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Legal struggle over Wagner table piano

5 June 2013

Wagner © Tully Potter Collection

One wouldn’t expect a battle over the piano on which Richard Wagner composed parts of the Ring to be anything but epic. The Bechstein table piano, a gift to the composer from King Ludwig II in 1864, is the subject of a prolonged lawsuit in which Iris Wagner, one of several great-granddaughters, has opposed both the city of Leipzig and the Richard Wagner Foundation over official ownership.

The instrument sat peacefully in the Villa Wahnfried until the end of the Second World War when it was shipped to Leipzig, the composer’s city of birth. A decade after German reunification, Sven Friedrich, director of the Richard Wagner Museum in Bayreuth, discovered the piano at Leipzig’s Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (State History Museum). It returned to Bayreuth in 1998 under a rental contract, but Leipzig terminated the agreement upon its expiration a decade later.

The city emerged victorious as owner by acquisition from the first round of dispute in district court. The piano was granted long-term loans to the Wagner abode. However, Iris made a legal intervention in 2011. The battle came to a near close in March of this year when both the Wagner Foundation and Iris recognised Leipzig as the official owner. But the following month, when the piano was scheduled to return to Bayreuth on loan, Iris again revoked the ruling. With ownership still up in the air, the instrument was on view at the exhibit Wagner Lust & Last (Wagner Desire and Burden) dedicated to the composer’s bicentenary in Leipzig, which ran from March through late May.

The Wagner dynasty has Ludwig II to thank not just for the table piano but a significant portion of its estate. The 18-year-old Ludwig, enamoured of operas such as Tannhäuser and Lohengrin paid off the composer’s debt and granted him a lakeside abode following their first meeting. Wagner received the table piano for his 51st birthday, composing works such as Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, Götterdämmerung, and the third act of Siegfried.


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