Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883) was an influential German composer, music theorist, and essayist, primarily known for his operas. His music is still widely performed, the best known pieces being the 'Ride of the Valkyries' from Die Walküre and the 'Bridal Chorus' from Lohengrin. He is also an extremely controversial figure, both because of his musical and dramatic innovations, and because he was a very public exponent of anti-semitic ideas.
Wagner's primary artistic legacy are the operas that he wrote. These can be roughly divided into three groups:
The early-stage operas are Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. These works are seldom performed today.
His middle-stage output, which is considered to be of remarkably higher quality, began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.
The first of Wagner's mature operas is Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde), often considered his masterpiece. Next is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), the only comedy in his oeuvre apart from Das Liebesverbot, and one of the longest operas still performed. This is followed by Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, a set of four operas based on German and Scandinavian mythology. Spanning roughly 14 hours in performance, the Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious artistic work ever made. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, is a contemplative work based on the Christian legend of the Holy Grail.
Through his operas and theoretical essays, Wagner exerted a strong influence on the operatic medium. He was an advocate of a new form of opera which he called 'music drama', in which all the musical and dramatic elements were fused together. To this end, he developed a compositional style in which the orchestra has at least as great a dramatic role as the singers themselves. The expressiveness of the orchestra is aided by the use of leitmotifs, musical sequences standing for a particular character or plot element, whose complex interleaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama.
Unlike other opera composers, who generally delegated the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as 'poems'. Most of his plots were based on European myths and legends.
Wagner's musical style is often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, due to its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression. He introduced new ideas in harmony and form, including extremes of chromaticism. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to the rise of atonality in the 20th century. Certain historians of music have even placed the beginning of modern classical music at the first notes of Tristan (the so-called Tristan chord.)
Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a single symphony (written at the age of 19), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces. Of these, the most commonly-performed work is the Siegfried Idyll, a beautiful chamber piece written for the birthday of his second wife, Cosima. The Idyll draws on several motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. The next most popular are the Wesendonck Lieder, properly known as Five Songs for a Female Voice, which were composed for Mathilde Wesendonck while Wagner was working on Tristan.
After completing Parsifal, Wagner apparently intended to turn to the writing of symphonies. However, nothing substantial had been written at the time of his death.
The overtures and orchestral passages from Wagner's middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote short passages to conclude the excerpt so that it does not end abruptly. This is true, for example, of the Parsifal prelude and Siegfried's Funeral Music. A curious fact is that the concert version of the Tristan prelude is unpopular and rarely heard; the original ending of the prelude is usually considered to be better, even for a concert performance.
The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin (popularly known in English speaking countries as 'Here Comes the Bride') is often played as the processional at weddings.
Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as a massive amount of correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often mutually contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include 'Oper und Drama' ('Opera and Drama', 1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and 'Das Judenthum in der Musik' ('Judaism in Music', 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880).
He was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas. These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth each summer.
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 22, 1813. His father, a minor city official, died 6 months after the birth, and in August 1814 his mother married the actor Ludwig Geyer. Geyer, who is rumored to have actually been the boy's father, died when he was six, leaving him to be brought up by his mother.
Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831. One of his early musical influences was Ludwig van Beethoven.
In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner had finished composing his first complete opera, Die Feen. This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later. Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot, based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second attempt was actually staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but met with little acclaim.
On November 24, 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine 'Minna' Planer, and they moved to the town of Riga where he became the musical director at the local opera house. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer who left her penniless. Wagner accepted her back, but it was the start of a troubled marriage that would end, three decades later, in misery.
By 1839, the couple had amassed such a large amount of debt that they were forced to flee Riga to escape their creditors (the recurring problem of debt would plague Wagner for the rest of his life.) During their flight, they took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner obtained the inspiration for Der fliegende Holländer. The Wagners lived in Paris for several years, where Richard made a living writing articles and making arrangements of operas by other composers.
Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Fortuitously, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre in the German state of Saxony. In 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-stage operas.
The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for increased freedoms and the unification of the weak states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a boil in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved his Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris, and then to Zürich. His compatriots Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and were forced to endure long years of imprisonment.
Exile, Schopenhauer, and Mathilde Wesendonk
Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.
Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into the mammoth work Der Ring des Nibelungen, seemed to have no prospects of seeing performance. His wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.
Wagner's primary output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: 'The Art-Work of the Future' (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or 'total artwork', in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; 'Judaism in Music' (1850), an anti-Semitic tract directed against Jewish composers; and 'Opera and Drama' (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.
In the following years, Wagner came upon two independent sources of inspiration, leading to the creation of his celebrated Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to Schopenhauer's philosophy, which was centered on a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.
One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in 'Opera and Drama', that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person).
Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852. Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story of the knight Tristan and the (already-married) lady Isolde.
The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice. The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser. The premiere of the new Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by aristocrats from the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.
In 1861, the political ban against Wagner was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Remarkably, this opera is by far his sunniest work. (His second wife Cosima would later write: 'when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose.') In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.
Patronage of King Ludwig II
Richard and Cosima Wagner
Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865.
In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. In April 1865, she gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.
Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Triebschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Triebschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce. Richard and Cosima were married on August 25, 1870. In December of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life. They had an additional daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.
It was at Triebschen, in 1869, that Wagner first met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who quickly became a firm friend. Wagner's ideas were a major influence on Nietzsche, who was 31 years his junior. Nietzsche's first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie ('The Birth of Tragedy', 1872), was dedicated to Wagner. The relationship eventually soured, as Nietzsche became increasingly disillusioned with various aspects of Wagner's thought, such as his pacifism and anti-Semitism. In Der Fall Wagner ('The Case of Wagner', 1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (Nietzsche vs. Wagner, 1895), he would condemn Wagner as decadent and corrupt, even criticizing his earlier adulatory views of the composer.
