About this Recording
8.225301-03 - WAGNER, S: Heidenkonig (Der) (The Heathen King)
English  German 

Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930)
The Heathen King

Siegfried Wagner, the son of Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bülow (née Liszt), was born on June 6th, 1869, in Tribschen, near Lucerne, Switzerland. He was educated at home until his father’s death in 1883. Afterwards, his compositional studies continued with Engelbert Humperdinck in Frankfurt. In 1890 he began studying architecture, first in Berlin, subsequently in Karlsruhe. During this time he came under the influence of the conductor Felix Mottl, which caused him to reconsider his vocation. A voyage to India and China in 1892 finally decided him, and he returned to Bayreuth to spend four years as an assistant to his mother, Hans Richter and Julius Kniese. This training prepared him for his future role as producer, director and conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. In 1896 he conducted The Ring and in 1901 staged The Flying Dutchman. In 1907 he took over the command from his mother, remaining in charge of the festival until his death in 1930.

Siegfried Wagner wrote some eighteen operas. His first opera, Der Bärenhäuter (The Man in the Bear’s Skin), had its première in Munich in 1899. Der Heidenkönig (The Heathen King), his ninth opera, was completed in 1914. It was first staged in Cologne posthumously in 1933.

Glaube: Faith - more than an interlude

To construct the analysis of an opera based on an orchestral interlude seems far-fetched, if not unimaginable. One would not base an analysis of The Ring on Siegfried’s Funeral March, nor would one begin to analyze Parsifal as based on the Good Friday Magic. Even when studying the works of Pietro Mascagni, who used the intermezzo sinfonico as a defining characteristic of his more than simply verismo operas, one would not thus base an analysis. Yet neither of the aforementioned composers wrote a performance note above an orchestral interlude as Siegfried Wagner did with the word Faith in Heidenkönig: “During the interlude, the noise of changing scenery should be avoided at all costs, so that the piece, which is very important to the composer, will not be destroyed.” Such emphasis from the composer himself is to be taken seriously, and may be inferred to refer to the significance of the piece as a key to the whole work. This is especially true since the music between the prelude and first act seems to be a belated overture. Although Siegfried Wagner otherwise allows generous time for the orchestral openings of his operas, here he contents himself with a relatively short introduction to the first words of the monk as he is spying on the heathens. This brevity of the prelude leads to the greater impact of the interlude. Its musical texture is a complete contrast to the prelude, and seems to represent a musical polarity: the interlude’s tonally and symbolically remote E major (in Schwarzschwanenreich representing God’s realm) stands directly in contrast to the dominating, even chthonically oriented F minor ( at times F major). (Incidentally, his use of E major corresponds with Mahler’s use of it as a symbol for heaven in his fourth symphony.) Glaube’s emotional intensity counters the primitive pathos of the heathens as they invoke the gods during the murdered heathen king’s funeral ceremony. The “cold oath”, i.e. perjury, of Kriwe’s men to believe in the christian God, is isolated by/from the orchestral interlude’s warm profession of faith. The marking andante religioso especially emphasizes this quality of devotion. Wagner prevented this indication from being misunderstood as simply a mood indicator; he entitled the piece “very important” to him: Faith.

What faith did he mean? It would be presumptuous and superficial to speak simply of Catholic faith. Wagner could have very easily made his opera, for which he wrote the libretto (as he did for all his other operas), a dramatic battle between the heathen Prussians and the Catholic Poles. In this case, a chorale, which has been an unequivocal symbol for steadfast and resolute faith at the latest since Mendelssohn (Lobgesang and Reformation Symphony), would be expected to represent the Catholic front. Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Wagner make similar use of the chorale (Dresden Amen in Parsifal , pilgrims’ choruses in Tannhäuser). Siegfried Wagner’s Glaube offers, instead of all that, a music which seems to represent inner fervour, hope and peacefulness.

