Vegetarian and Antisemite
The German Spirit
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
- German composer and musical theorist, one of the most influential figures of 19th-century Europe.
Born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Wagner studied at the University of Leipzig. Between 1833 and 1839 he worked at
provincial opera houses in Würzburg, Magdeburg, Königsberg, and Riga. During these years he wrote the operas Die
Feen (The Fairies, 1833) and Das Liebesverbot (The Forbidden Love, 1836) and several orchestral works. In 1836,
while at Königsberg, Wagner married the actor Minna Planer. At Riga he completed the libretto and the first two acts of
his first important opera, Rienzi.
In 1839 Wagner sailed to London. During the tempestuous voyage across the North Sea, he conceived the idea for his
second major opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, completed in 1841). After eight days in London,
he traveled to France, settling eventually in Paris, where he became acquainted with the music of Hector Berlioz. He
remained in Paris until April 1842, at times reduced to the direst poverty. On October 20, 1842, Rienzi was produced at
the Court Theater at Dresden, Germany. Its success led to the production of Der fliegende Holländer at Dresden on
January 2, 1843. In the same month Wagner moved to Dresden, where he became one of the conductors at the Court
- Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser was produced at Dresden on October 19, 1845. This work, with innovations in
structure and technique, perplexed audiences accustomed to the conventional opera of the day and elicited a storm of
adverse criticism. Nevertheless, Tannhäuser was produced at Weimar, Germany, three years later by the Hungarian
composer Franz Liszt, who afterward became an enthusiastic proponent of Wagnerian music drama (see below). The
meeting of Liszt and Wagner in 1848 resulted in a lifelong friendship. In the same year the romantic opera Lohengrin
was completed, but the management of the Court Theater at Dresden, apprehensive of public and critical reaction to
another work by the composer of Tannhäuser, declined to produce it. Liszt once more came to the rescue and
produced Lohengrin at Weimar on August 28, 1850.
A Political Radical
- Wagner was an extreme radical in politics. He participated in the abortive Revolution of 1848 in Germany and, in
consequence, was obliged to flee from his homeland, first to Paris, and then to Zürich. There he amplified the
sketches, previously begun, for his famous tetralogy of music dramas, known collectively as Der Ring des
Nibelungen, and based on the 12th-century Middle High German epic poem of the Nibelungenlied. The texts of the
Nibelung dramas were written in reverse order. Finding that certain narrative episodes in Götterdämmerung (The
Twilight of the Gods), the final work of the tetralogy, required elaboration and dramatic exposition to make the story
altogether comprehensible, Wagner wrote the third part, Siegfried. Still not satisfied, however, he wrote Die Walküre
and, as a further explanatory prelude, Das Rheingold. Wagner began work on the score of Das Rheingold in November
1853, completing it in May of the following year. By the end of December 1856, the score of Die Walküre was finished.
Meanwhile, in 1852, Wagner had made the acquaintance of the wealthy merchant Otto Wesendonck and his wife
Mathilde. The former placed at the disposal of Wagner and Minna a small cottage, the Asyl (German, “Asylum”), on the
Wesendonck estate near Zürich; this situation furnished the composer with the inspiration for some of his finest
music. Close association between Wagner and Mathilde soon developed into love, which they were forced to
renounce. Their romance eventually found expression, however, in Wagner's passionate score of Tristan und Isolde
(1857-59), which is one of the longest and the most difficult to produce of all the Wagnerian music dramas. Its first
performance was on June 10, 1865, at Munich, under the auspices of Louis II, king of Bavaria, who had become
Wagner's patron. From this period also are the Wesendonck Lieder, settings for voice and orchestra or piano
(1857-58) of five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck.
In 1861 the political ban against Wagner was lifted. Upon his return to Prussia the composer settled in Biebrich, where
he began work on his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, completed in 1867. The work was produced
on June 21, 1868, at Munich, where in 1869 and 1870 Das Rheingold and Die Walküre also were given by command of
Immediately after the production of Die Meistersinger Wagner resumed work on the score of Siegfried, completing it in
February 1871. At the same time he began the composition of Götterdämmerung. Meanwhile, on August 25, 1870, the
composer, who had been separated from his first wife for nine years, married Cosima von Bülow, the divorced wife of
the pianist and conductor Hans Guido von Bülow and the daughter of Liszt. Wagner's orchestral work Siegfried Idyll
(1870) was written for Cosima. In the summer of 1872, Wagner composed the last part of Der Ring des Nibelungen,
and by November 1874, orchestration of Götterdämmerung had been completed. On August 13-17, 1876, the premiere
performance of the whole tetralogy took place at the Festspielhaus, a theater in Bayreuth designed and constructed
especially for the presentation of Wagnerian music dramas. In 1877 Wagner began work on Parsifal, based on
legends of the Holy Grail. The last of the Wagnerian music dramas, Parsifal was produced for the first time on July 26,
In 1882 the composer's health began to fail. Thinking he might benefit from a change of climate, Wagner rented the
Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal in Venice; he died there suddenly on February 13 of the following year. Five
days later his body was interred in the mausoleum of his Bayreuth villa.