Richard Wagner at Bayreuth
Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, 'special previews' of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.
In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Festspielhaus ('Festival House') was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, 'Wagner societies' were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were only raised after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ('Freedom from Illusion'.)
The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle. Present at this unique musical event was an illustrious list of guests: Kaiser Wilhelm, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, King Ludwig (who attended in secret, probably to avoid the Kaiser), and other members of the nobility; and such accomplished composers as Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Franz Liszt.
Artistically, the Festival was an outstanding success. ('Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember,' wrote Tchaikovsky, attending the Festival as a Russian correspondent.) Financially, however, it was an unmitigated disaster. Wagner abandoned his original plan to hold a second festival the following year, and travelled to London to conduct a series of concerts in an attempt to make up the deficit.
In 1877, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His last words were recorded as: 'I am fond of them, of the inferior beings of the abyss, of those who are full of longing'. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of Wahnfried.
Anti-Semitism and Nazi appropriation
During the 20th century, the public perception of Wagner increasingly centered on his anti-semitism, largely due to the appropriation of his music by Nazi Germany.
Wagner promulgated many anti-semitic views over the course of his life, through both conversation and numerous writings. He frequently accused Jews, and in particular Jewish musicians, of being a harmful foreign element in Germany, and called for the abandonment of Jewish culture and their assimilation into German culture. Some scholars have argued that his operas also contain hidden anti-Semitic messages, but this claim is disputed.
Wagner's first and most controversial anti-Semitic essay was 'Das Judenthum in der Musik', originally published in 1850 in the Neue Zeitschrift under the pen-name 'K. Freigedenk' ('free thought'). The essay purported to explain 'popular dislike' of the music of Jewish composers such as Wagner's contemporaries, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their alien appearance and behavior — 'freaks of Nature' blabbering in 'creaking, squeaking, buzzing' voices — so that 'with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.' He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, a parroting of true music, for they had no connection to 'the genuine spirit of the Folk'. In the conclusion to the essay, he wrote of the Jews that 'only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus – going under!' Although has been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it refers to the eradication of Judaism and the conversion of Jews to Christianity; in essence he called for the complete assimilation of the Jews into mainstream German culture.
The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger.
Wagner attacked the Jews in several other essays. In 'What is German?' (1878), for example, he wrote that
- The Jew... took German intellectual labour into his own hands; and thus we see an odious travesty of the German spirit upheld to-day before the German Folk, as its imputed likeness. It is to be feared, ere long the nation may really take this simulacrum for its mirrored image: then one of the finest natural dispositions in all the human race were done to death, perchance for ever.
In spite of his anti-Semitic writings, Wagner had an extensive network of Jewish friends and colleagues. The most notable of these was Hermann Levi, a practicing Jew whom Wagner chose to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, his last opera. Initially, Wagner wanted Levi to become baptized before conducting Parsifal, presumably due to the religious content of the opera, but he later dropped the issue. Levi maintained a close friendship with Wagner, and was asked to be a pallbearer at the composer's funeral.
After Wagner's death in 1883, Bayreuth became a meeting place for a group of extreme right-wing Wagner fans that came to be known as the Bayreuth circle, endorsed by Cosima, who was much more anti-Semitic than Richard. After the death of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930, the operation of the Festival fell to Siegfried's widow Winifred, who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler, a fan of Wagner's music. The Nazis frequently played Wagner during their rallies. Certain scholars have argued that Wagner's views, particularly his anti-Semitism, influenced the Nazis, but these claims remain controversial. Many aspects of Wagner's worldview would certainly have been unappealing to the Nazis, such as his pacifism and calls for assimilation.
Due to the Nazi association, Wagner's works have not been publicly performed in the modern state of Israel. Although they are commonly broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations, attempts at staging public performances have been halted by protests, especially by Holocaust survivors. For instance, after Daniel Barenboim conducted a passage from Tristan and Isolde as an encore at the 2001 Israel Festival, a parliamentary committee urged a boycott of the conductor, and an initially scheduled performance of Die Walküre had to be withdrawn.
Links and references
- Magee, B., The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Metropolitan Books (2001)
- Tanner, M., Wagner, Princeton University Press (1995)
- Lee, M. Owen. Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (http://www.utpress.utoronto.ca/), 1998.
- Runciman, J.F., Wagner (1913). Project Gutenberg edition here (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/14441).
Wagner and his operas
- The humanities.music.composers.wagner FAQ (http://www.faqs.org/faqs/music/wagner/general-faq/preamble.html).
- RWagner.net (http://www.rwagner.net/). Contains libretti of Wagner's operas, with English translations.
- Wagner Operas (http://www.wagneroperas.com). A comprehensive website featuring photographs of productions, recordings, librettos, and sound files.
- Richard Wagner Web Site (http://www.trell.org/wagner/). An assortment of articles on Wagner and his operas.
- The Wagner Library (http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/). English translations of Wagner's prose works, including some of Wagner's more notable essays.
This biography is published under the GNU Licence
- What's Opera, Doc?. A famous cartoon using Wagner's Ring music, in which the Ride of the Valkyries is sung by Elmer Fudd with the words 'Kill the wabbit!'
- Jim Steinman considers Richard Wagner to be his hero and created his own genre, dubbed Wagnerian Rock.