1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner
(full name: Wilhelm Richard Wagner)
German composer


WILHELM RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883), dramatic composer and reformer of the musical drama, was born at Leipsic on May 22, 1813. In 1822 he was sent to the Kreuzschule at Dresden, where he did so well that, four years later, he translated the first 12 books of the Odyssey for amusement. In 1828 he was removed to the Nicolai-schule at Leipsic, where he was less successful. His first music master was Gottlieb Müller, who thought him self-willed and eccentric ; and his first important composition was an " Overture in Bb," performed at the Leipsic theatre in 1830. In that year he matriculated at the university, and took lessons in composition from Theodor Weinlig, cantor at the Thomasschule. His " First Symphony " was performed at the Gewandhaus concerts in 1833, and in the following year he was appointed conductor of the opera at Magdeburg. The post was an unprofitable one, and Wagner's life a"t this period was very unsettled. He had composed an opera called Die Feen, adapted from Gozzi's La Donna Serpente, and another, Das Liebesverbot, founded on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, but these were never performed, and for some considerable time the young composer found it difficult to obtain a hearing.

In 1836 Wagner married Fräulein Wilhelmina Planer, an actress at the theatre at Königsberg. He had accepted an engagement there as conductor, but, the lessee becoming bankrupt, the scheme was abandoned in favour of a better appointment at Riga. Accepting this, he remained actively employed until 1839, when he made his first visit to Paris, taking with him an unfinished opera, for which he had himself prepared a libretto, upon the lines of Lord Lytton's novel Rienzi. The venture proved a most unfortunate one. Wagner was unsuccessful in all his attempts to achieve popularity, and Rienzi, destined for the Grand Opera, was relentlessly rejected. He completed it, however, and in 1842 it was produced at the court theatre in Dresden, where, with Madame Schroeder Devrient and Herr Tichatschek in the principal parts, it achieved an immense success, and undoubtedly laid the foundation of the great composer's fame.

Though, in completing Rienzi, Wagner had put forth all the strength he then possessed, that work was far from representing his preconceived ideal. This he now endeavoured to embody in Der Fliegende Hollander, for which, as before, he composed both the libretto and the music. In this fine work we find the first sign of his determination to sacrifice all considerations of traditional form and symmetrical construction to the dramatic exigencies of the story. It is true, this great principle was but very faintly announced in the new work, and in an evidently tentative form ; but the success of the experiment was incontestable, though it took some time to convince the world of the fact. The piece was warmly received at Dresden, January 2, 1843 ; but its success was by no means equal to that of Rienzi. Spohr, however, promptly discovered its merits, and produced it at Cassel some months later, with very favourable results.

Wagner was now fairly launched upon his arduous career. On February 2, 1843, he was formally installed as hofkapellmeister at the Dresden theatre, and he celebrated the event by at once beginning the composition of a new opera. For the subject of this he selected the legend of Tannhäuser, collecting his materials from the ancient " Tannhäuser-Lied," the Volksbuch, Tieck's poetical Erzählung, Hoffmann's story of Der Sängerkrieg, and the mediseval poem on Der Wartburgkrieg. This last-named legend introduces the incidental poem of " Loherangrin," and led to the study of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival und Titurel, with strange effect upon Wagner's subsequent inspirations. But for the present he confined himself to the subject in hand; and on October 19, 1845, he produced his Tannhäuser, with Madame Schroeder Devrient, Fräulein Johanna Wagner, Herr Tichatschek, and Herr Mitter wurzer in the principal parts. Notwithstanding this powerful cast, the success of the new work was not brilliant, for it carried still farther the principles embodied in Der Fliegende Holländer, and these principles were not yet understood either by the public or the critics. But Wagner boldly fought for them, and would probably have gained the victory much sooner than he did had he not taken a fatally prominent part in the political agitations of 1849, after which his position in Dresden became untenable. In fact, after the flight of the king, and the subsequent suppression of the riots by troops sent from Berlin, a formal act of accusation was drawn up against him, and he had barely time to escape to Weimar, where Liszt was at that moment engaged in preparing Tannhäuser for performance at the court theatre, before the storm burst upon him with a violence that seriously alarmed both his friends and himself.

Without the loss of a moment Liszt procured a passport, and escorted his guest as far as Eisenach. Wagner proceeded in all haste to Paris, and thence to Zurich, where, with few interruptions, he lived in strict retirement until the autumn of 1859. And it was during this period that most of his literary productions—including Oper und Drama, Ueber das Dirigiren, Das Judenthum in der Musik, and other like works—were given to the world.

