Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is not only known because of his 13 operas and numerous other compositions but also because of his inevitable influence on our understanding of German culture and history.
He has been classified as an anarchist and a socialist and, simultaneously, as a proto-fascist and nationalist, as a vegetarian and an antisemite. In fact, his name has appeared in connection to almost all major trends in German history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in Leipzig into an unassuming family. His father died shortly after Richard's birth, and within the year his mother married Ludwig Geyer. There is still some controversy as to whether or not Geyer, an itinerant actor, was Wagner's real father. Wagner's musical training was largely left to chance until he was 18, when he studied with Theodor Weinlig in Leipzig for a year. He began his career in 1833 as choral director in Würzburg and composed his early works in imitation of German romantic compositions. Beethoven was his major idol at this time.
Besides his activity as a composer and a librettist Wagner wrote an astonishing number of books and articles (this link includes some complete works as hypertext), in fact about 230 titles. The literary spectrum ranges from theories of opera to political programs. You may catch some of his political ideas from the quotations I have chosen. You may also read what contemporaries and later scholars have written about him. His relationship with Ludwig II was remarkable in many ways - the composer was given very generous terms over the years of Ludwig's patronage. But Wagner's conspicuous consumption of Ludwig's money, allied to a transparent contempt for the local aristocrats, precipitated a move from Munich to Lake Lucerne in 1865. Richard Wagner is undoubtedly one of the leading figures of the 19th century. Already at his time, he was a source of debate and controversy. When Wagner died in 1883, over 10.000 books and articles were written about him. The amount of research has multiplied after his death.
Wagner inspired not only musicians and composers but artists alike. One of the most famous artists to illustrate Wagner's operas was the noted 19th century German painter Ferdinand Leeke (1859-1925). An interesting and still rather neglected side of Wagner is the memorabilia and popular culture inspired by his character. Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner's music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation. There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking. The Nazis used those parts of Wagner's thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest.
The Ring is central to Wagner's career. Here he wished to present new ideas of morality and human activity that would completely alter the course of history. He envisioned a world made entirely free from subservience to supernatural bondage, which he believed had adversely affected Western civilization from ancient Greece to the present. Wagner also held that at the source of all human activity was fear, which must be purged so that man can live the perfect life. In the Ring he attempted to set forth the standards for superior humans, those beings who would dominate individuals less fortunate; in turn, such lesser mortals would recognize their own inferior status and yield to the radiance offered by the perfect hero. The implications inherent in a quest for moral and racial purity are vital to Wagner's intentions in the Ring.
In Tristan Wagner rejected the affirmative way he developed in the Ring. Instead, he explored the dark side of love in order to plunge to the depths of negative experience. Tristan and Isolde, liberated and not doomed by a love potion they drink, willingly destroy a kingdom in order to love and to live; the sensual power of love is seen here as a destructive force, and the musical style of devious chromaticism and overwhelming orchestral pulsation is perfect for the messages of the drama.
Wagner's egomania, never tolerable to anyone save those who could blind themselves totally to his flaws, came to the fore in the Meistersinger. The tale of the young hero-singer who conquers the old order and forces a new, sensually more exciting style upon the tradition-bound Nuremburg society is the tale of the Ring in a slightly different guise. (Wagner openly claimed Tristan to be the Ring in microcosm.) It is obvious in the Meistersinger that Wagner identifies himself with the messianic figure of a young German poet and singer who wins the prize and is finally accepted as the leader of a new society.
In Parsifal Wagner identified himself even more intensely with the hero as the savior, the world's redeemer. The mysteries celebrated in Parsifal are those prepared for the glory of Wagner himself and not for any god.
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