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Richard Wagner and his Operas

Richard Wagner was born at Leipzig, May 22, 1813. His father was clerk to the city police court and a man of good education. During the French occupation of Leipzig he was, owing to his knowledge of French, made chief of police. He was fond of poetry and had a special love for the drama, often taking part in amateur theatricals.

Five months after Richard’s birth his father died of an epidemic fever brought on by the carnage during the battle of Leipzig, October 16, 18, and 19, 1813. In 1815 his widow, whom he had left in most straitened circumstances, married Ludwig Geyer, an actor, a playwright, and a portrait painter. By inheritance from his father, by association with his stepfather, who was very fond of him, Wagner readily acquired the dramatic faculty so pronounced in his operas and music-dramas of which he is both author and composer.

At the time Wagner’s mother married Geyer, he was a member of the Court Theatre at Dresden. Thither the family removed. When the boy was eight years old, he had learned to play on the pianoforte the chorus of bridesmaids from "Der Freischütz", then quite new. The day before Geyer’s death, September 30, 1821, Richard was playing this piece in an adjoining room and heard Geyer say to his mother: "Do you think he might have a gift for music?" Coming out of the death room Wagner’s mother said to him: "Of you he wanted to make something." "From this time on," writes Wagner in his early autobiographical sketch, "I always had an idea that I was destined to amount to something in this world."

At school Wagner made quite a little reputation as a writer of verses. He was such an enthusiastic admirer of Shakespeare that at the age fourteen he began a grand tragedy, of which he himself says that it was a jumble of Hamlet and Lear. So many people died in the course of it that their ghosts had to return in order to keep the fifth act going.

In 1833, at the age of twenty, Wagner began his career as a professional musician. His elder brother Albert was engaged as tenor, actor, and stage manager at the Würzburg theatre. A position as chorus master being offered to Richard, he accepted it, although his salary was a pittance of ten florins a month. However, the experience was valuable. He was able to profit by many useful hints from his brother, the Musikverein performed several of his compositions, and his duties were not so arduous but that he found time to write the words and music of an opera in three acts entitled "The Fairies" -- first performed in June, 1888, five years after his death, at Munich. In the autumn of 1834 he was called to the conductorship of the opera at Magdeburg. There he wrote and produced an opera, "Das Liebesverbot" (Love Veto), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The theatre at Magdeburg was, however, on the ragged edge of bankruptcy, and during the spring of 1836 matters became so bad that it was evident the theatre must soon close. Finally only twelve days were left for the rehearsing and the performance of his opera. The result was that the productions went completely to pieces, singers forgetting their lines and music, and a repetition which was announced could not come off because of a free fight behind the scenes between two of the principal singers. Wagner describes this is the following amusing passage in his autobiographical sketch:

All at once the husband of my prima donna (the impersonator of Isabella) pounced upon the second tenor, a very young and handsome fellow (the singer of my "Claudio"), against whom the injured spouse had long cherished a secret jealousy. It seemed that the prima donna’s husband, who had from behind the curtains inspected with me the composition of the audience, considered that the time had now arrived when, without damage to the prospects of the theatre, he could take his revenge on his wife’s lover. Claudio was so pounded and belaboured by him that the unhappy individual was compelled to retire to the dressing-room with his face all bleeding. Isabella was informed of this, and, rushing desperately toward her furious lord, received from him such a series of violent cuffs that she forthwith went into spasms. The confusion among my personnel was now quite boundless: everybody took sides with one party or the other, and everything seemed on the point of a general fight. It seemed as if this unhappy evening appeared to all of them precisely calculated for a final setting up of all sorts of fancied insults. This much was evident, that the couple who had suffered under the ‘love veto’ (Liebesverbot) of Isabella’s husband, were certainly unable to appear on this occasion."

Wagner was next engaged as orchestral conductor at Königsberg, where he married the actress Wilhelmina, or Minna Planer. Later he received notice of his appointment as conductor and of the engagement of his wife and sister at the theatre at Riga, on the Russian side of the Baltic.

