Personalities | Richard Wagner | High Romantic | Opera

1813–83, German

If – to quote Mark Twain – Wagner’s music ‘is not as bad as it sounds’, then the composer’s life was by no means as turpitudinous as it is generally claimed to be. Idolized by his friends and supporters as a family man who was kind to animals and plagued by self-doubts, he was demonized by his enemies as a cross-dressing womanizer and opportunistic megalomaniac.

What is beyond doubt is that he changed the course of music and built a lasting shrine to his art in the northern Bavarian town of Bayreuth.

Early Successes

A myth-maker in life as in art, Wagner sought to portray himself as a natural genius with an inborn aptitude for composition. In fact, his formal lessons extended over a period of three and a half years from the autumn of 1828 to the spring of 1832 and resulted in a large number of vocal, instrumental and orchestral works, at least six of which were performed in public before his twentieth birthday. None of them reveal any great originality, and the same is true of the operas that date from the following decade: Die Hochzeit (‘The Wedding’), which was abandoned in 1833, Die Feen (‘The Fairies’), which Wagner completed in 1834 but which was not staged in his lifetime, Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’), which received a single, disastrous performance in 1836, and Rienzi, a gargantuan grand opéra inspired by Spontini and Meyerbeer that Wagner wrote in Paris, where he eked out a living between 1839 and 1842. Thanks to the help of Meyerbeer, Rienzi was accepted for performance in Dresden and proved a spectacular – if local – success, encouraging the company to stage Der Fliegende Holländer (‘The Flying Dutchman’) early the following year, 1843, and to appoint its composer Kapellmeister to the Royal Court of Saxony.

In Exile

Here Wagner spent the next six years, working in his spare time on Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850), and growing increasingly disenchanted with what he saw as the constraints of his post and the philistinism of his employers. An active member of the Dresden intelligentsia, he became embroiled in the liberal, revolutionary movement of the period and was implicated in the Dresden Uprising of May 1849, when he fled the city with a price on his head. He spent the next nine years living as an exile in Zurich, before embarking on a peripatetic existence that took him all over Europe, including conducting engagements as far afield as Brussels, Vienna and Moscow. Having abandoned his work on the four-part Ring and having failed to find a home for Tristan und Isolde, which quickly acquired for itself the reputation of being unperformable, he sank further into debt, only to be rescued at the very last moment by the newly enthroned King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Completing the Ring

Ludwig’s intervention allowed Wagner to stage Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg...

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