b Leipzig, May 22, 1813; d Venice, February 13, 1883
Richard Wagner’s paternity will always remain one of opera’s most tantalizing mysteries. His father, Carl Friedrich, had a passion for the theater (naming four daughters after heroines of Goethe and Schiller), and as a consequence took in an actor, Ludwig Geyer, to help defray the cost of raising a large family. It appears Geyer took a fancy to Friedrich’s wife, Johanne, and may have been the real father of Richard – as it happened, Friedrich died shortly after Johanne became pregnant, and when Richard was born, Ludwig and Johanne soon married. As a result, Richard bore the surname Geyer for his first few years, and later in his life it was remarked that he looked more like a portrait of his stepfather than his supposed real one. Some have attempted to trace the name to possible Jewish roots (one of several unattractive aspects of the composer’s adult personality was his anti-Semitism) but have yet to put forth a firm case.
The family moved to Dresden and continued its close link to the theater – two sisters became actresses and his brother became an operatic tenor. Young Richard didn’t show promise for much of anything at first, school being of little interest, and piano lessons were infrequent. But at age 15 he unveiled an ambitious secret project, a five-act tragedy entitled Leubald und Adelaïde, drawn from works of Shakespeare and Goethe. Apparently this endeavor had substituted for his studies.
Wagner was mostly self-taught as a composer, though he did attend the University of Leipzig as a student of music. These months were spent drinking, dueling and gambling – he had once bet his mother’s meager monthly pension. Brother Albert managed to find him a position as chorusmaster in the town of Würzburg. Richard quickly composed his first opera, Die Feen after Carlo Gozzi’s dramatic fairy tale, La donna serpente, and set to his own libretto (an attribute of all of his future works for the stage). Styled as a “Romantic Opera in Three Acts,” it was imitative of the German fantastic style made popular by Karl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner. Yet, the Stadttheater refused to mount the work, believing it would not meet the tastes of its public, who tended to show a preference for French and Italian works. A second opera, Das Liebesverbot (1836), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and written more in the Italian style, did receive a premiere in Magdeburg, albeit a tumultuous one. Nonetheless, the theater invited Wagner to become the music director of its summer season, and it was there he met his first wife, Minna Planer, an actress with the company. Unfortunately, the theater went bankrupt (which would be a common problem with Wagner’s successive appointments), and the marriage would prove to be a stormy one.
After another short engagement in Königsberg, Wagner moved to Riga to assume the posting of music director. His bride of six months was already involved in an adulterous affair with a patron of the previous theater and had since parted from her new husband. Sadly, the Riga appointment didn’t last, though Minna soon joined him, apparently forgiven. Debts had become critical, putting the couple in a precarious position. The escape plan involved traveling to Paris undetected in order to unveil the composer’s new grand opera, Rienzi – its success would eliminate all financial burdens. Their passports impounded, Richard and Minna slipped away in the dead of night to begin a long and dangerous sea voyage that would provide the impetus for Wagner’s fourth opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).
The next two and one half years in Paris proved disappointing. Both Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman were completed but not accepted by any theater. He was by now gravely in arrears and threatened by debtors’ prison on more than one occasion. When Rienzi was accepted by the Dresden Court Theater the Wagners left France, and the opera’s successful premiere led to an appointment for the composer as the city’s kapellmeister.
Wagner’s Dresden years were certainly better than those spent in Paris, yet the composer blanched at the notion of civil service as a court employee. Though The Flying Dutchman would also have its premiere there, the composer really had his sights set on the Prussian capital of Berlin. Still, he made do for the moment and focused on completing his fifth opera, Tannhäuser, which premiered at the court theater in 1845 to a baffled audience.
The year 1848 brought political change around Europe, and Wagner took an active part. As a consequence of his revolutionary friends and his own ideas on theater reform, the composer found himself embroiled in a Dresden political coup, which led to his banishment from the Kingdom of Saxony. Finding refuge in Switzerland, he spent the next eleven years exiled from Germany. Lohengrin had just been completed, but there was no place to have it suitably performed. Thus, he spent the years that followed extolling his philosophies and artistic ideologies on paper. It was also during this period that Wagner began to think about the Ring Cycle, drawn from Teutonic mythology and starting at the point of Siegfried’s death, as his hero had been spawned out of the composer’s failed revolutionary ideals. The four libretti were written in reverse order, then composed in forward motion. Two of Wagner’s greatest achievements during his years in Zurich were the completion of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. He renewed his friendship with Franz Liszt, whom he had first met in Paris. Liszt’s experiments in chromaticism would have a profound impact on Wagner’s future compositional style, and the famed pianist was helpful in getting Lohengrin staged at the Weimar Court Theater in 1850.
