Richard Wagner

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Wilhelm Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 - February 13, 1883) was born in Leipzig, and it is thought that his real father was not the man who gave him his surname (Karl Friedrich Wagner who died when Richard was 6 months old) but the actor Ludwig Geyer who was then to become Wagner's stepfather and influence his early development. Geyer knew the composer Weber, but it was his literary interest that drew Wagner initially towards Classical and Shakespearean drama. The young Richard was called Richard Geyer, but reverted to Richard Wagner a few years after the death of his stepfather, by which time he had discovered the world of music and Beethoven in particular. Wagner received very little formal musical education, yet with complete self-absorption threw himself into a musical career which involved conducting posts in opera houses while composing operas with his own libretti, frequently based on stories from German mythology. He was later to form a friendship with Nietzsche, with whom he shared certain ideas (some misguided certainly) including a desire to base writings on timeless allegorical myths.

While Wagner was to pursue that latter occupation of writing Opera with single-minded determination, his personal life took him in several directions. He fled Germany in exile for a while after he had vociferously supported political revolution there. He was frequently in debt, in part because of failed attempts to have his early operas performed, but also due to his excessive gambling habit. He also progressed through no less than three wives, the last relationship proving to be the most stable. This was to Cosima (daughter of Franz Liszt) who was at the time of their meeting already married to the respected conductor and student of Liszt, von Bulow.

Wagner was also married at the time, but several years later the couple were able to marry, and Cosima devoted her life to supporting and promoting Wagner's work and survived him by many years until her death in 1930. This shows true devotion, given Wagner's temperament. Marriage did not stop him from having affairs and he could become totally absorbed, obsessed even, in his musical projects to the extent that it deeply affected his own life and relationships.

Wagner has caused controversy because of support for German nationalism, anti-Jewish statements, claims of stereotypes in his operas, and being Adolf Hitler's favorite composer.


Post Wagner, Wagnerism

In the years following Cosima's death and the death of his son Siegfried, the Festival would be turned over to Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred Wagner nee Williams. Winifred would take charge of the Festival and continue performing Wagner's major Music-dramas through 1944.

Following World War II, the Allies would stop all performances of Wagner's works at the Festival. Occupying troops turned the Festspielhaus into a vaudeville theater. At war's end, the original scores of numerous Wagner operas joined the ranks of the missing artwork of the world. These priceless documents were in the personal possession of Adolf Hitler during the war. A few weeks before the final collapse of the Third Reich, Wieland Wagner made way to Hitler's bunker in Berlin. Wieland pleaded with the Fuhrer to let him take the Wagner manuscripts which Hitler cherished to a place of safekeeping in Bayreuth. Hitler had in his possession at the time the original scores of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, as well as orchestral sketches for Die fliegende Hollander, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. Hitler assured Wieland that they had been hidden in a very safe place. The fate of these manuscripts is unknown. They were either destroyed in the saturation bombings, or perhaps stolen from a secret hiding place. They have not been seen since the war.

Performances at Wagner's Festspielhaus would begin again in 1951.

Wagner's Music

As a young man Wagner composed some concert overtures and a symphony before turning his attention to opera. He was occasionally to create other concert works, but it was with his operas that he was to build his reputation. Although his early works in this field were not successful, and resulted in debts, it wasn't long before the sought-after success arrived with "Rienzi". This opera was influenced by Meyerbeer who was one of the leading opera composers of the day, and gave Wagner much support. The work's success helped to secure for its composer a more prestigious conducting post at the Dresden Opera, sending Wagner's career on an upward spiral of success and ambition.

However his period of exile in Zurich intervened, and so it was that while unwelcome in his native Germany, he nevertheless composed operas to be performed there to great acclaim (often conducted by Franz Liszt) building his fame on "Lohengrin", "Tristan and Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" while all the time working on his magnum opus, the Ring Cycle. He moved to Paris where his relationship with Cosima von Bulow (nee Liszt) blossomed, and once the domestic situation had eased, he returned to Munich in his native land. There the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria was an influencial patron providing further impetus to the composer's career. Afterwards Wagner was to set up home at Villa Wahnfried near Lake Lucerne. While staying there he took upon himself a massive four-year project to build a specially designed theatre in Bayreuth, where he gave the first complete performance of the four operas of the Ring Cycle in 1876. He died aged 69 in Venice where he was staying to seek some rest.

Major Works

Concert or Chamber Works:

  • Concert overtures
  • A Symphony
  • Wesendonk Songs - named after a supporter whose wife Wagner had an affair with
  • Many Preludes and other extracts taken from his operas are played in concert
  • Siegfried Idyll

Operas / Music Dramas

  • Die Feen (The Fairies)
  • Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)
  • Rienzi
  • Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) - with some truly atmospheric storm music
  • Tannhauser - including the "Pilgrim's Chorus"
  • Lohengrin - from which the famous Bridal Chorus comes
  • Tristan and Isolde - this has Celtic resonances, set in Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, and is musically powerful with its closing Liebestod (love-death) music of Act III Scene III.
  • Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers of Nurnberg) - tuneful and somewhat lighter in tone.
  • Parsifal - a semi-religious work

Der Ring des Nibelungen

  • Das Rheingold
  • Die Walkure - with its "Ride of the Valkyries" (German: Walkürenritt)
  • Siegfried - which was to give rise to the "Siegfried Idyll"
  • Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods)


We need but know what we don't want, and of instinctive natural-necessity we attain quite clearly to what we do want, which never grows quite clear to our consciousness until we have attained it: for the state in which we have removed what we don't want, is the very one at which we wanted to arrive. Thus deals the Volk, and therefore it alone deals rightly. Only that which the Volk has brought to pass, can ye know; till then let it content you to perceive quite plainly what ye do not want, to deny what calls for denial, annul what merits annulment.
The Jews could never take possession of music, until its inner capacity for life began to fade. So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it; down to Mozart and Beethoven; there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer. It was impossible for an element entirely foreign to that living organism to take part in the formative stages of that life. Only when a body's inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it - yet merely to destroy it. Then indeed that body's flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect-life. In genuine life alone can we find again the spirit of Art, and not within its worm-befretted carcass.


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