Richard Wagner, 1813-1883
The German composer Richard Wagner, was born at Leipzig and educated chiefly at Dresden. His musical training was perfunctory until he was accepted as a pupil by Weinlig of the Thomasschule in 1830 after notice had been taken of a formidable but abortive concert overture which a friend of the family had been cajoled into performing. Wagner's early efforts were followed by his first opera, Die Feen (1833), which was not performed during the composer's lifetime.
His next effort, Das Liebesverbot (1834), flopped after one performance at Magdeburg, where he had obtained the post of conductor at the opera house, and where he met Minna Planer, a member of the company, who was to become his wife in 1836. The Magdeburg opera soon went bankrupt, as did the theatre at Königsberg, where Wagner found his next post. Riga seemed more promising but Wagner was resolved to try his luck in Paris. There he barely made a living by journalism and doing hack operatic arrangements. He left Paris in 1842 with Rienzi, an opera he had finished while in debtor's prison, and made his way to Dresden where the opera scored a resounding success.
Der fliegende Holländer (1843) was not so well-received but Wagner was shortly appointed kapellmeister at Dresden. Tannhäuser (1845) also failed (although staged later it was a success). Lohengrin was finished in 1848, but by this time Wagner was deeply implicated in the revolutionary movement sweeping across Europe and barely escaped arrest by fleeing from Saxony. He declined an offer of asylum from Franz Lizst at Weimar and went first to Paris and later to Zürich. Lohengrin was eventually produced at Weimar by Liszt.
During his exile Wagner again had to make a living by writing, among other things, Art of the Future (1849), the anti-Semitic Judaism in Music (1850), Opera and Drama (1851), and the autobiographical Communications to my Friends (1851-52). The poem of his Ring cycle was finished in 1852, and in 1853, he began the music of Das Rheingold, followed by Die Walkure (1856) and Part 1 of Siegfried (1857). In 1857-59 he was at work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the old German version of the legend by Gottfried von Strassburg. The opera is often claimed to have been inspired by his current love affair with Mathilde, wife of his friend and patron.
Once again Wagner sought favor in Paris, and eventually Napoleon called for a command performance of Tannhäuser, but the opera failed. In 1861 he was allowed to return to Germany, but he still had a hard battle for recognition. Tristan was accepted at Vienna but abandoned as impracticable before it could be performed, and, now aged fifty, pursued by creditors and critics, the composer was on the point of giving up in despair when the tide turned in his favor.
The eccentric young king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, impressed by the pageantry of Lohengrin, read Wagner's Ring poem with its pessimistic preface. At once he summoned Wagner to his court. Tristan was staged with success at Munich in 1865, but Wagner's extravagance, political meddling, and preferential treatment aroused so much hostility that he withdrew to Switzerland. Cosima, wife of the musical director von Bülow, and daughter of Liszt, left her husband and joined him, eventually marrying him in 1868 after being divorced, Minna having died in 1866.
In Switzerland Wagner finished Die Meistersinger and scored a success in 1868. His greatest ambition, a complete performance of the Ring, was as yet unfulfilled. Determined to fulfill his wish, Wagner set about raising funds himself, and on a fraction of the required total plus a large amount of credit, he started the now famous theatre at Bayreuth, which opened in 1876 with a first complete program of the Ring cycle. Parsifal, his last and perhaps greatest opera, was staged in 1882, a year before his sudden death from a heart attack.
Richard Wagner reformed the whole structure of opera. The one principle was to be dramatic fitness, and to this end, he abandoned the classical tradition of recitative and aria, replacing it with an ever-changing dramatic line linked with the emotional color of the story and accentuated by use of the leitmotiv, which he was the first to adopt.
The Ring -- Walküre, Siegfried, Gotterdämmerung, with the Rheingold as introduction -- is Wagner's most characteristic writing and orchestration. It is loosely based on the old Teutonic legend of the Niblungen, but the symbolism of the story is pure Wagnerian, while the ideology stems from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. In his own time Wagner was set up with Liszt as the deity of the Romantic faction in opposition to the followers of Brahms and Schumann, and for many years clashes between the rival partisans were the bane of of concert-promoters and conductors all over Europe. For more information about Richard Wagner, be sure to consult the Richard Wagner Archive.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis