An elegant classical music festival in the mad king's palace



When the summer comes, Germany gets filled with many classical music festivals in its every nook and cranny, from the top of the mountains to the islands in the middle of the lakes. One of the most remarkable festivals of recent years in Germany, is being held in the Herrenchiemsee Palace, on the Chiemsee Lake of Bavaria.

My readers who follow my music travel articles know well that Germany is a “classical music festival heaven”. Of course, I have not counted, but among the articles I have written with this theme until now, the most mentioned country must have been Germany. One of the natural reflections of the value and importance which have been given to the art of classical music in Germany is, the many festivals that are being held in every single corner of this city, with no exceptions. One of the most important factors that distinguishes a classical music festival among its counterparts is the geography it is being held, and the other important factor is the place. Herreninsel, the greatest island on the Chiemsee Lake which is located in the Bavaria state of Germany, hosts one of the most prestigious classical music festivals since 2000. Leaning its back against the Alps, Chiemsee is the biggest lake of the state Bavaria; even nicknamed as the Bavaria Sea. Herreninsel, extending along a 238 hectare-wide area, has a rightful fame due to the unique palace located on it. Herrenchiemsee is the name of both this palace and the prestigious classical music festival, which is being held here since the year 2000.

Chiemsee is a well known health care center with its clear water and air (above). Prien am Chiemsee hosts a quite big covered swimming pool (below).

The constructor of Herrenchiemsee Palace was the Bavarian King, Ludwig II (1845-1886). Especially, the ones who know the life story of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) well, are also familiar with this crazy/mad king of Bavaria. Being an admirer of Wagner (or according to the rumors being in love with him platonically – yes, you got that right, he was homosexual) King Ludwig, had this spectacular palace built, emulating another great personage whom he also admired: the King of France, a.k.a. “The Sun King” Louis XIV, who had the Palace of Versailles built (The closeness that Ludwig II felt towards Louis XIV was also emanating from the fact that his grandfather Bavarian King Ludwig I was the godfather of the King of France Louis XVI). Thereby, this palace’s architectural style is very different from the Neuschwanstein Castle’s Romanesque architectural style, which had been built in the southwest of Bavaria, for Wagner to benefit from, again by the same king, who paid for it from his own wealth and even got into a debt for it out of his admiration towards Wagner. 

The short life span of King Ludwig II wasn't sufficient enough to see the wonderful fauna which surrounded his palace in the meantime.

From outside, Herrenchimsee Palace seems to be constructed with marble or stone from top to toe, however, brick is its actual construction material and it keeps its all glory inside. The long corridors open to studies and resting areas with each being more glamorous than the others, just like we are used to seeing in the palaces of Versailles and Schönbrunn. In fact, Herrenchiemsee is an unfinished palace. This construction, which was built between the years 1878-1885, was one of the most expensive building investments of Ludwig II, who was criticized all the time while he was on the throne, due to his extravagant personality, reign and expensive lifestyle, which even caused the kingdom to be led to failure. Even though approximately 16 million German marks were spent at that time for the construction, only 20 rooms of the palace out of the planned 70 could be finished. Costing 250 million American dollars with today’s exchange rate, construction of this palace became the last nail which was pounded to the coffin of the treasury of Bavarian Kingdom. Only the middle part of the palace could reach our day, the unfinished left wing of the building was demolished in 1907 and the construction of the right wing didn’t even get started. Ludwig II was able to use this last toy of his for only a few days, then he was dethroned by force and one day in 1886, he was found dead in Starnberg Lake, due to an unknown cause. Ludwig II became famous with his expression, “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” and it still remains a mystery whether he was killed or killed himself – like Ottoman Emperor Sultan Abdülaziz.

The silhouette of the King Ludwig II salutes the people who comes to and leaves Prien am Chiemsee.

