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Richard Wagner

born: 22 May 1813
died: 13 February 1883
country: Germany

Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813, in Leipzig, into the large family of a police clerk. Following the death of his father, his mother married the actor Ludwig Geyer (who was probably his biological father). He received his first music lessons at the age of nine, began writing his own compositions (following a textbook), and later took lessons with the church cantor Christian Theodor Weinlig. His public debut as a composer (with Symphony in С Major) took place in 1832 in Prague, and his first experience of operatic creativity dates to 1833 (Die Feen, based on Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale). At that point Wagner became the musical director of the opera house in Magdeburg. The staging of his own opera Das Liebesverbot (based on Shakespeare) was a failure. Wagner and his wife Minna Planer, a singer, moved to Riga, where he became musical director of an opera house. He began work on his third opera composition, Rienzi, journeyed to London and Paris, and conceived the opera Der fliegende Holländer. Upon returning to Germany, he directed the Dresden première of Rienzi (1842) to acclaim, held the première of Der fliegende Holländer in Berlin (1844), completed and staged Tannhäuser (Dresden, 1845), and completed Lohengrin (which premièred in Weimar under the direction of Liszt, in 1850). During the 1849 Dresden uprising Wagner wrote for the anti-government press and after the uprising had been quelled he was forced to flee to Switzerland.

The project of Der Ring des Nibelungen began in 1851, and Wagner’s work on this operatic tetralogy stretched intermittently over a twenty-year period. Wagner made friends with the Wesendoncks, a married couple. His apparently platonic romance with Mathilde Wesendonck encouraged the genesis of a new composition: Wagner began to compose the opera Tristan und Isolde , destined to become his crowning achievement and provide the impetus for the renewal of European music (not only of opera). Tours of Vienna, Prague, St. Petersburg and Moscow secured Wagner’s fame as a conductor. Wagner was in dire financial straits when he met the 19-year-old King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. An ardent admirer of Wagner, for many years the king provided his idol with comprehensive material support.

In 1865 the Munich première of Tristan und Isolde was held. The next year Minna Wagner died, bringing to an end an acutely troubled relationship. The composer settled in the villa Tribschen on Lake Lucerne with Cosima von Bülow (née Liszt), who became his lawful wife following her divorce. The opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was written, and work on Der Ring des Nibelungen recommenced.

From 1872 the Wagner family settled permanently in Bayreuth, Bavaria, where under Ludwig II’s patronage construction began of a theatre designed to be the world centre of Wagnerian opera music. In 1876 the theatre opened with the complete premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen in the presence of royals and contemporary musical luminaries.

From this moment Wagner devoted most of his energy to the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner’s Bayreuth villa, Wahnfried, was built (its garden was to become his place of burial). From 1877 until 1882 Wagner worked on the composition of his final opera, Parsifal, the staging of which was permitted exclusively at the Bayreuth Festival for thirty years. The European cultural world acclaimed Parsifal as the zenith of Wagnerian creativity and, at the same time, as a magnificent harmony drawing to a close the composer’s life journey.

During his fatal heart attack, Wagner’s pocket watch fell to the floor. His dying words were “my watch”. His life ended in Venice on 13 February 1883. The long hours of Richard Wagner’s posthumous glory and influence as a brilliant creator who changed the destiny of music and thus the destiny of culture and of the people continue still today.

from notes by Leonid Gakkel © 2012
English: Anna Gunin


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