Wilhelm Richard Wagner: A Look at the Composer's Life

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  • Topic: Richard Wagner, Opera, Tristan und Isolde
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German composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner, was born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany and lived until February 13, 1883. Beyond his composing, Wagner was also known for being a great conductor, music theorist, and essayist throughout his life. Wagner was primarily raised by his mother, Johanne, as his father, Friedrich died when he was just a baby. Wagner’s biological father could have been one of a few men at the time, casting a shadow on his true origins. He ended up taking his name from one Friedrich Wagner (Macy 131). He was reared in a theatrical household, so drama was ingrained in his life from a very early age, which will explain lots of things about his later life and works. From the first, he threw himself into his interests of stage. Young Wagner was rather obsessed with the German Romantic spirit of Carl Maria von Weber, and enlisted his school friends to act out scenes from his operas in his mini-theatre (Macy 134). Due to the deaths of his father and then step-father, Wagner was shuffled around quite a bit, to be cared for by friends and family members. Despite all of this, the young Wagner received a good classical education, and he was deeply interested in literature. He led a life of rowdiness in his teen years; drinking, carousing, gambling, until he woke up one morning with a horrible hangover, and decided that he’d better devote his life to art or he would be “dead within a year” (Wagner, cited by Macy 135). He dabbled in music in his youth and wrote an orchestral overture at seventeen that was performed for a live audience. It was literally laughed at. Apparently, the work was terrible in its attempt at the melodramatic, but he learned a lot from this experience. He then took lessons in music, devoted himself to the study of theory and technique, then tried again at nineteen with a symphony, which was much more successful than his first attempt (Kennedy 935). He began to write operas that were of little acclaim, and barely made his living on menial tasks such as writing articles and doing copy-work. He wrote Rienzi at this time, probably one of his least known operas (Scholes 1102). As Wagner’s life progressed, he only got more and more egotistical, radical, and controversial. He wrote The Flying Dutchman in Paris, and it was the beginning of a trend for him to write long involved operas based on mainly Teutonic legend. He became conductor of the opera at Dresden, after he saw his own Flying Dutchman performed there. While in Dresden, he wrote Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. He began to get involved in politics, and then had to flee Dresden because his misguided political notions got him involved in an 1848 rebellion. The police searched for him in vain, and he went into political exile, fleeing to the aid of his many friends and supporters. Liszt took him in at Weimar, because he was always an admirer and supporter of Wagner (Scholes 1102). This was probably one of the first fateful meetings between Cosima Liszt von Bülow and Wagner. The first time she met him, she found him entirely too tiresome to be around because of his overwhelming presence, and she was glad to see him go (Macy 134).

He departed for Switzerland to seek refuge in Zurich, and stayed for eight years. While in Switzerland, he began his epic Ring cycle, and it took him a quarter of a century to finish it. During this time, around 1863-1865, he began an affair with Cosima Liszt von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt, while she was still married to Hans von Bülow, a close friend and conductor of Wagner’s. Hans felt compelled out of friendship and social decorum to keep the secret, though he knew all about it, but Wagner didn’t seem to think it that important and Hans came out looking the worse for it (Macy 151). This was only one, but the last of the womanizing exploits of Wagner. His first wife, Minna, an actress to whom he was married to for most of his young life, was a good match...
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