When it was decided to hold a summer festival in Herrenchiemsee Palace, the first person to call was Enoch zu Guttenberg. Born in 1946, the carrier of the title Baron, this famous conductor is a member of Guttenberg Dynasty, which means he isn’t descended from Wittelsbach Dynasty that the Kingdom of Bavaria is a member of. When we examine the Guttenbergs, we see that they are a noble family from the Franconian territories. Enoch zu Guttenberg didn’t follow the traditional steps of his family elders and became an economist or a politician, instead he chose being a musician as his occupation. At first, he was determined to become a composer, however, he realized that – in his own words – he didn’t have an extraordinary talent in this field, so he became a conductor and he is now the artistic director of Orchester KlangVerwaltung since 1997. This is a high quality ensemble, consisted of musicians who play at the elite symphonic ensembles of Europe. Enoch zu Guttenberg and KlangVerwaltung Orchestra he conducts, naturally constitutes the backbone of the Herrenchiemsee Festival.

Guttenberg has been carrying out the responsibilities of positions such as the intendant – in other words general manager – and the artistic director of Herrenchiemsee Festival or in its full name “Herrenchiemsee Festival in the Palace of Ludwig II”, since the year 2000. In fact, in that first year, they aimed to organize a Bach Festival since it was the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Guttenberg joined forces with the dramatist Klaus Jörg Schönmetzler, and in this first event that continued for seven days, together they tested the resonance of the Great Hall of Mirrors, while it was occupied by the concerts performed by the orchestra, since this was the place they desired to use as the main venue of the festival. After the success they reached in every aspect in the first year, it was decided to carry on the festival in the Great Hall of Mirrors every year with a different theme. For instance, in the year 2002, they processed the multipolarity which European music went through ever since the year 1850, in their concert programmes, with a theme named “The Wagner Headache”. The honorary patronage of the festival is assumed by the Bavarian Duke Franz (b. 1933), who is the current leader of Wittelsbach Dynasty, and the great-grandson of Bavarian King Ludwig III.

Orchestre des Champs-Elysées conducted by Philippe Herreweghe was among the guest emsembles of the festival in July 2016. 

The Fraumünster in the Fraueninsel which also has a wonderful acoustics is host to the inaugural concert of the festival every year.

Giving the palace its name, Herreninsel, a.k.a. “Men’s Island” and the nearby island Fraueninsel, a.k.a. “Women’s Island”, which is located on the same lake, are among the first centers of Europe where both humanity and Christianity were established and spread. The first monastery located on the north of the Alps was built in Herrenchiemsee, around AD 630. After 140 years, the Duke Tassilo III had a Benediction nunnery made in Fraueninsel. Until the Napoleon period, the Chiemsee Episcopacy reserved the region as a center of religion and art, and then “our hero” Ludwig II bought the islands in the name of Bavarian Kingdom and prevented this ecologically fabulously rich region to crush and burn in the hands of the lumber merchants. There was a moment in which this region left a mark in the German history; in 1948, the new constitution convention of Federal Germany (Verfassungskonvent auf Herrenchiemsee) gathered in Ludwig II’s residence in Herreninsel, which is known as “Old Palace”, with the guidance of the allied forces after the war.

Being the reason why Herrenchiemsee is called as “The Versailles of Bavaria”, the Great Hall of Mirrors is the palace’s center of attraction. It looks like the glory of Louis XIV period Baroque teleported to the Bavarian Alps living the last quarter of the 19th century, with its gold foiled ornaments, huge arched windows that allow lots of daylight in, ceiling paintings where blue is dominant, and huge crystal candelabras and chandeliers that are standing on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. Ludwig II had the paintings of his idol, the King of France, imprinted on the ceiling of the hall, as a sign of admiration. 98 meters long the Great Hall of Mirrors, which expands over an even larger area than the 73 meters original in Versailles, is probably the most powerful factor that enabled Herrenchiemsee Festival to have an irreplaceable place in the hearts of the music lovers for almost 20 years. Once you walk in the hall and turn your head left, you see a considerably raised stage. After you take your seat on the elegant chair, even though wood is not used as an interior material except the floor, you notice that the sound of the orchestra coming from the stage is echoing in a not disturbing way to the ear. The Great Hall of Mirrors can be filled with a total of 570 people, with a really spacious seating arrangement.