In Riga he began the composition of his first great success, "Rienzi." He completed the libretto during the summer of 1838, and began the music in the autumn, and when his contract terminated in the spring of 1839 the first two acts were finished. In July, accompanied by his wife and a huge Newfoundland dog, he boarded a sailing vessel for London, at the port of Pilau, his intention being to go from London to Paris. "I shall never forget the voyage," he says. "It was full of disaster. Three times we nearly suffered shipwreck, and once were obliged to seek safety in a Norwegian harbour…. The legend of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ was confirmed by the sailors, and the circumstances gave it a distinct and characteristic colour in my mind." No wonder the sea is depicted so graphically in his opera "The Flying Dutchman."

He arrived in Paris in September, 1839, and remained until April 7, 1842, from his twenty-sixth to his twenty-ninth year. This Parisian sojourn was one of the bitter experiences of his life. At times he actually suffered from cold an hunger, and was obliged to do a vast amount of most uncongenial kind of hack work.

November 19, 1840, he competed the score of "Rienzi," and in December forwarded it to the director of the Royal Theatre at Dresden. While awaiting a reply, he contributed to the newspapers and did all kinds of musical drudgery for Schlesiner, the music publisher, even making arrangements for the cornet à piston. Finally word came from Dresden. "Rienzi" had aroused the enthusiasm of the chorus master, Fischer, and of the tenor Tichatschek, who saw that the title role was exactly suited to his robust, dramatic voice. Then there was Mme. Schroeder-Devrient for the part of Adriano. The opera was produced October 20, 1842, the performance beginning at six and ending just before midnight, to the enthusiastic plaudits of an immense audience. So great was the excitement that in spite of the late hour people remained awake to talk over the success. "We all ought to have gone to bed," relates a witness, "but we did nothing of the kind." Early the next morning Wagner appeared at the theatre in order to make excisions from the score, which he thought its great length necessitated. But when he returned in the afternoon to see if they had been executed, the copyist excused himself by saying the singers had protested against any cuts. Tichatschek said: "I will have no cuts; it is too heavenly." After a while, owing to its length, the opera was divided into two evenings.

The success of "Rienzi" led the Dresden management to put "The Flying Dutchman" in rehearsal. It was brought out after somewhat hasty preparations, January 2, 1843. The opera was so different from "Rienzi," its somber beauty contrasted so darkly with the glaring, brilliant music and scenery of the latter, that the audience failed to grasp it. In fact, after "Rienzi" it was a disappointment.

Before the end of January, 1843, not long after the success of "Rienzi," Wagner was appointed one of the Royal conductors at Dresden. He was installed February 2nd. One of his first duties was to assist Berlioz at the rehearsals of the latter’s concerts. Wagner’s work in his new position was somewhat varied, consisting not only of conducting operas, but also music between the acts at theatrical performances and at church services. The principal operas which he rehearsal and conducted were "Euryanthe," "Freischütz," "Don Giovanni," "The Magic Flute," Gluck’s "Armide," and "Iphigenia in Aulis." The last named was revised both as regards words and music by him, and his changes are now generally accepted.

Meanwhile he worked arduously on "Tannhäuser," completing it April 13, 1844. It was produced at Dresden, October 19, 1845. At first the work proved even a greater puzzle to the public than "The Flying Dutchman" had, and evoked comments which nowadays, when the opera has actually become a classic, seem ridiculous. Some people even suggested that the plot of the opera should be changed so that Tannhäuser should marry Elizabeth.

The management of the Dresden theatre, which had witnessed the brilliant success of "Rienzi" and had seen "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tannhäuser" at least hold their own in spite of the most virulent opposition, looked upon his next work, "Lohengrin," as altogether too risky and put off its production indefinitely.

Thinking that political changes might put an end to the routine stagnation in musical matters, Wagner joined in the revolutionary agitation of ’48 and ’49. In May, 1849, the disturbances at Dresden reached such an alarming point that the Saxon Court fled. Prussian troops were dispatched to quell the riot and Wagner thought it advisable to flee. He went to Weimar, where Liszt was busy rehearsing "Tannhäuser." While attending a rehearsal of this work, May 19, news was received that orders had been issued for his arrest as a politically dangerous individual. Liszt at once procured a passport and Wagner started for Paris. In June he went to Zurich, where he found Dresden friends and where his wife joined him, being enabled to do so through the zeal of Liszt, who raised the money to defray her journey from Dresden.

