Richard Wagner, the youngest of nine children was born at Leipzig, May 22, 1813. Significantly, around his cradle was fought the battle of the nations. One hundred and twenty thousand Germans and Frenchman lay dead or dying in the fields near Leipzig; and the epidemic fever which came stalking abroad to finish the grim work of carnage left the future composer fatherless when only five months old. The widow married again, this time an actor at the Dresden Theatre.
Like Schumann, Wagner ripened late. No musical prodigy was he; yet at seven he could strum a tune on the piano, and his step-father, dying then, hoped that "something worth while might be made of Richard." Wagner, telling this, adds: "I remember how I long imagined that something would be made of me." Something was made of him! But for a long time it was uncertain what would be his life-calling. He thought he would be a poet, and wrote verses on the Greek model. He thought he would be a dramatist, and wrote a portentous play compounded of "Hamlet" and "Lear" and "Titus Andronicus." Forty-two persons were destroyed one after the other before the end; and in order to have any one on the stage, the characters were brought back as ghosts! The art with which his name was to become immortally associated was not much in his mind then. His Latin tutor gave him some piano lessons, but predicted that musically he would "come to nothing." Wagner hated the piano, and, like Berlioz, never could play it well.
His fate was sealed by hearing one of Beethovens symphonies. "I fell ill of a fever," he says, speaking of this turning point in his life, "and when I recovered, I was -- a musician." Not long after, he heard Goethes "Egmont," with Beethovens incidental music. His own tremendous tragedy must have incidental music too! And so he decided to be composer. He took lessons and wrote overtures, one of which he carried to Dorn, conductor of the Royal Theatre at Dresden. It was written in three different coloured inks -- red for strings, green for wood-wind, black for brass -- and Dorn had it performed. Meanwhile, in 1828, Wagner entered the University of Leipzig, where he gave himself up to all excesses of student life. Music was temporarily laid aside in favour of classical study. But only temporarily. He took more lessons, and in six months was told by his professor that he had arrived at technical independence.
Compositions of various kinds followed, some of which were performed in Leipzig; but it was not until he read Bulwers "Rienzi," about 1837, that he did anything worth mentioning. He was married by this time (in 1836) -- married miserably, as events proved, and in a sack of debt. His betrothed, Minna Planer (an actress, "pretty as a picture"), had gone as "leading lady" to Konigsberg, and Wagner, following her from Magdeburg (where he had been doing routine musical work), was appointed musical director of the theatre there. The wedding followed. "I was in love," he said afterwards, "and I persisted in getting married, thus involving myself and another in unhappiness." After filling another miserable post at a Riga theatre, Wagner came to London (on his way to Paris), with his wife and a big Newfoundland dog, and the two completed acts of "Rienzi." On the voyage (it lasted nearly a month, for there was a terrific storm in the North Sea), the sailors told him the story of the Flying Dutchman, which was to bear fruit later.
Wagner went to Paris, hoping to win fame and fortune; buoyed up by the prospect of having "Rienzi" staged there. Alas! it was the old story over again. The despairing young genius had to slave for bread and butter by the most humiliating musical drudgery -- "making arrangements for every imaginable kind of instrument, even the cornet." He wrote articles for a musical paper; wrote even a couple of novelettes! He applied for a post as singer in a small theatre, and was told by the conductor who examined him that he could not sing. And he had been chorus-master at Wurzburg, too! Happily the clouds were breaking. Wagner had confidence in himself, and while he wrote for food he wrote also for fame. He finished "Rienzi," which was presently accepted for Dresden. Then he started on "The Flying Dutchman," and completed that in seven weeks. Paris, he realised, would never to anything for him, and in the spring of 1842 he saw the Rhine, the German Rhine, for the first time, and swore eternal fealty to the Fatherland.
"Rienzi," produced in the October of that year, set him on the road to success. He had obtained the snug berth of conductor at the Dresden Opera, with a salary of £250; and here he remained (having meanwhile, in 1845, produced "Tannhäuser") until the Revolution of 1848. Wagner was, as Liszt said, a born reformer, undaunted by blood or fire. Nothing would restrain him at this juncture. He made red-hot Republican speeches, and actually fought at the barricades. He was proscribed, of course, and had to fly for his life. A price was put on his head, and he hid himself in Paris. Later, he went to Switzerland, and twelve long years of exile and poverty followed. To his everlasting credit, Liszt never failed to answer his appeals for help. It was, as will be told, in these early days of exile that this loyal friend brought out "Lohengrin" at Weimar. "Artist, I have faith in you," he once said to Wagner, and he proved his faith in the best of all ways -- by works.
At last, in 1861, mainly by the intervention of Princess Metternich, Wagner obtained permission to return to Germany. He had been working hard at the great trilogy of the "Ring," but he saw no hope of ever bringing it to completion, as indeed he sadly said when he published the libretto in 1864. But just then Ludwig II., the "mad king," then a youth of nineteen, mounted the throne of Bavaria, and Wagner received from him a handsome villa residence and a substantial allowance besides, thus enabling him to finish his great art work in comfort. The story has often been told, but will bear telling again, how Ludwig sent Adjutant Sauer to seek the composer. Sauer went first to Vienna, and then to Switzerland, without success. In Switzerland, however, he met Baron Hornstein, the song-composer, who put him on the right track. "I know where Wagner is," said the Baron; "he is at Stuttgart, hiding from his creditors." Such was indeed the case, and according to several biographers, the despairing Wagner was just about to put an end to his life, when the opportune arrival of Ludwigs messenger saved him. Ludwig, he said, writing to a friend, "wants me to be always with him, to work, to rest, and to produce my music-dramas. He will give me all I need. I am to finish the Ring, and everything shall be as I wish." Truly has it been said that Liszt and Ludwig ("mad," as he was) saved Wagner to the world.
"Tristan" was performed under Von Bülows direction in 1865; three years later, and "Die Meistersinger" was produced. In 1870 occurred another notable event in Wagners life, for it was then that he married the divorced wife of Bülow, -- Cosima, the daughter of Liszt. Poor Minna, separated from Wagner from 1861, had died, isolated, in 1866. Bülow, almost broken-hearted, forgave Wagner and his Cosima, and remained faithful to the music of the future, though he expressed the wish that the man had been another than Wagner, that he might have shot him! The union turned out happily, and Cosima Wagner, who lived until 1930, devoted her life to promoting the fame of her husband.
The culmination of the masters great career was reached when the gigantic "Ring of the Nibelung" was finished and produced in 1875. "Parsifal," his last work, his musical will, was completed at Palermo in January 1882. In the autumn of that year, Wagner and his family (a son, Siegfried, had been born to him) went to Venice; and there, on the 13th of February 1883, this mighty spirit fled from earth -- the most stupendous musical genius of the last half of the nineteenth century. He lies where his faithful dog "Russ" had been laid, in the garden of his own house, Wahnfried, at Bayreuth -- that Bayreuth which he declared to be "the art center of the world."