About Richard Wagner
From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2023
Chapter Five – The 19th Century: “Heart”
Hitler used to say, “Whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner.” Though Wagner was prejudiced against Jews, as was Hitler, and though he scorned parliaments and democracy and the materialist mediocrity of the bourgeoisie, he also fervently hoped that the Germans would “with their special gifts become not rulers, but ennoblers of the world.”
From The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, 1959
Wagner was the first to darken the auditorium during performance, with doors shut to inhibit latecomers from entering, and the first to specify that applause be reserved for the end of an act. He invented stage scenery that moved sideways; founded the modern school of conducting; began a revolution in stage lighting; invented the concept of ‘leitmotiv’; was the progenitor of the symbolist movement in poetry (inspiring many writers and poets including Joyce, Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, T.S Elliot, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Thomas Mann); invented the modern form of opera; was the first to dissuade singers from singing to the audience during a performance; the first to recognize Beethoven’s last great works (including the 9th Symphony); the first to emphasize that singers must act also when singing drama; and the first to create the hidden orchestral pit. He invented new musical instruments and, as every music theory book proclaims, took harmony to its final destination through new chords, harmonic progressions and modulation. Finally, unlike other composers of opera, he wrote both the words and the music.
Wagner’s signature continual modulation from key to key first occurred in Tannhauser in the famous narrative of Tannhauser in the final act. Lohengrin was the first opera to not have recitative, a standard feature of traditional operas (In traditional operas, recitative sections linked clearly defined ‘pieces’ such as arias [songs], duets, and so on). In Lohengrin, there are few pieces that can be performed as concert selections. Even the famous “Dream of Elsa” must be adapted for concert performance because in the opera its three sections are separated by interludes.
No applause was allowed in Bayreuth after the grail scenes that end the first and last acts of Parsifal. The audience was expected to withdraw in hushed silence. Parsifal was not an opera. It was a Bühnenweihfestspiel (a stage-consecrating festival play) that was performed only at Wagner’s own theater in Bayreuth, Germany. In 1903, when its copyright expired, the Metropolitan Opera in New York produced it against Wagner’s widow’s wishes, using a miniature score that Wagner’s publisher Schott released contrary to its agreement with Wagner.
In 1872, Clara Schumann, composer Robert Schumann’s wife, called the enthusiasm that the world was then experiencing for Wagner a kind of disease that sweeps across a country and carries away the very best people. Three years later she attended a performance of Tristan und Isolde and called it the most repulsive thing that she had ever experienced in her life. When she attended Rhinegold in 1882, she complained that she felt as if she had been wading around in a swamp. “The boredom one has to endure is dreadful. How prosperity will marvel at an aberration like this spreading all over the world.” For her, the opera had one good point…that the brass did not deafen her, as she claimed it had in his other operas.
King Ludwig of Bavaria saved Wagner from complete poverty and, against the wishes of the entire government of Bavaria, supported him lavishly, providing the means for the first performance of Tristan und Isolde, a work that had been pronounced unplayable. Wagner moved to Munich to be near the king and then became such a subject of daily mockery from the Munich press that he was forced to move away. Ludwig was loved by the common people of Bavaria, but he was hated by his own royal staff, who plotted against him, finally trumping up charges of insanity so that they could have him dethroned. Soon after, the king was dead, probably murdered. Yet still today, King Ludwig is referred to as “Mad King Ludwig,” the insane monarch of Bavaria who wasted himself on Wagner’s music. The public is still not aware of the trumped-up charges that had been made against him over 100 years ago. Ah, should the truth of the events in the lives of Wagner, his wife Cosima, and King Ludwig ever be firmly established in such a way that the people, who are probably not ready for the truth anyway, be properly informed!
“My skepticism as to the madness of King Ludwig is the result of many years’ acquaintance, frequently renewed, with all the available first-hand documents and most of the literature bearing in the case.”
Ernest Newman, Wagner biographer
“I feel very strongly about the frequently heard statement, totally untrue, that my grandfather was a Nazi in spirit and that his music exemplifies the Nazi ideology. He never could have endorsed such a pattern of thinking. His whole life, his writing, and his music all deny such a possibility. If only people would read what he wrote instead of listening to Nazi propaganda. He once wrote that he would give up and destroy everything that he had ever created, with joy, if he knew that it would further the cause of justice and liberty in the world.”