We have spoken of Wagner's incidental study of the legends of " Loherangrin " and " Parzival" during the time that he was preparing the libretto of Tannhäuser. After the production of that opera he again recurred to the subject, chose Lohengrin as the title for his next opera, and elaborated the conception with his usual minute and affectionate care, carrying out his new principles somewhat farther than he had hitherto ventured to do. He had completed the work before he fled from Dresden, but could not get it produced. Hoping against hope, he took the score with him to Paris, and, as he himself tells us, " when ill, miserable, and despairing, I sat brooding over my fate, my eye fell on the score of my Lohengrin, which I had totally forgotten. Suddenly I felt something like compassion that the music should never sound from off the death-pale paper. Two words I wrote to Liszt; his answer was the news that preparations were being made for the performance of the work, on the grandest scale that the limited means of Weimar would permit. Everything that care and accessories could do was done to make the design of the piece understood. Liszt saw what was wanted at once, and did it. Success was his reward; and with this success he now approaches me, saying, ' Behold we have come thus far ; now create us a new work, that we may go farther'."

Lohengrin was, in fact, produced at Weimar, under Liszt's direction, on August 28, 1850. It was a severe trial to Wagner not to be permitted to hear his own work, but he knew that all that could be done for it was done, and he responded to Liszt's appeal for a new creation by meditating upon his famous tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four divisions of which—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung—though each as long as an ordinary opera, are in reality but parts of one colossal whole. At this time, also, he first began to lay out the plan of Tristan und Isolde, and to think over the possibilities of Parsifal.

It is in these later works, and in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the first sketch for which had been made at Dresden in 1845, that the genius of Wagner reaches its culminating point; and it is in these only that his great plan for the reformation of the musical drama is fully and honestly carried out. In order to understand this plan, we must first inquire what kind of reformation was needed. What were the abuses that demanded redress? What were the causes that had led to the decline of the opera from a higher state of perfection than that which it exhibited in the middle of the 19th century—if, indeed, it ever did exhibit a higher state of perfection than that? What, in short, had been the history of the musical drama during the two centuries and a half that had elapsed between its first invention and its arrival at the condition in which Wagner found it when he first began to compose for the stage ? The story is a very simple one, and may be told in a very few words; but it was not without an immensity of deep thought and earnest consideration that Wagner was able to grapple with the gigantic practical difficulties with which the case was surrounded.

The possibility of constructing a musical drama on reasonable principles was first seriously discussed during the closing years of the 16th century, at certain reunions of literary and artistic dilettanti, who were accustomed to meet periodically at the palazzo of Giovanni Bardi, Conte di Vernio, in Florence. The principal members of the little society were Ottavio Rinuccini the poet, Vincenzo Galilei the father of the great astronomer, Giulio Caccini, Jacopo Peri, Pietro Strozzi, and the Conte di Vernio himself. All these earnest savants were deeply embued with the principles of the Renaissance, and regarded the traditions of classical antiquity with a reverence which led them to hold the greatest creations of modern art in undisguised contempt. The music of Palestrina and the great composers of the contrapuntal schools they utterly despised ; and their one idea was to revive the system of declamation peculiar to Greek tragedy, and by means of that to produce a form of drama which could be consistently sung throughout as the trilogies of iEschylus and Sophocles were sung by the Greeks. So far their aim was identical with Wagner's. The difference lay in the means by which this aim was to be attained. Wagner himself tells us that, while occupied upon Lohengrin, he looked upon his work as "an experiment towards determining whether or not opera was possible." And in other places he speaks of the question whether or not the modern spirit can produce a theatre that shall stand in relation to modern culture as the theatre of Athens stood in relation to the culture of ancient Greece. He believed that this might be accomplished by reforming the opera from the stand-point of Beethoven's music. The friends of the Conte di Vernio had hoped to accomplish it by restoring the actual music of the Greek drama. But this was impossible. For Greek music was based upon a system of tonality which, even in the time of Galilei, had been obsolete for centuries. The Greek scales and ours differ so widely in their radical construction that no vocalist accustomed to the one could by any possibility sing the other. Even Peri and Vincenzo Galilei must have known this. But, pretending to ignore the fact, they made a compromise, and endeavoured to imitate what they fondly conceived to be the Greek method of recitative, in the tonality of the modern scales; and in this way they struck, not upon the form of which they were in search—for that was irretrievably lost—but a new one, which rapidly developed itself into the kind of music now called recitative. This recitative —the most valuable artistic invention of the 17th century—they used as the basis of their musical drama; and, after the lapse of two centuries and a half, Wagner determined that this, and none other, must be the basis of his. Enriching it with all the beautiful accessories that had been amassed by composer after composer during its long period of progressive development, and notably with other very important accessories of his own invention, he built his drama upon it as completely as the first dramatic music was built upon it by the frequenters of the Palazzo Bardi. And in this great fact lies the secret of his gigantic reform.

