Backgrounds / Wagner

Richard Wagner


Early life

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 22, 1813. His father, Friedrich Wagner, who was a minor municipal official, died six months after Richard's birth. In August 1814 his mother, Johanne Pätz, married the actor Ludwig Geyer, and moved with her family to his residence in Dresden. Geyer, who, it has been claimed, may have been the boy's actual father, died when Richard was six. Wagner was largely brought up by a single mother.

At the end of 1822, at the age of 9, he was enrolled in the Kreuzschule, Dresden, (under the name Wilhelm Richard Geyer), where he received some small amount of piano instruction from his Latin teacher, but could not manage a proper scale and mostly preferred playing theater overtures by ear.

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831. Among his earliest musical enthusiasms was Ludwig van Beethoven.

In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen. This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer's death in 1883.

Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot, based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second opera was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but closed after the second performance, leaving the composer (not for the last time) in serious financial difficulties.

On November 24, 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer. They moved to the city of Riga, then in the Russian Empire, where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer who then abandoned her, penniless. Wagner took Minna back, but this was but the first debacle of a troubled marriage that would end in misery three decades later.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for most of his life). During their flight, they and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner drew the inspiration for Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Wagners spent 1840 and 1841 in Paris, where Richard made a living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer during this time.

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Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Largely through the agency of Meyerbeer, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the German state of Saxony. Thus in 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-period operas.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of the weak princely states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of the weak princely states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a boil in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris and then to Zürich. Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and were forced to endure long terms of imprisonment.

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Exile, Schopenhauer, and Mathilde Wesendonck

Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into the mammoth work Der Ring des Nibelungen, seemed to have no prospects of seeing performance. His wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner's primary output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; "Jewry in Music" (1850), an anti-Semitic tract directed against Jewish composers; and "Opera and Drama" (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.

In the following years, Wagner came upon two independent sources of inspiration, leading to the creation of his celebrated Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer's philosophy - a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.

Richard Wagner in Bayreuth
Richard Wagner in Bayreuth

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in "Opera and Drama", that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person).

Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852. Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story of the knight Tristan and the (already-married) Lady Isolde.

The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice. The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to efforts of Princess de Metternich. The premiere of the new Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by aristocrats from the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.

In 1861, the political ban against Wagner was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Remarkably, this opera is by far his sunniest work. (His second wife Cosima would later write: "when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose.") In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.

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Patronage of King Ludwig II

Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865.

Siegfried (Heinrich Gudehus) schmiedet Nothung
Siegfried (Heinrich Gudehus)
forges Nothung
In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. In April 1865, she gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Triebschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Triebschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce. Richard and Cosima were married on August 25, 1870. (Liszt would not speak to his new son-in-law for years to come.) On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life. They had another daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.

It was at Triebschen, in 1869, that Wagner first met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who quickly became a firm friend. Wagner's ideas were a major influence on Nietzsche, who was 31 years his junior. Nietzsche's first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie ("The Birth of Tragedy", 1872), was dedicated to Wagner. The relationship eventually soured, as Nietzsche became increasingly disillusioned with various aspects of Wagner's thought, such as his appropriation of Christianity in Parsifal and his anti-Semitism, and with Wagner's uncritical followers. In Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner", 1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner ("Nietzsche vs. Wagner", 1889), he criticized Wagner's music while conceding its power, and condemned Wagner as decadent and corrupt, even criticizing his earlier adulatory views of the composer.

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Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.

In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were only raised after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German).

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.

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Final years

In 1877, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.

Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.

After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried.

Franz Liszt's memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner's mortal remains over the Grand Canal.