In order to find out which world Glaube represents, one should first look at the life of the heathens. We learn in the prelude how their belief is associated with sacred trees, gods of nature, oaths and funeral pyres, and of the power structures of a hierarchical priesthood (Kriwe-Kriweito as high priest, the male Waidelots as priests and the female Waidelots and Sigonots as assisting priests). Perjury is absolutely allowed. It all resembles an underground society binding nationalistic/political interests with religious ones in the assertion of its own king. The true character of this “faith”, from which the interlude so distinctively differentiates itself, is exposed in the course of the opera. Just as in the Old Testament, when the wise Daniel reveals to the deluded king that the offered sacrifices are not consumed by the statue of Baal, but by the nightly, secretly stealing priests (Dan. 14,1-22), the Mill and Harvest god, or rather his wooden statue, is revealed to be nothing other than a Trojan horse occupied by the mill servant Hoggo when Radomar splits it with an axe during the Kupalo Festival in the second act.

While this unmasking is either amusing, as from the audience’s perspective, or tragic, as viewed by those thus affected and ridiculed, Wagner does not stick with it there. The masquerade turns out to be rather a deadly delusion ultimately costing Krodo and Ellida their lives. This erring faith is purely the work of man, using the seduction of the masses and manipulation of individuals as a means to appropriate power, create discord and hatred. It serves not life, but death.

This bare exposure of the heathen world makes clear that Wagner is not concerned with which is the correct denomination, but with to which actions faith, in the religious and ideological sense, drives man. The true nature of Faith cannot be defined by observing the masses, but rather only by the actions of individuals; faith first makes itself apparent in the level of their sympathy or antipathy.

Accordingly, the party in opposition to the heathen is not the Polish army, but the monk. Considering that the music of the interlude is associated solely with his character, he proves himself to be the bearer of that which Wagner means by “faith”. Following this track further leads to three scenes. The faith theme is heard for the first time at the beginning of the first act, when the monk sees the figure of the god Percunos in the trunk of the oak, and looking at Radomar cries: “Radomar has not fallen to you. He is ours! Christ’s servant!” The second time is also the only time that the faith melody determines the vocal line. In the dialogue with Jaroslav (Act I, Scene 4), the monk says: “ I have never wavered in the faith that teaches love. The word of Christ is not taught by hate or by the sword. Only by kindness and mercy. Thus we are spiritually true. That is how we free ourselves from the guilt of sin.” This profession of faith is the opposite of Jaroslav’s, who states, “Kindness is weakness. Force takes care of defiance. The losers should be servants.” Finally, the interlude determines the end of the opera. It is heard at the beginning of the finale as the monk begs the Poles to stop the threatening massacre: “Christ conquers through love!” Then it is heard in the scene of temptation along with the monk’s prayer begging for mercy: “Help me, heaven! Help me, eternal God! In the name of the holy cross, be gone!”. Finally, the last measures of the interlude are heard when the monk summons the people to pray for Ellida, who sacrificed herself for Radomar: “Pray for her! Pray for her salvation!”

This may be surprising in an opera, especially in an opera by one of the Wagners, but Siegfried Wagner does not reduce faith to a pious feeling, and does not proclaim a purely secular love ethos. Faith in Der Heidenkönig is evidently a basic attitude that is derived from Jesus’ death on the cross as the ulitimate act of redemption. This attitude is marked by compassion, the constant struggle for forgiveness, the resolute will to have peace, and finally, the hope that surpasses death and drives those left behind to pray. This faith shows that salvation cannot be made by man, but is after all in the hands of God.

Adapted from an article by Gunther Fleischer
English version by Rebecca Broberg

The Gods of the Wends and their Cult

The historical King Waidewut, together with his brother Bruteno, Kriwe in Balga, laid down seventeen commands. Among others these are:

No-one shall worship the gods without the Kriwe- Kriweito. No-one shall bring into the country a god from a foreign country. The highest gods shall be: Potrimpos, Perkunos and Pikollos. For they have given us this land and will give us more.
In honour of the gods we will follow our Kriwe Kriweito as our highest lord, as we shall his successors, whom the most merciful gods will grant us and who will will choose the Waidelots for the Rikaito.
We owe our holy gods fear and obedience. After this life they will give us beautiful women, many children, good food, sweet drink, in the summer white clothes, in the winter warm coats, and we will sleep on great soft beds. We will laugh and leap with good health. The wicked, who do not respect the gods, will lose what they have, and will be beaten until they cry, howl, and must wring their hands in woe and anxiety.

