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Richard Wagner    Part 2    1839 - 1854

WAGNER: Imagination creates reality.

Rienzi melody
Rienzi melody

 Wagner drawing by Keitz 1842
Wagner drawing
by Keitz, Paris 1842
The Wagners spent 1839 to 1842 in Paris, where Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He and Minna were often short of food and in winter could not afford to heat their lodgings.

However, he also completed his third and fourth operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman during this stay. Rienzi is a medieval Roman, who succeeds in outwitting and then defeating the nobles and in raising the power of the people.

 Cola di Rienzi (1313Ğ1354),
Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354)
Magnanimous at first, he is forced by events to crush the nobles' rebellion against the people's power, but popular opinion changes and even the Church, which had urged him to assert himself, turns against him. In the end the populace burns the Capitol, in which Rienzi and a few adherents have made a last stand.

Michael Tanner wrote:

It was attending a performance of Rienzi in Linz which set Hitler, so he often claimed, his goal of absolute power.

WAGNER: The distressing poverty of my home in Paris grew more apparent every day and yet I was now to give a last touch to Rienzi, the most voluminous of my operas.
I had decided to offer the first production to the Court Theatre at Dresden.
NARRATOR: His relief on leaving Paris for Dresden was recorded in his Autobiographic Sketch of 1842:
WAGNER: For the first time I saw the Rhine - with hot tears in my eyes, I, poor artist, swore eternal fidelity to my German fatherland.
NARRATOR: The first night of Rienzi at the Hopofer, Dresden in 1842 was Wagner's first success.
Hopofer, Dresden
Hopofer, Dresden
No subsequent experience of mine can be compared with day of the first production of Rienzi. When I try to recall that evening, I can only picture it with all the paraphernalia of a dream. I was unconscious of the applause, and when I was tempestuously called for, I had to be driven onto the stage.

My opera excited the interest of the princesses of the royal family. They thought the exhausting length of six hours a drawback; so it was proposed two halves of it should be given on succesive nights. However many of the audience considered it a fraud to have to pay for two performances, and the management was obliged to accept some of my cuts and to go back to the old arrangement.

NARRATOR: Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he staged there The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser. He learnt that Liszt had read the score of Rienzi and much admired it. Liszt was to prove very helpful to him. Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient, who was to sing in The Flying Dutchman berated Liszt for not remembering he had met Wagner in Paris.
Franz Liszt'
Franz Liszt
The hearty sincerity of Listz's simple words to me about this misunderstanding, as contrasted with the strangely passionate raillery of the incorrigible lady, made a most pleasing and captivating impression upon me. The whole bearing of the man, and the way in which he tried to ward off the pitiless scorn of her attacks, was something new to me, and gave me a deep insight into his character, so firm in its amiability and boundless good-nature. At last he stretched himself out flat on the floor, and implored her mercy, declaring himself quite defenceless against the storm of her invective. Then he turned to me with a hearty assurance that he would make it his business to hear Rienzi.
I realised for the first time the almost magic power exerted by him over all who came in close contact with him.

Rienzi melody
The Orgy
Ballet scene
In the Venusberg
In 1845 the first performance of Tannhauser was a failure, but it was to become one of Wagners's most successful operas.

Tannhauser is a willing captive to his love for Venus. After an orgy his desires are satiated, and he longs for the sound of church bells. His words: "My salvation rests in Mary, the mother of God" break Venus' unholy spell. He finds himself below the Wartburg, where pilgrims in pass in procession. Wolfram informs him that his song in the singing competition has gained for him the heart of Elisabeth. Tannhauser loves her, but dares not tell her the evil he has done. The contestants' song is to be "love's awakening". Elisabeth will grant the victor one wish, whatever it may be. Wolfram performs first; he declares that love is like a pure stream, which should never be troubled.

Students climbing the Wartburg 1817
Tannhauser replies that he finds the highest love only in the pleasure of the senses, but then he expresses his penitence and joins a band of pilgrims bound for Rome, where he may perhaps obtain forgiveness and redemption from the Pope.

The Pope refuses Tannhauser's plea for absolution, and declares that he had no more chance of being forgiven than the Pope's staff had of sprouting leaves. Venus welcomes Tannhauser back to her cavern. But then he sees funeral procession bearing the corpse of Elisabeth on a bier. He races to her side and collapses upon her body with the words, "Holy Elisabeth, pray for me" upon his lips. The younger pilgrims enter and announce that the Pope's staff has sprouted young leaves, a sign that Tannhauser has obtained God's forgiveness.
NARRATOR: Michael Tanner considers it one of his less successful operas.
TANNER: What Wagner was probably trying to create in Tannhauser was one of his succession of characters plagued by almost unendurable guilt, but the evidence is that abandonment to sexual excess is not a fault, which he could believe to be that bad.
WAGNER: The rumour that in writing Tannhauser I had been bribed by the Catholic part was believed for a long time.


I felt I must quickly compose something, as this was the only means of ridding myself of all the disturbing and painful excitement Tannhauser had produced in me. Only a few weeks after the first performances I had worked out the whole of the Lohengrin text.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.


