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Wagner, Richard

Category: Musician or composer

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas. Wagner was also an extremely prolific writer, authoring numerous books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence. Amongst those claiming inspiration from Wagner's music are the German band Rammstein and Joey DeMaio of the band Manowar who has described Wagner as "The father of heavy metal".

We are apt to think today that Wagner is a sort of super composer amongst musicians, and beyond criticism, but though he has numerous supporters, he was not without his critics. The French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote "I had imagined that I was going to meet music of an innovative kind but was astonished to find a pale imitation of Berlioz... I do not like all the music of Berlioz while appreciating his marvellous understanding of certain instrumental effects... but here he was imitated and caricatured... Wagner is not a musician, he is a disease." Debussy called him "this old poisoner". Gioachino Rossini, said "Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour." Walter Benjamin gave Wagner as an example of "bourgeois false consciousness", alienating art from its social context. So in reality a controversial figure.

 

Wagner's earliest attempts at opera were often uncompleted. Abandoned works include the interestingly titled singspiel Männerlist größer als Frauenlist (Men are More Cunning than Women, 1837–38). Wagner's middle stage output began with Der fliegende Holländer ("The Flying Dutchman", 1843), followed by Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850). Wagner's late dramas are considered his masterpieces. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring or "Ring cycle", is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Germanic mythology—particularly from the later Norse mythology—notably the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga, and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Between 1857 and 1864 he wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde and his only mature comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). Wagner's final opera was Parsifal (1882). Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a symphony in C major (written at the age of 19), the Faust Overture (the only completed part of an intended symphony on the subject), some overtures, and choral and piano pieces.

 

Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama, and which was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

His compositions are notable for their elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, greatly influenced the development of classical music. Wagner also had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed in an annual festival run by his descendants.

 

I'm afraid I cannot credit Wagner with being a spiritual person, though it is clear that at times when his ego was being severely battered inspiration flowed. His spiritual understanding was not first hand, it was theoretical, though clearly he had a great interest in the subject. He knew his symbolism down to the last letter and recognised inspiration in others. Wagner read and was influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, notably his The World as Will and Idea,
His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer's philosophy, a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He remained an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life.

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role in the arts as a direct expression of the spiritual world. It is probably to Schopenhauer that we owe Wagner's operas, as Wagner was interested in being a playwright for some years admiring the work of both Goethe and Shakespeare.

But a truly spiritual man does not write articles like "Judaism in Music" (1850) with its antisemitic views. Wagner argued, frequently using traditional antisemitic abuse, that Jews had no connection to the German spirit, and were thus only capable of producing shallow and artificial music. According to him, they composed music to achieve popularity and, thereby, financial success, as opposed to creating genuine works of art. But then 99% of composers did and do the same – including Wagner. Because of the associations of Wagner with antisemitism and Nazism, the performance of his music in the State of Israel has been a source of controversy.

He was thus a clever man, but not a wise man and this lack of wisdom and lack of peace in his life can be seen in the story of his private life which was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors – whom he appears to have never repaid.

Some psychoanalysts today believe he was a depressive [not a manic depressive just a depressive], for example

Manic Depression and Creativity – D Jablow Hershman and Dr Julian Lieb
With few exceptions, only a person wary of love and friendship, as some depressives are, will divert the compelling needs for affection and companionship into creativity.  Wagner expressed it thus 'My burning need for love, unslaked in life, I pour into my Art'

But depression was not the source of his inspiration, which appears to have been almost solely derived from the overload of emotion which resulted from a host of disastrous events that he brought upon himself – once crushed, and in agony albeit temporarily – he could come up with inspired music, otherwise [and here I can hear the howls of millions of his fans] his music can sound contrived, even forced and never from the heart. Clever men love it of course because it resonates with them. Wise men don't. Wagner's music is Intellectual music.

Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient by Carl Joseph, circa 1848

He was quite capable of extreme emotion and the extreme emotion he often experienced also seems to have been a major driver. In 1829 he saw a performance by dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, and he wrote "When I look back across my entire life I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced on me, the profoundly human and ecstatic performance of this incomparable artist kindled in me an almost demonic fire." And we also have his exclamation en route from Paris back to Germany, "For the first time I saw the Rhine—with hot tears in my eyes, I, poor artist, swore eternal fidelity to my German fatherland."

His life from the very beginning was full of trauma. Wagner's father Carl died of typhus six months after Richard's birth, and his mother Johanna began living with Carl's friend, the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer. Until he was fourteen, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer and thought that Geyer was his biological father. Geyer died in 1821. So in a sense he lost two fathers.