Liszt brought out "Lohengrin" at Weimar, August 28, 1850. The reception of "Lohenrgin" did not at first differ much from that accorded to "Tannhauser." Yet the performance made a deep impression. The fact that the weight of Liszt’s influence had been cast in its favour gave vast importance to the event, and it may be said that through this performance Wagner’s cause received its first great stimulus. The so-called Wagner movement may be said to have dated from this production of "Lohengrin."

He finished the librettos of the "Nibelung" dramas in 1853. By May, 1854, the music of "Das Rheingold" was composed. The following month he began "Die Walküre" and finished all but the instrumentation during the following winter and the full score in 1856. Previous to this, in fact already in the autumn of 1854, he had sketched some of the music of "Siegfried," and in the spring of 1857 the full score of the first act and of the greater part of the second act was finished. Then, recognizing the difficulties which he would encounter in securing a peformance of the "Ring," and appalled by the prospect of the battle he would be obliged to wage, he was so disheartened that he abandoned the composition of "Siegfried" at the Waldweben scene and turned to "Tristan." His idea at that time was that "Tristan" would be short and comparatively easy to perform. Genius that he was, he believed that because it was easy for him to write great music it would be easy for others to interpret it. A very curious, not to say laughable, incident occurred at this time. An agent of the Emperor of Brazil called and asked if Wagner would compose an opera for an Italian troupe at Rio de Janiero, and would he conduct the work himself, all upon his own terms. The composition of "Tristan" actually was begun with a view of its being performed by Italians in Brazil.

The poem of "Tristan" was finished early in 1857, and in the winter of the same year the full score of the first act was ready to be forwarded to the engraver. The second act is dated Venice, March 2, 1859. The third is dated Lyons, August, 1859.

It is interesting to note in connection with "Tristan" that, while Wagner wrote it because he thought it would be easy to secure its performance, he subsequently found more difficulty in getting it produced than any other of his works. In September, 1859, he again went to Paris with the somewhat curious hope that he could there find opportunity to produce "Tristan" with German artists. Through the intercession of the Princess Metternich, the Emperor ordered the production of "Tannhäuser" at the Opera. Beginning March 13, 1861, three performances were given, of which it is difficult to say whether the performance was on the stage or in the auditorium, for the uproar in the house often drowned the sounds from the stage. The members of the Jockey Club, who objected to the absence of a ballet, armed themselves with shrill whistles, on which they began to blow whenever there was the slightest hint of applause, and the result was that between the efforts of the singers to make themselves heard and of Wagner’s friends to applaud, and the shrill whistling from his enemies, there was confusion worse confounded. But Wagner’s friendship with Princess Metternich bore good fruit. Through her mediation, it is supposed, he received permission to return to all parts of Germany but Saxony. It was not until March, 1862, thirteen years after his banishment, that he was again allowed to enter the kingdom of his birth and first success.

His first thought now was to secure the production of "Tristan," but at Vienna, after fifty-seven rehearsals, it was put upon the shelf as impossible.

In 1863, while working upon "Die Meistersinger," at Penzing, near Vienna, he published his "Nibelung" dramas, expressing his hope that through the bounty of one of the German rulers the completion and performance of his "Ring of the Nibelung" would be made possible. But in the spring of 1864, worn out by his struggle with poverty and almost broken in spirit by his contest with public and critics, he actually determined to give up his public career, and eagerly grasped the opportunity to visit a private country seat in Switzerland. Just at this very moment, when despair had settled upon him, the long wished for help came. King Ludwig II, of Bavaria, bade him come to Munich, where he settled in 1864. "Tristan" was produced there June 10, 1865. June 21, 1868, a model performance of "Die Meistersinger," which he had finished in 1867, was given at Munich under the direction of von Bülow, Richter acting as chorus master and Wagner supervising all the details. Wagner also worked steadily at the unfinished portion of the "Ring," completing the instrumentation of the third act of "Siegfried" in 1869 and the introduction and first act of "The Dusk of the Gods" in June, 1870.

