The life of Richard Wagner

Ottmar Hörl - Wagner dirigiert Bayreuth © Simeon Johnke

Richard Wagner brought art and culture to Bayreuth with his festival. But who actually was the composer?

Richard Wagner throug­hout Europe

A diffi­cult childhood 

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on 22 May 1813 and thus came into the world at a very diffi­cult time. The Battle of the Nations near Leipzig began in the autumn after his birth. Despite its victo­rious outcome, people suffered greatly from the conse­quences of the war of libe­ra­tion. Hundreds of fami­lies strug­gled to survive in the face of food shortages and devas­ta­ting dise­ases, amongst them the Wagner family with five-month-old Richard. Malnou­rished and frigh­tened, he was often on the verge of death in his first year of his life. 

In 1814, his mother decided to move to Dresden with her eight children to marry the actor Ludwig Geyer. It was through his stepf­a­ther that he gained his first expe­ri­ence of the theatre. In 1821, he saw Weber’s famous opera “Der Frei­schütz”, which prompted him to decide to become an opera composer. As a teen­ager he already wrote his first dramas and studied various compo­si­tion tech­ni­ques. The first mile­stone for his successful career as a composer had already been set. 

The begin­nings of a musical career

In 1831 Richard Wagner began studying music in Leipzig and took compo­si­tion lessons. As a protégé of Chris­tian Theodor Weinlig, he was given special encou­ra­ge­ment and trai­ning. He composed his first opera “The Fairies” in 1833, but it was never to be performed during Wagner’s life­time. Three years later, Wagner was offered a posi­tion as music director at the Magde­burg Theatre Company. He accepted the posi­tion and fell in love with the actress Minna Planer, whom he later married. 

After many inspi­ra­tional jour­neys, Wagner intro­duced some inno­va­tions toge­ther with the theatre company in Magde­burg. Facial expres­sions and gestures played a very important role, as he encou­raged his singers to perform like actors. He also remo­delled the conductor’s posi­tion, seeking eye contact rather than turning away from the orchestra. He often added his own indi­vi­dual touches and ignored the direc­tions of other composers. 

Ein Porträt Richard Wagner
© Hanf­staengl

His flight out of the country 

His works were not always well received. Richard Wagner had to cancel some perfor­mances and endure theatre bank­rupt­cies. After his debts had spiralled out of control in 1839, he and his wife Minna decided to flee from his credi­tors. An adven­turous journey began: from Riga via London until they both arrived in Paris, then a world centre for opera. The some­what hazar­dous crossing from Riga to England inspired him to write his work “The Flying Dutchman”. Wagner’s plans to gain a foot­hold in the French cultural scene failed and he sank further into finan­cial diffi­cul­ties. In the end, he was even forced to pawn his wedding ring and some wedding gifts. 

The rise of Richard Wagner 

The path out of debt 

In 1843 the long-awaited success arrived: his opera “The Flying Dutchman” was premiered in Dresden and was so successful that Wagner was then given the oppor­tu­nity to work at the Dresden Court Opera. With his opera, Richard Wagner tried to revo­lu­tio­nise the musical stan­dards of the time, but this was not accepted by the audi­ence. The attempt failed. In the course of the May Revo­lu­tion in Dresden, Wagner was sought as a wanted man because of his poli­tical views and had to leave Germany again. After his flight to Switz­er­land, however, his works such as “Lohen­grin” continued to be performed and were highly praised and loved both natio­nally and internationally. 

Richard Wagner comes to Bayreuth 

After Wagner repea­tedly had to make allo­wances for other produc­tions, he set his sights on buil­ding his own theatre. He wanted to be able to perform his works enti­rely accor­ding to his own ideas. After his wife Minna died, he married his mistress, the daughter of Franz Liszt. Cosima von Bülow divorced her then husband Hans von Bülow to be with Richard Wagner. He had three children with his second wife. Toge­ther they kept looking for a suitable city for his festival and finally their atten­tion was drawn to Bayreuth by the Margra­vial Opera House, which was lying empty at the time. . 

The Fest­spiel­haus on the “Grüner Hügel”

The begin­nings of the Richard Wagner Festival

Richard Wagner’s long-awaited dream finally came true in 1872: the foun­da­tion stone for his own festival theatre was laid. Not only did he break with past tradi­tions with his compo­si­tions, he also defied the norms of the time with the cons­truc­tion of his theatre. He placed the orchestra out of sight in a deep pit, thus crea­ting unique acoustics. 

Four years after cons­truc­tion began, the first Bayreuth Festival could be held in the city. In August 1876, Europe’s elite paraded down the red carpet. Tchai­kovsky, Nietz­sche and even Kaiser Wilhelm I were in the audience. 

After the first festival, the audi­ences received his music and the “Ring of the Nibe­lung” enthu­si­a­sti­cally. Richard Wagner was cele­brated world­wide as a pioneer of opera because of his new approach to staging the music. Wagner did not rest on his laurels, however, and composed his last work, “Parsifal”. With his fare­well work, he finan­ci­ally secured the continued exis­tence of the Bayreuth Festival.

Wagner’s health suffered greatly as a result of all the work and frequent finan­cial worries. He often reported heart complaints. In 1883 he decided to travel to Italy to get back on his feet. Unfort­u­na­tely, this decision came too late. In February of that year, he died in Cosima’s arms in Venice.

Das Festspielhaus

Richard Wagner today 

Even today, traces of the world-famous composer can still be found in the cultural city of Bayreuth. Every summer, the city is trans­formed into a Mecca for Wagne­rians, who listen to Wagner’s compo­si­tions in the original “Fest­spiel­haus” from 1872. The Festival Theatre can be visited on a guided tour outside the festival season. 

For an even better insight into Wagner’s life, we recom­mend a visit to his old home, House Wahn­fried, followed by a visit to the Richard Wagner Museum. For those who prefer a more active programme, we recom­mend the Walk of Wagner. The path stret­ches through Bayreuth and winds its way along all the important places where Richard Wagner’s work and life unfolded.

As a special high­light, we also offer a themed tour around the person and works of Wagner. 

Source: Richard Wagner Verband Wien 

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