The propagation of Richard Wagner's music in the 21st century is nothing short of amazing, considering its humble beginnings. Wagner and his compositions were thrown out of almost every major city in central Europe. He himself was a womanizer, a gambler, a drunk, and a debtor. Egotistical, manipulative, and almost inconceivably ruthless, Wagner's success story would be impossible to believe, were it not for his relentless dedication to his art, and his startlingly original take on classical music that resonates even today.
Toward the end of the last century but one, Richard Wagner made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. "Maestro," asked the head gardener, "do not these fantastic gardens ‘neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?" Wagner muttered something in German.
"He say," said a nearby translator, "’How about that?’"
~ Gore Vidal, "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh"
: First Movement :
Richard Wagner was born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. There is a question regarding Richard's actual father. His mother, Johanna Wagner, was married to Karl Friedrich Wagner, a Leipzig policeman. Yet shortly after Karl's death in November of 1813 (just 6 months after Richard's birth) she moved in with Ludwig Geyer, a notable actor of the area. Although no conclusive evidence exists to suggest Richard was not Karl's son, he closely resembles Geyer's picture, which hangs in the Wagner family home even today.
Regardless of Richard's true heritage, Geyer's job as an actor gave Richard access to great literature and culture throughout his youth. At the age of 11, having read the works of Shakespeare, Richard composed (in English) a five act drama entitled Leubald, filled with gruesome deaths and abundant ghosts. He was also well-versed in Greek, Latin, and Italian. But it was his attendance of a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio that he became obsessed with music. He became so entrenched in his musical studies that he was expelled from the University of Liepzig for his truancy. He composed his first piece at the age of 16, and it was performed anonymously. The piece, full of strange percussion and dissonant chords, nearly caused a riot at its performance - a sign of things to come.
By 20, he had written a libretto for his first opera, entitled Die Feen, but he could find no one to produce it. By now his gambling and womanizing had put him heavily in debt and he took a job working at the Magdeburg Opera. The job was a thankless one, with the opera constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. But Wagner didn't care about pay - he had fallen in love with Minna Planer, a young actress in the opera. The two were married in 1836, but the capricious Wagner had already grown tired of her, which would cause a number of problems later in their lives. That same year, the Magdeburg Opera put on a production of Wagner's own work, Das Liebesverbot, which was based loosely on Shakespare's Measure for Measure. The show fared so poorly that the second showing was to an empty house. The fiasco was enough to bankrupt the opera, and Wagner was out of a job.
Wagner moved on to Kongisberg's opera, but their house closed down within 6 months of his arrival (though he had little to do with its end.) He moved on to Riga, a provincial town in Russia (now modern-day Latvia.) Unlike in Germany, his position as conductor was subjugated under the opera director, who refused to put on many of Wagner's desired pieces (including a few of his own.) By 1838, he was again fired from his job. Still heavily in debt, he and wife Minna's passports were seized by creditors. The couple was forced to slip out of Russia via a smuggling route across the Baltic Sea.
: Accelerando :
I actually shouted for joy, as I felt through my whole being that I was still an artist.
~ Wagner, on writing The Flying Dutchman
Arriving in Paris in 1839, Wagner felt confident his new opera, entitled Rienzi, would be a huge hit. Yet everywhere he went there was a closed door. The Wagners were forced to take in boarders to make ends meet. Twice Richard was thrown in debtor's prison. While in this decrepit state, he composed The Flying Dutchman. It was his devotion to his craft that kept him going during these rough times. Finally, in 1842, the opera house in Dresden agreed to produce Rienzi. Wagner had to borrow money to attend its premiere. The show was a huge success, and a ringing endorsement for the 29-year-old German.
The following year, Dresden agreed to produce his Flying Dutchman. Unfortunately, Rienzi had been a much more contemporary piece; The Flying Dutchman was much more Wagnerian in style, and it failed rather quickly. Despite this failure, Wagner was offered and accepted the post of Kapellmeister for the Dreseden Opera in February of 1843. He would hold the post for six years, and put on a number of productions for the company. His only contribution to the company was Tannhauser, which became a popular opera despite a critical drubbing.
In 1849, while still serving as the Dresden head, Wagner composed perhaps his greatest opera, the daring and high-spirited Lohengrin. He was convinced of its genius, and when the Dresden Opera refused to put it on, he quit his post and joined a group of underground revolutionaries in the town. He became a publisher of numerous propaganda writings, and composed a number of pieces supporting the cause against the government. Wagner mostly did this out of opportunism - he felt his music couldn't be appreciated in the current bourgeois classicism, and that by bringing about change, he would bring about his success. When his fellow revolters rioted in Dresden that year, Wagner was charged with conspiracy. With the help of friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, he and Minna once again escaped the country, arriving in Paris once more.