- Wagner highly influenced late 19th-century thought, not only in the arts, but also in political issues such as
nationalism and social idealism. In Oper und Drama (1850-51) he set forth his vision of a revolutionary kind of stage
work, integrating dramatic, visual, and musical elements into a wholly unified work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk. His
other theoretical writings include Über deutsches Musikwesen (On German Music, 1840), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft
(The Art Work of the Future, 1849), Religion und Kunst (Religion and Art, 1880), Über das Dirigieren (On Conducting,
1869), Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama (On the Application of Music to the Drama, 1879), and Eine
Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A Communication to My Friends, 1851). Wagner also wrote an autobiography, My Life
(1865-80; trans. 1911).
- Wagner's reputation is based on his musical creations, which represent the highest expression of romanticism in
European music, and also on the revolution he effected in both the theory and practice of operatic composition. He
began his career as a composer of opera in the conventional manner, but by the time he started work on Der Ring des
Nibelungen he was creating an entirely new musico-dramatic form. The true line of development of the Wagnerian
music drama is from Greek drama (on which Wagner deliberately modeled his texts) through the dramas of
Shakespeare and the German poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. On the purely musical side, because of its
architectural structures, its lineal evolution is from Johann Sebastian Bach through Ludwig van Beethoven. In his
treatment of harmony, Wagner pushed the traditional system of tonality to its limits, breaking down the conventions
that gave keys and chord relationships their identity, and leading inevitably to 20th-century atonality.
Pre-Wagnerian opera had become little more than a succession of stereotyped arias, recitatives, duets, interludes,
and finales. A fundamental principle of the music drama is the subservience of all the arts involved, including music,
to the dramatic needs of the story. By means of the leitmotiv, or leading motive, a continuous thematic development is
achieved. The complex evolutions of each leitmotiv and its intertwinings with others underline the emotional meaning
of the drama. The increased dramatic unity of post-Wagnerian opera was one consequence of the tremendous
influence of his art on every form of music.
"Wagner, (Wilhelm) Richard," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk
& Wagnall's Corporation.
He was the first to use music as a means of influensing, of
entrancing, of intoxicating, of conquering. To be sure, all
musicians direct their attention to the 'world' - to connois-
seurs, to a community great or small, to the nation. Even before
Wagner a few composers had felt impelled to create a community
for themselves because there was none at hand. Handel did so in
his oratorios; Beethoven, in his symphonies. So far as Wagner
concerned, however, Handel scarcely existed [...] But in Beet-
hoven Wagner saw his true predecessor - or, more precisely, in
the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony, with which the reign of
pure instrumental music seemed to have come to an end and that
of opera, of his opera, to have begun.
Alfred Einstein: Music in the Romantic Era.
A History of Musical Thought in the 19th Century, New York 1947.
Richard Wagner who regarded himself as "the most German of men", "the German spirit" is not only known because
of his 13 operas and numerous other compositions but also because of his inevitable influence on our understanding
of German culture and history. He has been classified as an anarchist and a socialist and, simultaneously, as a
proto-fascist and nationalist, as a vegetarian and an antisemite... In fact, his name has appeared in connection to
almost all major trends in German history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Besides his activity as a composer and a librettist Wagner wrote an astonishing number of books and
articles, in fact about 230 titles. The literary spectrum ranges from theories of opera to political programs. In addition
to these activities Wagner wrote about 10.000 letters.
Wagner is undoubtedly one of the leading figures of the 19th century. Already at his time, he was a source
of debate and controversy. When Wagner died in 1883, over 10.000 books and articles were written about him. The
amount of research has multiplied after his death.
Also Richard Wagner's son, Siegfried (1869-1930), was an opera composer. In fact, he made more operas than his
Wagner inspired not only musicians and composers but artists alike. One of the most famous artists to
illustrate Wagner's operas was the noted 19th century German painter Ferdinand Leeke (1859-1925).
| These ten painting were commissioned by Wagner's son Siegfried
to commemorate his father and his work. The date of the commission is uncertain, but it is
believed that Leeke was working on the paintings in 1889 and that the series was completed by 1898.
The ten paintings were reproduced in poster form in 1899 in the then-revolutionary six-colour
photogravure process by the prominent Bavarian printer Franz Hanfstaengel. They were among the first
images in the world to be reproduced in this manner.
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