Freiland Wagner, Wagner’s granddaugher
“This man, this Wagner, this author of Tannhauser, of Lohengrin, and so many other hideous things, and above all, the overture to the Flying Dutchman, the most hideous and detestable of the whole, this preacher of the “Future” was born to feed spiders with flies, not to make happy the heart of man with beautiful melody and harmony. What is music to him or he to music? His rude attacks on absolute melody may be symbolized as matricide…Who are the men that go about as his apostles? Men like Liszt, madmen, enemies of music to the knife, who not born for music, and conscious of their impotence, revenge themselves by endeavoring to annihilate it…”
From a London newspaper of the mid-1800s
In May 1855, the Tannhauser overture was played in London. The London Times called it “a commonplace display of noise and extravagance.” The French critic Pere Fetis (who took the liberty to “correct” the harmonies in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) said of the theme: “a poor choral, badly harmonized.” The following year, Berlin critic Dr. E. Schmidt called Tannhauser a “discordant musical-event that will disappear after the second performance.”
From Wagner and His Works by Henry T. Finck, 1893
After the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, the work was universally chastised as formless because it did not follow the old path of a mosaic of individual pieces. In this work, the woodwinds and strings prevail throughout, yet the joke about Wagner’s ‘boiler factories’ (of brass) still prevailed in the press and the gossip. Ninth chords are prevalent in the love-duet and no other composer had ever known how to use these chords. Wagner had learned about them from Liszt, however. (Chopin was the first to use the seventh as a harmonic tone in the Prelude No. 23, Opus 28). Heinrich Dorn said of Tristan Und Isolde: “It is the most unfortunate choice of a textbook ever made by a really prominent composer…It is devoid of all moral basis…Harmony is used in a way that scoffs at its very name.” The critic Hanslick said: “The first act is intolerably tedious. The love-duet reveals a hopeless poetic impotence. The simplest song of Mendelssohn appeals more to the heart and soul than ten Wagner operas…” Eduard Schelle wrote: “The Tristan poem is in every respect an absurdity and the music, with some exceptions, the artificial brew of a decayed imagination.”
From Wagner and His Works by Henry T. Finck, 1893
While he was building his theatre in Bayreuth, Wagner was called: The Bavarian Lunatic, charlatan, The Music-Pope, The Shah of Bayreuth, and The Song Murderer. However, when the theatre opened in 1876, the following people came to see the Ring: Two emperors (Emperor William I and Dom Pedro of Brazil), a king (Ludwig of Bavaria), three grand dukes, Prince Vladimir of Russia, Prince William of Hessen, and the composers Saint-Saëns and Eduard Grieg.
With the production of the Ring in Wagner’s own specially built theater, Wagner had created an artistic shift of gigantic proportions, and the Ring was the fulfillment of his earlier writings on the “Artwork of the Future.” At the close of the first performance of the Ring, the applause was so tumultuous, that Wagner felt forced to go on stage (one of the innovations he had made at Bayreuth was to not have performers or himself come onto the stage after performances). He said a few words, among which was this comment: “You have seen what we can do. It is now for you to will. And if you will, we shall have an art!” Instead of realizing that they were witnessing an amazing and historical realization of a new kind of artwork, the critics took hold of this comment and screamed loudly in the newspapers that egomaniacal Wagner had proclaimed that before HIM there had been no art! These diatribes added to the fire of their infective of continually proclaiming him as an egomaniac.
Felix Mendelssohn was highly admired in Germany so much that when Wagner conducted Mendelssohn’s old orchestra in Leipzig, if he did something differently from the way Mendelssohn did it (such as use a different tempo), the orchestra members were very critical. To them, Mendelssohn was always right. They also found fault with Wagner’s conducting of Beethoven’s symphonies from memory, using no score (something even Mendelssohn did not do). Finally, some of the musicians convinced Wagner that he should conduct from the score during the actual performance, as they felt it would be a slight to Beethoven not to. Wagner promised them that he would bring a score to that night’s performance. He showed up at the performance, score in hand, and conducted the Beethoven symphony with the score open, turning the pages as they played the work. After the performance, a couple of the musicians who had asked him to bring the score came up to Wagner and congratulated him on the performance and on taking their advice of conducting from the score. However, one of them happened to look at the score still laying on the podium and noticed that it was not the Beethoven symphony, but it was the score for Rossini’s Barber of Seville that he had been using.
