This past Wednesday,May 22, the famous German composer Richard Wagner would have turned 200 years old. A controversial and eccentric figure throughout his lifetime, he was commemorated this year by many opera houses throughout the world and special festivals celebrating his Bicentenary.
Growing Up in Germany and Life in Exile
On May 22, 1813 Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig as a ninth child. His biological father passed away when Wagner was only 6 months old, and he grew up with his stepfather, an actor and playwright. He loved theatre and followed in his stepdad’s footsteps so that he initially wanted to become a playwright as well. His love for dramatic writing stayed with him and he wrote his own libretti for all his operas.
During several stages of his life Wagner had to leave Germany and live in exile, either to avoid his creditors or because of his political engagements. Amorous affairs marked his life until is death.
Wagner’s Artistic Gift to the World
At the age of 20, Richard Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies)… a work inspired by Carl Maria v. Weber’s music, whose opera Der Freischütz had intrigued the young Wagner. However Die Feen stayed unproduced until after his death.
Even though he composed much more than only operas, which often are referred to as “music dramas”, Wagner’s primary artistic legacy are exactly those.
Wagner uniquely not only composed the music for his operas but also wrote the libretti himself, which he called “poems”. He formed the terminology “Gesamtkunstwerk”, “…in which all musical, poetic and dramatic elements were to be fused.”
Wagner’s most famous operas include Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Der fliegende Hollaender, and Rienzi ; his tragic love story Tristan und Isolde, and his only comedy Die Meistersinger, as well as his later masterpieces within “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, which is a set of four operas, referred to also as the “Ring” or “Ring Cycle”. The four operas within the “Ring” are Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.
He has been an innovator in many ways and revolutionized the until then used classical framework for operas. Compositions of especially his later time period helped pave the way for modern music. His own opera house in Bayreuth he designed in a way that the audience has a perfect view of the stage and the performers from every seat. He moved away from the traditional horse-shoe shaped opera house seating to a seating structure seen today in all contemporary movie theaters: The seats are arranged in a single steeply-shaped wedge, with no galleries or boxes.
Inspiration to royals & dictators
Wagner, a controversial figure during his lifetime, a provocateur and polemic, inspired royals and dictators alike. King Ludwig II of Bavaria was one of Wagner’s great admirers and financial rescuers. He built one fantasy castle in particular to accommodate certain themes of the Wagnerian operas. Castle Neuschwanstein, a model for Disneylands Fairytale castle, was his homage to Wagner.
Ludwig II is said to have gone so far in his devotion to Richard Wagner as to consider giving up his office as monarch of Bavaria prematurely in order to follow Wagner into exile.
Sadly Wagner’s operas with its teutonic themes also became an inspiration to dictator Adolf Hitler . He was introduced to Wagner’s work as an adolescent long after the composer’s death, and felt that Wagner’s operas supported his own vision of the German nation and views on society in grand. Furthermore, Wagner’s own antisemitic writings might have been another reinforcement to Hitler of his own ideas. When Hitler came to power, Bayreuth was managed by Winifred Wagner, the English-born widow of Siegfried Wagner, a son of Richard Wagner. She was a supporter of Hitler and invited him often to Bayreuth as a guest.
Wagner’s Heritage Lives on Today
Having been a fascinating personality throughout his life, he now lives on through his descendants. His family continues to be dedicated to guarding and keeping his musical heritage to the world alive. Every year, the Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth Festival) draws in an international audience. It’s a festival that has been organized by family members ever since Bayreuth became the home not only for the Wagner family but most importantly for Wagner’s operas solely. Katharina Wagner, Richard Wagner’s great granddaughter, is the current opera stage-director and co-director of the Bayreuth Festival.