Wilhelm Richard Wagner 1813 – 1883

Wilhelm Richard Wagner 1813 – 1883 was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist.

When Wagner contracted typhoid fever in 1839, Dr. Prutzer, a homeopathic physician saved his life (Wilhelm Richard Wagner, My Life, (reprinted by CUP Archive, 30 Dec 1983). Page 152).

Wagner used homeopathy for the rest of his life, and he also frequented water cure spas and consulted Ernst Schwenninger (1850-1924) who was scathing in his attacks on allopathic medicine (Henry Lindlahr, Nature Cure, (reprinted by Plain Label Books). Page 184).

Wagner’s friend Giacomo Meyerbeer was also an advocate of homeopathy, and Wagner had his portrait painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir.

Wagner was also a prominent advocate of vegetarianism, and he also supported the anti vivisection campaign.

Wagner was a close friend of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

Richard Wagner was born at no. 3 (‘The House of the Red and White Lions’), the Brühl, in Leipzig on 22 May 1813, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, who was a clerk in the Leipzig police service.

Wagner’s father died of typhus six months after Richard’s birth, following which Wagner’s mother, Johanna Rosine Wagner, began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, who had been a friend of Richard’s father.

In August 1814 Johanna Rosine married Geyer, and moved with her family to his residence in Dresden. For the first 14 years of his life, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer. Wagner may later have suspected that Geyer was in fact his biological father, and furthermore speculated incorrectly that Geyer was Jewish.

Geyer’s love of the theatre was shared by his stepson, and Wagner took part in performances. In his autobiography Wagner recalled once playing the part of an angel. The boy Wagner was also hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Late in 1820, Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received some piano instruction from his Latin teacher. He could not manage a proper scale but preferred playing theatre overtures by ear. Geyer died in 1821, when Richard was eight. Consequently, Wagner was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, paid for by Geyer’s brother.

The young Wagner entertained ambitions as a playwright, his first creative effort (listed as ‘WWV 1′) being a tragedy, Leubald begun at school in 1826, which was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Wagner was determined to set it to music and he persuaded his family to allow him music lessons.

By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner’s first lessons in composition were taken in 1828-31 with Christian Gottlieb Müller. In January of 1828 he first heard Ludwig von Beethoven‘s 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhaus. Ludwig von Beethoven became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony, piano sonatas and orchestral overtures.

In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schroder Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced so profound an impression upon me.” ….

He enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831 where he became a member of the Studentenverbindung Corps Saxonia Leipzig. He also took composition lessons with the cantor of Saint Thomas church, Christian Theodor Weinlig….

In 1833, Wagner’s older brother Karl Albert managed to obtain Richard a position as chorusmaster in Würzburg… Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg…

On 24 November 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer. In June 1837 they moved to the city of Riga, then in the Russian Empire, where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterwards, Minna ran off with an army officer who then abandoned her, penniless. Wagner took Minna back; however, this was but the first debacle of a troubled marriage that would end in misery three decades later.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for most of his life).

During their flight, they and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, took a stormy sea passage to London… The Wagners spent 1840 and 1841 in Paris, where Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer during this time.

Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Largely through the agency of Giacomo Meyerbeer, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the German state of Saxony. Thus in 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable acclaim.

Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor…

The Wagners’ stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard’s involvement in leftist politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of the weak princely states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house who included his colleague August Rockel, who was editing the radical left wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a head in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved 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. August Rockel and Mikhail Bakunin failed to escape and endured long terms of imprisonment.

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. Before leaving Dresden, he had drafted a scenario that would eventually become his mammoth cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen

After arriving in Zurich he expanded the story to include an opera about the young Siegfried. He completed the cycle by writing Die Walküre and Das Rheingold and revising the later operas to agree with his new concept. 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 published 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), a 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.

By 1852 Wagner had completed the libretto of the four Ring operas, and he began composing Das Rheingold in November 1853, following it immediately with Die Walküre in 1854. He then began work on the third opera, Siegfried in 1856, but finished only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner had two independent sources of inspiration for 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 what he understood to be Arthur Schopenhauer‘s philosophy, a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Arthur Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.

One of Arthur 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’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… The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde.

In 1861, the political ban against Wagner in Germany was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia…. In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866….

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 operas produced….

In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bulow, 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 Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. Franz Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. In April 1865, Cosima 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, King Ludwig II 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.

King Ludwig II installed Wagner at the villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne….  Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bulow to grant her a divorce, but not before having two more children with Wagner. They had another daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried. Richard and Cosima were married on 25 August 1870….

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 Bayreuth 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 II 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 (“Peace/freedom from delusion/madness”, in German).

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since….

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 29 August, 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 13 February 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried.

Franz Liszt‘s memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal….

Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence, throughout his life.

His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often self-contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include Art and Revolution (1849), Opera and Drama (1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and Das Judenthum in der Musik (“Jewishness in Music”, 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers in general, and Giacomo Meyerbeer in particular.

He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880). In his later years Wagner became a vociferous opponent of experimentation on animals and in 1879 he published an open letter,’ Against Vivisection ‘, in support of the animal rights activist Ernst von Weber.

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