ONE of the most gigantic musical geniuses the world has yet known was Richard Wagner. Words have been exhausted to tell of his achievements; books without number have been written about him; he himself, in his Autobiography, and in his correspondence, has told with minutest detail how he lived and what his inner life has been. What we shall strive for is the simple story of his career, though in the simple telling, it may read like a fairy tale.
Richard Wagner first saw the light on May 22, 1813, in Leipsic. Those were stirring times in that part of the world, for revolution was often on the eve of breaking out. The tiny babe was but six months old when the father passed away. There were eight other children, the eldest son being only fourteen. The mother, a sweet, gentle little woman, found herself quite unable to support her large family of growing children. No one could blame her for accepting the hand of her husband’s old friend, Ludwig Geyer, in less than a year after the loss of her first husband. Geyer was a man of much artistic talent, an actor, singer, author and painter. He thought little Richard might become a portrait painter, or possibly a musician, since the child had learned to play two little pieces on the piano.
Geyer found employment in a Dresden theater, so the family removed to that city. But he did not live to see the blossoming of his youngest step-son’s genius, as he passed away on September 30, 1821, when the child was eight years old.
Little Richard showed wonderful promise even in those years of childhood. At the Kreuzschule, where his education began, he developed an ardent love for the Greek classics, and translated the first twelve books of the Odyssey, outside of school hours. He devoured all stories of mythology he could lay hands on, and soon began to create vast tragedies. He revelled in Shakespeare, and finally began to write a play which was to combine the ideas of both Hamlet and King Lear. Forty-two per-sons were killed off in the course of the play and had to be brought back as ghosts, as otherwise there would have been no characters for the last act. He worked on this play for two years.
Everything connected with the theater was of absorbing interest to this precocious child. Weber, who lived in Dresden, often passed their house and was observed with almost religious awe by little Richard. Sometimes the great composer dropped in to have a chat with the mother, who was well liked among musicians and artists. Thus Weber became the idol of the lad’s boyhood, and he knew “Der Freischütz” almost by heart. If he was not allowed to go to the theater to listen to his favorite opera, there would be scenes of weeping and beseeching, until per-mission was granted for him to run off to the performance.
In 1827 the family returned to Leipsic, and it was at the famous Gewandhaus concerts that the boy first heard Beethoven’s music. He was so fired by the Overture to “Egmont,” that he decided at once to become a musician. But howthat was the question. He knew nothing of composition, but, borrowing a treatise on harmony, tried to Team the whole contents in a week.
It was a struggle, and one less determined than the fourteen-year-old boy would have given up in despair. He was made of different stuff. Working alone by himself, he composed a sonata, a quartette and an aria. At last he ventured to announce the result of his secret studies. At this news his relatives were up in arms; they judged his desire for music to be a passing fancy, especially as they knew nothing of any preparatory studies, and realized he had never learned to play any instrument, not even the piano.
The family, however, compromised enough to engage a teacher for him. But Richard would never learn slowly and systematically. His mind shot far ahead, absorbing in one instance the writings of Hoffmann, whose imaginative tales kept the boy’s mind in a continual state of nervous excitement. He was not content to climb patiently the mountain; he tried to reach the top at a bound. So he wrote overtures for orchestras, one of which was really performed in Leipsica marvelous affair indeed, with its tympani explosions.
Richard now began to realize the need of solid work, and settled down to study music seriously, this time under Theodor Weinlig, who was cantor in the famous Thomas School.
In less than six months the boy was able to solve the most difficult problems in counterpoint. He learned to know Mozart’s music, and tried to write with more simplicity of style. A piano sonata, a polonaise for four hands and a fantaisie for piano belong to this year. After that he aspired to make piano arrangements of great works, such as Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” Then came his own symphony, which was really performed at Gewandhaus, and is said to have shown great musical vigor.
Instrumental music no longer satisfied this eager, aspiring boy; he must compose operas. He was now twenty, and went to Würzburg, where his brother Albert was engaged at the Wurzburg Theater as actor, singer and stage manager. Albert secured for him a post as chorus master, with a salary of ten florins a month.
The young composer now started work on a second opera, the first, called “The Marriage,” was found impracticable. The new work was entitled “The Fairies.” This he finished, and the work, performed years later, was found to be imitative of Beethoven, Weber, and Marschner; the music was nevertheless very melodious.
