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Classical Composers A-Z: Richard Wagner

Peter Wintersgill presents a word portrait of one of the most influential of all composers, Richard Wagner.

22nd May, 1813, in Leipzig.

Friedrich, police official, who died when Wagner was six months old.

Johanna, baker's daughter, married Ludwig 1815.

Ludwig Geyer, actor, painter and poet.

Elder sisters, Clara and Rosalie, brother Albert.

Went to school in Dresden aged four. Had piano lessons but no formal teaching in composition. Became interested in the theatre, encouraged by stepfather. Read widely, especially Shakespeare, Homer and Goethe. Was especially interested in Beethoven, whose scores be copied out.

Continued to read a lot, wrote magazine articles and pamphlets. He always wrote his own libretti in later life.

Entered Leipzig University at 18 to study music. Had lessons from Weinligg, Cantor at St. Thomas, also from Schumann's teacher, Dorn.

He wrote the Symphony in C and a Concert Overture in 1832 and studied opera scores by Beethoven, Weber, etc. He wrote the libretto for The Wedding, but his sister Rosalie said it was un-performable, so he tore it up.

He wrote his first complete opera, The Fairies, in 1834.

Early Adult Life
He moved about a lot, being Director of Opera at Larchstat, Magdeburg and Dresden.

In 1835 he wrote his second opera, the Love Prohibition, based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; it was a failure.

In 1836 he married an actress, Minna Planer, more of which anon.

In 1837 he moved to Riga, then in Russia, but now the capital of Latvia, and wrote Reinzi there. This, based on an English play, had its premiere in Dresden, where he moved in 1842. Reinzi and The Flying Dutchman (1843) were both successes.

He was by now becoming a conductor widely known for his interpretation of Beethoven, Weber and other favourites of his.

He went by ship to Paris shortly after to escape his creditors, along with a huge Newfoundland dog. The ship encountered storms, which blew it off course. His journey was thus via Norway, London and Boulogne. He arrived in Paris in 1839 in a state of great poverty; this was often to be his fate, like Mozart before him. He lived at first from hand to mouth. He wrote Faust Overture and finally moved to Dresden.

All his operas took a long time to write, especially as he wrote the libretti himself. The longer they were, the slower the process became.

The officials at Dresden, like Bach's at Leipzig, were very starchy and pompous. He got involved in an unsuccessful revolution and had to move hurriedly to Switzerland, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. He stayed there for ten years.

His operas Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848) received their premieres in Weimar in 1850, with the help of Liszt.

Later Adult Life
He started on Siegfried's Death and broke off it to start Nibelung's Ring, a cycle of four operas, Rhinegold (1854), Valkyrie (1856), Siegfried (1871) and Twilight of the Gods (Gotterdamerung) in 1874, containing parts of Siegfried's Death. The poem of the Ring was written backwards, but the music was composed forwards.

He broke off while writing Siegfried to write the tragic Tristan and Isolde (1859) while involved himself a love affair, more anon.

Returned to Paris in 1860, had Tannhauser produced there in 1861 and Lohengrin in Vienna. He was allowed back into Germany where he finished the comedy Mastersingers in 1868. He was then pressed hard by his creditors, so he fled back to Switzerland.

He was sent for in 1864 by "Mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria, a lad of 19 who loved the arts, especially music, to be his artistic adviser and friend at his Munich court. In 1874 he settled in his new home there, called Wahnfried. He was in his element and at last had the chance to build a theatre especially for his works, which was at Bayreuth and completed in 1876.

There was a complete performance of The Ring at Bayreuth under Hans Richter in 1876. His last opera, the mystical semi-religious Parsifal, had its premiere there in 1882.

Love Life
He married the actress Minna Planer in 1836, who was several years older than him, but he never knew how many! However the marriage was not successful. Minna was not very imaginative or understanding and left him several times, only to return some time later.

In 1849 he met and fell in love with a married woman, Jessie Laussot while on a visit to France, but soon returned to Switzerland and Minna.

Some ten years later he fell in love again, this time with Matilde Wesendonk, another married woman, fifteen years younger than him, who admired his works. During this time he wrote Tristan and Isolde.

Minna was understandably upset and left him after a dreadful scene, while Wagner left for Venice, where Minna rejoined him later. Apart from a few minor affairs in Vienna, his only other real love was Liszt's daughter Cosima, then married to the conductor Hans von Bulow. He met her in Munich in 1866, the year Minna died. Cosima bore him two children before they finally got married in 1870, after her divorce from Von Bulow.

Last days
There were no more compositions after Parsifal. He started having minor heart attacks and finally died of a major one in Venice on 13th February, 1883, aged 70.

He had a great influence on opera, or music drama, as he preferred to call it; this was to demonstrate how to unify the whole work, made easier of course by the fact that he was his own librettist. He planned everything on a grand scale, using huge orchestras, with outsize "Wagner tubas". With the chromatic music of Tristan he paved the way for Schoenberg and other composers of the new atonal music. Opera was never the same again.


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