, R. and I, and visit the Cappella Palatina, which makes a splendid impression on us."
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

11 November 1881

"Lovely sunshine, cheerful breakfast. Work for R., he is pleased to have overcome a bad passage at the end of the third act [of Parsifal]. In the evening, as he is writing his second page, he recalls the irrational way Berlioz at times introduced his instruments, and he is glad to have smoothed out this passage successfully. […] After lunch we, he and I, take a lovely drive to the Villa Giulia, delighting in all the blooming vegetation; R. is pleased by a palm tree, its hanging leaves laden with fruit, also by large red blossoms which look to him like butterflies; sea and mountains give delight. There were no errors of diet today, and in the morning he talked about the wretchedness of strong desire [das Schreckliche des Gelüstes]."
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

12 November 1881

At 12 Dr. Berlin arrives, making some changes in R.'s diet. […] Recently he made the remark, "I am not a ghost, after all – with my Parsifal I am again coming along with something new." – We take a 2-hour walk which enchants R., in the English Gardens [Giardino Inglese], heavenly air and indescribable colors.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

25 December 1881

Cosima receives the (unfinished) Parsifal score for her birthday.

28 December 1881 (Wednesday)

He works and goes for a walk in the garden before lunch, but at table I can already see he is in an ill humor, and the champagne he orders does not cheer him up. I can think of no reason for it, except that his work is absorbing him. However, we drive to Monreale and delight in the splendid cathedral, feeling ourselves transported back into the spirit of that distant time as we gaze on this ideal representation of it.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

The magnificent cathedral in Monreale, near Palermo, Sicily, was visited several times by Richard Wagner and his family while the composer was finishing Parsifal.
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net

The ceiling.

30 December 1881

R. slept well, but after his bath he has a chest spasm. However, since the sun is shining, he is agreeable to having breakfast in the conservatory. But work costs him some effort, and he longs for it to be completed, saying it is a torment to him, he is afraid of orchestrating too heavily.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

31 December 1881

The sun is not quite loyal to us, it fights through only now and then, and R. again has a chest spasm. All too many things vex him - struggles with an ink which will not flow and a thousand other petty things of which he tells us vexedly at lunch, for which he arrives late; but his mood then changes to one of great merriment when I agree with him that life is terrible, in the little as well as the big things. After lunch we drive to the Orto Botanico and delight in the splendid trees there. He works in the evening, and when I ask him at table how much he still has to do, he says mournfully, "Fifteen pages." and then with quite satisfaction, "Fourteen" (with a slight Saxon accent).
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

2 January 1882

Among other things, R. also mentions the Englishman who, out of boredom with having to put on his clothes, etc., every day, hanged himself, and he goes off into the most comical descriptions of the vexation every routine task - cleaning his teeth, for instance - causes him.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

4 January 1882

R. dreamed of a performance of Lohengrin in which the singers, and particularly Scaria, had forgotten their roles. He again complains bitterly of his chest spasms and suffers from the cold in the morning. At lunch he complains about the exertions of his work. Also, the weather is dull, R. feels it and orders a fire. At supper we manage to amuse him with all kinds of accounts of the "evil eye" here.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

5 January 1882

Joseph Rubinstein (1847-1884)

Russian Jew who wrote to Wagner in March 1872 "demanding salvation" from his race (!!!), by assisting with Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth. Rubinstein made accomplished piano transcripts of Wagner's work. He was also a pianist and composer. He lived with the Wagners in Sicily. After Wagner died, Rubinstein felt his life was without meaning and committed suicide.

He takes quite a long rest after lunch, and then we drive, he and I, via the English Garden to the Favorita. When I tell him I have just been thinking of Parsifal and am pleased that this last work of his is also his masterpiece, he replies, or rather, interrupts me very excitedly. "No, no, I was telling myself today that it is quite remarkable that I held this work back for my fullest maturity; I know what I know and what is in it; and the new school, Wolz. and the others, can take their lead from it." He then hints at, rather than expresses, the content of this work, "salvation to the savior" – and we are silent after he has added, "Good that we are alone." […] And in gentle, indeed uplifted spirits, we return home. He goes to his work, completes two pages today, and joins us at table, somewhat excited but in cheerful mood.
[…]
He then talks about his instrumentation, compares it with painting techniques, then relates atrocoties committed by the Russian government and declares that what is best in the nation can certainly be found among the nihilists, in the higher spheres everything is rotten and decayed.
[…]
Rub.
[Joseph Rubinstein] plays Weber’s A-flat Major Sonata and his "Polonaise" which again make R. feel that he is "no musician"; despite some lovely passages, the sonata reminds him of Kalkbrenner, and he finds its stiffness og form and applaus-seeking brilliance distateful; he says this piano literature shows not the slightest trace of Beethoven's influence.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

6 January 1882

 

R. then goes to his work, which, however, puts a great strain on him today. Page 331, with the harps (Parsifal mounting the steps to the altar), causes him much exertion […] We drive to the Favorita, but he does not feel well.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

