Wagner: Biography Of A Troubled Musician

The German composer is one of the masters of classical music. But it was much more than that. Let’s discover Richard Wagner’s life and mind together.
Wagner: biography of a troubled musician

Wagner is one of those composers who marked an era, influencing many of the great musical trends. The cultural heritage of the famous Wilhelm Richard Wagner and his work conquers and impresses both from the point of view of melody and harmony, as well as from the level of conducting.

His portentous, epic works, celebrations of the centrality of man (and of the hero) emerged in the context of a great revolution that profoundly changed the theater, overturning its classical structure. And at great cost, since he only gained real fame after his death.

His ideas, his musical proposals and his lifestyle had both admirers and detractors. He was, in any case, a controversial man. Musically, Wagner’s works are characterized by pronounced dilution of tones, where the line between singing and acting often overlaps.

Wagner’s compositions transport the audience into universes full of heroism and voluptuousness. The strength of his music conquers the listener, inviting him to identify with the story that comes to life on the stage.

First years

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in the city of Leipzig, Germany. His was a rather humble family. Her mother, Rosima Patz, was the daughter of a baker, while her father, Karl Friedrich, made a living by transcribing and copying documents for the police. Unfortunately, a few months after being born, Wagner lost his father, among the victims of a terrible typhus epidemic.

Soon after, her mother married Ludwig Geyer, who would become her stepfather. Geyer was an actor, singer and painter. For this reason, his influence is considered crucial on the artistic inclinations of the young Wagner. A short time later, to follow Geyer’s theater company, the family moved to Dresden.

A photo of Wagner

Wagner then entered the school of Vizehofkantor Carl Friedrich Schmidt in Dresden in 1817. In 1822, he moved to the Kreuzschule (School of the Cross) in the same town. He studied in this institute until the age of 14 and it was here that he had the opportunity to learn to play the piano.

Richard Wagner carried his stepfather’s surname until he was nearly fifteen. But then he changed it, re-adopting that of his deceased father, shortly before entering the Nicolaischule (Nicolaitic School) in Leipzig, on January 21, 1828.

The desolation of his youth

The quantity and variety of his early compositions prove that he began as a composer with works of a vast generic diversity. Among these, there was a certain predominance of instrumental pieces that followed the classical prototypes.

In 1833, when the artist was only twenty, he began his professional career, accepting the position of director of the Würzburg choir. In this initial phase, his works had to deal with several economic hardships and were addressed to a provincial audience. As a conductor, his first finished work was The Fairies , which however will only be published five years after his death.

Three years later, Wagner was suffering from his unfortunate marriage to Minna Planer and at this stage he composed several works, starting to develop his decidedly revolutionary ideas. There are those who suggest that the German composer’s proposals could have influenced even the thinking of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Keep in mind that, even today, in Israel there is a “tacit” veto on the retransmission of his works.

A decidedly dark period for Wagner, marked by the difficult relationship with his wife, aggravated by a series of economic problems. He also began to suffer from gambling and alcohol addiction. With these assumptions, its economic recovery certainly became more difficult.

In 1839, the huge amount of accumulated debt forced him to flee the country, moving to Paris. The composer was unable to return to Germany until 1842. But his stay in Paris was a failure. In fact, in the French capital he was unable to publish any of his works. However, he worked diligently as an arranger for other composers, never getting too much glory.

The writer Wagner

In addition to being an outstanding composer, Wagner attempted to experiment with other artistic forms such as writing. Some of the most important essays by this multifaceted artist were published between 1840 and 1842.

They dealt with historical and theoretical issues that had been of great interest to the artist throughout his life. He was also a prolific journalist, publishing numerous reviews of Parisian musical events in the German press. With his signature there are also several articles of a documentary nature.

It should be noted that there is ambiguity in some of his biographical data. This is mainly due to the numerous inconsistencies included by Wagner himself in his autobiography Mein Leben (my life).

This autobiography covers a very large period of time, from his birth up to 51 years. The text is extremely subjective and in the narration of the facts his ego grows drastically. In doing so, it is difficult to know the real facts and the amplified (not to say invented) facts. The autobiography was written in 1865 at the request of his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Return home

However, the triumph came with an opera with a classical structure, the famous Rienzi which allowed Wagner to gain fame in Germany, despite the fact that the work was written for the Parisian public. A few days after the premiere, the chaplain teacher of the Dresden Theater, Francesco Morlacchi, died and Wagner himself was called to replace him. This could give him some economic security and also some political prominence.

Wagner’s artistic interests quickly merged with his political activity. The composer conceived the theater as the mirror of a reactionary society. In an attempt to undertake the transformation of the former, his goal was to change the latter.

It was therefore normal that his ideas found ample outlet in German nationalism. His thinking can be clearly seen in his mythological characters and in the topics of his works. An idea that is reiterated in his work is that of the concept of the German colonies.

Political changes and the help of Ludwig II of Bavaria

With the German Revolution and the dissolution of the German Confederation, Wagner’s career as a choirmaster came to an end in 1849. The issuance of an arrest warrant against the composer forced him to flee to Switzerland, where he remained for eleven years.

During this period, he found himself in a very precarious situation. He was excluded from the German musical world and his income was as scarce as his hopes of being able to perform his works.

In 1864, Wagner was in Mariafeld, near Zurich, pursued by his numerous creditors. King Louis II, his confidant admirer, offered him hospitality and financial assistance. Thanks to this providential help, what everyone considers his most valuable works were able to see the light.

A year later, his famous opera Tristan and Isolde was performed for the first time in the city of Munich, achieving great success and causing new admiration in his patron. A year later, his wife Minna died in Dresden and the composer moved permanently to Geneva. With the protection of “his” king, Wagner finally worked without worrying about debts.

Youthful portrait of Wagner

Wagner in Bayreuth

Years later, Wagner conceived the plan to found the Wagner Workshop, a theater that would give rise to the famous festival of the same name, which still exists today. The first stone was laid on his 59th birthday. To complete this project, Wagner had to give a series of concerts in Germany for the purpose of raising funds. Thanks to the help of Ludwig II, the work was finally completed in 1874.

In the same Bavarian town, the composer built his villa Wahnfried. However, just two years after the construction was finished, the theater began to suffer tremendous losses. In an attempt to resolve the situation, he began to hold several concerts and musical events in Germany. A very stressful tour de force which, most likely, severely compromised the master’s state of health.

Richard Wagner’s death and legacy

Between the years 1881 and 1882, Wagner suffered several heart attacks. On February 13, 1883 the famous composer died in Venice. His body was buried in the garden of his Wahnfried villa.

The tetralogy The ring of the Nibelung  is undoubtedly his most important and famous work. It is made up of four The Valkyrie , The Gold of the Rhine , The Twilight of the Gods and Siegfried .

Along with tetralogy , Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde, the Master Singers of Nuremberg, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and  The Flying Dutchman are also commonly referred to as the Bayreuth canon.

The complete cycle was never staged at least until 1876 and at that moment it represents the central part of the Festival which is held every year in Bayreuth, in southern Germany.

Wagner’s ideas had as many supporters as they had detractors. The legacy of his Bayreuth Theater, of a complexity never seen before, was made possible thanks to the passion of his one and true patron, Ludwig II of Bavaria. This theater is intended solely for the performance of his work, proving that Wagner’s genius is still alive despite the passage of time.

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