Wagner month is about to begin in the the Washington, DC area. The Virginia Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman plays in Fairfax on Saturday and Sunday. The Washington National Opera’s ambitious production of the Ring cycle kicks off on the following Saturday and will continue for three weeks. All performances are listed in the sidebar (or at the bottom of the page on some mobile devices). Who was this composer who many claim is the world’s greatest music genius? I thought I’d present you with five interesting facts about Richard Wagner to hopefully interest you a bit more to listen to his music and to learn more. To say that Wagner led an interesting life is a massive understatement; so here goes, five facts about Wagner that I find interesting:
Fact one: There is some controversy about who was Wagner’s father. Officially, his father was Karl Friedrich Wagner, a police official in Leipzig, Germany. Ludwig Geyer, an actor and family friend took over the family’s affairs when Karl died; Richard was six months-old. A year later, Geyer married his mother; six months passed and a daughter was born to the happy couple. There was a strong attachment and resemblance between Richard and Ludwig, and there was other circumstantial evidence that Geyer was the real papa. However, what is interesting to me is that this controversy seems to be driven by the class-conscious belief that a mere policeman could not have fathered this artistic genius, and an actor, who demonstrated some creativity and classical interest, is a more likely gene donor, but it importantly is also driven by claims, in the absence of evidence, that Geyer had been Jewish. No paternity testing in those days.
Fact two: Wagner was not a music prodigy, such as say, Mozart. His rise to music stardom only began at age 29, and was not yet spectacular then, and turned really successful only after he turned fifty. His first love was actually literature. However, at about age 15, he turned to music after being inspired by Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz, yes, one of the operas in the 2016-2017 season for Virginia Opera. He lost interest in school per se to devote himself to music and got kicked out. He was a self-taught musician and finally had six months of formal music study at 18, which eventually enabled him to get conductor posts with troubled opera companies. His demanding nature and resisting of popular sentiments got him fired from those. His last, before moving to Paris was in Riga, Russia, which eventually led to him having to sneak out of the country to flee to Paris. He and his wife lived in poverty and debt in his early years in Paris, despite having a popular opera composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer, as his champion.
Fact three: Wagner once said, “No more, Mr. Nice Guy!”; he was six weeks-old at the time. Okay, I am stretching the truth by calling this a fact, but most of the people who knew him would have said that it was possible it happened. In Wagner’s view, he was the greatest artist ever, and being totally dedicated to his art, the world was there to meet his needs, with the only reciprocation being his great works of art. He was always true to his art, but as a person, he lied, borrowed money with no intention of paying back, was ruthless in dealing with others, had affairs with married women even as his and their spouses knew, even when the spouses were his benefactors, generally criticized and flaunted the mores of his day, and was strongly anti-Semitic. Though his death occurred fifty years before the Third Reich, Hitler adopted his music as the theme song for Nazi Germany. As best as I can tell, his music is still not played in Israel; when orchestras there have scheduled any of his pieces, they were forced by popular outcry to renege. Now you understand the importance of the issue of his paternity. Each of us has to deal with how an artist’s personal life and attributes influence our willingness or ability to enjoy their artistic achievements. If we can’t tolerate someone’s work based on their character, it is usually not an intellectual decision.
Fact four: A king took away Wagner's troubles and freed his creative powers. King Lugwig II of Bavaria befriended and sponsored Wagner, beginning soon after he turned fifty. Ludwig II was eighteen years-old and loved Wagner’s music; he paid all of Wagner’s debts and gave him a living allowance, and helped support his future musical production efforts. In essence, Wagner won the lottery (next MegaMillions drawing is Friday and PowerBall Is Saturday). I have read that Lugwig II was also homosexual and Wagner may have provided him more than musical service, not a requirement for the lotteries as far as I know. Ludwig II is an interesting story in himself.
Fact five: One of Wagner’s major achievements was made outside of composing, the opera house at Bayreuth, Germany (Bavaria), the Bayreuth Festival Theater. King Ludwig enabled Wagner to complete the opera theater that Wagner desired to premiere his operas. He designed it as an amphitheater with a recessed orchestra pit, departing from the usual arrangements of his day. He may have stolen the design idea from a Munich architect, no attribution of course. It opened with the premiere of the Ring cycle in 1876. To this day, a famous and highly lauded opera festival, the Bayreuth Festival, is held there each year, drawing the top names in opera. If you follow opera at all, it will not be long before you encounter the name Beyreuth. Wagner is buried in a garden a few miles from the opera house.
And I haven’t mentioned his period of exile, his marrying the illegitimate daughter of famous composer Franz Liszt, or his sixteen volumes of prose. I will simply close with a quote from Shakespeare (Macbeth), that I read in “Ticket to the Opera” by Phil G. Goulding, as applied to Wagner: “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once, ‘tis hard to reconcile.”