Today we celebrate Richard Wagner, a German composer, more than 200 years after his birth. The last brilliant composer we told you about some time ago was another German, Ludwig Van Beethoven, who. at the death of today’s protagonist, was 14 and who was greatly influenced. And not just him! Do you remember when we talked about John Williams? Here is another composer that Wagner inspired massively. We will tell you everything from the start, as we always like to do!
Richard Wagner: the beginnings in music
Wilhem Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813. Very soon he developed a passion for literature and between the ages of 13 and 15 wrote a tragedy in five acts entitled Leubald und Adelaïde (lost work). He tells in his autobiography that his revelation for music, and more particularly for opera, took place in 1829 during a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio with the immense singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.
He then began his musical studies in secret by taking harmony lessons with a local musician (Christian Gottlieb Müller) and attending music lessons at the University of Leipzig. In 1831 he completed his training with a six month intensive course with the Kantor (choirmaster) of the Tomaskirche Christian Theodor Weinlig.
As he remembered throughout his life, he also perfected his knowledge of orchestration by analyzing and copying Beethoven’s symphonies. These years of assimilation were marked by musical experiments in the symphonic and chamber music genre.
In 1834, when he held the position of musical director of the Magdeburg Theater, he completed his first opera, The Fairies. In the same year he met the one who would become his first wife on November 24, 1836: the actress Christine Wilhermine Planer, known as Minna. Their marriage was marked from the start by infidelity (on both sides) and an almost constant financial insecurity that Wagner contracted, especially when he took office in Riga. It was also to escape creditors that he left Riga clandestinely during the year 1837.
Disillusionment and luck
Convinced that Paris would be the place of his consecration, Wagner settled in the French capital between 1839 and 1842. With the main aim of conquering the French opera scenes, being represented at the Paris Opera, he composed a great French opera entitled Rienzi, the last of the Tribunes.
Despite his numerous attempts, he did not achieve his goals and, from a composition point of view, his Parisian years were ultimately synonymous with artistic disillusionment.
His sketch of the Flying Dutchman was taken up by the Paris Opera before being entrusted to another composer. But the balance of this period is not only negative, since it is in Paris that he comes into contact with Berlioz’s music, meets Liszt and above all discovers the great legends on which he will base his future German romantic works.
In 1842, luck finally smiled at him when the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater in Dresden agreed to stage Rienzi. The premiere, on October 20th of that year, was a triumph and Wagner’s operatic career was definitively launched. This work contains some of the composer’s future great themes, such as the loneliness of the hero, and constitutes a musical synthesis of the lyrical styles in vogue at the time.
During these years in Dresden he made significant readings such as that of the legend of the Tannhäuser and made official his desire to write an opera of a new genre. The creation of The Flying Dutchman on the 2nd January 1843 in Dresden marks the slow transformation of the operatic genre by integrating long moments of introspection of the characters into particular ones and placing the theme of redemption through love at the center of the work.
The affirmation of Richard Wagner’s style
In the two subsequent works (Tannhäuser 1845 and Lohengrin 1845-1848), the composer’s style progressively asserts itself, in particular through the tracing of a continuous musical form (first step towards the leitmotiv process) and the development of another main theme: that of the creator’s solitude in the face of reality.
Revolutionary artist eager for a total revision of stage practices, Wagner confronts the revolutionary and anarchist circles of Dresden. This proximity, as well as his participation in the riots of the city in 1849, forced him into exile in Switzerland. His years of experimentation and musical elaboration give way to a development of his theoretical artistic thought.
In his works Art and Revolution, 1849, The work of art of the future, 1849, and Opera and drama, 1851, Richard Wagner formalizes his ideas about art and artists. He states that the opera must give way to musical drama and that the composer must take on a social role by educating the masses through his works.
He also establishes that the status of a “total” work can only be guaranteed by artists who are both poets and musicians.
Becoming famous thanks to Liszt who continues to have his works performed in Germany, he receives the support of many patrons, including Otto Wesendonck. His financial situation became more stable. He devoted himself to composing his tetralogy by writing the librettos of four future works. Then he began to compose two works of The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen in the original version). But in 1857, just after the second act of Siegfried, he stopped and devoted himself to writing Tristan and Isolde.
The influences in the works and the masterpiece
This decision is probably explained by the incompatibility of the conception of redemption through love, central to Wagner, and with Schopenhauer’s cynical ideas which have had a great impact on the composer’s artistic sensibility until then.
Because the stop is not insignificant: it stops shortly before the writing of Siegfried’s love duet. Indeed, all he needed was to live a loving passion (with Mathilde Wesendonck, his patron’s wife) and transcend it by writing a love story.
Furthermore, with Tristan, he completes his musical transformation by perfecting his leitmotiv technique. Everything is then ready to complete his life’s work: Der Ring. But for this, Wagner needed optimal working conditions and absolute financial support.
This opportunity was given to him by the young monarch Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1862. Fascinated by his work and his approach, he took on the composer’s expenses (and paid his debts) in order to finish his tetralogy. It is also thanks to him that Wagner’s exile ends and that he can go to live in Munich.
The scandal and the death of Richard Wagner
But this ideal artistic and social situation ended in 1865 when the king learned of the composer’s relationship with Cosima (still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow) at the time of the birth of their first daughter Isolde.
Faced with a social scandal, Louis II was forced to remove Wagner from his court. Despite all the benefits of his support, his reversals have in no way prevented the composer from completing his tetralogy. Or even marrying Cosima in 1870 after Hans von Bülow granted her a divorce, following the death of Wagner’s first wife in 1866,and the birth of 2 other children with Cosima: Eva in 1867 and Siegfried in 1869.
In view of the creation of his works, Wagner had a theater built in Bayreuth between 1872 and 1875. The first of the four works took place during the first Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 1876.
His artistic career was completed but his health declined. In fact, Wagner died in Venice on February 22, 1883 of a heart attack, shortly after the composition of Parsifal (1882).
The lagoon city will pay homage to the composer using his music together with that of Beethoven and Stravinsky at the inaugural concert in 2003 for the reopening of the La Fenice opera house after the fire that almost destroyed it.
Richard Wagner leaves ten great works of the operatic repertoire.