: Crescendo :
I am just about the only German who has not seen a performance of Lohengrin.
Wagner lived in exile for over a decade. His opera Lohengrin finally premiered in Weimar in 1850, under the direction of Liszt. Like Tannhauser, it became wildly popular among the masses, and eventually became the most popular German opera of all-time. In the meanwhile, Wagner had begun to rail incessantly against the "archaic" methods of Italian opera, claiming that his operas were more progressive, and were the future of music. He also began to write his musical masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), based on the famous Germanic Nibelung legend. It took him nearly two years to write the piece, culminating in his famous composition, Die Walkure (The Valkyrie) in 1852. By now the Wagners were settled in Zurich.
In the meantime, Wagner had become even less enchanted with his wife Minna - she did not appreciate his genius, and often accused him of madness for abandoning his successes such as Rienzi - and began seeking affairs more openly. In 1853 he met and wooed Mathilde Wesendonck, who was then married to a silk merchant. Their affair was open, but still caused many problems for both Minna and Mathilde's husband Otto. Otto finally cut off Mathilde from contacting Richard, and paid to send Richard and Minna away to Paris, where Wagner, in desolation, composed his romantic opera Tristan und Isolde. Minna was outraged, and eventually refused to stay in the same house as Richard. Richard, meanwhile, continued his extravagant living beyond his means, drinking and gambling away the profits from his popular operas.
By now, his music had become so technically uncompromising and openly anarchic that it was becoming impossible to produce his works. One production of Tristan und Isolde was cancelled after 61 rehearsals - it simply couldn't be done. Operagoers in Paris rioted at an 1861 show of Tannhauser. Only his pardon by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1864 saved him from the debtor's prison once more. The king not only took on Wagner as a court composer, but paid off all of his debts. This graciousness finally led to performances of Wagner's later works, including the first three parts of his grandiose Ring cycle in 1870.
: Climax :
If it had been anyone else but Wagner, I would have shot him.
~ Hans von Bulow
Yet Wagner's grace with the king caused him new grief with political dissidents in Bavaria. They felt his musical theory pretentious, his politics without principle, and his demeanor despicable. Eventually, they found Wagner's major flaw and exploited it. In 1860 Wagner had begun an affair with Cosima von Bulow, daughter of Wagner's friend Franz Liszt and wife of composer Hans von Bulow. von Bulow was a major admirer of Wagner, a close friend and indebted to him for his position as court pianist. Yet he was miserable about the affair, which culminated in Cosima and Wagner having a child - a girl they named Isolde. Minna had passed away in 1862, but the scandal of the birth (a second child to the couple came in 1866) forced Richard and Cosima to flee to Lucerne.
As disgraceful as Wagner's personal life was, his music continued to dominate the European opera of the 19th century. The fourth and final piece of the Ring cycle, Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods) was completed in 1874. For its premiere, Wagner arranged for a special outdoor theater to be built. He played concerts of his music feverishly to raise funds. He borrowed from his friends Liszt, Grieg, and even von Bulow. He begged for money from his admirers in America and Russia. Finally, in 1875, the money was acquired, and the town of Bayreuth was selected for the site of the theater.
April 13, 1876 came. The theater was opened with the first performance of the Ring cycle in its entirety. Liszt, Grieg, Saint-Saenz, and Tchaikovsky were in attendance, along with reporters from London, New York, and Chicago. The show itself was sold out, and although many people felt the music too startling and dissonant to appreciate, it was a rousing success for Wagner, a culmination of his life's work and craft. It was, in short, his finest hour.
Over the next six years, Wagner lived in semi-retirement, composing one final musical play Parsifal in 1882. Suffering from a heart condition, he and Cosima went to visit Venice, Italy for an extended vacation. There he performed for his wife's birthday that first symphony he had presented anonymously, the one that had been so thoroughly drubbed. He passed away just six weeks later, on February 13, 1883. He was returned to Bayreuth and buried there two days later. He was 69 years old.
: Coda :
Kill the Wabbit, kill the wabbit!
~ Elmer Fudd, "What's Opera Doc"
In 1874, a production of Die Feen was finally undertaken, but it was only the beginning of a long appreciation for Wagner's work after his death. In fact, Wagner's music continued to grow in prominence and popularity well into the 20th century. It was used to startling effect by the Nazi Party throughout their reign in the 1920s and 30s, something the propagandist in Wagner may or may not have appreciated. In more recent times, Wagner has been cited as the influence for a number of artists and composers, from Schoenberg to John Cage to Harry Partch and more. And, of course, as long as they keep showing Apocalypse Now and "What's Opera, Doc?" on television, his music will be remembered as long as time itself.