Arthurian Legend in Music

Richard Wagner

   Born in Leipzig in 1813, the youngest of nine children of Friedrich and Johanna Wagner, his early years were marred by the death of his father and step-father. His father died 6 months after Richard was born. His mother remarried Ludwig Geyer, an actor and portrait painter, the following year and the family moved to Dresden; but Geyer died in 1821. By 1827, the family had returned to Leipzig.
   Like most creative genius, Wagner showed talent at an early age producing his first work, a spoken tragedy Leubald and Adelaide in 1828. Unsatisfied, he turned to music and proceeded to teach himself the rudiments of composition. He studied for a brief period in late 1831-32 with the Leipzig cantor C. T. Weinlig.
   Over the next few years, Wagner held a series of conducting posts with small theatrical companies. In 1834, he wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies) and followed it with Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love). Das Liebesverbot was performed in 1836 in Magdeburg but won little acclaim. Undaunted, Wagner wrote his third opera, Rienzi, on a grander scale. He traveled to Paris in hope of having it performed there; but it was to take three years before it was accepted for performance in Dresden in 1842. Its success and that of Der fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) the following year, led to his appointment to a conducting post in Dresden.
   Influenced in part by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who sought renunciation of worldly desires, Wagner's new themes of flawed heroes and heroines transfigured by a fall and redemption through new awareness or love made him a controversial artist. His music celebrates death as a step toward redemption. Wagner increasingly turned to myth and legend for his dramatic materials, searching for themes of lasting value even as he targeted the problems of social change. He completed Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848) before political activism drove him into exile in Switzerland. 
   While in exile, he began his greatest work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, a 4 part grand opera cycle consisting of Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) that would not be finished until 1874. During the next years, he wrote several treatises on the nature of opera. The guiding principles of his theories were naturalism and dramatic truth, a dramatic blending of music, verse, and staging that he called 'Gesamtkunstwerk'. His prosaic verse lacked an end-rhyme which he felt led to closed structures. The verse was unified with the symphonic melodies by a web of motifs associated with characters, things, ideas, and events of the storyline. Wagner called these motifs 'Grundthemen', but they have become better known as leitmotivs (leading motifs). Halfway through Siegfried, Wagner stopped work on Der Ring while he composed Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) and Die Meistersinger (1862-67).
   In 1864, Wagner's fortunes soared in Munich under the patronage of the eccentric (or mad) Bavarian king, Ludwig, an ardent admirer of Wagner's music and theories. Wagner would spend the next 20 years until his death on Feb 13, 1883, writing and performing his works. Ludwig's patronage allowed Wagner to construct a theatre of his own design in Bayreuth. It was opened in 1876 with the first complete production of Der Ring. Parsifal, his last opera, was performed there in 1882 with all the ceremony of a religious event. 
   Following Wagner's death, control of the Bayreuth Festival was assumed by his second wife, Cosima (a daughter of Franz Liszt), and successively by their children and grandchildren, all the way to the present date.
   Wagner remains a controversial figure even today. He was a noted anti-Semite. After his death, Cosima continued to promote these views along with his music. In the years following World War I, his music came to symbolize German nationalism and the German soul. Hitler mis-appropriated Wagner's music, using it as musical score to his ideals of Aryan superiority. Because of this association, Wagner's music has not been played in Israel since 1938.


Tristan und Isolde