Friday, 30 October 2015

Lohengrin’s Lair

Swan Tower
My regular operatic visits to the Ruhr and Lower Rhine areas of Germany leave me plenty of time to kill between evening performances, and I am always on the lookout for new places to visit during the daytime. Recently I was in Düsseldorf for a couple of nights, so on a very murky mid-October day I took the Regio Express train for 90 minutes to the end of its line at Kleve, just short of the Dutch border. Better known in English as Cleves (it was spelt as Cleve in Germany until spelling reform in the 1930s), it is probably most familiar as the home town of King Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne – the one whom he divorced after a mere six months when her visage proved to be nowhere near as pulchritudinous as Holbein’s portrait of her. But the town itself sets much greater store by a more mythical former inhabitant, the swan knight Lohengrin.

In Wagner’s version of the story, Lohengrin reveals in his Narration in Act III that he has come all the way from Montsalvat, which is presumed to be Montserrat in the mountains outside Barcelona. Given that Kleve is a mere 5km from the Rhine it makes for a far more plausible swan journey to leave his castle, travel down the great river to the North Sea and take the Scheldt up-river to the Brabantine court in Antwerp. Obvious, really. (Quite coincidentally, I had been in Antwerp the day before, following the previous evening’s performance of another Wagner opera, Tannhäuser, though my journey to the Rhineland had been more conventionally land-based.)

Kleve’s Lohengrin connection stems from the castle at its heart, the Schwanenburg, or Swan Castle. The counts who settled and built their fortress on the cliff-top overlooking the Rhine floodplain in the 11th century (‘Cleve’ derives from the word for ‘cliff’) believed they were descended from the local version of the swan knight, Helias, stories of whom were circulating among the troubadours for more than a century before finding literary form in the Teutonic medieval epics that Wagner used as his sources. But the idea of a saviour knight turning up on a swan to rescue a damsel in distress is common to them all. And today the swan has become the symbol of Kleve, from its logo and town website tab ident to virtually every piece of public art in the place. Among these is one of the wittiest water features anywhere: the Schwanenbrunnen (Swan Fountain, see above) in the main square portrays Wagner as Lohengrin, with the swan trying to drag him away into the water by his coat-tails and a buxom opera singer (Elsa?) along with two urchins pleading with him from the shore.

Kleve pictured in 1945, after its air-raids
The line of the Counts and the Dukes of Cleve, who were ruling over much of the lower Rhineland by the time of Anna’s marriage to Henry VIII in 1540, eventually died out in the early 17th century and the dukedom was swallowed up by Brandenburg and, much later, by Prussia. Besieged by the Spanish in 1635 and occupied by the French during the Napoleonic wars, Kleve then enjoyed a century or more as a leading spa town, thanks to a mineral spring that had been discovered in the 18th century, and it became a favoured place for Rhineland/Ruhr industrialists to build their weekend villas. These are some of the only buildings in Kleve to have survived two heavy Allied air-raids, in October 1944 and February 1945, which destroyed 90 per cent of the town, including the castle.

Despite the fact that Kleve had to be completely rebuilt and with only its most notable buildings reconstructed as they had been before the war, it’s an atmospheric place, or at least it was on the misty day I explored it. The Swan Tower at the heart of the castle was one of the first structures to be reborn and now houses a moderately interesting little museum on local geology and history with, on a clear day, views over the whole of the lower Rhineland (open daily April to October, at weekends only over winter); the rest of the castle is now occupied by law courts and municipal offices. Also rebuilt, though it took the best part of 40 years, is the main, double-spired Collegiate Church, whose origins go back to the 10th century; its most recent additions are its striking series of post-Millennial stained-glass windows (pictured right), which give the interior a rare unified feeling (open for visits daily except lunchtimes and during services).

One of the grandest of the 19th-century villas is now the Museum Kurhaus Kleve, an art gallery whose collection spans some five centuries and has an important focus on the work of the leading modernist performance artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86), who spent much of his early life in and around Kleve. The work of another local artist, Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek (1803–62), is celebrated in the villa he built in the centre of the town, one of the few in that area to survive the air-raids, which briefly stood in as a postwar town hall and is now the BC Koekkoek Museum. Otherwise, the architecture in much of the town centre, especially its shopping streets, is blandly 1950s–70s, though the hillier area around the castle at least maintains its historic feel and the original street plan survives.

The area in which Kleve sits, hard by the Dutch border and bound by hills in the west and the Rhine to the east, is known as Cleverland. It’s a popular draw for Netherlanders from over the border, attracted by its lower property prices and cost of living, which I suppose is why the locals call themselves Cleverlanders.

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