Richard Wagner par Gill, caricature du XIXe siècle parue dans le journal "L'Eclipse"
Richard Wagner par Gill, caricature du XIXe siècle parue dans le journal "L'Eclipse"

10 (little) Things You Might Not Know About Richard Wagner

Composer Richard Wagner was born on the 22nd of May 1813 and died on February the 13th 1883 in Venice. He is remembered as an anarchist, an anti-Semite and a poet obsessed with Norse Mythology; he continues to provoke strong reactions.

If you type Richard Wagner into Google the first three search suggestions are for “Opera”, “Bayreuth” and “Hitler”. Wagner is certainly a difficult figure to address; a revolutionary anarchist, a virulent anti-Semite and confidant of the King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he founded the Bayreuth Festival and composed ten operas, which remain incredibly popular. Here are 10 (little) things you might not know about the composer – 

He was an Autodidact 

Born in Leipzig in 1813, Richard Wagner was the last of nine children to his parents Johanna Rosine and Karl Friedrich Wagner. He lost his father before his first birthday. Wagner was very interested in literature and the theatre. He turned his hand to writing at 13, penning a tragedy Leubland und Adelaide, which has since been lost. 

He soon discovered the opera, and was particularly moved by Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s performance in Fidelio by Beethoven. He started taking harmony lessons and eventually enrolled at Leipzig University. 

A Terrible Manager of Money 

Richard Wagner had a troubled relationship with money throughout his life. When he was just 23 his opera Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Measure for Measure by Shakespeare, was produced at the Magdebourg theatre, with him as musical director; it was a flop and the theatre went bankrupt shortly afterwards.

Deeply in debt the composer moved to Könisberg, then left for Riga. His debts forced him and his wife to flee Latvia and head to London by sea. This eventful trip across the Baltic Sea was to inspire one of his operas, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Some say that in 1864 Wagner fled Vienna and his creditors dressed as a woman so as not to be recognised. His fortunes changed that year when he met Louis II of Bavaria, who took anyway material concerns. 

Disappointment in Paris 

Wagner first came to Paris in 1839 following disappointment in London. His first stay in the City of Lights was a complete failure; the Wagner couple only avoided penury by selling transcriptions of fashionable tunes, it was impossible for Wagner’s own works to be performed. He was even forced to sell Der fliegende Holländer to composer Pierre-Louis Dietsch. 

Wagner faired no better on his second stay in Paris. He had come to the city to premiere his Tannhäuser Opera and the Watburg Singer Competition at the Paris Opera. It caused a scandal, which led to all of the scheduled performances being cancelled and to Wagner fleeing the city. One of the causes of the scandal was the Jockey Club, which blew silver whistles during the first performance to signal their displeasure at being denied their usual second act ballet. Some say that this is because the Jockey Club members usually came to “see” the dancers after their dinner. 

He Was Married to Franz Liszt’s Daughter 

Richard Wagner’s emotional life was, to say the least, eventful. He married Minna, an actress, in 1836 she left him a few months later for another man, but later returned to Wagner. The couple lived with debt and Minna’s depression for a number of years until Wagner fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, a poet and writer who politely rejected him. This put great pressure on his marriage, with the couple divorcing in 1862. 

That same year conductor Hans van Bülow introduced Richard Wagner to his wife Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, she was 24 years younger than Wagner. They soon began an affair, in fact Cosima gave birth to her first two children by Wagner – Isolde van Bülow and Eva von Bülow – while still married. Only their last child, their son Siegfried, bore Wagner’s name. This relationship displeased Franz Liszt who in 1870 cut all ties with the couple, before forgiving them entirely in 1882, attending the premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth. What he would find harder to forgive is Cosima’s anti-Semitism, which is evident in the diaries that she kept. 

Richard et Cosima Wagner
Richard et Cosima Wagner  /  Fritz Luckhardt

An Anarchist and a Revolutionary 

Richard Wagner was not immune to the revolutionary movements sweeping Germany in the 1840s. He moved to Dresden, where he triumphed with Rienzi (1842), Der fliegende Holländer (1843) and Tannhäuser (1845). He was forced to leave the city in 1849, before the premiere of Lohengrin due to a warrant for his arrest. He was accused of being actively involved in the insurrection against Saxony Government. 

It is known that the composer met with the revolutionary and anarchist theorist Mikhaïl Bakounine and that he was a friend of the revolutionary poet Geog Herwegh who introduced him to Schopenhauer’s work. Their influence and his exile in Zurich led him to write an essay The Artwork of the Future, in which he presents the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (universal artwork). 