Wagner returned to Leipsic in 1834. Soon there came another impetus to this budding genius he heard for the first time the great singer Wilhelmina Schroeder-Devrient, whose art made a deep impression on him.
It was a time for rapid impressions to sway. the ardent temperament of this boy genius of twenty-one. He read the works of Wilhelm Heinse, who depicts both the highest artistic pleasures and those of the opposite sort. Other authors following the same trend made him believe in the utmost freedom in politics, literature and morals. Freedom in everythingthe pleasures of the momentseemed to him the highest good.
Under the sway of such opinions he began to sketch the plot of his next opera, “Prohibition of Love” (Liebesverbot), founded on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.” This was while he was in Teplitz on a summer holiday. In the autumn he took a position as conductor in a small operatic theater in Magdeburg. Here he worked at his new opera, hoping he could induce the admired Schroeder-Devrient to be his heroine.
Wagner remained in this place about two years and finished his opera there. The performance of it, for which he labored with great zeal., was a fiasco. The theater, too, failed soon after and the young composer was thrown out of work. His sojourn there influenced his after career, as he met Wilhelmina Planer, who was soon to become his wife.
Hearing there was an opening for a musical director at Königsberg, he traveled to that town, and in due course secured the post. Minna Planer also found an engagement at the theater, and the two were married on November 24,1836 ; he was twenty-three and she somewhat younger. Kind, gentle, loving, she was quite unable to understand she was linked with a genius. Wagner was burdened with debts, begun in Magdeburg
and increased in Konigsberg. She was almost as improvident as he. They were like two children playing at life, with fateful consequences. It was indeed her misfortune, as one says, that this gentle dove was mismated with an eagle.
But Minna learned later, through dire necessity, to be more economical and careful, which is more than can be said of her gifted husband.
After a year the Königsberg Theater failed and again Wagner was out of employment. Through the influence of his friend Dorn, he secured a directorship at Riga, Minna also being engaged at the theater. At first everything went well; the salary was higher and the people among whom they were placed were agreeable. But before long debts began to press again, and Wagner was dissatisfied with the state of the lyric drama, which he was destined to reform in such a wonderful way. He was only twenty-four, and had seen but little of the world. Paris was the goal toward which he looked with longing eyes, and to the gay French capital he determined to go.
When he tried to get a passport for Paris, he found it impossible because of his debts. Not to be turned from his purpose, he, Minna and the great Newfoundland dog, his pet companion, all slipped away from Riga at night and in disguise. At the port of Pillau the trio embarked on a sailing vessel for Paris, the object of all his hopes. The young composer carried with him one opera and half of a second work”Rienzi,” which he had written during the years of struggle in Magdeburg and Königsberg. In Riga he had come upon Heine’s version of the Flying Dutchman legend, and the sea voyage served to make the story more vital.
He writes: “This voyage I shall never forget as long as I live; it lasted three weeks and a half, and was rich in mishaps. Thrice we endured the most violent storms, and once the captain had to put into a Norwegian haven. The passage among the crags of Norway made a wonderful impression on my fancy; the legends of the Flying Dutchman, as told by the sailors, were clothed with distinct and individual color, heightened ,by the ocean adventures through which we passed.”
After stopping a short time in London, the trio halted for several weeks in Boulogne, because the great Meyerbeer was summering there. Wagner met the influential composer and confided his hopes and longings. Meyerbeer received the poor young German kindly, praised his music, gave him several letters to musicians in power in Paris, but told him persistence was the most important factor in success.
With a light heart, and with buoyant trust in the future, though with little money for present necessities, Wagner and his companions arrived in Paris in September, 1839. Before him lay, if he had but known it, two years and a half of bitter hardship and privation ; but”out of trials and tribulations are great spirits molded.”
There were many noted musicians in the French capital at that time, and many opportunities for success. The young German produced his letters of introduction and received many promises of assistance from conductors and directors. Delighted with his prospects he located in the “heart of elegant and artistic Paris,” without regarding cost.
Soon the skies clouded; one hope after another failed. His compositions were either too difficult for conductors to grasp, or theaters failed on which he depended for assistance. He became in great distress and could not pay for the furniture of the apartment, which he had bought on credit. It was now that he turned to writing for musical journals, to keep the wolf from the door, meanwhile working on the score of “Rienzi,” which was finished in November, 1840 and sent to Dresden. In later years it was produced in that city.
