The theatre at Bayreuth was one of the last projects partially underwritten by Wagner’s most generous patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who contributed 100,000 thalers towards the composer’s dream-vision of a perfect setting for his work. The two had first met in 1864, when Ludwig was 19 and Wagner 51. It proved to be a perfect collision of egos. The Märchenkönig (the “fairy-tale king”) was already dangerously immersed in German sagas, to the extent that their heroes seemed as real to him as his flesh-and-blood ministers and subjects. This was partly a result of his childhood at Castle Hohenschwangau, a crazy Gothic Revival extravaganza built by his father and decorated with beguiling tapestries and paintings telling all the old stories. Furthermore, at the impressionable age of 15, he had seen and been greatly taken by Lohengrin. “Alas,” wrote Wagner, “he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.” Bearing this “fleeting dream” in mind, Wagner quickly took steps to liberate substantial funds from Ludwig while the going was good. To the dismay of Ludwig’s treasurers and the stony-faced burghers of Munich, there quickly followed an exuberant overture of expenditure accompanied by recurrent fanfares of scandalous behaviour from Wagner, in particular his affair with Cosima, his future wife, at this point still married to his friend, colleague and sometime benefactor, Hans Von Bulow. This, coupled with sundry acts of financial vandalism inflicted on local tradesmen and moneylenders, quickly made Wagner persona non grata in Munich. Though 1865 saw a triumphant premiere of Tristan und Isolde there, Wagner and the now pregnant Cosima were forced to flee Bavaria for Switzerland, where Ludwig eventually provided them with a villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne. In a fit of pique that comically prefigures the saga of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Ludwig threatened to abdicate and follow his new hero into exile. Wagner persuaded him that this was a bad idea. In the following years he expertly manipulated Ludwig by remote control from his new lakeside headquarters, where he lived for a while in considerable comfort. It is impossible to narrate here the chaos of the following years. Suffice it to say that despite the habitual hurly-burly, he completed the Ring Cycle and managed to build and open the festspielhaus at Bayreuth. 18 The 1882 Parsifal was a valedictory flourish for Wagner, who was by now ageing and ill. Perhaps he sensed it; in the final performance, at the beginning of the last act, he came quietly into the pit and took the baton from Hermann Levi. It was to be his last appearance as composer-conductor. At the end of the season he decided to winter in Venice for health reasons, seemingly an odd choice given the notoriously chilly climate there. However, it was the logical place to go, since in April that year he had already rented a floor of the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi from its then owner, Count Bardi, and had spent the late spring and early summer putting the finishing touches to Parsifal.
During that visit, on April 21, he heard the Banda Cittadina performing the duet from Rigoletto in one of their afternoon concerts in Piazza San Marco. He introduced himself to the bandmaster, Jacopo Calascione, a stout, stalwart Sicilian of medium height and military bearing, who sported splendid handlebar moustaches and a clutch of medals. Calascione had been a familiar sight in Piazza San Marco since his appointment in the early 1880s. Every afternoon he would march his band into the square and perform medleys of Italian favourites – Verdi, Puccini, Respighi, Rossini. He was no ordinary civic bandmaster, but a dedicated and well-informed Wagnerian who introduced an increasing number of his own Wagner arrangements into the afternoon programs.
Wagner congratulated him on the splendid performance of Verdi, asking if the band might play him their arrangement of the Sinfonia from Rossini’s Gazza Ladra. Calascione promptly had the score sent over. The meeting was reported in the Gazzettino, the local paper, and the band were proud of Wagner’s praise, since he was known to be an irascible critic. On his return later that year, after Bayreuth, Wagner met Calascione again, this time by invitation. The maestro wrote to him saying the band would be honoured if he were to attend their performance of a pot-pourri of arrangements from Lohengrin, to be given in Piazza San Marco on November 5. This was a bold move. In the event, Wagner was very pleased, though he invited Calascione to the palazzo the next day where he gave him a stern but constructive lecture on tempi. The episode gives a fair taste of what it was must have been like to be on the receiving end of Wagner’s decidedly rigorous aesthetic discourse. The meeting began well enough, with Wagner warmly praising Calascione’s interpretation and tempi in general. However, he observed that the tempo Calascione took in Elsa and Ortrud’s duet was a little too rushed, particularly in the stretta. Calascione, by way of excuse, then made the fatal (and very Italian) mistake of referring to his fuoco sacro, the ‘sacred fire’ that burns in the heart of every sensitive Italian musician and conductor. “That fire! That fire!” cried Wagner. “Water, more like. All these people boast of this sacro fuoco, and on that pretext they interpret the music contrary to the composer’s intentions. That fire! It is the composer who determines when the fuoco should happen, when the situation requires it, when the dramatic moment calls for it!” Still, despite this rocky disagreement, they parted on good terms. This, so far as we know, was the last time they met. Wagner died in Venice on February 13, 1883.
Calascione benefited enormously from the inauguration of the annual Wagner commemorations in Venice from 1902 onwards. Sadly, his wonderful career came to an abrupt end on a bright afternoon in the early autumn of 1907. As an expectant crowd awaited, the 67-year-old hero marched his band into Piazza San Marco for the last time. As they struck up a number from Rigoletto, he swayed slightly, sank to his knees, and collapsed. A sudden, fatal heart attack. It was no surprise to learn that thousands attended his funeral parade later that year, for as well as being a great Wagnerian, he was also a dedicated servant of his adopted city. After the Campanile of San Marco collapsed in 1902, there was Calascione in the months that followed, resolutely performing a series of fundraising concerts in aid of the rebuilding program. It is a pleasing thought. His fuoco sacro still burns bright in the annals of Venice.