August 25, 1870, his first wife having died January 25, 1866, after five years’ separation from him, he married the divorced wife of von Bülow, Cosima Liszt. In 1869 and 1870, respectively, "The Rhinegold" and "The Valkyr" were performed at the Court Theatre in Munich.

Bayreuth having been determined upon as the place where a theatre for the special production of his "Ring" should be built, Wagner settled there in April, 1872. By November, 1874, "Dusk of the Gods" received its finishing touches, and rehearsals had already been held at Bayreuth. During the summer of 1875, under Wagner’s supervision, Hans Richter held full rehearsals there, and at last, twenty-eight years after its first conception, on August 13th, 14th, 16th, and 17th, again from August 20 to 23, and from August 27 to 30, 1876, "The Ring of the Nibelung" was performed at Bayreuth with the following cast: Wotan, Betz; Loge, Vogel; Alberich, Hill; Mime, Schlosser; Fricka, Frau Grun; Donner and Gunther, Gura; Erda and Waltraute, Frau Jaide; Siegmund, Niemann; Sieglinde, Frl. Schefsky; Brunnhilde, Frau Materna; Siegfried, Unger; Hagen; Siehr; Gutrune, Frl. Weckerin; Rhinedaughters; Lilli and Marie Lehmann, and Frl. Lammert. First violin, Wilhelmj; conductor, Hans Richter. The first Rhinedaughter was the same Lilli Lehmann who, in later years, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, became one of the greatest of prima donnas and, as regards the Wagnerian repertoire, set a standard for all time. Materna appeared at that house in the "Valkyr" production under Dr. Damrosch, in January, 1885, and Niemann was heard there later.

To revert to Bayreuth, "Parsifal" was produced there in July, 1882. In the autumn of that year, Wagner’s health being in an unsatisfactory state, though no alarming symptoms had shown themselves, he took up his residence in Venice at the Palazzo Vendramini, on the Grand Canal. He died February 13, 1883.

In manner incidental, that is, without attention formally being called to the subject, Wagner’s reform of the lyric stage is set forth in the descriptive accounts of his music-dramas which follow, and in which the leading motives are quoted in musical notation. But something directly to the point be said here.

Once again, like Gluck a century before, Wagner kopposed the assumption of superiority on the part of the interpreter -- the-singer -- over the composer. He opposed it in manner so thorough-going that he changed the whole face of opera. A far greater tributre to Wagner’s genius than the lame attempts of some German composers at imitating him, is the frank adoption of certain phases of his method by modern French and Italian composers, beginning with Verdi in "Aida." While by no means a Wagnerian work, since it contains not a trace of the theory of the leading motive, "Aida," through the richness of its instrumentation, the significant accompaniment of its recitative, the lack of mere bravura embellishment in its vocal score, and its sober reaching out for true dramatic effect in the treatment of the voices, substituting this for ostentatious brilliancy and ear-tickling fluency, plainly shows the influence of Wagner upon the greatest of Italian composers. And what is true of "Aida," is equally applicable to the whole school of Italian versimo that came after Verdi -- Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini.

Wagner’s works are conceived and executed upon a gigantic scale. They are Shakespearian in their dimensions and in their tragic power; or, as in the "Meistersinger," in their comedy element. Each of his works is highly individual. The "Ring" dramas and "Tristan" are unmistakably Wagner. Yet how individually characteristic the music of each! That of the "Ring" is of elemental power. The "Tristan" music is molten passion. Equally characteristic and individual are his other scores.