But the Wagners, alas, were starving in Paris. One of Richard’s articles at this time was called “The End of a Musician in Paris,” and he makes the poor musician die with the words; “I believe in GodMozart and Beethoven.” It was al-most as bad as this for Wagner himself. He determined to turn his back on all the intrigues and hardships he had endured for over two years, and set out for the homeland, which seemed the only desirable spot on earth.
The rehearsals for “Rienzi” began in Dresden in July 1842. Wagner had now finished “The Flying Dutchman,” and had completed the out-line of “Tannhauser,” based on Hoffmann’s story of the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg.
And now Wagner’s star as a composer began to rise and light was seen ahead. On October 20, 1842 “Rienzi” was produced in the Dresden Opera House and the young composer awoke the next morning to find himself famous. The performance was a tremendous success, with singers, public and critics alike. The performance lasted six hours and Wagner, next day, decided the work must be cut in places, but the singers loudly protested : “The work was heavenly,” they assured him, “not a measure could be spared.”
With this first venture Wagner was now on the high road to success, and spent a happy winter in the Saxon capital. He could have gone on writing operas like “Rienzi,” to please the public, but he aimed far higher. To fuse all the arts in
one complete whole was the idea that had been forming in his mind. He first illustrated this in “The Flying Dutchman,” and it became the main thought of his later works. This theory made both vocal and instrumental music secondary to the dramatic plan, and this, at that time, seemed a truly revolutionary idea.
“The Flying Dutchman” was produced at the Dresden Opera House January 2, 1843, with Mme. Sehroeder-Devrient as Senta. Critics and public had expected a brilliant and imposing spectacle like “Rienzi” and were disappointed. In the following May and June “The Dutchman” was heard in Riga and Cassel, conducted by the famous violinist and composer, Spohr.
In spite of the fact that “The Flying Dutchman” was not then a success, and in Dresden was shelved for twenty years, Wagner secured the fine post of Head Capellmeister, at a salary of nearly twelve hundred dollars. This post he retained for seven years, gaining a great deal of experience in orchestral conducting, and producing Beethoven’s symphonies with great originality, together with much that was best in orchestral literature.
“Tannhäuser” was no complete, and during the following summer, at Marienbad, sketches for “Lohengrin” and “Die Meistersinger” were made. During the winter, the book being made he began on the music of “Lohengrin.” In March of the exciting year 1848, the music of “Lohengrin” was finished. There was a wide difference in style between that work and “Tann-Maser.” And already the composer had mind a new work to be called “The Death of Siegfried.” He wrote to Franz Liszt, with whom he now began to correspond, that within six months he would send him the book of the new work complete. As he worked at the drama, however, it began to spread out before him in a way that he could not condense into one opera, or even two ; and thus it finally grew into the four operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungen.”
It must not be imagined that Wagner had learned the lesson of carefulness in money matters, or that, with partial success he always had plenty for his needs. He had expensive tastes, loved fine clothing and beautiful surroundings. Much money, too, was needed to produce new works; so that in reality, the composer was always in debt. The many letters which passed between Wagner and Liszt, which fill two large volumes, show how Liszt clearly recognized the brilliant genius of his friend, and stood ready to help him over financial difficulties, and how Wagner came to lean more and more on Liszt’s generosity.
Just what part Wagner played in the revolution of 1848 is not quite clear. He wrote several articles which were radical protests for freedom of thought. At all events he learned it would be better for him to leave Dresden in time. In fact he remained in exile from his country for over eleven years.
Wagner fled to Switzerland, leaving Minna still in Dresden, though in due time he succeeded in scraping together funds for her to follow him to Zurich. He was full of plans for composing “Siegfried,” while she continually urged him to write pleasing operas that Paris would like. Wagner believed the world should take care of him while he was composing his great works, whereas Minna saw this course meant living on the charity of friends, and at this she rebelled. But Wagner grew discouraged over these petty trials, and for five years creative work was at a standstill.
How to meet daily necessities was the all absorbing question. A kind friend, who greatly admired his music, Otto Wesendonck, made it possible for him to rent, at a low price, a pretty chalet near Lake Zurich, and there he and Minna lived in retirement, and here he wrote many articles explaining his theories.
