When the subject is Richard Wagner, the grandmaster of opera, we can only speak in superlatives. At once loved and hated, the composer, dramatist, author, theater director, and conductor, who wrote the libretti for all of his operas, also offered his reflections on culture, politics, and religion in ten hefty volumes of prose. Possessing extraordinary management skills, he was not only an outstanding conductor and teacher, but also had the Bayreuth Festival Theater built expressly for his music dramas, where his works are still performed to this day.
It took time, however, for Wagner to find his own voice; he had to experience two flops (the operas Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot) before finally paving the way for his soaring, pioneering music dramas, of which he wrote a total of thirteen. The composer, who spent his whole life deeply in debt, was continually on the run, pursued by creditors and tax collectors. Always leaving scorched earth in his wake, Wagner was called, mockingly, “the credit-whiz, the luxury-addicted revolutionary” by Thomas Mann. His work championed the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), which sought absolute transcendence by uniting together all the arts.
For twenty-five years, Wagner worked on the Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle consisting of four parts: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. With a running time of around 15 hours, it remains the longest work in the history of music, and probably the greatest challenge music theater has to offer. His legacy, however, carries a bitter aftertaste: his treatise Judaism in Music reveals him to be a proponent of anti-Semitism.
1813 - Wilhelm Richard Wagner is born on May 22 in Leipzig as the ninth child of police clerk Carl Friedrich Wagner and baker’s daughter Johanna Rosine Wagner.
1831 - Music studies at Leipzig University and composition lessons with Thomaskantor Christian Theodor Weinling.
1836 - Marries actress Minna Planer, post of Kapellmeister in Riga, partly to escape his German creditors. Begins composing his first successful opera Rienzi.
1839 - With Minna, Wagner flees from his creditors, escaping Riga on a small sailboat bound for London. The crossing inspires him to compose Der fliegende Holländer.
1845-1848 - Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Lohengrin.
1852 - Begins writing the libretto for Der Ring des Nibelungen.
1853 - Visits Franz Liszt in Paris and meets his 15-year-old daughter Cosima. Das Rheingold, begins composing Tristan und Isolde.
1870 - Marries Cosima.
1876 - Inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival with the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen.
1883 - Richard Wagner dies on February 13 at the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi in Venice.
Did you know?
Robert Schumann famously commented: “For me Wagner is impossible; there’s no doubt that he’s an intelligent person, but he never stops talking. You can’t talk all the time.” On a different occasion, Wagner said: “Outwardly we get on well. But you can’t converse with Schumann: he’s an impossible person, he never says anything.”
Wagner on his first attempts at drama: “The plan was quite stupendous - 42 people died in the course of the play and I found myself obliged to bring most of them back as ghosts, since otherwise I should have run out of characters in the later acts.”
Cosima Wagner sought to acquire an aristocratic title for her son Siegfried. When the request was presented to Emperor Wilhelm II, he said: “Siegfried von Wagner (Wagner’s Siegfried) is enough for me; but a Siegfried von Wagner would be unbearable!”
Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick: “He was egoism personified, operating tirelessly for himself, unsympathetic and inconsiderate towards others. Yet he exercised an incomprehensible magic in order to make friends, and to retain them.”
“I do not know how God will judge my handiwork. During the last three weeks I have written fifty pages of Parsifal and saved three young dogs from death. We still have to wait and see which lies heavier in the scales.”
“When I’m completely run down after a concert there’s only one thing I’ve found that helps me to my feet: a good strong Burgundy poured into a large beer glass, which I proceed to down in one swig...”
“With the word joy, Beethoven called out to humanity: “Be embraced, ye millions! This kiss to the whole world!” And this word will be the language of the artwork of the future.”