Intensifying Anti-Semitism

During his time in Zurich, Richard Wagner wrote an essay titled Judaism in Music, it was an unabashed display of anti-Semitism. He first published it under the cover of a pseudonym before releasing a new edition in 1869 with his name printed. In this work he declared that Jewish composers could only imitate the culture of the country they are in, and posed a genuine threat to the idea of national identity. 

The composer did not merely reflect the prevalent generic anti-Semitism of his time but also actively voiced his support of the idea that Jews should abandon their Judaism and be absorbed (untergang) or eradicated, not ruling out harsh methods, he wrote that “If it is possible to stop the decline of our culture through the violent expulsion of the foreign element, the source of the decomposition, I cannot judge that, it would require forces whose existence is unknown to me”. 

The historian and musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez has shown that this anti-Semitism is equally present and integral to the music of Wagner. The composer imitates and parodies popular Jewish melodies and music used in synagogue, most notably in themes which are associated with the ‘bad’ characters of his operas – Mime and Alberich in the Ring and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

His music is still boycotted in Israel

Though Wagner died well before the advent of Adolf Hitler, and the Holocaust, it is hard not to make the link between the two. Especially when Hitler declared that “whoever wishes to understand National Socialism must first know Wagner”. His influence on the Nazis evident, to the point that Thomas Mann said, “there is lot of Hitler in Wagner”. It is therefore not easy for the Israeli nation to hold Wagner’s work in esteem. 

Though his work is played on the radio and TV, public performances are difficult. Daniel Barenboim partially broke this taboo in 2001. The Israeli-Argentinian Conductor was invited to Jerusalem with the Berlin Staatskappelle. He concluded the performance by asking the audience members to listen to Wagner, allowing those who did not want to hear it to leave the room (very few did). The press reaction the next day was very strong, it caused enough of a scandal to deter future such experiments. 

Nietzsche and Wagner: Je t’aime, moi non plus

Friedrich Nietzsche met Wagner for the first time in 1868. Nietzsche was not yet 25 years old, Wagner (composer of Lohengrin) was 55, an almost father figure to the young, orphaned philosopher. A year later, Wagner and his wife offered Nietzsche an office in their home; to help the troubld young man to develop The Birth of Tragedy (1872). The book was dedicated to Richard Wagner, and celebrated him, raising the composer to an elevated status. 

Nietzsche’s career was severely negative affected by the publication of this book, it was attacked not only by critics but also by other artists including Franz Liszt. From then on his veneration of Wagner was measured and later entirely reversed. In 1878 Nietzsche definitively cut ties with the Wagners, after the premiere of Parsifal, a Christian opera that he felt was “an assassination of basic ethics”. He went on to write on to write Human, All Too Human. This mixture of repulsion and love continued to grow, even after the death of Wagner and accompanied him into his madness and his own death. 

He creates Bayreuth, a temple of total art (Gesamtkunstwerk)

In 1872, the Wagner family moved to Bayreuth, a small, charming town in Franconia. In May they laid the foundation stone of its “Festival Hall” (Festspielhaus) to house the Ring (his trilogy with prologue, composed of The Rhinegold (Das Rheingold), Siegfried, The Valkyrie (Die Walküre) and the Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung), in 1876. He wanted to realise his idea of creating a “universal artwork”, that he had been dreaming of for 20 years.

A universal artwork, or Gesamtkunstwerk, requires the intimate union of poetry, music and dance, as is usual in opera, but also combines these elements with architecture and poetry. In the nearly 15 hours of the Ring, the Wagnerian opera becomes a “universal artwork” entering the realm of myth, it breaks with the traditional recitative/aria form of opera, instead favouring a continuous melody in which the orchestra plays a primordial role. 

Admired as well as Detested 

Though Richard Wagner deeply inspired Bruckner, Mahler and “the other Richard”, Richard Strauss, he has also irritated other composers. Claude Debussy characterised Wagner as “an old poisoner” who “never served music and did not even serve Germany”. Rossini is said to have responded to overhearing a pupil massacring the Tannhäuser overture by simply saying “I have also tried with the right notes, but it does not sound any better”. 

Even those who deeply respected him amused themselves by parodying him. Gabriel Fauré and André Messager composed a facetious piano parody of the five themes of The Ring, Souvenirs de Bayreuth. Emmanual Chabrier did the same a few years later with the five themes of Tristan und Isolde, in Souvenirs de Munich. Though these three pianists use Wagner’s music very pleasantly, these piano pieces are greatly enjoyed by Wagnerians themselves.