Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Richard Wagner inspired in his contemporaries extremes ofreaction. His career was in many ways thoroughly discreditable. He betrayedfriends and patrons, accumulated debts with abandon, and seemed, in pursuit ofhis aims, an unprincipled opportunist. Nevertheless, whatever his defects ofcharacter, he exercised a hypnotic influence over his immediate followers,while his creation of a new form of music-drama, in which the arts werecombined, and the magnitude of his ambitious conception continue to fascinate.
As a boy in Leipzig Wagner was inspired by the example ofBeethoven's Ninth Symphony, while his literary ambitions drew strength from astudy of Shakespeare. Study of music in Leipzig was followed in 1833 byappointment as chorus-master at the opera in W??rzburg, through the agency of anelder brother, a principal tenor there. The next year he became music directorto Heinrich Bethmann's theatre company, moving with it to Magdeburg, largely atthe insistence of the actress Minna Planer, whom he followed to Konigsberg,marrying her there in November 1836. The following spring saw him as musicdirector to the Konigsberg theatre and in the summer he took up an appointmentas music director in Riga, where he was joined again by Minna, who had earlierdeserted him for other lovers. Employment in Riga ended in March 1839 and debtsnow forced Wagner to take flight, sailing to London, but finally finding refugeand a possible realisation of ambitions in Paris.
While the French capital offered experience that provedfruitful, there were practical difficulties in earning a living. In 1842,however, Wagner succeeded, with the help of Meyerbeer, in securing a staging ofhis opera Rienzi in Dresden, followed by Die fliegende Hollander andappointment as music director at the court opera. He held this position untilinvolvement with revolutionaries in 1849 forced him to seek refuge inSwitzerland. Years spent there, interrupted by periods in Paris, Venice, andVienna, brought growing achievement as a composer and the patronage of KingLudwig II of Bavaria in Munich, where the great music dramas of his maturitywere staged. Rivalries forced his departure, again to Switzerland, where, onnews of the death of his wife, who had remained in Dresden, he was joined byLiszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima, the wife of the pianist and conductorHans von B??low. A year before her divorce from von B??low, she bore Wagner ason, Siegfried, and brought with her two daughters that Wagner had fathered.The couple married in 1870 and the following year Wagner turned his attentionto the building of his own opera house in Bayreuth, with further support fromKing Ludwig, from whom Wagner had been estranged for some years. It was in thenew theatre that the first complete performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen wasperformed in 1876, to be followed in 1882 by the first staging of Parsifal.Over the years Wagner had generally spent the winter in the warmer climate ofItaly. He died in Venice in February 1883.
The climax of Wagner's career came with the creation ofBayreuth and the monumental tetralogy Der Ring. The overtures included in thepresent release largely represent his earlier work, compositions that suggest,at least, something of what was to follow. The grand tragic opera Rienzi, derletzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) marked his firstsuccess, when it was staged in Dresden in 1842. It is based on the 1835 novelby Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which Wagner read in the summer of 1837. Wagner'slibretto largely follows the scheme of the novel. The opera is set infourteenth-century Rome. Cola Rienzi has pledged to avenge his brother's murderby the powerful Colonna family. Adriano Colonna, however, is in love withRienzi's sister Irene, whom Paolo Orsini, scion of a rival noble Roman family,has tried to abduct. Rienzi, a champion of republicanism, enjoys popularesteem, but refuses to become king, offering himself, instead, as tribune ofthe people. He is finally destroyed by conspirators, after his excommunication,dying with his sister in the destruction of the Capitol. The openingtrumpet-call of the overture, a motif that returns, suggests Rienzi's power asa revolutionary. Other themes heard in the overture include Rienzi's prayerfrom Act V, an ascending motif associated with the people, a hymn of battle anda march theme from Act II.
In 1831 Wagner, full of ambition as a composer, had leftLeipzig University. Among a number of compositions was the 1832 overture to theplay Konig Enzio (King Enzio) by Ernest Raupach, a prolific writer of the time,credited with some 117 plays, well in accord with popular taste. Thesimilarities of plot with those of Fidelio suggested an overture in a similarmood, influenced by Beethoven. In the play the king of the title is held in a dungeon,while his daughter Lucia, a r??le taken by Wagner's elder sister Rosalie,attempts to help him, having entered the prison in disguise.
Das Liebesverbot, oder Die Novize von Palermo (The Ban onLove, or the Novice of Palermo), based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,was completed in 1836 and given one very poor performance in Magdeburg. The useof castanets and tambourine suggests Palermo, while other themes areassociated, in the manner of leitmotifs, with characters in the action. Theplot revolves around the Regent Friedrich, who has forbidden immorality,including, it seems love, a ban under which the young Claudio has beencondemned. The young novice Isabella is induced to appeal to Friedrich, whoagrees to release Claudio in return for her favours. Her place is taken by afellow-novice, Mariana, Friedrich's former wife. His hypocritical behaviour isrevealed at a carnival celebration that he had banned, and a measure offreedom, and, it seems, free love, is restored by the return of the king. Theopera is influenced by the music that Wagner had encountered, either by studyor practical experience in the opera house, notably here French and Italianmodels. He explained in his autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) how the secondperformance, in front of a virtually empty house, had to be called off afterthe young tenor who sang Claudio was severely beaten by the jealous husband ofthe prima donna.
Wagner had completed Die Feen (The Fairies) in 1834, but itwas not performed until after his death. He based the libretto on Gozzi's Ladonna serpente and was at the time greatly influenced by Weber and Marschner,the latter's Vampyr and Hans Heiling having been in the repertoire at W??rzburg.Ada, half fairy, half mortal, agrees to marry the King of Tramond, who hasstrayed into her realm while hunting. Forbidden to seek her identity he givesway to his curiosity. Ada disappears, now forced to test him, before they canbe together again as mortals. He fails her tests and curses her, leaving hercondemned to petrifaction, a fate from which she is eventually released by theKing, himself restored from madness to seek her in the underworld through thepower of his music. The overture, competently crafted, has references to whatis to follow, leading through the trials imposed on the two lovers to finalresolution.
The overture to Theodor Apel's play Christoph Columbus waswritten for a staging in Magdeburg by Bethmann's troupe. Apel, a close friendof Wagner and two years younger, was well-to-do, and of material assistance tohis friend, as occasion arose in these earlier years. He made a significantfinancial contribution towards the staging of his indifferent drama. Theoverture was used by Wagner on later occasions and through the help ofMeyerbeer, whose recommendation to Dresden was to lead to the staging of Rienzithere, was able to hear it played i