The first Italian opera ever publicly performed was Jacopo Peri's Euridice, composed to a libretto written by Ottavio Rinuccini, and produced at Florence in 1600, in honour of the marriage of Henry IV. of France with Maria de' Medici. This most interesting work, a rare printed copy of which is preserved in the British Museum, is entirely in recitative; and the music is so constructed throughout as to aid in the true dramatic expression of the words, at the expense of all attempt at what is now called melody. The operas of Monteverde, Cesti, Cavalli, and all the earlier composers of the 17th century were conceived upon the same principle. But Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725), aiming at higher musical perfection, and willing to sacrifice no small amount of dramatic truth to its exigencies, introduced certain constructive forms—notably that called the "da capo"—which, while adding to the symmetrical beauty of the aria, tended eventually entirely to destroy its dramatic force and its logical consistency as an exponent of the situation presented upon the stage. Later composers carried this abuse very much farther. Handel's strong dramatic instinct kept him above the errors of his time; but his contemporaries sinned more and more deeply until, for the sake of obtaining popularity, they were ready to fill their operas with unmeaning passages, introduced solely for the purpose of showing off the skill of the favourite vocalists of the period. And so the abuse proceeded from worse to worse until, under Porpora (1686-1766) and Hasse (1699-1783), the opera at Naples and Dresden became a mere concert sung upon the stage without any trace of dramatic propriety whatever.

And now arose a reformer whose work will be remembered as long as the musical drama continues to exist. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1785), disgusted with his own want of success while writing in the vicious style of the period, determined to reform it upon true dramatic principles; and in the preface to his Alceste (1767) he set forth those principles with a clearness which cannot possibly be misunderstood. The history of his great reform has already been narrated in detail (see GLUCK). A careful comparison of the argument laid down ill the preface to Alceste with that set forth in Wagner's Opcr und Drama will prove the aim of the two reformers to have been absolutely identical. That a less perfect identity should have existed with regard to the means they used for the attainment of their common end was naturally to be expected. At the outset of their career both Gluck and Wagner freely employed all the resources at their command, adding to them afterwards as circumstances permitted. But between the production of Gluck's latest and Wagner's first masterpiece art had made enormous strides; the advantage, therefore, in this respect was immeasurably on Wagner's side.

In France Gluck's principles were carried out more or less conscientiously by Mehul, Cherubini, and Spontini. in Germany they bore still richer fruit. Glorified by the genius of Mozart and Beethoven, and accepted without reserve by Weber, Spohr, Marschner, and the most enlightened of their followers in the German romantic school, they were professed, if not fully carried out, by composers of every degree. But in Italy they produced no effect whatever. Though Rossini sometimes invested his situations with a certain amount of dramatic colouring, he never attempted anything farther than this; while Mercadante, Bellini, Donizetti, and their imitators regarded melody, pure and simple, as the highest, if not the only really important, attribute of art. Under their rule the opera once more descended to the level of a concert on the stage. The effect of their example upon the lower class of German composers was fatal, and ended ill the production of a form of Singspiel, lacking all the freshness of the Italian Cantilena, and noticeable only for its intolerable vapidity. Notwithstanding the attempts of Halevy and Meyerbeer to perpetuate in France the traditions of a purer epoch, the musical drama sank, under Auber and his imitators, to the level of a string of dance tunes. The 19th century had witnessed the birth of abuses as flagrant as those against which Gluck had protested in the 18th. It was Wagner's turn now to effect the desired reform, and he effected it as completely as his predecessor had done—but not in the same way. Gluck had begun by propounding a theory, and carried on the good work by consistently putting it into practice. Wagner theorized also; but for his ultimate triumph he was indebted to the power of his own creative genius —to his ceaseless endeavour to realize the preconceived ideal which neither theory nor desire for reform could ever tempt him to forget. " The nature of the subject," he says, "could not induce me, in sketching my scenes, to consider in advance their adaptability to any particular musical form, the kind of musical treatment being, in every ease, suggested by the scenes themselves. I never contemplated on principle, and as a deliberate reformer, the destruction of the aria, the duet, or any other operatic form; but the disuse of these forms followed naturally from the character of my subjects." Surely no frame of mind could be more free from prejudice than this.