8 January 1882

After a good night R. and I have breakfast in the conservatory, and he says, "It has occured to me that we now seem to concern ourselves only with dead things; everything around us is lifeless, whereas previously our existence was concerned with living things, with plants, with animals; Wotan carved his spear from the growing ash tree." When I say that it is perhaps this life within life that has given later generations a feeling of divinity, and that Siegfried and Brünnhilde give the appearance of sacred, living Nature, whereas the Gibichungs are already among the dead, he agrees with me.
[…]
[Added on the next page but referred back to this point: At lunch he recalls the Norn's scene and is pleased to have written such a thing; he declares, half in jest and half in earnest, that nobody has ever mentioned all the things there are in it."]
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

12 January 1882

We visit the cathedral, La Zisa, and on our return R. works. He comes to supper in an animated mood and assures us that he would not hesitate for a moment to sacrifice his works for the sake of the children, not for a single moment – Tristan for Isolde, Meistersinger for Eva, the Ring for Siegfried. "That's life," he says. Then he jokes about having chosen a bad country in which to get them married off, for here they would have to become Catholics, and that would seem to him a very great shame. In the evening he talks a lot with Rub. about the harp parts […]
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

13 January 1882

On 13 January 1882 the orchestration of Parsifal is completed!

Returning home, I find R. very run down, and at lunch he even leaves the table for a while, but he soon returns and proposes the toast very cordially. After lunch we visit a house which has been offered us. He then works, and in the evening, in honor of Jouk., the chorus from Die Feen is played, then the witch's ballad (sung by R.) and the Overture to Die Feen. During the last of these R. goes out, I go to see what he is doing – he is putting the finishing touches on his score: "It gave me no rest," he says. The splendid sounds of the Tannhäuser march ring out, he comes in, and – all is completed! With this, as with all his other works, he had feared being interrupted by death – that is what he told us at lunch today! […] We drink to Parsifal. Our friends depart later than usual, we stay up, R. and I, and talk of the various completions (Tristan, Msinger –), and of life in general, and go off to bed in a mood of exaltation and peace. – A few more things I have to tell about this evening; first that R. told us the story behind his first ballad (boy and swan). Then, that he spoke about the orchestration of Parsifal; the wind instruments would complain, he said, but when he recalled how, in Martha, for instance, the four horns are used time and again in the stupidest way, then he felt comforted. – He tells me that the A-monor chord (as Kundry falls to the ground) will make an impression on me; the terror of sanctity flows from it, and it will have to be very beautifully played, he says.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

14 January 1882

R. is rather tired: he reads Renan's Marc Aurèle (feeling that this emperor is overrated), and writes to Fritz Brandt, entrusting the supervision of the machinery to him. He then goes for a walk with the girls, and at 1 o'clock we have our meal in celebration of Parsifal, though R. insists that the work was finished on December 25, and this was the afterbirth.
[…]
We go for a short walk, R. pays two calls, and as we are returning, we hear some long, sustained, solemn tones; the sounds come closer, arousing feelings of earnestness and exaltation in us; we listen; a funeral procession passes by, the music simple but not vulgar, extremely beautiful, expressively played; R. is completely entranced: "Oh, what a divine thing music is – how it transforms everything!" he exclaims. Unfortunately he is annoyed by the garments and faces of the prelates.

(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

15 January 1882

Auguste Renoir makes a pencil sketch of Wagner, which he later used for his famous oil painting.

At 12 'clock a sitting for the French painter Renoir, whom R. jokingly claims to have mistaken for Victor Noir. The artist, belonging to the Impressionists, who paint everything bright and in full sunlight, amuses R. with his excitement and his many grimaces as he works […]
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

19 January 1882

At 12 o’clock he goes for a walk with the children in the Engl. Gardens, and in the afternoon we visit the Aumale gardens, which are quite splendid and which please R., too, even if his mood is still irritable. Seeing oranges growing beside a rose, he says, "How vulgar they seem beside that blossom!"
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

20 January 1882

Glorious sunshine; R. had a good night, and in the morning he jokes about the success of Tristan - he says he feels like the long-legged grasshopper, "singing its wonted song in the grass. He likens Härtel to earthworms, which emerge the moment anything moves. And at 11:30 we drive off to Bagheria with Prince Gangri, Count Tasca, and the children in four carriages. The outing is a complete success. The view from Val Guarnero enchants R., it seems the lovliest thing ever seen. Lunch at Soluntum with the Prince is very pleasant.
[…]
At home we unfortunately find a report on the B[ülow] concerts in Berlin, the fêting of Brahms makes a dismal impression. A letter from Gobineau also brings some vexation, since R. is unable to understand why he does not join us here.

(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

 

2 February 1882

The Wagners leave Hôtel des Palmes, and move into Villa del Principe Gangi, Piazza dei Porazzi.