The theory evolved by Wagner was that the lyric stage should present not a series of melodies for voice upon a mere framework of plot and versified story, but a serious work of dramatic art, the music to which should, both vocally and instrumentally, express the ever varying development of the drama. With this end in view he invented a melodious recitative which only at certain great crises in the progress of the action -- such as the love-climax, the gathering at the Valkyr Rock, the "Farewell," and the "Magic Fire" scenes in "The Valkyr"; the meeting of Siegfried and Brünnhilde in "Siegfried"; the love duet and "Love Death" in "Tristan" -- swells into prolonged melody. Note that I say prolonged melody. For besides these prolonged melodies there is almost constant melody, besides marvelous orchestral colour, in the weft and woof of the recitative. This is produced by the artistic use of leading motives, every leading motive being a brief, but expressive, melody -- so brief that, to one coming to Wagner without previous study or experience, the melodious quality of his recitative is not appreciated at first. After a while, however, the hearer begins to recognize certain brief, but melodious and musically eloquent phrases -- leading motives-as belonging to certain characters in the drama or to certain influences potent in its development, such as hate, love, jealousy, the desire for revenge, etc. Often to express a combination of circumstances, influences, passions, or personal actions, these leading motives, these brief melodious phrases, are combined with a skill that is unprecedented; or the voice may express one, while the orchestra combines with it in another.

To enable the orchestra to follow these constantly changing phases in the evolution and development of the drama, and often to give utterance to them separately, it was necessary for Wagner to have most intimate knowledge of the individual tone-quality and characteristics of every instrument in the orchestra, and this mastery of what I may call instrumental personality he possessed to a hitherto undreamed-of degree. Nor has any one since equaled him in it. The result is a choice and variety of instrumentation which in itself is almost an equivalent for dramatic action and enables the orchestra to adapt itself with unerring accuracy to the varying phases of the drama.

Consider that, when Wagner first projected his theory of the music-drama, singers were accustomed in opera to step into the limelight and, standing there, deliver themselves of set melodies, acknowledge applause and give as many encores as were called for, in fact were "it," while the real creative thing, the opera, was but secondary, and it is easy to comprehend the opposition which his works aroused among the personnel of the lyric stage; for music-drama demands a singer’s absorption not only in the music but also in the action. A Wagner music-drama requires great singers, but the singers no longer absorb everything. They are part -- a most important part, it is true -- of a performance, in which the drama itself, the orchestra, and stage pictures are also of great importance. A performance of a Wagner music-drama, to be effective, must be a well-rounded, eloquent whole. The drama must be well acted from a purely dramatic point of view. It must be well sung from a purely vocal point of view. It must be well interpreted from a purely orchestral point of view. It must be well produced from a purely stage point of view. For all these elements go hand in hand. It is, of course, well known that Wagner was the author of his own librettos and showed himself a dramatist of the highest order for the lyric stage.

While his music-dramas at first aroused great opposition among operatic artists, growing familiarity with them caused these artists to change their view. The interpretation of a Wagner character was discovered to be a combined intellectual and emotional task which slowly, but surely, appealed more and more to the great singers of the lyric stage. They derived a new dignity and satisfaction from their work, especially as audiences also began to realize that, instead of mere entertainment, performances of Wagner music-dramas were experiences that both stirred the emotions to their depths and appealed to the intellect as well. To this day Lilli Lehmann is regarded by all, who had the good fortune to hear her at the Metropolitan Opera House, as the greatest prima donna and the most dignified figure in the history of the lyric stage in this country; for on the lyric stage the interpretation of the great characters in Wagnerian music-drama already had come to be regarded as equal to the interpretation of the great Shakespearian characters on the dramatic.

Wagner’s genius was so supreme that, although he has been dead for many years, he is still without a successor. Through the force of his own genius he appears destined to remain the sole exponent of the art form of which he was the creator. But his influence is still potent. This we discover not only in the enrichment of the orchestral accompaniment in opera, but in the banishment of senseless vocal embellishment, in the search for true dramatic expression and in general, in the greater seriousness with which opera is taken as an art. Even the minor point of lowering the lights in the auditorium during a performance, so as to concentrate attention upon the stage, is due to him; and even the older Italian operas are now given with an attention to detail, scenic setting, and an endeavour to bring out their dramatic effects, quite unheard of before his day. He was, indeed, a reformer of the lyric stage whose influence long will be potent "all along the line."

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Renaissance Music
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Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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