b. Leipzig, 22 May 1813; d. Venice, 13 February 1883
A one-man artistic movement – as much theatrical visionary as composer of genius – Richard Wagner took 19th-century Romantic opera and reinvented it as music-drama, the ‘total work of art’ in which every detail serves a dramatic end. Posthumously adopted by the Nazis as the embodiment of the Teutonic spirit, Wagner’s work continues to provoke extremes of antipathy and adulation, as each new generation discovers its own version of the man and his music.
The son either of his mother’s husband, Carl Friedrich Wagner, or of her lover, the actor and painter Ludwig Geyer, whom she married after Carl Friedrich’s death in 1814, Richard Wagner was initially interested in the theatre. But, after seeing Beethoven’s Fidelio, he decided to study music, and at 19 wrote the text and began the music for an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding). Though he developed swiftly before completing his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), two years later while working as a chorus master in Würzburg, this unremarkable work, very much in the mould of Weber and Marschner, was never performed in his lifetime. Influenced instead by his study of Italian music, his next opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), flopped at its 1836 premiere. Now married, Wagner began his grand tragic opera Rienzi while working as assistant conductor in Riga and completed it in Paris in 1840, after fleeing there, via London, to escape his debts; finally staged in Dresden in 1842, it proved enormously popular.
Yet, within a year of completing it, Wagner had remade himself and German opera through The Flying Dutchman, the first of the music-dramas that were to change the course of Western music. Over the next five years, as conductor of the Dresden Court Opera, he produced The Flying Dutchman, composed Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, drafted the text for The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, began the text for what would become the Ring cycle and read the poem, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, that would inspire his final opera. So, apart from Tristan and Isolde, his entire life’s work was already mapped out.
Implicated in the Dresden uprising of 1849, and with a warrant issued for his arrest, he fled to Zurich, where he wrote two major manifestos, The Artwork of the Future and Opera and Drama, that outlined his theories on the relationship between words, music and the stage.
In 1852 he completed the text for the four mighty episodes of The Ring of the Nibelung: The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods. He began the music in 1853 but didn’t complete it for another 21 years. Meanwhile, inspired by a passionate affair with the wife of a wealthy Swiss businessman, he composed Tristan and Isolde, which he hoped would finance the construction of the unique theatre that he now felt necessary for staging The Ring.
By 1864, however, he had not only fallen in love with someone new – Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, wife of his friend and champion, the conductor Hans von Bülow – but found a new patron in ‘mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose enthusiasm for Wagner’s operas led him to throw large sums of money at the composer and to arrange for Tristan to be premiered in Munich in 1865. Having already produced three children, Wagner and Cosima finally married in 1870 after Von Bülow (who continued to conduct Wagner’s music) agreed to an annulment.
Following the Munich premieres of the first two parts of The Ring in 1868 and 1870, Wagner finally persuaded Ludwig to help fund the construction of a new theatre devoted solely to his music, and in 1871 the authorities at Bayreuth, near Nuremberg, gave Wagner a plot of land above the town, where the foundation stone was laid in 1872. Despite a major falling-out, after the king belatedly realised that Wagner was never going to reciprocate his sexual passion, the Bayreuth Festival Theatre was finally finished in time for the first complete Ring cycle in 1876. Begun a year later, Parsifal was premiered there six months before Wagner’s death.
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