20 March 1882

The Wagners and Count Gravina move to Acireale (a town on the East coast of Sicily, between Catania and Taormina).

 

 

24 March 1882

A peaceful evening; the six children play and chat, R. plays some Beeth. themes to start with, among others from the Adagio of the 9th Symph., and he says, "To discover these two themes and to combine them, the one like a dream of Nature, the other like a fairy memory, to produce something so divine – only a madman could do that, a person of sound mind could never find such things." Then he reads The Tempest and talks to me about the wonderful things in it, also about the peculiar vitality of Prospero's character, the fullness of his first scene with Ariel. R. also remarks on the way Prosp. makes the young prince chop wood, and we immerse ourselves in this wonderful creation.

25 March 1882

He slept well. At breakfast I tell him what Stein has written to me about the coal industry being replaced by electricity; he argues strongly against it.

26 March 1882

We drive out to Belvedere, having heard that Gar[ibaldi] is expected today, but he does not arrive.

27 March 1882

We go for a drive to a coastal village, whose prettiness pleases R. Returning, we wait for Garibaldi, who does in fact pass through around 8 o’clock. A wonderful sight, almost the entire population at the station, the train approaches slowly, first a ripple of movement as it is announced, then silence; at last, when the hero's carriage is recognized, hearty cries of welcome, lovely to hear, ceremonious procession of the sick man, whom no one can see, since he has to lie still; the white kerchiefs and the flowers give the children the impression of a funeral, Gravina bursts into tears, it makes a profound impression on R. and me as we stand on the balcony; when the locomotive, quietly moving off, lets out a long whistle, it sounds to me like Earth's lament for its finest sons. Bengal lights and moonlights illumine the scene, the people buzz like a gigantic bird's nest, making harmonious sounds, which pleases R. – Our conversation, when the children return, is devouted to the aged hero; R. praises him from the bottom of his heart and mentions the tragic fate which gave him, without his knowledge, a part to play in the comedy of Nap. III and Palmerston, but this time it was in a good cause […]

 

28 March 1882

Richard Wagner has a severe heart attack.

2 April 1882 - day trip to Taormina

Greek theatre in Taormina, Sicily. Also

The Greek theatre in Taormina (seen from the walk down from Castelmola). To the left the new building of Grand Hotel Timeo; the old building is the last one before the theatre. "R. is particularly delighted by the columns. On the homeward journey [to Acireale] he says how dreamlike is the sight of such things, one is not in fact moved by them at all. I understand this feeling only too well: when one's gaze is directed towards the depths, the surface no longer has much effect. Yet even in this lack of effect there is a peculiar feeling of well-being."
Click on the image to enlarge.
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net

Richard Wagner and Cosima visit Taormina on a day trip. Cosima writes in her diaries:

R. is particularly delighted by the columns. On the homeward journey [to Acireale] he says how dreamlike is the sight of such things, one is not in fact moved by them at all. I understand this feeling only too well: when one's gaze is directed towards the depths, the surface no longer has much effect. Yet even in this lack of effect there is a peculiar feeling of well-being. – We met S[iegfried]'s Latin teacher, Herr Toussaint, in the Hôtel Timeo. concering which R. says we should have fled there in 1858 and spared ourselves many torments. The children could have lived on prickly pears! […] On arrival in Taormina R. catches sight of a little island [probably Isola Bella]; he says that in earlier days he always longed for something like that, in order to cut himself off from the world. "If only Wesendock were to give me such an island, " he had thought to himself, a"and Minna had no great desire to go there with me!" And he adds, "It was the thought that there was much I could still do." – As the children are singing the "Shepherd's Song" from Tannhäuser, he tells me that he heard it sung by a shepherd in Schreckenstein, near Teplitz – though of course in a completely different form.
(Cosima Wagner’s Diaries)

Grand Hotel Timeo, Taormina, Sicily

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily
The entrance og Grand Hotel Timeo, right next to the Greek Amphitheatre in Taormina. "We met S[iegfried]'s Latin teacher, Herr Toussaint, in the Hôtel Timeo. concering which R. says we should have fled there in 1858 and spared ourselves many torments. The children could have lived on prickly pears!"

10 April 1882

Richard Wagner and his family leave Acireale for Messina

14 April 1882

The Wagners arrive in Napoli at 8 o’clock "in somewhat grey weather".

 

 

The Grand Hotel et des Palmes

The Grand Hotel et des Palmes was founded in 1874 by the family Ingham - Whitaker. The building was built in 1856 and connected by a secret passage to the Anglican Church which still faces the hotel.

The patrician house consisted of two floors, a winter garden (now Hall) and an exotic garden stretching to the sea.

A bust of Richard Wagner in the foyer of Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes (aka Hôtel des Palmes).
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net

 

Sources

  • Google Maps
  • Cosima Wagner's Diaries. Edited and annotated by Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack. Translated and with an introduction, Postscript, and additional notes by Geoffrey Skelton.
  • Photos: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wagneropera.net (unless otherwise specified).