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How Forbidden Love Benefited Opera

Was Bavaria’s mad king in love with Richard Wagner?

In anticipation of my forthcoming book, How Madness Shaped History, I have been detailing the lives of some of history’s odd and tragic characters. Today, I turn to a story of forbidden sexuality and tragic death in the form of Bavaria’s mad king, Ludwig II.

The life and career of Bavaria’s king Ludwig II (ruled 1864-1886) is a fascinating story of forbidden love, encroaching mental illness and ultimate tragedy. To Ludwig, we owe a debt of gratitude for some of Germany’s most beautiful architecture as well as his patronage of the composer Richard Wagner. Yet, during his lifetime, he was a controversial figure, reclusive and emotional, and increasingly out of touch with the political realities of his diminishing kingdom. Ludwig ruled (and the term is used loosely) at the end of Bavaria’s independence, just as it was forcefully connected to the German Empire of the Kaisers.

Most scholars today agree that Ludwig was almost certainly gay. For a time, he was engaged to his cousin, Sophie Charlotte, with whom he shared a love for the music of Richard Wagner (the depth of his obsession with Wagner might have been a red flag for Sophie Charlotte). However, this proposed union seems to have been a source of great stress for Ludwig and he eventually called it off. Later, he maintained close relationships with several male colleagues. Being Catholic, his homosexual desires were a source of tumult for Ludwig, and lack of acceptance, either religiously or by society, undoubtedly contributed to Ludwig’s fragile mental state.

Yet, his infatuation for Richard Wagner is perhaps most intriguing. Wagner was certainly not gay, having happily carried on a decade-long affair with the wife of his conductor (Wagner later married the woman, Cosima, once she had divorced the conductor.) But Ludwig became arguably smitten with him, certainly because of his music, but infatuations often focus on the musical stars of their day. Ludwig became a patron of Wagner, bestowing considerable funds upon the older man, and spending considerable time in his company while Wagner lived in Munich.

In fairness, letters in the 19th century more commonly contained flowery and even passionate language that could be mistaken, in today’s blunter society, for expressions of romantic love. Yet, some of Ludwig’s correspondence with Wagner are hard to just wave away. At one point, separated from Wagner due to political machinations against Wagner in Munich, Ludwig wrote to Wagner’s consort, Cosima “I tell you, I cannot bear to live apart from him much longer. I suffer terribly…this is no passing, youthful infatuation…” Ludwig doesn't seem to have fully guessed Cosima's relationship with Wagner. Ludwig considered abdicating to join Wagner outside of Munich, but (perhaps sensing the end of a gravy train being replaced with a useless hanger-on) Wagner himself dissuaded Ludwig from such a drastic course.

Nonetheless, Wagner seems to have played up the infatuation when it suited him (and, monetarily, it often did), using flirtatious language in his letters to Ludwig. Writing to Ludwig during time spent together at one of the royal estates, Wagner proclaimed “What bliss enfolds me! A wonderful dream has become a reality! How can I find words to describe to you the magic of this hour?...I am in your angelic arms. We are near to one another…” Sure, Wagner was laying it on thick, but one can hardly fault Ludwig for getting swept up in all of this. Wagner appears to have been mainly motivated to keep his patronage going and may not have fully understood the harm this may have done for a fragile young man such as Ludwig.

Personal and professional calamities would ultimately pull Wagner and Ludwig apart. Since his teen years, Ludwig had demonstrated signs of mental illness, including hearing voices. Inbreeding common among royal families at the time (only in the 20th century would royals figure out that marrying outside the family is a good idea, by which time it was too late for monarchy) may have contributed to Ludwig’s issues and his brother Otto was likewise confined for most of his life due to mental health issues.

Ludwig became reclusive and devoted most of his energy to the arts and architecture. Most famous of his buildings is perhaps Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. But he neglected his duties as king of Bavaria which remained considerable despite that Bavaria no longer functioned as an independent nationality. Although Ludwig paid for most of his building projects from his own funds, he borrowed heavily and went into debt, and Bavaria began experiencing some of the financial fallout. Although the extent of Ludwig’s mental illnesses is controversial, his behavior was reclusive, odd and sometimes aggressive, making him an easy target for deposition.

Public domain
Neuschwanstein Castle
Source: Public domain

Aided by several psychiatrists, most notably Bernhard von Gudden, Bavaria’s ministers had Ludwig declared insane and deposed in favor of his uncle, who functioned as regent. The quality of this medical verdict remains very much in dispute as the examinations of Ludwig appear to have been perfunctory at best. Ludwig was secluded at a castle, attended by von Gudden.

Several days later, Ludwig met his end. Ludwig had requested that he and his psychiatrist von Gudden walk together alone by a lake near the castle. When the two men did not return from their walk, their bodies were found in the lake. Exactly what transpired remains a mystery. Von Gudden appeared to have been assaulted and drowned, although what happened to Ludwig was less clear. Had he killed his psychiatrist knowing that von Gudden was the architect of his confinement? Ludwig certainly had motive, and this seems the most likely explanation for von Gudden’s death. It’s possible that Ludwig subsequently had a heart attack and died, owing to both the physical exertions of murdering von Gudden, coupled with the frigid temperatures of the lake. Naturally, in the absence of clarity, many conspiracy theories took hold. Either way, Ludwig remains a tragic figure, cursed with power when all he wanted was to listen to a good opera.