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Wagner and religion

Wagner's own religious views were idiosyncratic. He admired Jesus, but insisted that He was of Greek origin rather than Jewish. Like the Hellenistic Gnostics, he also argued that the Old Testament had nothing to do with the New Testament, that the God of Israel was not the same God as the father of Jesus, and that the Ten Commandments lacked the mercy and love of Christian teachings. Like many German Romantics, Schopenhauer above all, Wagner was also fascinated by Buddhism, and for many years contemplated a Buddhist opera, Die Sieger ("The Victors"), based on Sârdûla Karnavadanaan, an avadana of the Buddha's last journey. Aspects of Die Sieger were finally absorbed into Parsifal, which depicts a peculiar, "Wagnerized" version of Christianity; for instance, the ritual of transubstantiation in the Communion is subtly reinterpreted, becoming something closer to a pagan ritual than a Christian one. As occult historian Joscelyn Godwin stated "it was Buddhism that inspired the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and, through him, attracted Richard Wagner. This Orientalism reflected the struggle of the German Romantics, in the words of Leon Poliakov, to free themselves from Judeo-Christian fetters" (Arktos, p. 38). In short, Wagner adhered to an unconventional ethnic interpretation of the Christian writings that conformed to his German-Romantic aesthetic standards and tastes.

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Gobineau and the Grail

Wagner gradually became convinced of the truth of the Aryanist racist philosophy and pronouncements of Arthur de Gobineau, additionally being influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer's general pessimistic elitism. The influence of Gobineau in Wagner's mature period, even extending esoterically into his art-work, is very strong. In his "Introduction to A Work of Count Gobineau's", Wagner expresses gratitude to the "shrewdest of ethnologists for an explanation why our truly lofty minds stand lonelier every day, and, perhaps in consequence, grow ever rarer; so that we can imagine the greatest artists and poets surrounded by a world to which they have naught to say." In his essay "Hero-dom and Christendom", Wagner's Aryan racism is fully and emphatically articulated:

Hunding tötet Siegmund
Hunding tötet Siegmund

"Whilst yellow races have viewed themselves as sprung from monkeys, the white traced back their origin to gods, and deemed themselves marked out for rulership. It has been made quite clear that we should have no History of Man at all, had there been no movements, creations and achievements of the white men; and we may fitly take world-history as the consequence of these white men mixing with the black and yellow, and bringing them in so far into history as that mixture altered them and made them less unlike the white. Incomparably fewer in individual numbers than the lower races, the ruin of the white races may be referred to their having been obliged to mix with them; whereby, as remarked already, they suffered more from the loss of their purity than the others could gain by the ennobling of their blood...[I]f the noblest race's rulership and exploitation of the lower races, quite justified in a natural sense, has founded a sheer immoral system throughout the world, any equalising of them all by flat commixture decidedly would not conduct to an aesthetic state of things. To us Equality is only thinkable as based upon a universal moral concord, such as we can but deem true Christianity elect to bring about."

Wagner's deep concern for the perceived racial crisis of modern white civilization affected him until the very end of his life. "On the Womanly in the Human Race" (1883), a recently composed essay found in Wagner's papers after his death, dramatically warns that "it is certain that the noblest white race is monogamic at its first appearance in saga and history, but marches toward its downfall through polygamy with the races which it conquers."

Robert G.L. Waite states in "The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler": "In Wagner the Grail and the spear of Parsifal are not symbols of Christ's blood shed for the redemption of all mankind; they are signs of Aryan racism... Wagner himself pointed out that a main purpose for writing Parsifal was to deliver his racial message. In an article published in the Bayreuther Blatter for November-December 1882, he explained that in his opera 'the Kingship of this Brotherhood' was the elite of the race, 'a race chosen to protect the Grail'" (p. 112).

The resounding Aryanism of the eccentric genius Wagner, originally inspired by Gobineau, was later to exert a profoundly deep influence over the developing mind of Adolf Hitler, in addition to the gnostic 'Ariosophical' racism of Lanz von Liebenfels. This is confirmed by Robert G.L Waite, who states "Hitler [probably] first began to read Wagner's essays on race, politics, art, and religion... during his youth in Linz and Vienna, when the composer's words were still available in municipal libraries... The young man who was so much taken by Wagner's music was delighted to learn that his hero's political and racial ideas were the same as his own. [...] The creator of [German National Socialism] himself said that any who sought to understand it 'must first know Richard Wagner,' and boasted that he had read everything the master had ever written. 'I have the most intimite familiarity with Wagner's mental processes,' he said. 'At every stage of my life I come back to him'" (p. 103, The Psychopathic God).

