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
he lived and what his inner life has been. What we shall strive for is
simple story of his career, though in the simple telling, it may read
a fairy tale.
Richard Wagner first saw the light on
May 22, 1813, in Leipsic. Those
stirring times in that part of the world, for revolution was often on
eve of breaking out. The tiny babe was but six months old when the
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
her for accepting the hand of her husband's old friend, Ludwig Geyer,
less than a year after the loss of her first husband. Geyer was a man
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
city. But he did not live to see the blossoming of his youngest
genius, as he passed away on September 30, 1821, when the child was
Little Richard showed wonderful promise
even in those years of
At the Kreuzschule, where his education began, he developed an ardent
love for the Greek classics, and translated the first twelve books of
Odyssey, outside of school hours. He devoured all stories of mythology
could lay hands on, and soon began to create vast tragedies. He
in Shakespeare, and finally began to write a play which was to combine
ideas of both Hamlet and King Lear. Forty-two persons were killed off
the course of the play and had to be brought back as ghosts, as
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
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
allowed to go to the theater to listen to his favorite opera, there
be scenes of weeping and beseeching, until permission was granted for
to run off to the performance.
In 1827 the family returned to Leipsic,
and it was at the famous
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.
how—that was the question. He knew nothing of composition, but,
a treatise on harmony, tried to learn the whole contents in a week.
It was a struggle, and one less
determined than the fourteen-year-old
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
he ventured to announce the result of his secret studies. At this news
relatives were up in arms; they judged his desire for music to be a
fancy, especially as they knew nothing of any preparatory studies, and
realized he had never learned to play any instrument, not even the
The family, however, compromised enough
to engage a teacher for him.
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
to reach the top at a bound. So he wrote overtures for orchestras, one
which was really performed in Leipsic—a marvelous affair indeed, with
Richard now began to realize the need of
solid work, and settled down
study music seriously, this time under Theodor Weinlig, who was cantor
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
write with more simplicity of style. A piano sonata, a polonaise for
hands and a fantaisie for piano belong to this year. After that he
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
compose operas. He was now twenty, and went to Würzburg, where his
Albert was engaged at the Würzburg Theater as actor, singer and
manager. Albert secured for him a post as chorus master, with a salary
ten florins a month.
The young composer now started work on a
second opera, the first,
"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
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
boy genius of twenty-one. He read the works of Wilhelm Heinse, who
both the highest artistic pleasures and those of the opposite sort.
authors following the same trend made him believe in the utmost freedom
politics, literature and morals. Freedom in everything—the pleasures of
the moment—seemed 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
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
The performance of it, for which he labored with great zeal, was a
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,
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
genius. Wagner was burdened with debts, begun in Magdeburg and
in Königsberg. She was almost as improvident as he. They were like
children playing at life, with fateful consequences. It was indeed her
misfortune, as one says, that this gentle dove was mismated with an
But Minna learned later, through dire necessity, to be more economical
careful, which is more than can be said of her gifted husband.
After a year the Königsberg Theater
failed and again Wagner was
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
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
destined to reform in such a wonderful way. He was only twenty-four,
had seen but little of the world. Paris was the goal toward which he
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
of his debts. Not to be turned from his purpose, he, Minna and the
Newfoundland dog, his pet companion, all slipped away from Riga at
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
with him one opera and half of a second work—"Rienzi," which he had
written during the years of struggle in Magdeburg and Königsberg.
he had come upon Heine's version of the Flying Dutchman legend, and the
voyage served to make the story more vital.
He writes: "This voyage I shall never
forget as long as I live; it
three weeks and a half, and was rich in mishaps. Thrice we endured the
violent storms, and once the captain had to put into a Norwegian haven.
passage among the crags of Norway made a wonderful impression on my
the legends of the Flying Dutchman, as told by the sailors, were
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
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
letters to musicians in power in Paris, but told him persistence was
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
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
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
introduction and received many promises of assistance from conductors
directors. Delighted with his prospects he located in the "heart of
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
which he depended for assistance. He became in great distress and could
pay for the furniture of the apartment, which he had bought on credit.
was now that he turned to writing for musical journals, to keep the
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
at this time was called "The End of a Musician in Paris," and he makes
poor musician die with the words; "I believe in God—Mozart and
It was almost as bad as this for Wagner himself. He determined to turn
back on all the intrigues and hardships he had endured for over two
and set out for the homeland, which seemed the only desirable spot on
The rehearsals for "Rienzi" began in
Dresden in July 1842. Wagner had
now finished "The Flying Dutchman," and had completed the outline of
"Tannhäuser," based on Hoffmann's story of the Singers' Contest at
And now Wagner's star as a composer
began to rise and light was seen
On October 20, 1842 "Rienzi" was produced in the Dresden Opera House
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
work must be cut in places, but the singers loudly protested: "The work
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
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
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
instrumental music secondary to the dramatic plan, and this, at that
seemed a truly revolutionary idea.