In 1834, Wagner held a brief appointment as musical director at the opera house in Magdeburg, but the financial collapse of the theatre company employing him, left the composer with serious money problems.

Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer

Wagner married the actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer, in November 1836. In May 1837, Minna left Wagner for another man; he 'resumed relations' with Minna during 1838.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to avoid their creditors.

In 1849, Wagner's involvement in left-wing politics forced him to flee to Zürich. Wagner was to spend the next twelve years in exile from Germany.

By 1850, Wagner was in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any regular income.

Jessie Laussot

 

 

In 1850, Julie, the wife of his friend Karl Ritter, began to pay him a small pension which she maintained until 1859. With help from her friend Jessie Laussot this was to have been augmented to an annual sum of 3000 Thalers per year; but this plan was abandoned when Wagner began an affair with Mme. Laussot. Wagner even planned an elopement with her in 1852, which her husband prevented. Meanwhile, Wagner's wife Minna was falling into a deepening depression.

After his disastrous affair with Madame Laussot, Wagner's next infatuation was with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks, who were both great admirers of his music, in Zürich in 1852. From May 1853 onwards Wesendonck made several loans to Wagner to finance his household expenses and even placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal.

Mathilde Wesendonck

Wagner repaid his patron's kindness by having an affair with his patron's wife. Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder, five songs for voice and piano, setting poems by Mathilde. Wagner's uneasy affair with Mathilde collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter to Mathilde from him. After the resulting confrontation with Minna, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice, where he rented an apartment.

John Burk, a biographer has said and I quote “she was to him an invalid, to be treated with kindness and consideration, but, except at a distance, she was a menace to his peace of mind."

Not much there about poor Minna's peace of mind.

In November 1859, Wagner oversaw a production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to the efforts of Princess Pauline von Metternich, whose husband was the Austrian ambassador in Paris.

The political ban that had been placed on Wagner in Germany after he had fled Dresden was lifted in 1862. The composer settled in Biebrich in Prussia. Here Minna visited him for the last time: they parted irrevocably. Minna died of heart failure on 25 January 1866 in Dresden.

Wagner did not attend the funeral.

King Ludwig II

Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas, had the composer brought to Munich. The King, who was homosexual, expressed in his correspondence a passionate personal adoration for the composer, and Wagner in his responses had no scruples about counterfeiting a similar atmosphere. Ludwig settled Wagner's considerable debts.

Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre in Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years. The premiere had been scheduled for 15 May, but was delayed by bailiffs acting for Wagner's creditors. The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, a child not of Bülow but of Wagner. Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and in December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him. Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne.

Cosima

Following Minna's death Cosima wrote to Hans von Bülow on a number of occasions asking him to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused to concede this. He only consented after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally sanctioned on 18 July 1870. Richard and Cosima's wedding took place on 25 August 1870. Wagner was 57. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life, but it was not without incident.

In his new-found domesticity, he republished his 1850 pamphlet "Judaism in Music" in 1869, originally issued under a pseudonym, under his own name. He extended the introduction, and wrote a lengthy additional final section. Wagner's friend Friedrich Nietzsche, was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner's pandering to German nationalism and severed the friendship.

Judith Gautier

Following the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy 'for health reasons'. From 1876 to 1878 Wagner also embarked on the last of his documented 'emotional liaisons', this time with Judith Gautier, whom he had met at the 1876 Festival. Wagner was also much troubled by problems of financing Parsifal. He was once again assisted by the liberality of King Ludwig.

Wagner wrote a number of articles in his later years, often on political topics, and often reactionary in tone, repudiating some of his earlier, more liberal, views. These include "Religion and Art" (1880) and "Heroism and Christianity" (1881). Wagner's sudden interest in Christianity was contemporary with his increasing alignment with German nationalism, and required on his part, and the part of his associates, "the rewriting of some recent Wagnerian history", so as to represent, for example, the Ring as a work reflecting Christian ideals. Many of these later articles, including "What is German?" repeated Wagner's antisemitic preoccupations.

Carrie Pringle

By 1882, Wagner was extremely ill, having suffered a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. He died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on 13 February 1883 at Ca' Vendramin Calergi, a 16th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The legend that the attack was prompted by argument with Cosima over Wagner's supposedly amorous interest in the singer Carrie Pringle, who had been a Flower-maiden in Parsifal at Bayreuth, is without credible evidence”.

 

 

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