Ludwig: Consonant Music in a Dissonant Life

I’m proud to present a new essay, published in S. Stoppe (Ed.), Film in Concert : Film Scores and their Relation to Classical Concert Music (pp. 191-204). Glückstadt vwh Verlag Werner Hülsbusch. (available through amazon)

It focuses on the intertextual use of classical music (mostly Richard Wagner) in the film Ludwig (1972) by Luchino Visconti.



Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1972) is an outstanding example of how the intertextual use of classical music can alter the perception of the movie. The film focuses on the decline of Ludwig II, king of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, who ascends the throne at the age of 18, full of romantic ambition, but cannot realise his dreams because of his lack of vigour and due to social and political changes. The film’s visual splendour is striking, but makes it look like an empty mausoleum for a long gone king, as if Visconti created an homage to a waning aristocrat who isolated himself in a crucial historical period. But, looking at the figure of Wagner – whom Ludwig patronised – and the use of classical music, it becomes clear that Visconti is idolising Ludwig nor Wagner, but has a critical attitude towards both historical figures.

Through his music, Wagner wanted to express art’s mission in society, without sacrificing music as an independent form of expression. However, in the film Wagner is squeezed between the financial dependence of patronage to be able to create freely; Ludwig is trapped between his social and political role as a king in a changing public climate and his wish to live life as a dream. The contrast between the characters serves as a pointer that both Ludwig’s quest and Wagner’s ideals are doomed for failure. These reflections become solid statements when we look at the specific use of classical music in the film. Where the music of Schumann and Offenbach function as cheeky comments, both the choice and placement of fragments of Wagner’s operas are delicate and precise, and the music becomes the critical voice the movie mostly lacks on narrative and visual level. Wagner’s music in the film does not only symbolize the arrival of a new social and political area but also illustrates Ludwig’s shortage of decisiveness and lack of sense of reality. As such, it is used as part of a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where different disciplines meet and reinforce each other.

The essay analyses the specific use of music in the film; for this blogpost, I’ll give one example as a glimpse of the article.

One example is the use of the music and a location of the opera Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner, stressing the contrast between dream and reality.


Ludwig II had a replica constructed of the cavern of Venus at the castle of Linderhof. The cave was originally intended as a place to stage Wagner’s operas, but as it turned out its acoustics were totally unsuitable. Ludwig frequently demanded to navigate him around the lake of the cave as a Lohengrin in a swan-shaped boat. In the film, the cave is the meeting place between the actor Kainz and Ludwig. At the request of the king, Kainz travelled to his castle and Visconti turns Kainz into a failed puppet who incarnates instead of impersonates the theatrical and operatic characters. In Wagner’s opera the cavern of Venus is a place of imagination, sensual love, sexual freedom, an escape from prevailing morality. In the film, emphasized by the cold lighting, the cave is a chilly place where two people can hardly understand each other, where not the meeting but the distance between two persons is accentuated, where the encounter is not spontaneous, but staged. Ludwig, a lone man feeding the swans in an artificial cave, turns into a dramatic figure, a lonely individual who has lost touch with reality and with his heart. He does not dare to live his feelings—neither pure love, nor sensual love.

Visconti also uses music from Tannhäuser. At various times we hear the melody of Wolfram’s song: ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ (Oh thou, my gracious evening star) from the second scene of the third and final act. This melancholic melody was not randomly chosen by Visconti. The aria is situated at the end of the opera. Tannhäuser seems not to return from his pilgrimage to Rome; Elisabeth withers away and is likely to die of grief. Wolfram, who also worships Elisabeth, sings how the Evening Star (Venus) shows the way out of the dark valley (the earth):

Like a portent of death, twilight shrouds the earth and envelops the valley in its sable robe; the soul that yearns for those heights dreads to take its dark and awful flight. There you shine, o fairest of the stars, and shed your gentle light from afar; your friendly beam penetrates the twilight gloom and points the way out from the valley. O my fair evening star, I always gladly greeted thee: from a heart that never betrayed its faith greet her when she passes, when she soars above this mortal vale to become a blessed angel in heaven!

We hear this cry for deliverance from earthly suffering twice through a music box. The first time when Otto, Ludwig’s brother, leaves the front during the war against Prussia to visit Ludwig. Ludwig reacts indifferently to Otto’s testimonies from the war they are losing, and points to a mobile at the ceiling with the quarters of the moon, moving to this melody from Tannhäuser. Ludwig says to Otto: “I do not want this war.” Through using this specific music, Visconti suggests that Ludwig wants to know very little of worldly affairs and tries to reach for heaven. Visconti makes the music box blend into an orchestral version of the same melody, until the scene is shown in which Ludwig sees the servant Volk bathing nude in the lake. Once inside, Ludwig (allegedly homosexual), kneeling, murmurs repeatedly: “Help me, help me!” A battle between emotion and reason is unfolding…

At the end of the film, Ludwig, imprisoned in his castle in Berg, listens to the aforementioned music box again. The room he is locked in has a spyhole through which they keep an eye on him; to eat he is only permitted dessert cutlery but no knife. In short, he is deprived of his freedom. This situation too asks for a cry for deliverance. But this time round, only the music box is used and the mobile with the moon is absent. Not the moon, but Ludwig goes in rounds. A projection into eternity?
The melody of the aria is used three more times. Once in the cavern of Venus when Kainz encounters Ludwig who is at the time already totally forlorn. The second time the theme is used off-screen. Ludwig and Kainz ride at night through the snow on a sledge and Kainz (in voice-off) recites from Marion Delorme by Victor Hugo:

The peaks quiver, the weak bridge trembles, but the hunter walks a difficult path with a steady heart. With bold steps, he crosses on the treacherous glacier. Over there, where spring never comes and branches never dare grow.

In the next scene, Kainz refuses to continue acting on order and seals the segregation between them. We hear the melody a last time when Elisabeth attempts to visit Ludwig in the megalomaniac but unfinished and apparently desolate castle of Neuschwanstein. In these scenes as well, the music underscores Ludwig’s emotional isolation, his lack of trust in his feelings towards Elisabeth, Kainz and others, and finally his desire to become an angel amongst planets and stars.


This serves as one of many examples of how the music in Ludwig is used to contrast with Ludwig’s inaction and adds a cautionary note to Ludwig’s illusions. The musical fragments from Wagner describe in specific ways that his dream castles turn out to be castles made of air. Behind the apparent grandeur of Ludwig’s pompous environment only emptiness is to be found.


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