The resounding Aryanism of the eccentric genius Wagner, originally inspired by Gobineau, was later to exert a profoundly deep influence over the developing mind of Adolf Hitler, in addition to the gnostic 'Ariosophical' racism of Lanz von Liebenfels. This is confirmed by Robert G.L Waite, who states "Hitler [probably] first began to read Wagner's essays on race, politics, art, and religion... during his youth in Linz and Vienna, when the composer's words were still available in municipal libraries... The young man who was so much taken by Wagner's music was delighted to learn that his hero's political and racial ideas were the same as his own. [...] The creator of [German National Socialism] himself said that any who sought to understand it 'must first know Richard Wagner,' and boasted that he had read everything the master had ever written. 'I have the most intimite familiarity with Wagner's mental processes,' he said. 'At every stage of my life I come back to him'" (p. 103, The Psychopathic God).

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During the latter part of the 20th century, public perception of Wagner increasingly centered, especially in the United States, on his anti-semitism, due in large part to an event that began fifty years after the composer's death: the appropriation of his music and name by the Nazi party during the 1930s.

Wagner's views

Wagner frequently accused Jews, particularly Jewish musicians, of being a harmful alien element in German culture. His first and most controversial anti-Semitic essay was "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Jewry in Music"),originally published under the pen-name "K. Freigedank" ("free thought") in 1850 in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The essay purported to explain "popular dislike" of Jewish composers, such as Wagner's contemporaries (and rivals) Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their alien appearance and behavior — "freaks of Nature" with "creaking, squeaking, buzzing" voices — so that "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, because they had no connection to "the genuine spirit of the Volk".

Wotan und Brünhilde
Wotan und Brünhilde

In the conclusion to the essay, he wrote of the Jews that "only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus — going under!" Although this has been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it might also be construed as referring to the eradication of Judaism, Jewishness. Wagner was essentially calling for the eventual assimilation of Jews into mainstream German culture and society. The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner repeated similar views in several later articles, such as "What is German?" (1878).

During the late 20th century, scholars such as Robert Gutman advanced the claim that Wagner's anti-semitism was not limited to his articles, and that the operas contain anti-Semitic messages. For example, characters such as Mime in the Ring and Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger are supposedly anti-Semitic stereotypes, though they are not explicitly identified as Jews. Such claims are disputed. The purported "hidden messages" are often convoluted, and may be the result of biased over-interpretation. Wagner was not above putting digs and insults to specific individuals into his work, and it was often obvious when he did. Wagner, over the course of his life, produced a huge amount of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, including his operas and his views on Jews (as well as practically every other topic under the sun); these purported anti-Semitic messages are never mentioned.

Despite his very public anti-Semitic views, Wagner maintained an extensive network of Jewish friends and colleagues. One of the most notable of these was Hermann Levi, a practising Jew and son of a Rabbi, whose talent was freely acknowledged by Wagner. Levi's position as Kapellmeister at Dresden meant that he was to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera. Wagner initially had strong objections to this and even suggested that Levi become baptized before conducting Parsifal, (presumably due to its religious content); he later dropped the issue, likely based on his desire to stay on King Ludwig's good side rather than sensitivity. Levi however held Wagner in adulation, although acknowledging Wagner's obsession with Jews, and was asked to be a pallbearer at the composer's funeral.

Some writers have suggested that Wagner himself may have been part-Jewish; there is no evidence of this. During his childhood Wagner was known by the surname of his stepfather (and possible biological father), Ludwig Geyer. Geyer is a common surname among German Jews, though Ludwig himself, descended from a long line of Church musicians, had no known Jewish ancestors. Wagner may not have known this. His own physiognomy was later caricatured in a manner that resembles anti-Semitic images of the time (hooked nose and over-large head). Some reductionistically speculate, without evidence, the possibility of Geyer being Wagner's real father (combined with sensitivity about his looks) may have been a motive for his intense desire to stress his rejection of Jewishness and commitment to Germanness.

