Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Grand Opera

The Gay Love Letters of Ludwig II to Richard Wagner

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Richard Wagner's great opera cycles might not exist were it not for the support of his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria (1845–86). His enormous fairy-tale castles, Teutonic, neo-gothic and oriental versions of Versailles which virtually bankrupted the country, were the grand opera sets made flesh. He endeavoured to be an absolute monarch at the dawn of the modern republican world, when such goals were impossible. But having failed in the political and domestic realm, he made his dream reality in art and music. No expense was spared for the staging of Wagner's operas, which were often performed with Ludwig the sole member of the audience, and in return Wagner gave him his genius and his love. Wagner acknowledged that "Without him I am as nothing! Even in loving him he was my first teacher. O my King! You are divine!" They exchanged some 600 letters, and it is hard to say who was more enthusiastic, at least in the beginning. Wagner: "What bliss enfolds me! A wonderful dream has become a reality! . . . I am in the Gralsburg, in Parsifal's sublime and loving care. . . . I am in your angelic arms! We are near to one another." Or Ludwig: "My only beloved Friend! My saviour! My god! . . . Ah, now I am happy, for I know that my Only One draws near. Stay, oh stay! adored one for whom alone I live, with whom I die." Their relationship was almost certainly physical, though not necessarily "genital." Wagner at one time held homoerotic ideals, and in The Art-work of the Future (trans. W. A. Ellis), comments on the love of comrades in Sparta: "This beauteous naked man is the kernel of all Spartanhood; from genuine delight in the beauty of the most perfect human body – that of the male – arose that spirit of comradeship which pervades and shapes the whole economy of the Spartan State. This love of man to man, in its primitive purity, proclaims itself as the noblest and least selfish utterance of man's sense of beauty, for it teaches man to sink and merge his entire self in the object of his affection. . . . The higher element of that love of man to man . . . not only included a purely spiritual bond of friendship, but this spiritual friendship was the blossom and the crown of the physical friendship. The latter sprang directly from delight in the beauty, aye in the material bodily beauty of the beloved comrade." Ludwig refused to get married, even for state reasons, and wanted to give up the throne to live with and for Wagner. But it was not to be, for Wagner loved women as well as music and power. Ludwig's physical satisfactions were achieved primarily with his equerry for twenty years, Richard Hornig, and later with the young Hungarian actor Joseph Kainz. The first time Ludwig saw Kainz on stage, during the interval he sent him a pair of ivory opera glasses; several nights later he gave him a diamond and sapphire ring and a gold chain from which hung a swan, symbol of the Dream King. Unable to give substance to his dreams on the political stage, Ludwig refused to meet his ministers and gradually became a recluse; always at odds with his family, they managed to keep him virtually imprisoned at his hunting box Schloss Berg, where he apparently held orgies with the troopers under his command. A secret committee of the Bavarian Parliament heard testimony of the king's weakness for muscular country lads. In June 1886 they had him declared insane, and shortly afterwards he was found drowned together with his attendant. No one today seriously believes this was either an accident or suicide. (The translation of the letters is by Edward Carpenter, who included these selections in the enlarged 1929 edition of his pioneering gay anthology Ioläus.)

Photograph of Richard Wagner


4th May, 1864

He, the king, loves me, and with the deep feeling and glow of a first love; he perceives and knows everything about me, and understands me as my own soul. He wants me to stay with him always. . . . I am to be free and my own master, not his music-conductor – only my very self and his friend. RICHARD WAGNES TO Mme ELIZA WILLE

9th Sept., 1864

It is true that I have my young king who genuinely adores me. You cannot form an idea of our relations. I recall one of the dreams of my youth. I once dreamed that Shakespeare was alive: that I really saw and spoke to him: I can never forget the impression that dream made on me. Then I would have wished to see Beethoven, though he was already dead. Something of the same kind must pass in the mind of this lovable man when with me. He says he can hardly believe that he really possesses me. None can read without astonishment, without enchantment, the letters he writes to me.

Photograph of the young King Ludwig


15th May, 1865

Dear Friend,
          O I see clearly that your sufferings are deep-rooted! You tell me, beloved friend, that you have looked deep into the hearts of men, and seen there the villainy and corruption that dwells within. Yes, I believe you, and I can well understand that moments come to you of disgust with the human race; yet always will we remember (will we not, beloved?) that there are yet many noble and good people, for whom it is a real pleasure to live and work. And yet you say you are no use for this world! – I pray you, do not despair, your true friend conjures you; have Courage: "Love helps us to bear and suffer all things, love brings at last the victor's crown!" Love recognizes, even in the most corrupt, the germ of good; she alone overcomes all! Live on, darling of my soul. I recall your own words to you. To learn to forget is a noble work! – Let us be careful to hide the faults of others; it was for all men indeed that the Saviour died and suffered. And now, what a pity that "Tristan" can not be presented today; will it perhaps tomorrow? Is there any chance?
          Unto death your faithful friend,


4th Aug., 1865

My one, my much-loved Friend,
          You express to me your sorrow that, as it seems to you, each one of our last meetings has only brought pain and anxiety to me. – Must I then remind my loved one of Brynhilda's words? – Not only in gladness and enjoyment, but in suffering also Love makes man blest. . . . When does my friend think of coming to the "Hill-Top", to the woodland's aromatic breezes? – Should a stay in that particular spot not altogether suit, why, I beg my dear one to choose any of my other mountain-cabins for his residence. – What is mine is his! Perhaps we may meet on the way between the Wood and the World, as my friend expressed it! . . . To thee I am wholly devoted; for thee, for thee only to live!
          Unto death your own, your faithful


10th Sept., 1865

I hope now for a long period to gain strength again by quiet work. This is made possible for me by the love of an unimaginably beautiful and thoughtful being: it seems that it had to be even so greatly gifted a man and one so destined for me, as this young King of Bavaria. What he is to me no one can imagine. My guardian! In his love I completely rest and fortify myself towards the completion of my task.


2nd Nov., 1865

My one Friend, my ardently beloved!
          This afternoon, at 3.30, I returned from a glorious tour in Switzerland! How this land delighted me! – There I found your dear letter; deepest warmest thanks for the same. With new and burning enthusiasm has it filled me; I see that the beloved marches boldly and confidently forward, towards our great and eternal goal.
          All hindrances I will victoriously overcome like a hero. I am entirely at thy disposal; let me now dutifully prove it. – Yes, we must meet and speak together. I will banish all evil clouds; Love has strength for all. You are the star that shines upon my life, and the sight of you ever wonderfully strengthens me. – Ardently I long for you, O my presiding Saint, to whom I pray! I should be immensely pleased to see my friend here in about a week; oh, we have plenty to say! If only I could quite banish from me the curse of which you speak, and send it back to the deeps of night from whence it sprang! – How I love, how I love you, my one, my highest good! . . .
          My enthusiasm and love for you are boundless. Once more I swear you faith till death!
          Ever, ever your devoted

SOURCE: Translated by Edward Carpenter (slightly amended) in his anthology Ioläus (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1906 enlarged edition, repr. 1929).

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