200 Years of Wagner
Richard Wagner is born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, the Brühl, at the Red and White Lion house. Whether his father was the police actuary Carl Friedrich Wagner or the actor and painter Ludwig Geyer has never been conclusively established. Wagner himself was not sure, though neither man, contrary to insinuations by Nietzsche and others, was Jewish. Wagner’s mother, for her part, was not the illegitimate daughter of Prince Constantin of Saxe-Weimar, as she led people to believe, but a humble baker’s daughter who was seduced by the prince.
The Red and White Lion house in Leipzig
Having left the Nicolaischule in Leipzig the previous year and enrolled at the Thomasschule, he matriculates on 23 February at Leipzig University. From this period also date the Seven Pieces for Goethe’s Faust, for voice and piano, including a piece in the unusual genre of melodrama, and a Piano Sonata in B flat for four hands. After starting with a new teacher, Christian Theodor Weinlig, in the autumn, he composes the solo Piano Sonata in B flat (published as op.1) and a Fantasia, also for piano.
The Nicholaischule in Leipzig
Premiere of Das Liebesverbot, written the previous year, by the Bethmann company, of which Wagner is musical director. The company subsequently goes bankrupt. Wagner has meanwhile fallen in love with one of the company’s leading ladies, an attractive actress called Minna Planer. Before long, she has given him ‘a couple of moments of sensual transfiguration’, as Wagner euphemistically puts it in a letter to a friend. In July of this year he follows her to Königsberg, where she has another engagement. They marry on 24 November in the little church at Königsberg-Tragheim, deterred neither by their furious squabble, interrupted by the officiating priest, the day before, nor by the fact that Minna has a daughter, Natalie, following her seduction as a fifteen-year-old by a guards captain.
Minna Planer, as captured by an admirer, Alexander von Otterstedt
The Frauenkirche, Dresden
Following the successful premiere of Der fliegende Holländer on 2 January, he is offered, and accepts, the post of Kapellmeister to the royal Saxon court in Dresden. He completes the poem of Tannhäuser in April and in the summer begins work on the music. In July he conducts his Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love-Feast of the Apostles), featuring a vast chorus of 1,200 amateur singers and an orchestra of 100 gathered in Dresden’s Frauenkirche, in whose galleries the singers are arranged.
The Frauenkirche, Dresden, destroyed by fire bombing in World War II but now restored to its full glory
The German National Assembly
He completes the score of Lohengrin in April. Following uprisings in Paris and Vienna, a German National Assembly convenes in Frankfurt. Wagner delivers an address to the republican Vaterlandsverein, published the following day as ‘How do Republican Endeavours Stand in Relation to the Monarchy?’ In October he sketches an initial outline for a drama under the title ‘The Nibelung Myth: as Sketch for a Drama’, followed by a libretto for an opera called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death). The project is later to expand into the nearly 15-hour tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen spread over four evenings.
The German National Assembly convenes in the Paulskirche, Frankfurt
Having become embroiled in the revolutionary activity in Dresden, Wagner has been living in exile in Switzerland since 1849. He now publishes fifty copies of his completed Ring poem and reads it to an invited audience at the Hôtel Baur au Lac in Zurich. He moves with Minna into a larger apartment but is already in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a wealthy patron who shares Wagner’s passion for silk, having made his fortune out of it. In October he meets the 15-year-old Cosima Liszt, later to be his wife. The following month he begins composition of the Ring, a project which is to occupy him for a quarter of a century.
Mathilde Wesendonck as angelic muse, portrait by Carl Friedrich Sohn
The poem of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is completed (the full score of the work was finally finished in 1868). Following a partial amnesty in 1860, he is now allowed to re-enter Saxony, but has no wish permanently to return to Dresden. He is attracted by Mathilde Maier and the actress Friederike Meyer. Hans and Cosima von Bülow (having married in 1857) visit Wagner in Biebrich. He coaches Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife Malvina in the roles of Tristan and Isolde, the music of which had been written between 1857 and 1859.
Eva crowns Hans Sachs with a wreath of myrtle and laurel at the conclusion of Die Meistersinger; illustration by Franz Stassen.
Mounting debts force Wagner to leave his apartment in Penzing, near Vienna, in which every room had been decked out in a riot of silk, velvet or damask. The 18-year-old who becomes King Ludwig II of Bavaria on 10 March is happily a Wagner enthusiast. He summons the composer, pays off his debts and houses him near the royal castle Schloss Berg, overlooking Lake Starnberg, near Munich. Cosima arrives at Starnberg with two daughters by Bülow and her burgeoning relationship with Wagner is finally consummated. Their first child, Isolde, is born the following April.
Portrait of Ludwig II by Ferdinand Piloty
View across Lake Lucerne to Tribschen (centre)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg receives its triumphant premiere in Munich under Bülow. In November Wagner meets the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a fervent admirer who in due course is to become his sharpest critic. Cosima, together with Isolde and a second daughter of Wagner’s, Eva, move into the house Tribschen, on Lake Lucerne, chosen as their home two years previously.
