Brühl 3, 04109 Leipzig, Germany
Richard-Wagner-Weg 27, 6005 Luzern, Switzerland
Bayreuth Festival Theatre, Festspielhügel 1-2, 95445 Bayreuth, Germany
Haus Wahnfried, Richard-Wagner-Straße 48, 95444 Bayreuth, Germany
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas"). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas, had the composer brought to Munich. The King, who was homosexual, expressed in his correspondence a passionate personal adoration for the composer,[n 8] and Wagner in his responses had no scruples about counterfeiting a similar atmosphere.[n 9] Ludwig settled Wagner's considerable debts, and proposed to stage Tristan, Die Meistersinger, the Ring, and the other operas Wagner planned. Wagner also began to dictate his autobiography, Mein Leben, at the King's request. Wagner noted that his rescue by Ludwig coincided with news of the death of his earlier mentor (but later supposed enemy) Giacomo Meyerbeer, and regretted that "this operatic master, who had done me so much harm, should not have lived to see this day."
After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years. (The premiere had been scheduled for 15 May, but was delayed by bailiffs acting for Wagner's creditors, and also because the Isolde, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, was hoarse and needed time to recover.) The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, a child not of Bülow but of Wagner.
Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d'Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter's involvement with Wagner, though nevertheless the two men were friends. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner also fell into disfavour with many leading members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.
Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on 21 June the following year. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the Ring, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner retained his dream, first expressed in "A Communication to My Friends", to present the first complete cycle at a special festival with a new, dedicated, opera house.
Minna had died of a heart attack on 25 January 1866 in Dresden. Wagner did not attend the funeral.[n 10] Following Minna's death Cosima wrote to Hans von Bülow on a number of occasions asking him to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused to concede this. He only consented after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger,, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally sanctioned, after delays in the legal process, by a Berlin court on 18 July 1870. Richard and Cosima's wedding took place on 25 August 1870. On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance (its premiere) of the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday.[n 11] The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life.
Wagner, settled into his new-found domesticity, turned his energies towards completing the Ring cycle. He had not abandoned polemics: he republished his 1850 pamphlet "Judaism in Music", originally issued under a pseudonym, under his own name in 1869. He extended the introduction, and wrote a lengthy additional final section. The publication led to several public protests at early performances of Die Meistersinger in Vienna and Mannheim.
In 1871, Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, which was to be the location of his new opera house. The town council donated a large plot of land—the "Green Hill"—as a site for the theatre. The Wagners moved to the town the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival Theatre") was laid. Wagner initially announced the first Bayreuth Festival, at which for the first time the Ring cycle would be presented complete, for 1873, but since Ludwig had declined to finance the project, the start of building was delayed and the proposed date for the festival was deferred. To raise funds for the construction, "Wagner societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner began touring Germany conducting concerts. By the spring of 1873, only a third of the required funds had been raised; further pleas to Ludwig were initially ignored, but early in 1874, with the project on the verge of collapse, the King relented and provided a loan.[n 12] The full building programme included the family home, "Wahnfried", into which Wagner, with Cosima and the children, moved from their temporary accommodation on 18 April 1874. The theatre was completed in 1875, and the festival scheduled for the following year. Commenting on the struggle to finish the building, Wagner remarked to Cosima: "Each stone is red with my blood and yours".
For the design of the Festspielhaus, Wagner appropriated some of the ideas of his former colleague, Gottfried Semper, which he had previously solicited for a proposed new opera house at Munich. Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations at Bayreuth; these include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience.