During the early years at Zurich Wagner’s only musical activity was conducting a few orchestral concerts. Then, one day, he took out the score of his “Lohengrin,” and read it, some-thing he rarely did with any of his works. Seized with a deep desire to have this opera brought out, he sent a pleading letter to Liszt, begging him ,to produce the work. Liszt faithfully accomplished this task .at Weimar, where he was conducting the Court Opera. The date chosen was Goethe’s birthday, August 28, and the year 1850. Wagner was most anxious to be present, but the risk of arrest prevented him from venturing on German soil. It was not till 1861, in Vienna, that the composer heard this the most popular of all his operas. Liszt was profoundly moved by the beautiful work, and wrote his enthusiasm to the composer.
Wagner now took up his plan of the Nibelung Trilogy, that is the three operas and a prologue. Early in 1853 the poem in its new form was complete, and in February he sent a copy to Liszt, who answered: “You are truly a wonderful man, and your Nibelung poem is surely the most incredible thing you have ever done!”
So Wagner was impelled by the inner flame of creative fire, to work incessantly on the music of the great epic he had planned. And work he must, in spite of grinding poverty and ill health. It was indeed to be the “Music of the Future.”
After a brief visit to London, to conduct some concerts for the London Philharmonic, Wagner was back again in Zurich, hard at work on the “Walküre,” the first opera of the three, as the “Rheingold” was considered the introduction. By April 1856, the whole opera was finished and sent to Liszt for his opinion. Liszt and his great friend, Countess Wittgenstein, studied out the work together, and both wrote glowing letters to the composer of the deep effect his music made upon them.
And now came a halt in the composition of these tremendous music dramas. Wagner realized that to produce such great works, a special theater should be built, of adaptable design. But from where would the funds be forth-coming? While at work on the “Walkure,” the stories of “Tristan” and “Parsifal” had suggested themselves, and the plan of the first was already sketched, He wrote to Liszt : “As I have never in life felt the bliss of real love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams.” The first act of “Tristan and Isolde” was finished on the last day of the year 1857. In his retreat in Switzerland, the composer longed for sympathetic, intellectual companionship, which, alas, Minna could not give him. He found it in the society of Marie Wesendonck, wife of the kind friend and music lover, who had aided him in many ways. This marked attention to another aroused Minna’s jealousy and an open break was imminent. The storm, however, blew over for a time.
In June, 1858, Wagner was seized with a desire for luxury and quiet, and betook himself to Venice, where he wrote the second act of “Tristan.’ Then came the trouble between Wagner and the Wesendoncks which caused the composer to leave Zurich finally, on August 17, 1859. Minna returned to Dresden while Wagner went to Paris, where Minna joined him for a time, before the last break came.
What promised to be a wonderful stroke of good luck came to him here. His art was brought to the notice of the Emperor, Napoleon III, who requested that one of his operas should be produced, promising carte blanche for funds. All might have gone well with music of the accepted pattern. But “Tannhäuser” was different, its composer particular as to who sang and how it was done. The rehearsals went badly, an opposing faction tried to drown the music at the first performance. Matters were so much worse at the second performance that Wagner refused to allow it to proceed. In spite of the Emperor’s promises, he had borne much of the expense, and left Paris in disgust, burdened with debt.
From Paris Wagner went to Vienna, where he had the great happiness of hearing his “Lohengrin” for the first time. He hoped to have “Tristan” brought out, but the music proved too difficult for the singers of that time to learn. After many delays and disappointments, the whole thing was given up. Reduced now to the lowest ebb, Wagner planned a concert tour to earn a living. Minna now left him finally ; she could no longer endure life with this “monster of genius.” She went back to her relatives in Leipsic, and passed away there in 1866.
The concert tours extended over a couple of years, but brought few returns, except in Russia. Wagner became despondent and almost convinced he ought to give up trying to be a composer. People called him a freak, a madman, and ridiculed his efforts at music making. And yet, during all this troublesome time, he was at work on his one humorous opera, “Die Meistersinger.” On this he toiled incessantly.