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Nazi appropriation

Around the time of Wagner's death, European nationalist movements were losing the Romantic, idealistic egalitarianism of 1848, and acquiring tints of militarism and aggression, due in no small part to Bismarck's takeover and unification of Germany in 1871. After Wagner's death in 1883, Bayreuth increasingly became a focus for right-wing German nationalists attracted by the mythos of the operas, who came to be known as the Bayreuth circle. This group was endorsed by Cosima, whose anti-Semitism was considerably less complex and more virulent than Richard's. One of the circle was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the author of a number of 'philosophic' tracts which later became required Nazi reading. Chamberlain married Wagner's daughter, Eva. After the deaths of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930, the operation of the Festival fell to Siegfried's widow, English-born Winifred, who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a fanatical student and admirer of Wagner's ideology and music, and sought to incorporate it into his heroic mythology of the German nation (a nation that had no formal identity prior to 1871). Hitler held many of Wagner's original scores in his Berlin bunker during World War II, despite the pleadings of Wieland Wagner to have these important documents put in his care; the scores perished with Hitler in the final days of the war.

Richard und Cosima Wagner
Richard and Cosima Wagner

Many scholars have argued that Wagner's views, particularly his emphatic Aryan-Germanic racism and anti-Semitism, influenced the Nazis. These claims are disputed by controversial historian Richard J. Evans, who polemically suggests there is no evidence that Hitler even read any of Wagner's writings. Such polemists argue Wagner's works do not inherently support Nazi notions of heroism. For example, Siegfried, the ostensible "hero" of the Ring cycle, may appear (and often does so in modern productions) a shallow and unappealing lout—although this is certainly not how Wagner himself conceived him; the opera's sympathies may seem to lie instead, in these circumstances, with the world-weary womaniser Wotan. Such ambivalence—between what the music can tell us and what we know of Wagner the man—lies at the heart of the debate on Wagner's supposed "proto-Nazism". Hitler and critic Robert Gutman both interpreted Parsifal as the artistic counterpart of the prose of "Hero-dom and Christendom": the Aryans' struggle and hope for redemption and a call for the racial revitalization of Germandom. Many aspects of Wagner's personal philosophy would certainly have been unappealing to mainstream Nazis, such as his quietist mysticism and support for Jewish assimilation. For example, Goebbels banned Parsifal in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of total war, due to the perceived pacifistic overtones of the opera.

For the most part, the Nazi fascination with Wagner was limited to Hitler, sometimes to the dismay of other high-ranking Nazi officials, including Goebbels. In 1933, for instance, Hitler ordered that each Nuremberg Rally open with a performance of the Meistersinger overture, and he even issued one thousand free tickets to Nazi functionaries. When Hitler entered the theater, however, he discovered that it was almost empty. The following year, those functionaries were ordered to attend, but they could be seen dozing off during the performance, so that in 1935, Hitler conceded and released the tickets to the public.

In general, while Wagner's music was ubiquitous throughout the Third Reich, his popularity actually declined in favor of Italian composers such as Verdi and Puccini. By the 1938-1939 season, Wagner had only one opera in the list of fifteen most popular operas of the season, with the list headed by Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

Hitler's admiration for Wagner could not have been returned because Wagner died six years before Hitler was born (on April 20, 1889). The political philosopher Leo Strauss has written about the absurdity of feeling that one should dislike something just because Hitler liked it (or vice versa) — what he called the Reductio ad Hitlerum. This would entail, for example, despising vegetarianism just because Hitler practiced it.

Nevertheless, Wagner's operas have never been staged in the modern state of Israel, and the few instrumental performances that have occurred have provoked much controversy. Although his works are commonly broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations, attempts at staging public performances have been halted by protests, which have included protests from Holocaust survivors. For instance, after Daniel Barenboim conducted a passage from Tristan und Isolde as an encore at the 2001 Israel Festival, a parliamentary committee urged a boycott of the conductor, and an initially scheduled performance of Die Walküre had to be withdrawn. On another occasion, Zubin Mehta played Wagner in Israel in spite of walkouts and jeers from the audience. One of the many ironies reflecting the complexities of Wagner and the responses his music provokes is that, like many German-speaking Jews of the pre-Hitler epoch, Theodore Herzl, a founder of modern Zionism, was an avid admirer of Wagner's work.

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Wagner's music dramas are his primary artistic legacy. These can be divided chronologically into three periods.