The plot of the prologue of Der Heidenkönig leads to the ‘stump of the fallen sacred oak of Romove’. About 1015 Boleslav Chobri, King of the Poles, invaded the land of the Prussians and destroyed Romove, burning the images of the gods. After the departure of the Poles the Prussians made new images. Even after the heathen Prussians had been baptized by the crusading knights, they secretly worshipped the oak. They believed man and beast to be protected from misfortune if they wore one of its leaves round their necks. The Bishop of Ermland had the sacred oak felled by the High Master Winrich of Knipprode. In its place Petrus of Sohr built the Holy Trinity Monastery. The monastery building fell into decay. In 1708 it came into the possession of a Herr von Killitz zu Gross-Waldeck. When the walls of the ruins were removed a golden crucifix was found and a ring with an indecipherable inscription that had served as protection from heathen spirits. Von Killitz bequeathed the finds to the city of Königsberg.

In Bechstein’s Book of German Legends the following appears on the sacred oak of Romowe, dedicated to the god Perkunos: Where the holy oak of the old Prussians stood was a great city, and it had from its builders, who had made an armed march towards Rome, the name Roma Nova, which later became Romove. The oak was six ells in diameter, summer and winter it stayed green, and through its thick branches and foliage neither rain nor snow fell. The unitiated were prevented from seeing it by a silken curtain that was eight ells long. Three gods were revered under this sacred oak, these were Perkunos, the thunder god, Pikollos, the god of death, and Potrimpos, the god of war and harvests. All Christians who fell into the hands of the heathen Prussians were sacrificed to these gods … The sacred oaks and the places where they stood were revered for a long time by the people, until Christianity was preached to them by fire and sword. When this happened, a church and monastery were built at Romove, both of which flourished, with the city, to the end. There is now hardly any trace of the city, church and monastery. (Bechstein: op.cit. pp.581, ssq.)

Here at the foot of the oak, worshippers sacrificed men, children, horses, rams and sheep, and their blood was poured on the ground by the sacred oak. Arrows were shot into the tree-top. Before the statue of the god Perkunos a perpetual fire of sacred wood was kept burning, in which sacrifices were burned. If the fire went out, the watching Waidelott had to die in the rekindled fire. This is referred to by Siegfried Wagner in the second act, when the ‘sacred fire’ goes out.

In the Legend of King Waidewuttus there is information on this self-immolation: Hereupon he had a high wooden pyre built before the great oak at Romove, on which the people threw burning torches so that the flames flew up into the air with great crackling. Then they brought offerings, small and great animals, especially oxen with gilded horns, whose entrails they threw into the fire. But the King stood finely clad, holding a golden bowl of mead that he poured between the horns of a great black cow, but with the right foot and left arm bare, and prayed to the gods graciously to accept him as a sacrifice for his people and grant his people victory. After these words he leapt fearlessly into the flames. (Grässe: Prussians, op.cit. Vol.2, pp.521ssq.)

The trinity of Perkunos, Potrimpos and Pikollos were honoured in the form of statues. Perkunos, the chief god of the Prussians, was fearfully represented, red as fire, but with a black beard, his head crowned with flames. His emblem was the ploughshare. His voice was the lightning. To be struck by him was the highest distinction that was worthy of admission among the gods. In contrast with his statue was Potrimpos, who was portrayed as a young, friendly, laughing man, decked with ears of corn. His animal was the snake, which was fed milk and kept in a basket covered with ears of corn by the Waidelots. In his honour wax and incense were burned, but children were also sacrificed. Pikollos was represented with a pale face and a long grey beard. The name of the god of death is ‘Pieklo’ (= hell). For this reason the heads of dead men, horses and cows were dedicated to him. When a rich man died and his relations were unwilling to make any offering, his ghost would haunt their houses by night. If he appeared the third time, he wanted human blood. Then the Waidelott brought an offering of his own blood, after cutting his arm. If a sound was heard in the oak, it was a sign that the god was satisfied. Siegfried Wagner takes up this worship of Pikollos in the second act of his opera, when Hoggo makes a sound from the belly of the god’s image.

The sacred oak was hidden from view by cloth. Only when one brought sacrifices to the Kriweito could one get a brief look at it. The Kriweito lived directly at the foot of the oak, the Waidelots in surrounding houses.