The Upper Franconian town of Bayreuth is considered as a venue for the festival to mount the Ring. In August Wagner and Cosima marry in the Protestant church in Lucerne. The Siegfried Idyll is performed on the staircase at Tribschen in honour of Cosima’s birthday.
An imaginary recreation of the scene at Tribschen when Wagner conducted the Siegfried Idyll on the staircase outside the bedroom of the waking Cosima, seen here fully dressed with the infant Siegfried
The first production of the Ring in Wagner's purpose-built theatre in Bayreuth. The performance is attended by luminaries and musicians from all over Europe. An intimate and clandestine correspondence (and possibly love affair) with the French writer and Wagner-admirer Judith Gautier begins and continues until February 1878, when Cosima, having recently discovered the truth, resolutely brings it to an end.
Punters arriving at the Festspielhaus in 1890, as depicted in a painting by G. Láska.
Wagner and family take up residence in the Villa d’Angri, overlooking the Bay of Naples, where they are joined by Paul von Joukowsky, the future stage designer for Parsifal. The Moorish-style castle and exotic garden of the Palazzo Rufolo at Ravello provide the model for the stage setting of Act II of that work: ‘Klingsor’s magic garden is found!’, Wagner writes in the visitors’ book. The cathedral in Siena similarly provides the inspiration for the Hall of the Grail. Wagner conducts a private performance for King Ludwig of the Parsifal Prelude in the Court Theatre in Munich. Last meeting with the king, after which he returns to Bayreuth.
The magic garden for Act II of Parsifal. Oil painting by Max Brückner based on design by Paul von Joukowsky.
Wagner dies in Venice; his body is brought back by gondola and train to Bayreuth, where he is buried in a grave behind his house, Wahnfried. His widow, Cosima, takes over as director of the Bayreuth Festival, committed to a faithful execution of her husband’s wishes, as she understands them, but ossifying the festival in the process.
The funeral procession winding through the streets of Bayreuth past the station as black flags fluttered from buildings and the town’s bells tolled
Siegfried and Cosima
Siegfried and Cosima in 1911, by which time Wagner’s widow had passed the mantle to his son.
New production of Tannhäuser
Cosima dies at the grand old age of 92. Devastated by her death, and exhausted by personal and political tensions on the Green Hill, Siegfried suffers a heart attack, from which he never recovers. His production of Tannhäuser is already on the boards, but he never sees it.
For his new production of Tannhäuser in 1930 Siegfried Wagner commissioned choreography from the pioneer of avant-garde ‘expressive’ dance, Rudolf von Laban.
Germany (2nd World War)
Hitler’s rise to power initiates a period of generous state funding for the Bayreuth Festival. Winifred Wagner, Siegfried’s English-born widow, is on intimate terms with Hitler. The dictator attends the Bayreuth Festival each year from 1933 to 1939, but the Nazis do not interfere consistently with artistic policy as they do elsewhere. A petition is mounted against the replacement of the venerable production of Parsifal ‘upon which the Master’s eyes had once rested’. Hitler, however, is in favour of a new production, but the result, by the respected Alfred Roller, is not a success.
Adolf Hitler enjoying the company of Winifred Wagner and sons at Wahnfried. From left: Artur Kannenberg, (Hitler’s household steward), Wolfgang Wagner, Winifred, an adjutant, Hitler, Julius Schaub (an adjutant) and Wieland Wagner
Wagner’s grandsons, Wieland and Wolfgang, reopen the festival after the Second World War. Wieland’s radical stagings set new standards in European opera production. The first festival opens ambitiously with new productions of Parsifal, Die Meistersinger and the Ring; even so, Wolfgang very nearly succeeds in making the books balance.
The iconic image of New Bayreuth. Siegfried (Bernd Aldenhoff) and Brünnhilde (Astrid Varnay) on the mountain top
The centenary of the first Ring
The centenary of the first Ring is marked with a trailblazing production by the Frenchman Patrice Chéreau that once again changes the face of Wagner production in Europe. With Pierre Boulez on the rostrum, the production essays an audacious interplay of the work’s mythical and contemporary planes, setting the action against the socio-political backdrop of the Ring’s first century, roughly 1876 to 1976. Equally radical is the immediate and thrilling theatricality Chéreau brings to the acting style.
Siegmund (Peter Hofmann) pulls the sword Nothung from the tree to the joy of Sieglinde (Jeannine Altmeyer) in Patrice Chéreau’s landmark Ring
Wolfgang Wagner dies, having been at the helm for over half a century. His mantle falls, after much internecine strife, on his daughter Katharina and her half-sister Eva. Following controversial productions of Der fliegende Holländer in Würzburg and Lohengrin in Budapest, Katharina proves herself triumphantly with her first assignment at Bayreuth: a Meistersinger that grapples with the troubling ideology that underpins the work, as well as its consequent appropriation by the Nazis.
The half-sisters Eva and Katharina in accord and at the helm of the Bayreuth Festival
The Bayreuth Festspielhaus as it looks today. Brass fanfares from the balcony of the King’s annex summon festivalgoers to the performance.