Wagner's early stage began at age 19 with his first attempt at an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which Wagner abandoned at an early stage of composition in 1832. Wagner's three completed early-stage operas are Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Their compositional style was conventional, and did not exhibit the innovations that marked Wagner's place in musical history. Later in life, Wagner said that he did not consider these immature works to be part of his oeuvre; he was irritated by the ongoing popularity of Rienzi during his lifetime. These works are seldom performed, though the overture to Rienzi has become a concert piece.

Wagner's middle stage output is considered to be of remarkably higher quality, and begins to show the deepening of his powers as a dramatist and composer. This period began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. These works are widely performed today.

Memorial bust
Memorial bust in Venice

Wagner's late stage operas are his masterpieces that advanced the art of opera. Some are of the opinion that Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Iseult) is Wagner's greatest single opera. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is Wagner's only comedy (apart from his early and forgotten Das Liebesverbot) and one of the lengthiest operas still performed. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, is a set of three operas and a brief prologue opera based loosely on figures and elements of Teutonic myth, particularly from later period Norse mythology. Wagner drew largely from Icelandic epics, namely, The Poetic Edda, The Volsunga Saga and the later Austrian Nibelungenlied. Taking around 20 years to complete, and spanning roughly 17 hours in performance, the Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious musical work ever composed. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, which was written especially for the opening of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth and which is described in the score as a "Bühnenweihfestspiel" (festival play for the consecration of the stage), is a contemplative work based on the Christian legend of the Holy Grail.

Through his operas and theoretical essays, Wagner exerted a strong influence on the operatic medium. He was an advocate of a new form of opera which he called "music drama", in which all the musical and dramatic elements were fused together. Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems". Most of his plots were based on Northern European mythology and legend. Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra's role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra's dramatic role includes its performance of the leitmotifs, musical themes that announce specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interleaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama.

Wagner's musical style is often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, due to its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression. He introduced new ideas in harmony and musical form, including extreme chromaticism. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, the so-called Tristan chord.

Early stage
  • (1832) Die Hochzeit (The Wedding) (abandoned before completion)
  • (1833) Die Feen (The Fairies)
  • (1836) Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)
  • (1837) Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes)

Middle stage
  • (1843) Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)
  • (1845) Tannhäuser
  • (1848) Lohengrin

Late stage
  • (1859) Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde)
  • (1867) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg)
  • Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), consisting of:
    • (1854) Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
    • (1856) Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
    • (1871) Siegfried (previously entitled Jung-Siegfried or Young Siegfried, and Der junge Siegfried or The young Siegfried)
    • (1874) Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (originally entitled Siegfrieds Tod or The Death of Siegfried)
  • (1882) Parsifal

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Non-operatic music

Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a single symphony (written at the age of 19), a Faust symphony (of which he only finished the first movement, which became the Faust overture), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces, and a re-orchestration of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide. Of these, the most commonly performed work is the Siegfried Idyll, a piece for chamber orchestra written for the birthday of his second wife, Cosima. The Idyll draws on several motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. The next most popular are the Wesendonck Lieder, properly known as Five Songs for a Female Voice, which were composed for Mathilde Wesendonck while Wagner was working on Tristan. An oddity is the "American Centennial March" of 1876, commissioned by the city of Philadelphia for the opening of the Centennial Exposition, for which Wagner was paid $5,000.

After completing Parsifal, Wagner apparently intended to turn to the writing of symphonies. However, nothing substantial had been written by the time of his death.

The overtures and orchestral passages from Wagner's middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote short passages to conclude the excerpt so that it does not end abruptly. This is true, for example, of the Parsifal prelude and Siegfried's Funeral Music. A curious fact is that the concert version of the Tristan prelude is unpopular and rarely heard; the original ending of the prelude is usually considered to be better, even for a concert performance.

One of the most popular wedding marches played as the bride's processional in English-speaking countries, popularly known as "Here Comes the Bride", takes its melody from the "Bridal Chorus" of Lohengrin. In the opera, it is sung as the bride and groom leave the ceremony and go into the wedding chamber. The calamitous marriage of Lohengrin and Elsa, which reaches irretrievable breakdown twenty minutes after the chorus has been sung, has failed to discourage this strange use of the piece.