The Ring Cycle was put on temporary hiatus as Wagner turned to Tristan und Isolde. The opera was motivated in part by a romantic entanglement the composer had with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his Zurich benefactor. She was impressed by his genius, and he needed a woman who truly understood his artistry, something his more custodial relationship with Minna had failed to provide. Minna discovered the affair, and after an angry scene at the Wesendoncks’ villa (the Wagners were staying in a small house on the property), she returned to Dresden and Richard went to Venice, then Lucerne, where he completed Tristan in peace.
But there was no real hope in seeing the opera staged, and Wagner realized he had to relocate to a large city in order to recoup some of his financial losses. Germany was still hostile territory, so Wagner looked back to Paris. At first he approached Léon Carvalho, hoping to get Tannhäuser mounted at the impresario’s Théâtre Lyrique. Carvalho was clearly startled by the opera’s unusual score, but was not reluctant to promote Wagner’s cause in Paris. The composer had the good fortune to attract the notice of Princess Pauline Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador and confidante of Napoleon III and his empress. Her influence led to the Emperor’s command performance of Tannhäuser in 1861 at the Paris Opéra, which would become one of the greatest theatrical scandals of the 19th century. Following a riotous premiere, initiated by the disenchanted legitimists of the Parisian Jockey Club, the opera was withdrawn after only three performances.
Wagner returned to Germany, having achieved partial amnesty. His next objective was to get Tristan staged in Karlsruhe and Vienna, but he had little luck. The next few years he continued to travel the cities of Europe as plans for a new opera germinated inside his head, based on the song contests of the legendary mastersingers.
By 1864 the composer had hit rock bottom, desperately in debt, his friends virtually tapped out. He had already sold the rights to his completed operas (sometimes more than once) and mortgaged on the proceeds of his future works. The outlook appeared bleak, yet a miracle was about to occur – Wagner had attracted the attention of newly crowned King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The young monarch had been in awe of Wagner’s genius for some time, and one of his first official acts was to send for the 51-year-old composer, set him up in a home close to the royal palace and pay off his most urgent liabilities. Ludwig then gave him a generous allowance, and Wagner turned to finishing his Ring Cycle.
The more pressing issue was to mount the yet-unseen Tristan und Isolde, which Ludwig was quick to put into rehearsal. At about the same time, the composer had struck up an amorous relationship with Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of conductor and Wagner disciple Hans von Bülow. It is commonly believed that Isolde, Cosima’s third child, was fathered by Richard.
But Ludwig’s lavish attention and Wagner’s own theatrical machinations created an anti-Wagner faction among the court advisors. The cabinet threatened to resign if the composer was not removed, a condition to which Ludwig was forced to agree, and Wagner returned to Switzerland, although the king continued to pay his bills. That winter, after several years of separation, Minna Wagner died. In spite of their silent animosity, Richard had continued to provide support, and the couple did not divorce. Cosima soon joined him at Tribschen, his new Swiss home, with her three children. By 1867 the couple had produced another child, Eva, though christened “von Bülow,” was raised as a Wagner.
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was premiered in Munich in 1868 and was an artistic triumph. But Ludwig, not completely blind to the composer’s obstinate personality, began to cool to their relationship. The scandal of Richard and Cosima’s adulterous affair hadn’t helped, though she was finally able to divorce her husband to marry Wagner after Minna died. Von Bülow withdrew from the upcoming Munich premiere of Das Rheingold, which he had been engaged to conduct, and from afar Wagner tried to circumvent the production over which he was losing artistic control. Having long ago acquired all the rights, Ludwig went ahead with the premiere in the absence of the composer. Die Walküre was similarly produced the following year.
Wagner turned his attention to creating a festival devoted only to his music in the city of Bayreuth, and the cornerstone was laid on May 22, 1872, his 59th birthday. Surprisingly he was able to mend the fence with Ludwig, who supplied a loan of 100,000 thalers to save the project and later underwrote the festival’s deficit. The first Ring Cycle was initiated on August 13, 1876, with completed versions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung receiving their world premieres on August 16 and 17, respectively.
Wagner’s last project for the stage was Parsifal which, in 1882, he programmed as the festival’s only work. Ludwig put the artistic resources of his Hoftheater at the composer’s disposal. The opera’s completion took a heavy toll on the composer’s declining health. After the festival he and his family (which now included a young son, Siegfried) took up residence in Venice to recuperate, but it was too late – Wagner would succumb to his final heart attack in February of the following year.