While exercising this unrestrained freedom of thought and action, Wagner found one particular form more useful to him than any other. Mozart in Don Giovanni, and Weber in Der Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon, had availed themselves of certain characteristic musical phrases as exponents of emotional or scenic complications of peculiar interest, and had emphasized their meaning by repeating them at every recurrence of the dramatic situation. In modern musical terminology a musical phrase of this kind is now called a "leading theme" ("Leitmotif"). Wagner has employed this expedieut more freely than any other composer, and in a way peculiarly his own. Not only has he introduced in his later works a leading theme for every one of the dramatis personse, and for every prominent feature in the scenery or action of the play, but in many cases he even indicates the changing moods and passions of his principal characters by distinct phrases, which he combines together with a power of part-writing truly marvellous, interweaving them—as in "Siegfried's Trauermarsch," in the Götterdämmerung—ill such sort as to present the whole story of a life and mission in the music of a single scene. Short-sighted critics have dwelt too much upon the technical ingenuity displayed in scenes of this description, and too little upon the expression thrown into them by the power of Wagner's genius. A diligent student may acquire sufficient mastery over the art of part-writing to enable him to interweave his themes with any amount of mechanical perfection, yet without a trace of the beauty displayed by Sebastian Bach in the involutions of his counter-subjects, or by Wagner in labyrinthine combinations used, not for the sake of vaunting his scholarship, but as his most potent engines of dramatic expression. The plaintive wail of the " Trauermarsch " appeals to hearers who know nothing at all of its ingenious construction, and tells its tale to them beyond all possibility of misunderstanding. It is at this point that genius steps in ; and the power of Wagner's genius is irresistible.

It was during the period of his exile that Wagner matured his plans and brought his style to its culminating point of perfection ; but it was not until some considerable time after his return that any of the works he then meditated were placed upon the stage. In 1855 he accepted an invitation to London, where he conducted the concerts of the Philharmonic Society with great success. In 1857 he completed the libretto of Tristan und Isolde at Venice, taking as the basis of his scheme the Celtic legend modified by Gottfried of Strasburg's mediaeval treatment of the subject (see GOTTFRIED and ROMANCE). But the music was not completed till 1859. In that year Wagner visited Paris for the third time; and after much negotiation, in which he was nobly supported by the Prince and Princess Metternich, Tannhäuser was accepted at the Grand Opera. Magnificent preparations were made for its production. It was rehearsed 164 times, 14 times with the full orchestra; and the scenery, dresses, and stage accessories generally were placed entirely under the composer's direction. More than ¿£8000 was expended upon the venture; and the work was performed for the first time in the French language on March 13, 1861. But, for political reasons, a powerful clique determined to suppress both the piece and its composer. A scandalous riot was inaugurated by the members of the Parisian Jockey Club, who interrupted the performance with howls and dog-whistles ; and so great was the disturbance that after the third representation the opera was withdrawn to reappear no more. Wagner was broken-hearted. But the Princess Metternich continued to befriend him, and in 1861 he received through her intercession a pardon for his political offences, with permission to settle in any part of Germany except Saxony. Even this restriction was removed in 1862.

Wagner now settled for a time in Vienna, where Tristan und Isolde was accepted, but abandoned after 57 rehearsals, through the incompetence of the tenor, Herr Ander. Lohengrin was, however, produced on May 15, 1861, when Wagner heard it for the first time. His circumstances were now extremely straitened; but better times were at hand. In 1863 he published the libretto of Der Ring des Nibelungen. King Louis II. of Bavaria was much struck with it, and in 1864 sent a private secretary to Wagner, who was then at Stuttgart, with an invitation to come to Munich and carry on his work there. The invitation was accepted with joy by the then almost despairing composer. The king gave him an annual grant of 1200 gulden (£120), considerably enlarging it before the end of the year, and placing a comfortable house in the outskirts of the city at his disposal. The master celebrated his good fortune by composing a " Huldigungsmarsch." In the autumn he was formally commissioned to proceed with the tetralogy, and to furnish proposals for the building of a theatre and the foundation of a Bavarian music school. All seemed to promise well, but no sooner did his position seem assured than a miserable court intrigue was formed against him. His political misdemeanours at Dresden were quoted to his discredit and made the excuse for bitter persecutions, and, notwithstanding King Louis's undiminished favour, the opposition was too strong to be resisted, and Wagner was obliged to retire to Triebschen, near Lucerne, where he spent the next six years in uninterrupted study.