And now, when he was in dire need, and suffering, a marvelous boon was coming to him, as wonderful as any to be found in fairy tale. A fairy Prince was coming to the rescue of this struggling genius. This Prince was the young monarch of Bavaria, who had just succeeded to the throne left by the passing of his father. The youthful Prince, ardent and generous, had long worshiped in secret the master and his music. One of his first acts on becoming Ludwig of Bavaria, was to send for Wagner to come to his capital at once and finish his life work in peace. “Ile wants me to be with him always, to work, to rest, to produce my works,” wrote Wagner to a friend in Zurich, where he had been staying. “He will give me everything I need; I am to finish my. Nibelungen and he will have them performed as I wish. All troubles are to be taken from me; I shall have what I need, if I only stay with him.”
The King placed a pretty villa on Lake Starnberg, near Munich, at Wagner’s disposal, and there he spent the summer of 1864. The King’s summer palace was quite near, and monarch and composer were much together. In the autumn a residence in the quiet part of Munich was set apart for Wagner. Hans von Billow was sent for as one of the conductors ; young Hans Richter lived in Munich and later became one of the most distinguished conductors of Wagner’s music.
The Bülows arrived in Munich in the early autumn, and almost at once began the attraction of Mme. Cosima von Billow and Wagner. She, the daughter of Liszt, was but twenty five, of deeply artistic temperament, and could understand the aims of the composer as no other woman had yet done. This ardent attraction led later to Cosima’s separation from her husband and finally to her marriage with Wagner.
The first of the Wagner Festivals under patronage of the King, took place in Munich June 10, 13, 19, and July 1, 1865. The work was “Tristan and Isolde,” perhaps the finest flower of Wagner’s genius, and already eight years old. Von Bülow was a superb conductor and Ludwig an inspired Tristan. Wagner was supremely happy. Alas, such happiness did not last. Enemies sprang up all about him. The King himself could not stem the tide of false rumors, and besought the composer to leave Munich for a while, till public opinion calmed down. So Wagner returned to his favorite Switzerland and settled in Triebschen, near Lucerne, where he remained till he removed to Bayreuth in 1872.
In 1866, the feeling against Wagner had somewhat declined and the King decided to have model performances of “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin” at Munich. The Festival began June 11, 1867. The following year “Die Meistersinger” was performedJune 21, 1868.
And now the King was eager to hear the “Ring.” It was not yet complete but the monarch could not wait and ordered “Das Rhein-gold,” the Introduction to the Trilogy, to be prepared. It was poorly given and was not a success. Not at all discouraged, he wished for “Die Walküre,” which was performed the following year, June 26, 1870.
It had long been Wagner’s desire to have a theater built, in which his creations could be properly given under his direction. Bayreuth had been chosen, as a quiet spot where music lovers could come for the sole purpose of hearing the music. He went to live there with his family in April, 1872. Two years later they moved into Villa Wahnfried, which had been built according to the composer’s ideas. Meanwhile funds were being raised on both sides of the water, through the Wagner Societies, to erect the Festival Theater. The corner stone was laid on Wagner’s birthdayhis fifty-ninthMay 22, 1872. It was planned to give the first performances in the summer of 1876; by that time
Wagner’s longed-for project became a reality.
The long-expected event took place in August, 1876. The Festival opened on the thirteenth with “Pas Rheingold,” first of the Ring music dramas. On the following night “Die Walküre” was heard ; then came “Siegfried” and “Götterdammerung,” the third and fourth dramas being, heard for the first time. Thus the Ring of the Nibelungen, on which the composer had labored for a quarter of a century at last found a hearing, Iistened to by Kings and Potentates, besides a most distinguished audience of musicians from all parts of the world.
At last one of Wagner’s dreams was realized and his new gospel of art vindicated.
One music drama remained to be written”Parsifal,” his last. Failing health prevented the completion of the drama until 1882. The first performance of this noble work was given on July 26, followed by fifteen other hearings. After the exertions attending these, Wagner and his wife, their son Siegfried, Liszt and other friends, went to Italy and occupied the Vendramin Palace, on the Grand Canal, Venice. Here he lived quietly and comfortably, surrounded by those he loved. His health failed more and more, the end coming February 18, 1888.
Thus passed from sight one of the most astonishing musicians of all time. He lives in his music more vitally than when his bodily presence was on earth, since the world becomes more familiar with his music as time goes on. And to know this music is to admire and love it.