Richard Wagner Loved and Hated

The German composer Richard Wagner (here in 1862) revolutionised opera. Portrait by Cäsar Willich (detail)
The German composer Richard Wagner (here in 1862) revolutionised opera. Portrait by Cäsar Willich (detail) | © Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim, Photo: Jean Christen (detail)

Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig in 1813, died in Venice in 1883, already divided opinion in his lifetime. He has remained controversial to this day. But not his importance: he influenced the history of opera as no composer before him.

For some, Wagner’s redemption dramas Tristan and Isolde or Parsifal served as narcotics; they flocked in idolatrous worship to the Master in Bayreuth. Under the name of “Wagnerian”, they even managed to get into the German Duden. Others, such as the famous music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904), despised Wagner’s music as a “rotten aesthetics of feeling” or later saw in him, because of his anti-Semitic agitation and other aberrations, a precursor of National Socialist ideas.

A legend in his own time

“No matter where you are”, complained Karl Marx in 1876, “you will be plagued by the question: ‘What do you think about Richard Wagner?’” Wagner was then at the zenith of his influence. In August 1876 he organised for the first time the Bayreuth Festival; the Bayreuth opera house was built for the exclusive purpose of presenting his works. To celebrate the opening of the Festival Hall, there was the first complete performance of his tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung – sixteen hours of music, lavishly staged and spread over four evenings! A revolution in music theatre; moreover, grist for the mill of those who called for a German national opera. As prelude, there was The Rhine Gold, followed by The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods.

Wagner had achieved his goal. The grand project had occupied him since 1848: the preparatory work, the writing of the libretti, composing of the music, raising of the money for the realisation. But Wagner was convinced of his musical genius. He saw himself as the artistic redeemer who would save the world from what in his eyes was its “decadent”, expiring opera culture. Also as far as his marriages with Minna Planer and Liszt’s daughter Cosima von Bülow were concerned, nothing meant more to Wagner than his creative work. It enabled the rather slight and short man to persevere in many a desperate situation, of which there had been plenty in his life.

Conductor on the run

Between his engagements as conductor, in Magdeburg (1834–36), Königsberg (1837), Riga (1837–39) and Dresden (1843–49), Wagner was repeatedly on the run: now from creditors because of his debts, which is why he was stuck in Paris from 1839 to 1842; now because his participation in the abortive May Revolution in Dresden compelled him to flee to Switzerland. It was only in 1862 that Wagner received an amnesty and could return to the territory of the German Empire. That his operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were performed in the 1850s on almost all German opera stages brought Wagner no financial gain; artistic copyright was then still in its infancy. But in 1864 a miracle happened: the newly crowned king of Bavaria Ludwig II rescued the penniless artist from his precarious circumstances. The ardent Wagner admirer called him to his court in Munich and settled his debts. For the first time, Wagner was now free of worries about money and could concentrate on his work.

Wagner’s music drama – a revolutionary concept

Up to his opera Lohengrin, premiered in 1850, Wagner’s work still largely conformed to conventions. But with the Ring he realised his revolutionary conception of a “music drama” that would, in the form of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or total work of art, unite poetry, theatre and music. Wagner had already formulated his theoretical artistic demands in much-discussed writings such as Oper und Drama (i.e., Opera and Drama) (1851). The Ring was pioneering in the first place because of the close connection between music and text. Wagner was the author of both. In his emphatically archaising poetry, he renounced traditional rhyme schemes and went back old Germanic alliteration.

His own mythic world

Wagner drew the material of the Ring from the Song of the Nibelungs, a heroic saga written anonymously about 1200, which had become the German national epic in the Romantic period. But he also made use of the Icelandic Edda epic, the Scandinavian Volsunga Saga and the German Nibelung folk legends, building from this mixture his own mythic world. It is a world in which heroes and gods, fighting over possessions and power, and in the conflict between freedom and law, destroy themselves or others and do not shrink even from incest. In the end, the world goes up in flames. A critique of capitalism and an apocalyptic drama par excellence. In the music drama, Wagner surmounted the traditional operatic structure, the division of acts into closed vocal pieces such as arias or choruses, strung together by recitative or spoken dialogue.

The “most German of all beings”

Wagner’s contemporaries were already aware of the immense importance of the Ring before its premiere. In addition to the German emperor Wilhelm I, King Ludwig II and other representatives of European ruling houses, artists from all over the world came to Bayreuth in the summer of 1876: the composers Liszt, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, for example, the philosopher Nietzsche and the Russian writer Tolstoy. Wagner, who once described himself as the “most German of all beings”, had achieved an international fame and influence that would never fade even posthumously.