Der Fliegende Holländer was performed at Munich in 1864; and on June 10, 1865, Tristan und Isolde was produced for the first time, with Herr and Frau Schnorr in the principal parts. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, first sketched in 1845, was completed in 1867, and first performed at Munich under the direction of Herr von Billow, June 21, 1868. The story, though an original one, is founded on an episode in the life of Hans Sachs, the poet-cordwainer of Nuremberg ; and Wagner has combined its incidents with infinite ingenuity and humour. The success of the opera was very great; but the production of the tetralogy was still impracticable. The scheme for the new theatre, which was to have been designed by the architect Semper, having been abandoned, there was no opera-house in Germany fit for the production of a work designed on so colossal a scale. A project was therefore started for the erection of a suitable building at Baireuth. Wagner laid the first stone of this in 1872, and the edifice was completed, after almost insuperable difficulties, in 1876.

After this Wagner resided permanently at Baireuth, in a house named Wahnfried, in the garden of which he himself built the tomb in which his remains now rest. His first wife, Wilhelmina (née Planer), having died in 1866, he was united in 1870 to Liszt's daughter Cosima, who had previously been the wife of Herr von Biilow. Meantime Der Ring des Nibelungen was rapidly approaching completion, and on August 13, 1876, the introductory portion, Das Rheingold, was performed at Baireuth for the first time, followed on the 14th by Die Walküre, on the 16th by Siegfried, and on the 17th by Götterdämmerung. The success of the work, the story of which is founded on the famous Nibelungenlied, was very great; and the performance, directed by Herr Hans Richter, excited extraordinary attention, but the expenses attendant upon its production were enormous, and burdened the management with a debt of ¿£7500. A portion of this was raised by performances at the Albert Hall, in London, at which the composer himself was present, in 1877. The remainder was met by the profits upon performances of the tetralogy —or, as Wagner himself called it, the " Bühnenfestspiel"— at Munich.

Wagner's next, last, and perhaps greatest work was Parsifal, based upon the legend of the Holy Grail, as set forth, not in the legend of the Mort a"Arthur, which fixes the home of the sacred vessel at Glastonbury, but in the poems of Chrestien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, written in the 12th and 13th centuries, and other less-known works (see the article ROMANCE, in which the subject is treated in its various aspects). The libretto was complete before his visit to London in 1877. The music was begun in the following year, and completed at Palermo, January 13, 1882. The first sixteen performances took place at Baireuth, in July and August 1882, under Wagner's own directing, and fully realized the expectations that had been formed of them. There can indeed be no doubt that this last work, called by Wagner a " Biilinenweilifestspiel," in allusion to its mystically religious character, forms a fitting crown to his already brilliant reputation. Unhappily, the exertion of directing so many consecutive performances seems to have been too much for the veteran master's already failing strength, for towards the close of 1882 his health began to decline rapidly. He spent the autumn at Venice, in the Palazzo Vendramini, on the Grand Canal, and was well enough on Christmas Eve to conduct his own first symphony (composed in 1833), at a private performance given at the Liceo Marcello. But late in the afternoon of February 13, 18S3, he was seized with a sudden attack of faintness, and on that evening he calmly breathed his last.

Wagner was buried at Wahnfried, in the tomb he had himself prepared, on February 18, and a few days afterwards King Louis rode to Baireuth alone, and at dead of night, to pay his last tribute of respect to the master he had so generously befriended.

In private life Wagner was beloved and respected by all who knew him, though in his public character he made himself innumerable enemies, and provoked an immense amount of hatred— it must be confessed, not wholly undeserved—by the violent and intemperate character of his writings. Though Meyerbeer had been extremely kind to him in Paris, he spoke of him in Oper unci Drama with the grossest disrespect. His utterly groundless prejudice against Liszt was ultimately conquered by that great master's beautiful forbearance alone. But these things will be forgotten, while the brightness of his genius will remain the lasting heritage of art. In person he was rather below the middle height, erect in carriage, with commanding aspect and remarkable quickness of speech and gesture. That his manners were to some extent unconventional there can be no doubt, but those wdio knew him best deny that there was even the semblance of truth in the absurd stories that were circulated with regard to his extraordinary eccentricities.

Besides the great dramatic works we have mentioned, Wagner composed the choral music for Weber's funeral (Dresden, 1844), Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (Dresden, 1847), Mne Faustovertüre (Paris, 1839), Kaisermarsch (1871), Siegfried Idyl (1871), and a not very numerous collection of smaller pieces. His literary works, published at Leipsic in 1871, fill nine thick volumes. (W. S. R.)

The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period, and other works on the history of music.

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