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Richard Wagner: The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time
Richard Wagner (b. May 22, 1813, Leipzig [Germany]—d. Feb. 13, 1883, Venice, Italy) German dramatic composer and theorist Richard Wagner revolutionized the course of Western music through the harmonic and melodic intensity of his operatic works. Among his major works are The Flying Dutchman (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1850), Tristan und Isolde (1865), Parsifal (1882), and his great tetralogy, The Ring of
the Nibelung (1869–76).
The artistic and theatrical background of Wagner’s early years was a main formative influence. Impulsive and selfwilled, he was a negligent scholar at the Kreuzschule, Dresden, and the Nicholaischule, Leipzig. He frequented
concerts, however, taught himself the piano and composition, and read the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller.
Wagner enrolled at Leipzig University, where he applied himself earnestly to composition. His Symphony in C Major was performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts in 1833. On leaving the university that year, he spent the summer as operatic coach at Würzburg, where he composed his
first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), based on a fantastic tale by Carlo Gozzi.
He failed to get the opera produced at Leipzig and became conductor to a provincial theatrical troupe from Magdeburg, having fallen in love with one of the actresses of the troupe, Wilhelmine (Minna) Planer,
whom he married in 1836. The single performance of his second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), after Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, was a disaster.
In 1839, fleeing from his creditors, he decided to put into operation his long-cherished plan to win renown in Paris, but his three years in Paris were calamitous. Living with a colony of poor German artists, he staved off starvation by means of musical journalism and hackwork. Nevertheless,
in 1840 he completed Rienzi (after Bulwer-Lytton’s novel), and in 1841 he composed his first representative opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), based on the legend about a ship’s captain condemned to sail forever.
In 1842, aged 29, he gladly returned to Dresden, where Rienzi was triumphantly performed on October 20. The next year The Flying Dutchman (produced at Dresden, Jan. 2, 1843) was less successful, since the audience was puzzled by the innovative way the new opera integrated the music with the dramatic content. But Wagner was appointed conductor of the court opera, a post that he held until On Oct. 19, 1845, Tannhäuser (based, like all his future works, on Germanic legends) was coolly received but soon proved a steady attraction.
The refusal of the court opera authorities in Dresden to stage his next opera, Lohengrin, was not based on artistic reasons; rather, they were alienated by Wagner’s projected administrative and artistic reforms. His proposals would have taken control of the opera away from the court and
created a national theatre whose productions would be chosen by a union of dramatists and composers. Preoccupied with ideas of social regeneration, he then became embroiled in the German revolution of 1848–49. He ultimately fled from Germany, unable to attend the first performance of Lohengrin at Weimar, given on Aug. 28, 1850.
For the next 15 years Wagner was not to present any further new works. Until 1858 he lived in Zürich, composing, writing treatises, and conducting. Having already studied the Siegfried legend and the Norse myths as a possible basis for an opera, and having written an operatic “poem,” Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), in which he conceived of Siegfried as the new type of man who would emerge after the successful revolution he hoped for, he now wrote a number of prose volumes on revolution, social and artistic.
From 1849 to 1852 he produced his basic prose works: Die Kunst und die Revolution (Art and Revolution), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art Work of the Future), Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A Communication to My Friends), and Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama).
The latter outlined a new, revolutionary type of musical stage work—the vast work, in fact, on which he was engaged. By 1852 he had added to the poem of Siegfrieds Tod three others to precede it, the whole being called Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and providing the basis for a tetralogy of musical dramas: Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold ); Die Walküre (The Valkyrie); Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried ), later called simply Siegfried; and Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), later called Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).
The Ring reveals Wagner’s mature style and method, to which he had found his way at last during the period when his thought was devoted to social questions. He prophesied the disappearance of opera as artificial entertainment for an elite and the emergence of a new kind of musical stage work for the people, expressing the selfrealization of free humanity.
The new art form would be a poetic drama that should find full expression as a musical drama set to a continuous vocal-symphonic texture. This
texture would be woven from basic thematic ideas, which Wagner called “motives,” but which have since come to be known as “leading motives” (German Leitmotive, singular Leitmotiv). The leading motives would arise naturally as expressive vocal phrases sung by characters and would be
developed by the orchestra as “reminiscences” to express the dramatic and psychological development.
