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May 22: Richard Wagner (1813)

Richard Wagner (1813)

Richard Wagner

It was on this date, May 22, 1813, that German Romantic composer Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig. His father died when he was very young, and Wagner's mother quickly married a man many believe (as did Wagner himself) was his natural father, anyway. His musical training was brief, so that Wagner was largely self-taught. His education as a well-adjusted member of society must have been nil, for he was a miserable failure as a human being.

Wagner is justly criticized for his anti-Semitism, especially after the 1850 publication of Jewishness in Music, a vitriolic attack on Jews, and, in particular, on one who had befriended him in Paris as he was escaping his creditors in Riga: Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). That Adolph Hitler agreed with Wagner in this respect is not Wagner's fault, but (unlike Hitler) Wagner was not interested in making any state policy based on anti-Semitism or notions of racial purity. To this day, it is impossible to play Wagner's music in Israel without causing a disturbance.

And it is Wagner's music that sets him apart as a genius of his genre, which indeed he redefined. Opera was never the same afterward, for Wagner wrote Music Dramas instead of operas. He was able, through royal patronage and good fortune, in addition to his exceptional talent, to make a living as a composer and conductor. His first opera languished until after his death, but his second, Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), was performed in 1836. There followed the revolutionary-inspired Rienzi, written in Riga but staged in Dresden six years later (1842), then Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) in 1843, Tannhaüser in 1845, Lohengrin in 1850 (conducted by Franz Liszt), Tristan und Isolde in 1859, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersinger of Nuremberg) in 1868 — this one conducted by Hans von Bülow, with whose wife Wagner was having an affair... with the conductor's blessing!

A published writer as well as a composer, Wagner would hold forth not only on music, but on literature, drama, and even political and moral issues. His librettos, most of which he wrote himself, were chiefly based on Germanic traditions and legends, so his investment in Christian theology was slight: one critic said that Wagner was "a Christian in a large sense, but not a man of the Church," and that he had "little taste for the otherworldly speculations of dogmatic theology." Wagner subscribed to the Atheistic views of German philosopher Karl Feuerbach, but had sentimental regard for Christian mythology. Wagner died of a heart attack in a 16th century Italian palazzo at the age of 69 on 13 February 1883. A funerary gondola carried Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal in Venice, then his body was taken to Bayreuth for burial.

Wagner's crowning achievement, comprising 18 hours of powerfully dramatic music, was his Ring des Niebelungen, which took him 22 years to complete: Das Rheingold (a prologue), and the operas Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. His patron, Bavarian King Ludwig II (ruled 1864-1886), finished the financing of his Bayreuth Festival Opera House in which to showcase his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total art work"). Wagner's last work, Parsifal, is based more on the philosophy of Schopenhauer than on Christian themes, although where Wagner does agree with Christian ideas, it is more likely that they were agreeable to him. Therefore, Nietzsche's attack on Wagner for reverting to Christianity was unfair: Wagner wrote his most powerful music in his Ring years, when he was an Atheist.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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