"The Flying Dutchman" was produced at
the Dresden Opera House January
2. 1843, with Mme. Schroeder-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,
in Dresden was shelved for twenty years, Wagner secured the fine post
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 now 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
was finished. There was a wide difference in style between that work
"Tannhäuser." And already the composer had in mind a new work to
"The Death of Siegfried." He wrote to Franz Liszt, with whom he now
to correspond, that within six months he would send him the book of the
work complete. As he worked at the drama, however, it began to spread
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
It must not be imagined that Wagner had
learned the lesson of
in money matters, or that, with partial success he always had plenty
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
between Wagner and Liszt, which fill two large volumes, show how Liszt
clearly recognized the brilliant genius of his friend, and stood ready
help him over financial difficulties, and how Wagner came to lean more
more on Liszt's generosity.
Just what part Wagner played in the
revolution of 1848 is not quite
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
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
his great works, whereas Minna saw this course meant living on the
of friends, and at this she rebelled. But Wagner grew discouraged over
these petty trials, and for five years creative work was at a
How to meet daily necessities was the
all absorbing question. A kind
friend, who greatly admired his music, Otto Wesendonck, made it
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
of his "Lohengrin," and read it, something he rarely did with any of
works. Seized with a deep desire to have this opera brought out, he
pleading letter to Liszt, begging him to produce the work. Liszt
accomplished this task at Weimar, where he was conducting the Court
The date chosen was Goethe's birthday, August 28, and the year 1850.
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
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
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
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
"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
the introduction. By April 1856, the whole opera was finished and sent
Liszt for his opinion. Liszt and his great friend, Countess
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
Wagner realized that to produce such great works, a special theater
should be built, of adaptable design. But from where would the funds be
forthcoming? While at work on the "Walküre," the stories of
"Parsifal" had suggested themselves, and the plan of the first was
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
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
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,
betook himself to Venice, where he wrote the second act of "Tristan."
Then came the trouble between Wagner and the Wesendoncks which caused
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.
art was brought to the notice of the Emperor, Napoleon III, who
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
it was done. The rehearsals went badly, an opposing faction tried to
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
the Emperor's promises, he had borne much of the expense, and left
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
given up. Reduced now to the lowest ebb, Wagner planned a concert tour
earn a living. Minna now left him finally; she could no longer endure
with this "monster of genius." She went back to her relatives in
and passed away there in 1866.
The concert tours extended over a couple
of years, but brought few
except in Russia. Wagner became despondent and almost convinced he
to give up trying to be a composer. People called him a freak, a madman
ridiculed his efforts at music making. And yet, during all this
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
the young monarch of Bavaria, who had just succeeded to the throne left
the passing of his father. The youthful Prince, ardent and generous,
long worshiped in secret the master and his music. One of his first
becoming Ludwig of Bavaria, was to send for Wagner to come to his
at once and finish his life work in peace. "He wants me to be with him
always, to work, to rest, to produce my works," wrote Wagner to a
Zurich, where he had been staying. "He will give me everything I need;
am to finish my Nibelungen and he will have them performed as I wish.
troubles are to be taken from me; I shall have what I need, if I only
The King placed a pretty villa on Lake
Starnberg, near Munich, at
disposal, and there he spent the summer of 1864. The King's summer
was quite near, and monarch and composer were much together. In the
a residence in the quiet part of Munich was set apart for Wagner. Hans
Bülow was sent for as one of the conductors; young Hans Richter
in Munich and later became one of the most distinguished conductors of
The Bülows arrived in Munich in the
early autumn, and almost at
the attraction of Mme. Cosima von Bülow and Wagner. She, the
of Liszt, was but twenty five, of deeply artistic temperament, and
understand the aims of the composer as no other woman had yet done.
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
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
years old. Von Bülow was a superb conductor and Ludwig an inspired
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
rumors, and besought the composer to leave Munich for a while, till
opinion calmed down. So Wagner returned to his favorite Switzerland and
settled in Triebschen, near Lucerne, where he remained till he removed
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 performed—June 21, 1868.
And now the King was eager to hear the
"Ring." It was not yet complete
the monarch could not wait and ordered "Das Rheingold," the
the Trilogy, to be prepared. It was poorly given and was not a success.
at all discouraged, he wished for "Die Walküre," which was
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
chosen, as a quiet spot where music lovers could come for the sole
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
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 birthday—his
fifty-ninth—May 22, 1872. It was planned to give the first performances
in the summer of 1876; by that time Wagner's longed-for project became
The long-expected event took place in
August, 1876. The Festival opened
the thirteenth with "Das Rheingold," first of the Ring music dramas. On
the following night "Die Walküre" was heard; then came "Siegfried"
"Götterdämmerung," the third and fourth dramas being heard
for the first
time. Thus the Ring of the Nibelungen, on which the composer had
for a quarter of a century at last found a hearing, listened to by
and Potentates, besides a most distinguished audience of musicians from
parts of the world.
At last one of Wagner's dreams was
realized and his new gospel of art
One music drama remained to be
written—his last. Failing health
the completion of the drama until 1882. The first performance of this
work was given on July 26, followed by fifteen other hearings. After
exertions attending these, Wagner and his wife, their son Siegfried,
and other friends, went to Italy and occupied the Vendramin Palace, on
Grand Canal, Venice. Here he lived quietly and comfortably, surrounded
those he loved. His health failed more and more, the end coming
Thus passed from sight one of the most
astonishing musicians of all
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
on. And to know this music is to admire and love it.