7 facts about Richard Wagner, his music and his misadventures


The mastermind behind the Bayreuth Festival was not so masterful in its personal affairs, and while its music was revolutionary, its socio-political views were far from pretty.

1. Convinced of his own genius

Born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was convinced early on of his own genius, despite the fact that a music teacher once said that he used to “torture the piano in the layman way. more abominable ”.

Wagner wrote his first dramas as a schoolboy, and he himself would write the libretto – the lyrics for an opera – for his operas, which was very unusual at the time. For him, text and music always went hand in hand, music at the service of drama.

In his quest for the perfect stage for his ‘musical dramas’, he built his now famous village hall in Bayreuth. Today it hosts the annual Bayreuth Festival. attracting a local and international audience.

2. Always on the run

Wagner was constantly on the run, often in an attempt to flee his creditors. He frequently flew to foreign countries. One of these flights saw him and his wife flee to London by sea. The trip helped inspire one of his operas, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Another anecdote goes that he deceived the Viennese tax investigators by dressing as a woman.

His political activities also put him in hot water. In 1848, while in the state of Saxony in East Germany, he joined the revolutions against the political order that were unfolding throughout Germany. Accused of treason, he sought refuge in Zurich, Switzerland, for many years until he was pardoned by the emperor.

Later, in 1865, when protests erupted against the extravagance of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner again took him to Switzerland.

3. A very, very dear composer

From 1859, Wagner had his works printed by the international publishing house Schott Music. As he often ran out of money, he demanded hitherto unimaginable advances, including for L’Anneau du Nibelung, his enormous cycle of four operas, before a note was even written.

The first performance of The Ring, as the cycle is often called, in Bayreuth was a financial disaster. In the long run, however, his success proved Wagner right and also filled Schott’s coffers. Wagner had his entire catalog published by Schott and attracted important composers from his entourage to the publishing house.

4. Strong and dedicated women

Strong women were often featured in Wagner’s operas, although strength did not refer to the emancipation of women but rather to their sacrifice for the sake of the men they love.

The real women in his life were also strong but dedicated to him. He was living apart from his first wife, Minna Planer, who disliked his anti-Semitic stance and extramarital affairs. His second wife, Cosima, daughter of composer Franz Liszt, adored him and shared his anti-Semitic views. Twenty-four years her junior, she did not think much about the emancipation of women, although she herself was strong and educated.

After Wagner’s death, Cosima continued to lead the Bayreuth Festival. She was “recognized and revered by a patriarchal male world,” said Sven Friedrich, director of the Wagner Museum in Bayreuth.

This year, Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv will be the first female conductor of the annual festival, which began in 1876.

5. An anti-Semite with Jewish patrons

Anti-Semitism was widespread in mid-19th century Europe. In 1850 Wagner published his anti-Semitic pamphlet “Das Judenthum in der Musik”, or Judaism in Music, using a pseudonym; he published a later version using his own name in 1869. He notoriously denied the creative abilities of the Jews, implied that they were foreign to the cultures in which they lived, and also wrote that they posed a threat to national identity . Wagner also expressed support for the idea that Jews should abandon their Judaism or be eradicated.

Nonetheless, he maintained contact with prominent Germans of Jewish descent and was not opposed to Jewish fans and donors financially supporting his Bayreuth festival.

While his socio-political views were clear, pundits still wonder if there are any Jewish figures in Wagner’s operas who are caricatured or disparaged and if his music is anti-Semitic.

6. A total work of art

Wagner has the idea of ​​a “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art”, in which he tries to synthesize text, music, direction and scenography. With the end of the 19th century being a time when national unity seemed threatened by political restructuring, internationalization and the start of industrialization, the idea of ​​Gesamtkunstwerk also took on a socio-political dimension.

Wagner envisioned a community based on aesthetic principles that existed outside of the real world and its discourses on politics, economics, and religion. In his essay The Work of Art of the Future, he said: “Through the work of art we will become one.

The aspiration for German unity as a “cultural nation” then helped the Nazis to make inroads into bourgeois society. Ultimately, however, they used art to promote their ideology and propaganda.

7. Long opera cycle

Taking nearly 16 hours to play, The Ring is a cycle of four epic musical dramas in which the hero fights power and deception for a better world. The social parable, based on Germanic legends, has also been interpreted as a criticism of religion.

The four individual operas – L’Or du Rhin, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods – call upon a large orchestra and 34 soloists, making the cycle one of the most complete musical works for the stage.

Richard Wagner died in Venice on February 13, 1883. After the arrival of his coffin in Bayreuth, he was buried to the sound of the Twilight of the Gods funeral march in the garden of the Wagner house, Villa Wahnfried. To this day, Wagner’s The Ring of Nibelung continues to be reinterpreted and staged in modern settings around the world.

Translated from German by Brenda Haas

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