The Hall of Mirrors which gives Herrenchiemsee its nickname ‘Bavarian Versailles’ is the reason of spectacular interest towards this festival.

At the Herrenchiemsee Festival concerts, a certain elegance that resembles Salzburg Festival quickly draws attention. Enoch zu Guttenberg had made his duty to announce his visitors, even starting from the website, to be elegant in a way that is worthy of the nobility and glory of the palace. Without ignoring this warning, the audience either wear suits or skirts and jackets, or –especially women- come to the palace wearing local clothes in which green and brown tones are indigenous to Bavaria. Even the clothes of the personnel at the festival are worthy of the nobility of the palace. As time of the concert draws near, ringing the gong that is brought in front of the palace a few times like a ritual, is again customary. The famous brass chorale that is played on the balcony instead of the starting bell at Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth is transformed into a mini recital of Alpine horns here. This ceremony which appeals for both eyes and ears is a delightful touch peculiar to Herrenschiemsee Festival.

The famous gong and alphorn players of Herrenchiemsee Festival have the task of signalling the start of concert (above and below).

My dear friend Jens F. Laurson, the Bavarian music critic who lives in Vienna was among the visitors of the festival with a local clothing.

So, how do you get to the island and the palace? You reach Herreninsel Island in 15 minutes by the boats that carry the regulars of the festival in certain intervals. This is an incredibly joyous boat trip. You arrive at the island while witnessing every moment of the minutes of the setting sun bound to disappear over the horizon, and wishing to swim in the deep blue lake where small boats struggle. When you land, after getting on one of the minibuses lined up in front of you, you arrive at the front door of the palace in 10 minutes after passing through emerald green forests. The return trip is the same. But with two differences: Now both the sky is almost dark, and if you are left with the last boat, you travel to the main land with the members of the orchestra you listened at the stage just a moment ago, with a strong wind or a light breeze depending on the day, and tunes stuck in your head.

After getting off the ship, festival guests are either walking on the road to the palace in half an hour or are taking minibuses which ride along the forests and reach to the final destination in 5-10 minutes.

When the evening concert finishes in the palace, the ships that takes the guests from Herreninsel to Prien am Chiemsee are making a couple of trips until there is no guest left in the island. The return journey is pure joy with a view of sunset and the gentle breeze that sweeps over the calm waters. This unique atmosphere is more than enough to make the satisfied guests happier than ever.  

Being held for nearly two weeks every year in the second half of the July, Herrenchiemsee Festival will be held between the July 18th and the 30th this year. The opening concert on 18th will be again performed in the small monastery, which has a great acoustic, in Fraueninsel as a tradition. Conducted by Enoch zu Guttenberg, the festival’s founder and one of the greatest living conductors on Bach, you can listen to Bach’s St. John Passion at this concert, which will be held again the very next day at the same place. As of July 20th, the regulars of the festival can move to the Great Hall of Mirrors and watch the concerts performed by the orchestras in this glamorous venue. If you would like to know more about the concert programmes and the musicians, you can receive further information by visiting the website of the festival, which will be mentioned at the end of this article.

In the last centuries, the classical music was performed in the majestic palaces of the nobles, not in the modern concert halls we already got used to. Watching a concert in the Great Hall of Mirrors, the main venue of the Herrenchiemsee Festival, gives the classical music lovers a chance of going back for a few centuries in the history without a time machine and breathing the air of those centuries.

For further information about the festival programme, transfer and accommodation:

Written by Serhan Bali
Prien am Chiemsee
All the photographs in this article are taken by Serhan Bali except the one above which is by Jens F. Laurson.



    Akçaağaç Sok. Görhan Apt. No: 1/1A Acıbadem Üsküdar / İSTANBUL | T: 0532 343 9328 | F: 0216 326 39 20