This conception found full embodiment in The Ring, except that the leading motives did not always arise as vocal utterances but were often introduced by the orchestra to portray characters, emotions, or events in the drama.
With his use of this method, Wagner rose immediately to his amazing full stature: his style became unified and deepened immeasurably, and he was able to fill his works from end to end with intensely characteristic music. By 1857 he had composed Das Rhinegold, Die Walküre, and two acts of Siegfried. But he now suspended work on The Ring: the impossibility of mounting this colossus within the foreseeable future was enforcing a stalemate on his career and led him to project a “normal” work capable of immediate production.
Also, his optimistic social philosophy had yielded to a metaphysical, world-renouncing pessimism. The outcome was Tristan und Isolde (1857–59), of which the crystallizing agent was his hopeless love for Mathilde Wesendonk (the wife of a rich patron), which led to separation from his wife, Minna.
Wagner completed Tristan in Venice and in Lucerne, Switzerland. The work revealed a new subtlety in his use of leading motives, which in Das Rhinegold and Die Walküre he had used mainly to explain the action of the drama. The leading motives in Tristan ceased to remain neatly identifiable with their dramatic sources but worked with greater psychological complexity.
Return from Exile
In 1861, he went to Vienna and remained there about a year before traveling widely as a conductor while awaiting a projected production of Tristan. When this work was not produced because the artists were bewildered by its revolutionary stylistic innovations, Wagner began a second “normal” work, the comedy-opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Meistersingers of Nürnberg). By 1864, however, he had to flee from Vienna to avoid imprisonment for debt.
He arrived in Stuttgart without a penny, a man of 51 without a future, almost at the end of his tether. Something like a miracle saved him. In 1864 Louis II ascended the throne of Bavaria; he was a fanatical admirer
of Wagner’s art. Having read the poem of The Ring, Louis II invited Wagner to complete the work in Munich and set him up in a villa. During the next six years there were successful Munich productions of all of Wagner’s representative works to date, including Tristan (1865), Die Meistersinger (1868), Das Rhinegold (1869), and Die Walküre (1870).
During this time Wagner constantly ran into debt, and he also attemptedto interfere in the government of the kingdom. In addition, he became the lover of the great Wagner conductor Hans von Bülow’s wife, Cosima, the daughter of Liszt. She bore him three children—Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried—before her divorce in 1870 and her marriage to Wagner that year. For all
these reasons, Wagner thought it advisable to leave Munich.
Last Years in Bayreuth
In 1869 Wagner had resumed work on The Ring, which he now brought to its world-renouncing conclusion. It had been agreed with the king that the tetralogy should be first performed in its entirety at Munich, but Wagner
broke the agreement, convinced that a new type of theatre must be built for the purpose.
Having discovered a suitable site at the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, he toured Germany, conducting concerts to raise funds to support the plan, and in 1872 the foundation stone was laid. In 1874 Wagner moved into a house at Bayreuth that he called Wahnfried (“Peace from Illusion”). The whole vast project was eventually realized, in spite of enormous difficulties.
The Ring received its triumphant first complete performance in the new Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on Aug. 13, 14, 16, and 17, 1876.
Wagner spent the rest of his life at Wahnfried, making a visit to London in 1877 to give a successful series of concerts and then making several to Italy. During these years he composed his last work, the sacred festival drama Parsifal, begun in 1877 and produced at Bayreuth in 1882.
He died of heart failure, at the height of his fame, and was buried in the grounds of Wahnfried in the tomb he had himself prepared. Since then, except for interruptions caused by World Wars I and II, the Festspielhaus has staged yearly festivals of Wagner’s works.
0:00 – Lohengrin, Prelude (Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, Michael Halasz) 9:52 – Parsifal, Prelude (Wiener Philharmoniker, Sir Georg Solti) 22:25 – Der Fliegende Holländer, Overture (Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antal Dorati) 33:47 – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Overture (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti) 43:07 – Tristan und Isolde, Liebestod (Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan) 50:26 – Tannhäuser, Overture (Berliner Philharmoniker, Klaus Tennstedt)
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