Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wagner—on his 200th birthday

When I was singing with the Minnesota Bach Society, we were asked to provide the chorus for a symphonic performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser with the Minnesota Orchestra.  To be perfectly honest, I was not exactly thrilled about this.  I had signed up to sing the delicate polyphonic melodies of Bach—not the heavy and oh-so-serious operas of Wagner.  Not surprisingly, I discovered that singing Wagner was a real hoot and Tannhäuser was not the endurance contest of the Ring Cycle.  I also discovered that there are SERIOUS Wagner fans. I am still mainly a Bach fan, but I have read some of the scholarship, seen the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, and visited the Herrenchiemsee—one of the more lavish palaces of Ludwig II, Wagner's main patron—in an attempt to understand what all the fuss is about.

Wagner's politics have been discussed in minutest detail over the years—mostly because one of his biggest fans was Hitler.  This is probably a mistake because as I have discovered in life, outside of music it's probably a bad idea to discuss any other subject with a musician.  The reason is simple—music is such a complex subject and requires so much practice in order to do well, anyone who gets good at music hasn't had a lot of time to master much else.  When the musician is Wagner, the music itself is so complicated, discussions of his politics is usually just a distraction for those who cannot or will not deal with the complexities of his music.

Me?  I intend to celebrate the occasion by listening to Tannhäuser one more time and wonder again if the mere act of asserting that the essence of love is lust is such a serious crime, it requires acts of redemption.  Really?

Who was Wagner? On the composer's 200th birthday

The poet, director, conductor, author and, most importantly, composer, born on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, remains a riddle to many. Two hundred years after his birth, the debate goes on.

DW.DE 22 MAY 13

More has been written about him, it's often said, than about anyone else in history apart from Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte. Two hundred years after his birth, Richard Wagner is a much-discussed subject. Some see him as the genius who created the "total work of art." Others reject him for his anti-Semitic writings. In any event, his operas are performed today more often than ever before.

He came from a middle-class family. The father, Carl Friedrich Wagner, was a police actuary; his mother, Johanna Rosine Pätz-Wagner, a baker's daughter. The boy, baptized Wilhelm Richard Wagner, was interested in theater from early childhood.

Music of the future

Initially he wanted to be a poet and playwright. But seeing Beethoven's opera "Fidelio" at age 16 resulted in a change of career plans: He decided to be a composer. As early as 1831, as a student of music, he planned his first opera, for which he penned the text himself - an approach he was to take for the rest of his life.

By 20, Wagner was directing the Theater in Magdeburg. There he fell in love with the actress Minna Planer. They married in 1836 and had no children. Riga and Paris were the next stations in the life of the itinerant artist, who was plagued by financial worries and pursued by creditors.

The Wagners lived in Paris under dire circumstances, yet he was able to complete his early operas "Rienzi" and "The Flying Dutchman" there. His interest in the leftist revolutionary currents of the era dates from that time.

In 1842, Wagner moved to Dresden, where he became court composer. In October came a musical breakthrough: the premiere of "Rienzi." Always working on various works simultaneously, he began to develop the vision of a new blend of words, music and action into a "total work of art." The goal: nothing less than "the unconditional, immediate depiction of human nature in a state of completion."

Deus ex Machina

In a recent interview with DW, his great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner put it in these words: "In Wagner's works in particular, it's all about the basic elements of human existence and of basic qualities like jealousy, power, love, and hate. Those are of course things that will always be timely and move us as long as humanity exists."

In May 1849, the composer participated in a grass-roots rebellion in Dresden, after which he became a wanted man and was forced to leave Germany. Then in 1864 - back in Germany and in despair and financial straits - he was close to suicide. At that point a letter from the new King of Bavaria, 18-year-old Ludwig II., arrived. The king offered his full support and continued to do so for the rest of Wagner's life.

In the little Bavarian town of Bayreuth, Wagner eventually found the location for his vision. Far from the bustle of big-city life, in a self-designed festival theater, audiences were able to concentrate totally on the combination of music, stage action and scenery. That happened for the first time in August 1876 at the premiere of Wagner's four-opera cycle, "The Ring of the Nibelung."After many affairs before and after the death of his wife Minna, Wagner lived in Tribschen, near Lucerne, with Cosima von Bülow, daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of his friends and promoters. Three children were born before the couple finally married.

The first Bayreuth Festival was a financial disaster and an artistic fiasco, yet Wagner was able to stage the second edition in 1882. Only a single work was performed then, his final one, "Parsifal." He died on February 13, 1883 in Venice.

What does Wagner stand for?

Was he a socialist? A National Socialist? How are his wide-ranging writings to be interpreted? Nearly every statement made by the composer seems to be contradicted somewhere else. What is the message of the music? Does it, like some of his writings, contain elements of anti-Semitism?Why the fascination with Wagner still today? One of the most influential composers ever, his late-Romantic music has always had an emotionally stimulating quality. Most people react either with rejection or enthusiasm; few are indifferent. Wagner's goal was to revolutionize theater and opera, but he became ensnared in a political revolution and later identified with ultra-nationalistic Germanism.

What did Wagner advocate? In the final analysis: himself. "Networker" and "self-promoter" can be added to the descriptions of the multi-talent, who forced his art onto a world that didn't want it. Today, however, the world is grateful.The debate goes on, but for conductor Christian Thielemann, there is no debate. "You can't politicize music," he told DW. "It's always been a big misunderstanding. And a choice of tempo in 'The Mastersingers of Nuremberg' has nothing to do with politics. You have to perform it for the sake of the work. If you approach it with some sort of intention, it's a shame, or completely wrong." more

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