From Wagner and His Works by Henry T. Finck, 1893
“From that very moment, at the first concert, I was captivated by a desire to enter into a deeper understanding of these extraordinary works. It seemed to me that I had undergone a spiritual operation, a revelation”
“The kind of Wagner production I most want to see now is one that does literally what Wagner asks for.”
Brian Magee “Aspects of Wagner”
(Staging of Wagner’s works had degenerated beyond imagination in the name of art, by people such as his own grandson Wieland Wagner, who was in charge of the productions in Wagner’s own theater in Bayreuth.)
Wagner wrote Konstantin Frantz that he was “convinced by his historical analogies, that by the middle of the next millennium, Germany will have relapsed into barbarism.” According to Wagner’s biographer Ernest Newman, Wagner even calculated correctly when this would be: “He estimated that our present civilization would come to an end about the middle of the 20th Century.”
Cartoons in Kikeriki (a satirical magazine published in Vienna, Austria, between 1861 and 1933) on the occasion of Wagner’s Vienna concert of March 1, 1875, show orchestral performers dragging a rake across a harp, playing a screeching cat with a bow, dumping trash into a barrel, and sawing wood.
Artist and art critic George Moore said of Wagner’s libretto for Jesus of Nazareth (never completed as an opera) in The Musician of May 12, 1897: “There is only one thing to say: viz., that neither Shakespeare nor Sophocles could have contrived a nobler or a more dramatic telling of the story. Quite naturally every incident falls into its place, and advantage is taken of every hint… It is doubtful if Shakespeare would have conceived the opening scene with its massive purpose that marks the opening lines. The beauty of Wagner’s music has shadowed his genius as a writer.” Arthur Drews believed that it was probably no exaggeration to describe Wagner’s version of the life of Jesus as one of the most successful ever written.
“Up to the hour in which I recognized my true inner calling, my life had been a dreary, ugly dream, of which I have no desire to tell you anything, for I do not understand it myself and reject it with the whole of my now-purified soul. My outward appearance was calm, but inside I all was bleak and dreary when there came into my life that being who swiftly led me to realize that up to that time, I had never lived. I cried out to him: ‘I shall come to you and seek my greatest and highest happiness in sharing the burdens of life with you.’”
Cosima Wagner, in a note to her children
One day in 1874, Wagner and Cosima fell into each other’s arms, and he said to her: “I understand now how one can die for love; I believe the full power of love is felt only when one is my age. Today, when I was holding you, I was close to losing consciousness.”
Wagner was never one to write ‘occasional’ pieces, however he did compose some, including the wonderful Siegfried Idyll. Of his piano pieces, Wagner called the Wesendonck Sonata “trivial, shallow, and nondescript.” He told Cosima that he had never been able to write an occasional piece. The Albumlief written for Betty Schott he called artificial. “Only the Idyll had been successful,” he said.
“At the close of Rhinegold, I was incapable of speaking to a soul, so deeply sunk was I in all that I had seen and heard.”
Angelo Neumann, German baritone singer
Verlaine’s “Parsifal” sonnet, written in 1885, first appeared in La Revue Wagnarian on Jan 8, 1886. It was his emotional response to the performance of Parsifal in Wagner’s theater. Verlaine’s sonnet was accompanied by seven others. Twentieth-century poet T.S. Elliot included the last line of Verlaine’s sonnet (“Et o ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!”) as a line in his poem “The Waste Land” (in Part III, the Fire Sermon).
“My Richard, O mein Richard, how you have had to fight, how misunderstood you have been! Only future centuries will know how to appreciate you! And you have been my friend.” […well let’s hope the 21st Century does, as the 20th didn’t].
Words whispered by Wagner’s lifelong friend Anton Pussinelli on his deathbed
In the Sihltal in Switzerland Wagner heard forest birds. These went into the “Forest Murmurs” scene in Siegfried: yellowhammer (oboe), oriole (flute), nightingale (clarinet), tree-pipit (flute), blackbird (flute and clarinet).
Felix Draeseke, a 24-year-old composer, visited Wagner for a month when Wagner was living in Lucerne. One day, Wagner called Draeseke into his room before they went on their usual afternoon walk. “Wait just a minute and Tristan Und Isolde will be finished,” Wagner said to him. Draeseke waited for Wagner to write the last notes. Looking at the score, Draeseke asked why the English horn did not play in the final chord. “Why should that old scoundrel still be grunting away?” Wagner said. Richard Strauss has called that chord “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music.” Draeseke maintained to the end of his life that Wagner’s was the greatest mind he had ever known.