Perkunos was brought the greatest and most valuable sacrifices. Those without possessions offered him the hair of their head and beard. It was forbidden to hunt or fell wood in the surrounding woods and groves which were dedicated to him.

The sacred white horse, especially before crusades, was led over the lances as an oracle. One could see from the horse’s sweat if Percunos had ridden it at night. The autumn harvest festival, also known as “Kupala” of “Kupalnizza”, was dedicated to the Kupalo, the god of fertility. After the Waidelots predicted the next year’s harvest from the quantity of mead remaining in the god’s drinking horn from the previous “Kupala”, it was newly filled.

The final scene of the third act takes place ‘at the foot of Rombinos hill’. In Ludwig Bechstein’s Book of German Legends it is said of this place: By the town of Ragnit on the Memel, but on the other side of the river, rises a wooded and rugged hill called Rombinus. In early times there the ancient Lithuanians had their most famous and greatest shrine, with a gigantic stone altar, on which sacrifice was brought for the god Potrimpos. The god himself was said to have put this stone there and with it a golden key and a silver harrow were buried, since he is the god of ferility and the harvest. There was no end to sacrifice on the Rombinus, and legend told that so long as the stone lay on the hill, the Lithuanians would flourish, but if the stone were taken away, the hill itself would collapse and disaster strike the land. This legend lived through the centuries, long after the last sacrifice had been offered.
There came, it must have been in 1811, a German miller to the little village of Bardehnen, north-east of Rombinus, who wanted two new mill-stones and searched in the district where the stones stood. Then he came to the Rombinus and thought the sacrificial stone well suited to his work. The people living there told him that this stone must not be taken away as the fortune of the country depended on it. The miller told the people that they were still misled by heathen superstitions, went to the local administrator and sought written permission to take the stone away. This he was given, since the administrator did not want to appear less enlightened than a German miller … The miller made the first blow on the stone, and two splinters from it went into his eyes so that he immediately became blind and remained so for the rest of his life; perhaps he is still alive. His companion from Tilsit hurt his arm so much at the second blow that he fractured it and could not strike a third time. But nothing happened to the two other fellows, who took no heed, overpowered the stone and took it away from the hill. When, however, one of the fellows travelled to his homeland again, after this, he never reached it, but died behind a fence by the road. The golden key and silver harrow have never been found. When the stone was removed, the Memel began to work on the hill and to erode and undermine it, and in 1835, in September, there was a crack like thunder and a great part of the Rombinus collapsed, and many were afraid that it would collapse further and fulfil the old prophecy of misfortune.
(Bechstein: op.cit. p.601)

On the Memel they still spoke in the middle of the ninteenth century of the east bank as ‘the heathen side’ on which at that time secret sacrifices of deer were made, to placate the old gods. Therefore the Waidelot as an official of the old cult administered a kind of confession for believers, in which he punished each misdeed with a slap in the face. In a countermove at the end of the confession the people set upon their Waidelott, pulled his beard and beat him soundly, finally to celebrate fully together with him with food and drink. Today on the legendary hill on the right bank of the Memel, as a Lithuanian holy place, on 24th June a great national festival is held, with food and drink. At the centre of this hill is a great boulder that today is split into two parts.

Siegfried Wagner was not the only one to occupy himself dramatically with this subject. Just recently, Paul Fechter’s (1880-1958) Der Zauberer Gottes (God’s Magician) had its theatrical revival. This comedy deals with the difficulties of people living on the rural frontier of East Prussia. Despite centuries of Christianity they continue to believe in their gods, and have problematic relationships with the Poles. The heathen mythology of the old oak of Romove and of ‘Perkunas’ also plays a part in the literary work of Johannes Bobrowski (1917-1965), whose novel Levins Mühle (Levin’s Mill) in 1973 was made into an opera by Ingo and Udo Zimmermann.

Peter P. Pachl
English version by Keith Anderson

(Sources not mentioned in the text: Wilhelm Vollmer: Wörterbuch der Mythologie; Günther Drosdowski: Duden Lexikon der Vornamen; Horst Naumann: Familiennamenbuch; Hans Bahlow: Deutsches Namenslexikon.)

Close the window