The Festspielhaus finally opened on 13 August 1876 with Das Rheingold, at last taking its place as the first evening of the complete Ring cycle; the 1876 Bayreuth Festival therefore saw the premiere of the complete cycle, performed as a sequence as the composer had intended. The 1876 Festival consisted of three full Ring cycles (under the baton of Hans Richter). At the end, critical reactions ranged between that of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who thought the work "divinely composed", and that of the French newspaper Le Figaro, which called the music "the dream of a lunatic". Amongst the disillusioned were Wagner's friend and disciple Friedrich Nietzsche, who, having published his eulogistic essay "Richard Wagner in Bayreuth" before the festival as part of his Untimely Meditations, was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner's pandering to increasingly exclusivist German nationalism; his breach with Wagner began at this time. The festival firmly established Wagner as an artist of European, and indeed world, importance: attendees included Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, Anton Bruckner, Camille Saint-Saëns and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Wagner was far from satisfied with the Festival; Cosima recorded that months later, his attitude towards the productions was "Never again, never again!" Moreover, the festival finished with a deficit of about 150,000 marks. The expenses of Bayreuth and of Wahnfried meant that Wagner still sought additional sources of income by conducting or taking on commissions such as the Centennial March for America, for which he received $5000.
Following the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy for health reasons. From 1876 to 1878 Wagner also embarked on the last of his documented emotional liaisons, this time with Judith Gautier, whom he had met at the 1876 Festival. Wagner was also much troubled by problems of financing Parsifal, and by the prospect of the work being performed by other theatres than Bayreuth. He was once again assisted by the liberality of King Ludwig, but was still forced by his personal financial situation in 1877 to sell the rights of several of his unpublished works (including the Siegfried Idyll)) to the publisher Schott.
Wagner wrote a number of articles in his later years, often on political topics, and often reactionary in tone, repudiating some of his earlier, more liberal, views. These include "Religion and Art" (1880) and "Heroism and Christianity" (1881), which were printed in the journal Bayreuther Blätter, published by his supporter Hans von Wolzogen. Wagner's sudden interest in Christianity at this period, which infuses Parsifal,, was contemporary with his increasing alignment with German nationalism, and required on his part, and the part of his associates, "the rewriting of some recent Wagnerian history", so as to represent, for example, the Ring as a work reflecting Christian ideals. Many of these later articles, including "What is German?" (1878, but based on a draft written in the 1860s), repeated Wagner's antisemitic preoccupations.
In 1880 Daniel Spitzer wrote a novel, "Verliebte Wagnerianer" (Wagnerians in Love), mocking Wagner's preference for soft furnishings and satin underwear. Spitzer's book's principal insinuation was that Wagner was effeminate. The idea that Wagner himself was effeminate or even homosexual was the subject of a series of books and articles. Some were highly critical. For instance, the Bavarian playwright and psychiatrist Oskar Panizza (who incidentally ended his days insane in an asylum outside Bayreuth) wrote an article in 1895 on Wagner and homosexuality that portrayed Parsifal in particular as a sinister homosexual opera." Others were more sympathetic both to Wagner and to homosexuality, reflecting the extensive late nineteenth-century gay Wagnerian subculture that Mitchell Morris has illuminated. Hanns Fuchs's 1902 book Richard Wagner and die Homosexualiteit ('Richard Wagner and Homosexuality ') argued for the 'spiritual homosexuality' of its creator, but without malice. A series of articles implied a homosexual side to some of Wagner's friendships, notably with Nietzsche and Liszt. The high point of this was reached when Ludwig II's correspondence with Wagner was published in Magnus Hirschfeld's Jahrhuch fir sexuelle Zwischensiiifen (`Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Stages') the era's leading journal relating to homosexuality.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera, which premiered on 26 May. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on 29 August, he entered the pit unseen during act 3, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. Wagner died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on 13 February 1883 at Ca' Vendramin Calergi, a 16th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal. The legend that the attack was prompted by argument with Cosima over Wagner's supposedly amorous interest in the singer Carrie Pringle, who had been a Flower-maiden in Parsifal at Bayreuth, is without credible evidence. After a funerary gondola bore Wagner's remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth.
Since Wagner's death, the Bayreuth Festival, which has become an annual event, has been successively directed by his widow, his son Siegfried, the latter's widow Winifred Wagner, their two sons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, and, presently, two of the composer's great-granddaughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner. Since 1973, the festival has been overseen by the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung (Richard Wagner Foundation), the members of which include a number of Wagner's descendants.
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