On May 22, 1813, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany. He was destined to become both a supreme composer and accomplished conductor, as well as one of the towering geniuses of all time. As a child, he was especially interested in writing and the theater. Later, however, three memorable productions permanently determined his interest in music: Weber’s romantic opera Der Freischutz, Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (particularly the choral fourth movement).
Wagner’s artistic creativity was greatly influenced by Shakespeare and Beethoven. He admired Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedies with their psychological orientation, and recognized Beethoven as both the master of the symphony and the founder of romantic music. Thus, by the age of 17, those elements that were to pervade his own works had already become established in his mind: music, poetry, drama, and romanticism with its emphasis on love and freedom.
While advocating political and social reforms to bring unity and freedom to the German people, Wagner himself lived in an elaborate manner that he seemed to require for his artistic creativity. He spent extravagant amounts of money on outfits of silk and velvet, magnificently furnished living quarters with thick carpets and drapes, and made extensive travels throughout Europe to take rest cures or visit wealthy supporters of his ideas. The musician also admired many beautiful women, and his frequent escapades caused more than one serious scandal in the conservative Catholic Bavaria of the 19th century.
Unfortunately, the lavish lifestyle that he demanded and to which he had become accustomed resulted in his having to leave Germany for France in 1839 to escape creditors. Although the operatic center of the world at that time was Paris, the city neither recognized nor appreciated his musical talents. In fact, he was even sent to debtor’s prison. Yet while in Paris, Wagner did complete two major works: Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (1840) and Der fliegende Holländer (1841). For subject matter, he had turned to historical situations and German legends.
In 1842, Wagner was finally allowed to return to Dresden. Back in Germany, he completed two new operas: Tannhäuser, und der Sangerkrieg auf Wartburg (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). His interest shifted to the struggle for German unification, and he even associated with the notorious anarchist Michael Bakunin during the ill-fated Dresden revolution. Because of his participation in this social uprising, he had to flee from Germany to Switzerland to escape arrest. At this time, the German composer Franz Liszt defended Wagner’s works and later conducted the first performance of Lohengrin at the Weimar Court Theater on August 18,1850.
While in Zurich and later in Tribschen near Lucerne, Wagner began a series of prose works expounding his own theory of opera and theater. Of particular importance is his book The Art-Work of the Future (1849). He himself conceived of the symphonic music-drama as a synthesis of the arts, referring to this unique union as the German artwork of the future. During these years of exile, Wagner was influenced by the philosophies of Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer. He also envisioned establishing a yearly opera festival for the performances of only his own works.
Since 1845, he had been working on presenting the Germanic sagas as a series of four music-dramas dealing with Teutonic mythology. It would be the greatest task of his life, requiring a convergence of the arts that would express universal themes that focus on the emergence of humankind.
In 1859, Tristan und Isolde appeared and revolutionized music in general and opera in particular. It was followed by Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867), his only comic opera. Nevertheless, it seemed that his music for the great mythological Ring poem he had written would not be completed. Unfortunately, the composer again had monetary difficulties and feared his great plans would never materialize. Despite all his problems, Wagner was making major contributions to music and the theater: He enlarged the size of the orchestra, introduced new instruments of his own design, expanded the musical range for both singer and instrument, further developed the use of counterpoint and dissonance, strove for dramatic as well as poetic performances of his own works, and designed his own unique opera house (a theater with a sunken orchestra pit, no visual obstructions, tiered seats, and near-perfect acoustics—he modeled it after the classic Greek amphitheater).
In 1864, there occurred a remarkable turn of events. As his generous friend and royal patron, the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria now offered Wagner all the financial assistance needed to fulfill his extensive undertakings. Never again would the once-struggling composer lack support for his bold projects.
After 29 years, Richard Wagner’s masterpiece appeared as Der Ring des Nibelungen. It remains the largest single musical work ever written and one of the supreme artistic achievements of Western civilization. The Ring cycle consists of four consecutive operas: Clara, Das Rheingold (1854), Die Walküre (1856), Siegfried (1869), and Götterdämmerung (1874). Together, these music-dramas tell an exciting story about Rhinemaidens, dwarfs, gods, giants, heroes, and the forces of nature. In general, one sees and hears the dramatic struggle between good and evil within a dynamic universe. To give musical unity to this vast work, Wagner perfected his use of leitmotifs within the symphonic structure of the four operas. The Ring cycle musical signatures represent characters, emotions, objects, or events; these leitmotifs also evolve as the story itself unfolds. In the romantic tetralogy, Das Rheingold comes closest to fulfilling the composer’s desire to create an artistic unity of music, poetry, and drama.
Like Feuerbach, Wagner held man to be a product of and totally within natural history. Turning to the Germanic myths, he was now able to treat universal themes, as well as express the whole range of human psychological-emotional states. Wagner was also attracted to the following aspects of Schopenhauer’s philosophy: will, process, necessity, pessimism, renunciation, and cosmic unity. However, Wagner did see love as the redeeming force from the pervasive evil in the world.
There are also elements of Darwin, Marx, and Freud in Der Ring des Nibelungen for, as this sweeping mythological cosmology evolves, it portrays the social and psychological struggle between good and evil: The stolen, twice-cursed magic ring passes through levels of existence and pivotal events, only to be returned to the Rhine River where it had originally been placed. Essentially, the Ring cycle is an artistic expression of those major ideas that emerged in the 19th century and then dominated the 20th century, that is, the evolution and extinction of life forms, the ongoing conflicts among different social groups, and the psychosexual motivation of human thought and behavior.
For Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen was a unified artwork, the result being a total experience for the operagoer. The music mirrors the unconscious elements, while the drama itself represents the unfolding events of the story on the level of consciousness. The final result is a complex universe of feelings and emotions. The first complete performance of the Ring cycle was given at Bayreuth, Germany, in August 1876. In the history of opera, it was a tremendous success, but it was also, unfortunately, a financial disaster. Nevertheless, this work remains an unequalled achievement in Western culture.
It may be argued that Alberich’s ugliness set the whole Ring cycle in motion, as it resulted in his rejection by the Rhinemaidens and, consequently, his stealing the lump of magic gold. (Interestingly enough, no single character in the Ring cycle physically appears in each of the four music-dramas.) The last word in the cycle is “ring,” spoken by Hagen just before his drowning, but we never see Alberich die. Evil still lurks in the world. Of course, if this mythic reality is circular, then a new cycle will begin. In fact, this cycle may not have been the first one to have occurred.
In 1882, Wagner’s sacred festival music-drama Parsifal was first presented in Bayreuth (it was never intended to be performed elsewhere). With this opera, the great composer had given to the world his last marvelous work. Unlike the pagan Ring operas, Parsifal embodies Buddhist and Christian symbolism as well as mysticism. The atheist Friedrich Nietzsche himself, who had once seen Wagner as the incomparable German artist but criticized the composer’s growing nationalism and theatrical orientation, now rejected his all-too-obvious religious orientation in Parsifal. In fact, this glaring difference between Wagner and Nietzsche resulted in the abrupt break of their friendship, although there was probably a subjective element in the criticism from the still unrecognized, unappreciated philosopher.
Richard Wagner’s theories and operas have had an enormous influence on music and theater. He has fascinated such diverse individuals as Thomas Mann, Arthur Rackham, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Georg Solti, Richard Strauss, and Arturo Toscanini. Each summer the Bayreuth Festival is a living monument to Wagner’s awesome vision and spectacular success.
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- Shaw, G. B. (1967). The perfect Wagnerite. Mineola, NY: Dover.