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Richard Wagner (1813—1883)

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Richard Wagner transformed opera, establishing a unique artistic style that unified drama, text, and music. A man convinced of his own greatness, Wagner was a ruthless, selfish individual whose only redeeming quality was an absolute devotion to his music. Born in Germany on May 22, 1813, Wagner might have been the son of Karl Wagner, a police official. However, it is felt that Wagner’s mother had an affair with Ludwig Geyer, a family friend, and that Richard Wagner was actually the son of Geyer. Ironically, Karl Wagner passed away six months after the birth of the child, and Wagner’s mother quickly married Geyer. Some believe that Geyer was a Jew, making Wagner’s personal and musical commitment to the Nazis a disconcerting fact.

Geyer encouraged Wagner’s love for the arts, and the young boy was initially drawn to literature, not music. After being mesmerized by a performance of Beethoven’s works, Wagner became determined to study music. He neglected his academic studies, and began composing orchestral works. Wagner also became adept at drinking, gambling, and chasing girls. Music was his oniy healthy pursuit, and his formal training was minimal. He spent six months studying with Theodor Weinlig, the director of the Thonimasschule, and then began to craft his own musical style.

Wagner’s initial position was as the chorusmaster of the Wurzburger Theater. At this time he wrote his first complete opera, a work that was never produced until after his death. Constantly in debt and involved in love affairs, Wagner fled to Magdeburg where he became the conductor of the Magdeburg Opera. There he met his future wife, Minni Planer, an actress who Wagner pursued for two years. In 1836 Das Liebesverbot, Wagner’s second written opera, was produced and performed. It was a complete failure, and added to Wagner’s general state of bitterness.

Certain that he was a tremendous musical genius, Wagner could not stand being criticized, and became vengeful when his works were not received well. When creditors began to threaten him, Wagner and his wife fled to Paris, and stayed there from 1839 to 1942. They suffered great poverty, and housed boarders as a means of supporting themselves. Driven by anger and humiliation, Wagner continued to produce musical masterpieces. Finally, his opera, Reinzi, was accepted by the Dresden Opera, and proved to be a great success. Wagner was given a post as the musical director of the Dresden Opera, and he retained that position for six years. Although his salary was now secure, creditors from the past continued to plague him, and he constantly accumulated new debts. He liked to spend more than he earned, and was unable to maintain an affordable standard of living. Thus, Wagner often found himself, lying, stealing, cheating, and in debt.

Eager to join in Germany’s revolutionary efforts, Wagner wrote radical propaganda for the press. By 1850 he was an exile, and was unable to see the production of Lohengrin, the opera that firmly established him as a musical genius. Wagner moved to Zurich, and began an operatic project of enormous size. He wanted to produce a cycle of four musical dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs. During this time, Wagner blatantly began to have affairs with other married women, usually the wives of his patrons. He was most taken with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a silk merchant. Otto, her husband,

was a staunch supporter of Wagner’s work, and gave the composer monetary support. Otto even provided the Wagners with a home near his own villa. The relationship between Mathilde and Wagner was obvious, and eventually, Otto uprooted the Wagners from the home he had given them.

In 1860 the Wagners were allowed to return to Germany, and the young King of Bavaria offered great support for Wagner’s music. The king paid Wagner’s residual debts, and supported the composer’s opulent lifestyle. In 1862 Wagner and Minna separated permanently, and Wagner became involved with the wife of his close friend, Hans von Bulow. Cosima, Wagner’s new love, was the daughter of Franz Liszt. It was obvious that Cosima and Wagner were lovers, however, von Bulow turned a blind eye to the affair. Lie continued to promote Wagner’s music, despite the destruction of his own marriage. Cosima soon became pregnant with Wagner’s first child. Her husband accepted the child as his own, although he know that Wagner was the true father. In 1868, Wagner and Cosima fled to Switzerland in order to avoid the many enemies who railed against Wagner’s political beliefs and his music. Cosima and Wagner had a total of three children together, and after the birth of their third child they were married. Wagner’s final performance was a small piece of concert music, a gift for Cosima’ s birthday.

The fourth and final drama of Wagner’s Ring cycle was completed in 1874. Determined to erect a new theater for the presentation of the complete Ring cycle, Wagner located the necessary funds from willing patrons, and personally designed the theater. The performance of the Ring cycle created a tremendous amount of excitement among musicians. Many traveled great distances to witness the production. Written in a revolutionary style that departed from the norms of operatic music, the production did not appeal to all audience members.

Wagner’s death was swift, as he was the sudden victim of a heart attack. Sadly, this selfish and unscrupulous man betrayed many who loved him. His unswerving support of Hitler made many people allergic to his music. Thus, the operas of Wagner have never been played in the modern state of Israel. Nonetheless, the mind of this magnificent musician tremendously altered the future of operatic music.


Note by Shanaira Udwadia (July-2001)