The Composer Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883) was a romantic composer who is primarily known for his operas. Unlike other opera composers, he wrote both, the libretto (text and lyrics) as well as the music for his stage works. He was determined to combine music and drama to a total work of art referring to Greek tragedies. With his kind of music drama, he wanted to relate messages and consequently contribute to a better education and better world in general. One of his most famous works is “Der Ring des Nibelungen” also called Ring cycle which took Wagner 26 years from writing the first draft of libretto until completion. It takes about 15 hours to perform and...
Ring Cycle: Rhinegold, Valkyrie, Siegfried, Twilight of the Gods
The Ring Cyvle took Wagner 26 years of writing the first draft of libretto until completion. It takes about 15 hours to perform and is the only undertaking of such size that is regularly presented on the world's stages.
...is the only undertaking of such size that is regularly presented on the world’s stages. Wagner's works are a peak of the romantic music and many consider him as the starting point for New Music or 20th Century music. However, Wagner’s legacy is discussed controversial due to his convictions of German superiority and his anti-Semitism.
The Childhood and Youth of Richard Wagner
Wagner was the 9th child of Carl Friedrich and Johanna Rosine Wagner. When he was 6 months old, his father died of typhus. His mother remarried after 9 months. When Wagner was 8 years old, his stepfather died and for the following 6 years, Wagner lived with relatives. He found an example in his uncle who was a translator and teacher of literature. In his library, Wagner read Shakespeare and works of romantic authors like E.T.A. Hoffmann. Wagner worked on his first drama which was a tragic drama in 5 acts in the style of Shakespeare and finished it in 1828. In the same year, at the age of 15, he lived together again with his mother and siblings. One year later, after visiting the Beethoven opera Fidelio, he decided to become musician. He composed his first sonatas and overtures in 1829 and 1830. Starting 1831, he studied music at the university in Leipzig, Germany, while composing and publishing his first works that were successful right away.
Wagner worked at theatres in different German cities, married and lived beyond his means, so he had many creditors. Since he could not pay back, he had to flee from his creditors. Due to stormy seas, a trip to London took more than 4 weeks and inspired Wagner to the opera “Der fliegende Hollaender” (The Flying Dutchman) that he completed in 1841 while living in Paris. During that time, he also completed “Rienzi”. All leading theaters of the world were in Paris at that time and Wagner studied all opera and drama developments. However, he had no success with his compositions. 1842, he moved to Dresden, Germany, where he premiered “Rienzi” with big success which was the start of his career.
He became politically active and joined the May Upspring in Dresden in 1849 to bring down the king of Saxony. After the suppression, he was considered a revolutionary and had to flee into exile to Zurich, Switzerland, where he wrote music theory publications.
In Switzerland, Wagner undertook extensive hiking tours in the high mountain range where he got his inspiration for his work on the four opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, called Ring cycle. It is composed of “Das Rheingold” (Rhinegold), “Die Walkuere” (Valkyrie), “Siegfried” and “Goetterdaemmerung” (Twilight of the Gods). It is loosely based on the figures and elements of the Germanic mythology, stories associated with Germanic religious practices from Iron Age to medieval times. In 1853, the whole poetry was completed and Wagner started working on its composition. In 1871, he decided that he would organize a festival to present the whole opera cycle in Bayreuth, Germany, in a Festival Theatre especially designed for this purpose. The construction of the wooden theatre in which the orchestra would be hidden from the audience, started in 1873 and Wagner worked hard to get enough donations for it. In 1876, the complete opera cycle was premiered. Between 1877 and 1882, Wagner wrote and completed “Parsifal”, his last and very spiritual opera. He died February 1883 in Venice, 3 months before his 70th birthday.
His first marriage with the actress Minna Planer was disrupted by the openly known love-affair of Minna with a businessman in 1837 and Wagner’s secret love-affair with the married Mathilde Wesendonck between 1852 and 1858. Minna and Wagner separated permanently in 1862. In the same year, at 49 years, Wagner fell in love with Cosima, the daughter of his friend and colleague Franz Liszt (Hungarian, 1811-1886). Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and married to the conductor and piano virtuoso Hans von Bulow with whom she had 2 children, one 3 years and one 8 months at that time. In 1865, Cosima and Wagner’s first child of three was born. In 1866, they moved in together including the two Bulow children of Cosima, and they married four years later.
Wagner’s works are a highlight of romantic music but in particular his opera “Tristan und Isolde” (composed between 1854 and 1865) advanced the musical language of the 19th Century. Especially Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler borrowed and continued Wagner’s musical language.
Wagner’s special significance is the development of the music drama. He composed his operas with the endless melody with which the orchestra starts at the beginning of an act and only ends when the act ends. Wagner's endless melody incorporates different leitmotifs which are special musical phrases that always re-occur when a specific person or feeling appears. Wagner’s intention was to musically express thoughts or feelings which create strong emotions and operate psychologically on the audience. He was able to do this very successfully in “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (Ring cycle) and “Tristan und Isolde”. It has even been reported that these emotions caused death, like the deaths of Felix Mottl in 1911 and of conductor Joseph Keilberth in 1969, both during the 2nd act of Tristan.
Wagner’s legacy is discussed controversial due to his convictions of German cultural and racial superiority and his anti-Semitism. Wagner’s philosophy was characterized by a longing for awakening and enlightening revolution against nobility, a return to nature and by fantasies about the total union of a race or nation. Wagner and his wife Cosima who both belonged to the theatre milieu and wanted to set apart from gipsies, used anti-Semitism to integrate easily into the noble society which talked bad about Jews. Wagner joined the mood and blamed the Jews for plotting against him if one of his performances was not successful. He also accused the Jews of having thirst for glory and luxury and being wasteful, but actually, these were reportedly exactly his own features. Wagner not only spread anti-Semitism by talking but also published many anti-Semitic writings like “Das Judenthum in der Musik”. Also his opera “Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg” (the mastersingers of Nuremberg, premiered in 1868) contains strong German nationalist overtones.
Under his influence, Bayreuth became increasingly identified with anti-Semitism. Wagner also had a big influence on the writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain who married his second daughter and who is considered to be the forerunner of the anti-Semitism of the Nazi’s.
Despite all this, the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi remained Wagner’s friend and Wagner entrusted him to premiere “Parsifal” in 1882 in Bayreuth.