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Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as a massive amount of correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often mutually contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include "Oper und Drama" ("Opera and Drama", 1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Jewry in Music", 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers in general, and Giacomo Meyerbeer in particular. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880).

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Theatre Design and Operation

Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas. These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth each summer.

The orchestra pit at Bayreuth is interesting for two reasons:

  1. The first violins are positioned on the right-hand side of the conductor instead of their usual place on the left side. This is in all likeliness because of the way the sound is intended to be directed towards the stage rather than directly on the audience. This way the sound has a more direct line from the first violins to the back of the stage where it can be then reflected to the audience.
  2. Double basses, 'cellos and harps (when more than one used, e.g. Ring) are split into groups and placed on either side of the pit.

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Wagner's influence and legacy

Wagner's contributions to art and culture are undeniable and monumental. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion amongst his legions of fans, and was often considered by them to have a near god-like status. His music, Tristan und Isolde especially, broke important new ground. For years afterward, many composers felt compelled to align themselves with or against Wagner. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf are indebted to him especially, as are César Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner and dozens of others. Gustav Mahler said, "There was only Beethoven and Wagner". The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (tonal and atonal modernism, respectively) can be traced to Tristan. That peculiar brand of Italian operatic realism known as verismo owes much to Wagnerian reconstruction of musical form. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during a dramatic performance of any kind, and it was his theater at Bayreuth which first made use of the orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth is entirely concealed from the audience. Wagner dreamt of an "invisible theatre" in which his works could be experienced in the imagination of the listener. With high-fidelity sound recordings, his dream has perhaps become reality.

Richard and son Siegfried
Richard and son Siegfried

Wagner's theory of musical drama has shaped even completely new art forms, including modern film scores. One notable work is the internationally popular American film Star Wars, with music by John Williams. The movie "The Ring of the Nibelungs" drew both from historical sources and Wagner's work as well, and set a ratings record when aired as a two-part mini-series on German television. It was subsequently released in other countries under a variety of names, including "Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King" in the USA. American producer Phil Spector was strongly influenced by Wagner's music. The rock subgenre of heavy metal music also bears a strong paganistic stamp from Romantic and Wagnerian influence. In Germany Rammstein and Joachim Witt (his most famous albums are called Bayreuth for that reason) are both strongly influenced by Wagner's music.

Wagner's influence on literature and philosophy is also significant. Friedrich Nietzsche, author of the influential The Birth of Tragedy, initially worshipped Wagner as a fellow Schopenhauerian, seeing in his music the possible rejuvenation of the European spirit from Judeo-Socratic rationalist decadence. Nietzsche then broke with him in the late 1870s, believing that Wagner's final phase represented a pandering to Christian pieties and a surrender to the new demagogic German Reich. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived", while James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. Wagner is one of the main subjects of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which quotes from his operas. Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine worshipped Wagner. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death (or Eros and Thanatos) in Tristan, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.

Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions, Wagner's supporters and those of Johannes Brahms; the latter, with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick, championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations, though the schism seems like sibling rivalry from today's perspective. Even those who, like Debussy, opposed him ("that old poisoner"), could not deny Wagner's influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was so unmistakable and overwhelming. Tchaikovsky was another, though it is doubtful whether he succeeded to the same extent.

In his later works, Wagner created such long spans and deep pulses that to appreciate the music fully requires listeners to yield to Wagner's concept of time. Many resisted, including Rossini ("Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour"), though his own "Guillaume Tell," at over four hours, is comparable to Wagner's operas in length. His ideals, from idiosyncratic Aryan racism and the "blonde beast" heroism of Siegfried to his enthusiastic reading of Schopenhauer, and his fascination with death and apotheosis, are deeply unfashionable in a plebeian democratic age that, as Nietzsche argued, resentfully hates human beings with above-average perceptions and sensitivities. For this reason, many educational institutions have over the past few decades been guilty of ignoring or inadvertantly attempting to de-emphasize Wagner's vast cultural significance. Still, his operas continue to command a strong following.