King Ludwig’s castles reflect his inner struggles

June 15, 2016

Attending the English National Opera’s new production of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner – its first since 1996 – was a great joy. I am delighted to be supporting this opera, which is directed by Daniel Kramer and features designs by Anish Kapoor, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

As I waited for the curtain to rise, I was reminded of the composer’s curious relationship with his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who lived from 1845–86.

King Ludwig was a reclusive character whose flamboyant taste in castles – astonishing neo-gothic palaces which decorate the tops of Bavarian mountains like fairy tale castles or indeed opera sets – belied his inner need for quiet, simplicity and even secrecy. Inside his most famous palace – the Neuschwanstein – his bedroom is simple and almost monastic, the small single bed a shrine to his single state. Yet the walls are painted with romantic murals telling the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The stimuli for building these edifices came from King Ludwig’s visits to France, and Versailles in particular. He envied the French their artistry and culture, and decided to encourage the development of the Arts in Bavaria on his return.

The schloss which resulted – including the breathtaking Neuschwanstein (which I have visited), the Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and the Munich Residenz Palace Royal apartment – were initially popular. Construction brought employment to hundreds of labourers and artisans, and money flowed into the poorer regions of the country.

But gradually the sheer excess – combined with Ludwig’s increasingly eccentric behaviour – turned the court and country against him. Ludwig was declared insane, and subsequently died in strange circumstances. Was he murdered? It’s impossible to rule out.

At the heart of his story, I believe, lies a struggle between his strict Catholicism and his homosexuality, which at the time was forbidden both by Church and state. Ludwig must have lived in a state of constant internal conflict which resulted in a lifetime spent curating his own reality: a world that was very romantic and beautiful even though it was not accepted by others.

In this, he reminds me of more modern celebrities such as Michael Jackson who seemed to suffer equal depths of personal turmoil. Jackson, like King Ludwig, found his outlet in creativity and the arts. His output was prodigious and Jackson knew its value saying: “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it, my music, I know I will live forever.”

Did Ludwig hope to live forever through his castles? Perhaps. Yet his wider legacy is importantly tied to his patronage of Wagner, whose music might never have been composed without the king’s support.

Certainly that was partly driven by his suppressed attraction for the young composer: “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely,” Ludwig said, “that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”

In the end Wagner was not able or willing to stay by Ludwig’s side, yet the king continued to pay his bills from afar. It is a debt modern music lovers can never repay; its value is too great.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation