Richard Wagner

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Tad Beckman*

wagner Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, in Saxony, on May 22, 1813. Only five months later, the bloody Battle of Nations began just outside of Leipzig. It was ultimately the decisive battle leading to the collapse of Napoleon; but for Wagner it had the more immediate impact of leading to his father Friedrich's death. Nevertheless, by August of the following year, Wagner's mother Johanna married a young actor and portrait painter, Ludwig Geyer, who had been a close friend of the family for years. The new family moved to Dresden.

Richard came to be known as Richard Geyer, until he was fifteen, when he returned to his given name, Richard Wagner. The name was not the only matter of confusion, however, since it became clear that Ludwig and Johanna had been affectionately involved even before Friedrich's death. As Wagner aged, he often returned to the question of his true parentage, and arguments could be mounted on both sides.

Ludwig's influence on Wagner was not long-lasting since he died in September 1821, when Wagner was just over 8 years of age. Nevertheless, Geyer had laid an important groundwork for Wagner's development. First, he had enthusiastically taken Richard to the theater for rehearsals; second, he had welcomed a friend and important German composer, Carl Maria von Weber, into the family; and third, he had allowed Richard to practice the piano, hoping to play passages from Weber's work Der Freischuetz. Ultimately, Wagner's own operatic works would show an unusual blend of music, poetry, and drama.

Richard's adolescent education was at the Kreuzschule in Dresden where he studied for eight years. He was not a disciplined student, but the emphasis on classics and literature, Greek tragedy and Shakespearean drama had a strong influence on him. By the time he left the Kreuzschule in 1827 he was determined to become a poet. Wagner's departure was coincident with his family's removal to Leipzig, and there he enrolled in the Nikolaischule. While he continued to study in classics and literature, he began more and more to turn in the direction of music. Weber had died in 1826, and now Wagner, always somewhat of a romantic, adopted Beethoven as his new hero. Beethoven himself had died the preceding spring. From 1827 to 1832, Wagner continued his education at Nikolaischule, Thomas-schule, and Leipzig University. During this time, classics and literature took decreasing amounts of his time and music became his serious preoccupation. But Wagner was also possessed by a passion for exotic side of student life.

Between his absorption with Beethoven, hearing various important works performed, and studying the details of his composition, and the tutoring of Christian Theodor Weinlig, cantor of the Thomaskirche, Wagner began writing his own compositions. And while he had little initial success in exciting a following, in 1832, he ventured to Vienna and, then, to Prague to begin his career as a musician. He was already working on his first opera, Die Hochzeit --- according to Gray, "a lurid monument to unfulfilled passion," never completed. By late 1832, Wagner was back in Leipzig with a good review of his Symphony in C major, performed in Prague. His developing connections landed him a position, early in 1833, as chorus master at the theater in Wuerzburg. Wagner was working on his second opera, Die Feen, a fairytale, very much in the fantastic fashion of Weber and Hoffmann; but while this opera was completed, he found himself unable to raise interest in its production. It was finally produced in 1888, after his death. He went to work on yet another opera, Das Liebesverbot, loosely drawing from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and very much influenced by the Italian compositions of Bellini. Das Liebesverbot was indeed performed in March 1836; Wagner was, at that time, the musical director for a theater group at Magdeburg. This was Wagner's first operatic production; he was twenty three years old. Wagner's musical career remained on shaky ground; he was no child prodigy like Mozart.

It was through the theater group at Magdeburg that Wagner met his first wife, Minna Planer, an attractive, though somewhat disturbed, young actress. He pursued Minna, perhaps against his better judgment; but when he finally married her, she left him almost immediately, having discovered the extent of his accumulated debts. Wagner moved on to a position at Riga, Latvia, on the Baltic Coast, hoping to gain new insights into life and the world; and Minna reconciled with him, later in 1837. Wagner and Minna lived in Riga for about two years, a good productive period of time. But by mid-1839, still underneath huge debts, the Wagners fled to Paris.

Life in Paris was little better except that it was far more stimulating. Wagner's attempts at landing positions or having works performed failed regularly. Most of his productive energies went to earning money by arranging others' works for a Paris publisher. But he also wrote essays, at least one of which, "A Pilgrimage to Beethoven," was extremely important, in that he outlined there his future objective of writing operatic works that would bond symphonic music and song into single, coherent dramatic pieces.

Throughout, however, he continued work on a new opera, Rienzi, which he ultimately finished and which was produced in October 1842, in Dresden at the Royal Court Theater. In spite of the fact that it lasted six hours, it was a great success. Wagner himself was hauled onto the stage to receive the audience's enthusiastic applause, something that must have been a true charge to Wagner's self-image. Rienzi was an opera constructed in the style of the French operas of the period, however, and made strong appeals to the wealthy who loved extravagance. Within just a few years, Wagner himself disowned the work.

The Wagners had returned to Dresden by April 1842. He had been at work on his next opera and it had just recently been accepted for production by the Berlin Court Opera; though its debut in Berlin was delayed until 1844. This work was actually first produced in Dresden in January 1843. It was Der fliegende Hollaender (The Flying Dutchman), by all odds the true beginning of Wagner's career. He was almost thirty years of age. This work marked Wagner's movement into poetic libretti and his use of musical motifs. While incomplete, at this stage, he was definitely leaving the realm of traditional operatic arias and duets. Almost immediately afterward, Wagner was invited to become Kapellmeister to the Dresden Court Theater. As Kapellmeister, Wagner was responsible for all of the musical activities of the court. This included conducting operas and orchestral works as well as composing special pieces for courtly occasions.

His return to Saxon Germany aroused a new sense of German cultural patriotism, and this mood was highly reflected in his next operatic work, Tannhaeuser. However, his role in composing imposing choral pieces to accompany state occasions and to celebrate Friedrich August II, King of Saxony, also gave him many opportunities to engage cultural patriotism with musical composition. Wagner's mind was very much turned in the direction of artistic development and, for much of his inspiration, he returned to his early education in classics and literature. His experiences with the musical establishments in Paris and in Berlin had served as strongly negative exemplars, antithetical to true art and merely nurturing success and cash by pleasing the rich and famous. It was this radical theme of developing art in some true sense and of discovering a truly German cultural force that would fascinate his young admirer, Friedrich Nietzsche, by the time of their first meetings; at this point, however, Nietzsche was just being born.

Over the next few years, Wagner continued to develop as a reader and as an essayist, while working at the direction of the Dresden Court Theater all along. Tannhaeuser was finished in April 1845 and premiered in Dresden that October. While working on its production, he began drafting Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, inspired by the Mastersinger's Guild of old Nuerenberg. But Wagner's mind and mood were at sea in mythology, driven by Aeschylus, Jakob Grimm, and Nordic sources, and Die Meistersinger was not completed and premiered until 1868. From spring 1846 through spring 1848, Wagner developed first the libretto and then the musical score for his opera, Lohengrin.

As he worked forward into his true sense of operatic theater, Wagner experienced increasing tension with the capacities of traditional theater establishments. Thus began a long series of essays aimed at overhauling the establishment --- Concerning the Royal Orchestra and On the Organization of a German National Theater for the Kingdom of Saxony. Both of these attempts at reform were authored and rejected, coincidentally, in the spring of 1848, a period of political revolution throughout Europe. Europe had never really recovered or stabilized after the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon. Now, diverse alliances crowded the streets and cried for political, social, and economic reforms. Wagner's passion for artistic reform became confused with political reform, and Wagner embraced friendships with some of Europe's most significant revolutionaries, August Roeckel and Mikhail Bakunin. By May 1848, fighting had broken out in the streets of Dresden. (One might remember, here, that this was the period when Karl Marx, inspired by the thought that there might come to be liberal reform in his homeland, journeyed from Belgium back into Germany, only to be rolled back by an angry wave of reaction. Marx retreated all the way to London and remained there for the rest of his life.)

Wagner threw himself into the revolution as passionately as he had always thrown himself into his music. He was literally in the streets as the citizens of Dresden fought and the Prussian Army arrived to beat them back. In the process the Dresden Court Theater was burned to the ground. Wagner lost the one truly sustaining position that he ever had. The revolutionaries were arrested, tried, and jailed or deported. Wagner escaped narrowly and remained, for years, exiled from Saxony and its allies. Interestingly, it was during this period of time that Wagner began to think through the outline of his magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which demonstrated many of the same confusions of both artistic and political revolution.

While Paris had been the destination of flight for the Wagners, they traveled through Switzerland; and Wagner was so charmed by what he saw that, while they ventured to Paris off-and-on throughout his exile, Switzerland became his home for the next twenty-three years. In Zuerich, Wagner resumed his writing, producing three works of great importance in a short period of time, Art and Revolution, The Artwork of the Future, and Opera and Drama. In these works, Wagner set the stage for his distinctive creations, consciously associating them with the role of Greek tragedy and outlining the function of leitmotif in uniting music and dramatic action. Wagner's ideal was an art form that would serve the people, becoming an educating and healing force, and it was antithetical to the major tendencies of Nineteenth-Century music which embraced frivolity and spectacle, to delight the rich and famous.

1850 was a year of change for Richard Wagner. With no salaried position, he found himself dependent on allowances from wealthy patrons. He also found himself falling further and further into debt. With both indebtedness, which Minna had never liked, and her own failing health, Minna became increasingly estranged from Wagner. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Wagner experienced his first of several passionate affairs with younger women; this one was with Jessie Laussot, the wife of a Bordeaux businessman. His last completed opera, Lohengrin, was finally premiered by Franz Liszt in Weimar, in August 1850; Wagner himself was absent, a political exile. From this time onward, his imagination was occupied by all the complexities of the Ring cycle. Fifteen years passed before Wagner saw the premier of another opera.

In fact, it was Tristan und Isolde that premiered in 1865, and the six years from 1859 to 1865 had been spent largely moving Tristan from completed composition to the stage. From 1852 until its completion in 1859, Tristan was profoundly affected by two new passions in Wagner's life --- Mathilde Wesendonck and Arthur Schopenhauer. Mathilde was the wife of a Zuerich businessman and patron, an artist in her own right, and a beautiful woman. Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea was suggested to him by a friend and Wagner read it four times in the first year. Wagner fell deeply in love with Mathilde and it is doubtless that Tristan echoed much of what he felt as well as the ultimate frustrations of his passion for her. At the same time, however, Schopenhauer's deeply metaphysical notions of inevitable fate and destruction can be heard throughout the musical drama.

Der fliegende Hollaender, Tannhaeuser, and Lohengrin all elaborated mythic plots, yet all equally incorporated Christian conceptions of faith and redemption. But Wagner's political exile, his return to reading Classics, his frustration with bourgeois society, his exposure to Schopenhauer, and his passionate essay writing now carried him away from Christianity and deep into pre-Christian roots. Looking back on Lohengrin, he regretted its heavily Christian antagonism toward the pagan characters. His remaining works would utilize pagan mythic ideals without reference to Christian faith and redemption. Parsifal was an exception to this and became the breaking point for Nietzsche's admiration of Wagner.

Wagner's reputation was significantly enhanced by his championing of revolutionary causes and by his powerful essays. Also, his music was being heard with much greater regularity. In May 1853, the Wesendoncks helped Wagner produce a series of three concerts in which selections were played from his four latest operas. It was the first Wagner Festival, with many to follow, and Wagner was forty years old.

Wagner began the prose sketch of Tristan und Isolde in August 1857 and completed the musical composition in August 1859. During much of this time, he lived alone, separated from Minna. His relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck had risen to passionate heights, then it had been scattered into disarray by discovery, and finally it had been cooled by quarrels. Shortly after the Tristan poem was finished, Wagner read it to an extraordinary audience in his home. In attendance were Minna, his wife, Mathilde Wesendonck, his lover, Otto Wesendonck, her husband, Hans von Buelow, pianist and conductor, and Cosima von Buelow, nineteen years old, newly married, and Wagner's future lover and wife.

As Wagner approached fifty, he worked in different cities --- Venice, Vienna, Paris, and Zuerich --- mostly without Minna, who had retreated to Dresden. He began to work on Die Meistersinger, once again. And he devoted much effort toward trying to arrange a production of Tristan. In May 1861, he saw a full production of Lohengrin for the very first time. He was rarely without the attention of attractive women companions. In the year following his fiftieth birthday, Wagner found himself in substantially better financial situation under the patronage of the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He also found himself increasingly involved with Cosima von Buelow whose husband Hans was both a powerful admirer of Wagner and a person who suffered from grave self-doubts. Von Buelow seems to have freely accepted Cosima's love for the obviously superior Wagner. With Tristan completed and Die Meistersinger well underway, Wagner began to throw his efforts back into the fabrication of the Ring cycle. By the beginning of 1865, Wagner was living in Munich and, by June, Tristan was finally premiered, with von Buelow conducting. Cosima and Wagner were virtually living with each other.

By the end of the year, however, Wagner's revolutionary attitudes, his arrogance, and his irresponsible use of others' money had landed him in deep trouble with Ludwig's court, and it became increasingly difficult for Ludwig to shelter him. Wagner was again exiled, and he again retreated to Switzerland, this time to Geneva and Lake Lucerne, where he leased a house on a promontory overlooking the lake. This was Tribschen, the residence where Nietzsche first encountered Wagner and Cosima von Buelow. Meanwhile, Germany was rapidly moving toward war, the old confederacy based on Austrian domination falling victim to the rising power of Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia.

Die Meistersinger was finally completed and was premiered approximately a half year later, in June 1868, in Munich. By the beginning of 1869, Cosima broke with von Buelow and moved into Tribschen full time, though attempts continued to hide the obvious facts of their long-time adulterous relationship. Cosima had already given birth to two of Wagner's children by this time. Even though their relationship was surrounded with scandal, Wagner welcomed a fully domestic life with Cosima at Tribschen. Cosima was approximately thirty years old at this time. Their son, Siegfried was born in June.

In May 1869, the Wagners had their first meeting with Friedrich Nietzsche who was, at that time, just recently appointed Professor of Philology at the University of Basel. Nietzsche was twenty five years old; Wagner was just fifty six. They found themselves alive in the common grounds of Classical studies and music, Nietzsche himself being an accomplished pianist and composer of small pieces. For Nietzsche, the atmosphere of political, cultural, and moral revolution at Tribschen was a heady experience; and Cosima, only a few years older, was an intellectually exciting and beautiful woman, antithetical to the woman of his own family.

Das Rheingold and Die Walkuere were completed, along with Siegfried during this period; only Die Goetterdaemmerung remained to be finished. The former two were first performed in 1869 and in 1870; the latter two were first performed in 1876. At this period, Wagner had become completely resolved to the idea that no existing opera house could do justice to his art, and the project of creating the theater at Bayreuth was well underway. Much of Wagner's remaining life would be devoted to Bayreuth Festivals as a continual celebration of Wagner's operatic works.

Meanwhile, German unification was spurred on through the catalyst of old antagonisms, precipitating the Franco-Prussian War. Wagner, who had never been well received in Paris, was happy to embrace German nationalism and hostility toward France. At the end, with the capitulation of France, Germany was united as a single national state under Kaiser Wilhelm. Wagner was fully involved in raising money to build Bayreuth, so much so that he, Cosima, and the family moved to Villa Wahnfried, nearby, from which Wagner could direct every move.

Bayreuth finally opened with a grand performance of the whole Ring cycle, in August 1876. While Nietzsche attended this first Bayreuth Festival, his relationship with Wagner was already strained. Wagner was already at work on his final opera Parsifal, which would become the symbol for Nietzsche of Wagner's abandonment of his revolutionary artistic program; Nietzsche had already begun his book Human, All-Too-Human, his own major revolution and first salvo in the critique of human life and institutions. Their last meeting was in Sorrento, the following November.

Wagner worked on Parsifal from 1877 until its completion in January, 1882. Meanwhile, he made extraordinary efforts to raise funds for Bayreuth, which remained deeply in debt and continued to survive only because of Ludwig's erratic support. Throughout the period, Wagner's health declined and, shortly after the premier of Parsifal, in July 1882, the Wagners moved to Venice to rest in Italy's more favorable climate. Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in Venice in February 1883.

During the last six years of his life, Wagner has devoted considerable attention to writing essays in his own Bayreuther Blaetter. Many of these pieces reflected Wagner's deep sense of abandonment by the German people for whom he had created his artistic projects but who, in return, had failed to offer their support. Increasingly, Wagner had imagined this failure of the German people to be the responsibility of Jews, and his culture-historical concepts inevitably moved him toward a hardened anti-Semitism that urged protection of the German people by racial and cultural purification, indeed, a kind of redemption of the German people. Among other essays, Heroism and Christianity was a powerful voice in this direction, unfortunately available for abuse and extreme interpretation by the fabricators of the Third Reich, in the next century. Wagner's anger with the Jews was long standing and may have arisen out of his personal frustrations and failures, trying to break into the artistic capitals of the time, Berlin, Paris, and London, which he never did succeed in accomplishing. One of the famous objects of this frustration was Meyerbeer, a powerful and popular Jewish composer, who actually helped Wagner considerably but, in Wagner's eyes, blocked his path at crucial points. It was Meyerbeer, undoubtedly, who inspired Wagner's vitriolic Jewishness in Music, written in 1850. Unfortunately, in Wagner's last work, Parsifal, all of these themes --- Christianity, German racial and cultural purity, and antagonism toward the Jews became confusedly involved.

[Note: This essay is largely based on Howard Gray, Wagner (Omnibus Press, 1990) and Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (University of Chicago Press, 1981). Also, visit Wagner on the Web, The Richard Wagner Archive, and Richard Wagner.]

*Copyright 1995, 1998 by Tad Beckman



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