1st Movement Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
A portrait of Beethoven
My despair on financial and artistic grounds, was now converted into genuine exaltation, thanks entirely to the Ninth Symphony. It is not likely that the heart of a disciple has ever been filled with such keen rapture over the work of a master, as mine was at the first movement of this symphony. If any one had come upon me unexpectedly while I had the open score before me, and had seen me convulsed with sobs and tears as I went through the work in order to consider the best manner of rendering it, he would certainly have asked with astonishment if this were really fitting behaviour for the Conductor Royal of Saxony!



Prelude to Act 1
Wagner's Mother
Wagner's Mother
In 1848 his mother died.


At this time he was working on his new opera Lohengrin.

When my mother's death was announced, I at once hastened to her funeral at Leipzig, and was filled with deep emotion and joy at the wonderfully calm and sweet expression on her face. She had passed the latter years of her life, which had before been so active and restless, in cheerful ease, and at the end in peaceful and almost childlike happiness. On her deathbed she exclaimed in humble modesty, and with a bright smile on her face: 'Oh! how beautiful! how lovely! how divine! Why do I deserve such favour?'
Mikhail Bakunin
Mikhail Bakunin
The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in leftist politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force, calling for the unification of Germany as a one nation state. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in the socialist wing of this movement, regularly receiving radical guests, who included the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Widespread discontent in Dresden came to a head in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony rejected a new constitution. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role.
Dresden Market and
Frauenkirche (painting
by Bernardo Bellotto)
The Prussian sharpshooters were posted on the distant tower of the Frauenkirche, and had chosen the height occupied by us as their target. I spent one of the most extraordinary nights of my life, taking turns to keep watch and sleep, close beneath the great bell with its terrible groaning clang, and with the accompaniment of the continuous rattle of the Prussian shot as it beat against the tower walls.

The next morning was one of the most beautiful days in the year. I was awakened by the song of a nightingale. A sacred calm and peacefulness lay over the town and the wide suburbs of Dresden.


the Bridal Chorus
Lohengrin postcard from around 1900
Lohengrin postcard
from around 1900
This was the calm before the storm. The revolution was 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 visiting Paris and then settling in Zurich.


While wagner was still in exile the first production of Lohengrin was in Weimar on 28 August 1850 under the direction of Franz Liszt, who chose the date in honour of Weimar's most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born on that day a hundred years earlier. Liszt wrote of the production:
LISZT: Nothing within living memory has been seen like our efforts for the performance of Lohengrin. Little by little our whole company will become enthusiastic over this masterpiece, will be penetrated by its substance, live in its life, all which is essential for a performance such as I have in view.
WAGNER:: Minna and I spent the evening while the first performance was taking place at Weimar, in Lucerne at the Schwan inn, watching the clock as the hands went round, and marking the various times at which the performance presumably began, developed, and came to a close.
Lohengrin defeats Telramund
Lohengrin defeats
The opera tells how Count Telramund accuses his ward, Elsa, of having murdered her brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant's Christian dynasty. Gottfried was actually enchanted by the evil Ortrud, whom Telramund has wed.

Elsa has dreamt of a knight in shining armour, who will save her. She prays for him to appear, which he does, magically drawn in a boat by a swan. He betroths himself to her on condition that she never ask his name. Defeating Telramund in combat, the newcomer establishes the innocence of his bride.

At the cathedral entrance, Ortrud and Telramund attempt to stop the wedding - she by suggesting that the unknown knight is in fact an impostor, he by accusing Elsa's bridegroom of sorcery. Though troubled by doubt, Elsa reiterates her faith in the knight before they enter the church.

Alone in the bridal chamber, Elsa and her husband express their love until anxiety at last compels the bride to ask the groom who he is. Before he can reply, Telramund and his henchmen burst in. With a cry, Elsa hands the knight his sword, with which he kills Telramund. Ordering the nobles to bear the body to the king, he sadly tells Elsa he will meet her later to answer her questions.

Caricature of King Ludwig as
Lohengrin with Wagner in the moon
The knight tells the king that his home is the temple of the Holy Grail at distant Monsalvat, to which he must return; Lohengrin is his name. He bids farewell and turns to his magic swan. Now Ortrud rushes in, jubilant over Elsa's betrayal of the man who could have broken the spell that transformed her brother into a swan. But Lohengrin's prayers bring forth Gottfried in place of his vanished swan, and after naming the boy ruler of Brabant, Lohengrin disappears, led by the dove of the Grail. Ortrud perishes, and Elsa, calling for her lost husband, falls lifeless to the ground.

Although the title role was sung by a local tenor, who had also been a pastry cook, the opera was an immediate popular success.

As Ernest Newman in his four volume biography of Wagner puts it:
NEWMAN: So far from Wagner being socially, politically and musically finished by his rebellion and flight into Switzerland, his star was steadily rising. His prose writings had made a commotion: Liszt had set all Germany talking with his production of Lohengrin.

The beginning of Das Rheingold by the Metropolitan Opera
Ludwig Castle
King Ludwig's Castle
Among those to be deeply moved by the fairy-tale opera was the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria. 'Der Märchenkönig' ('The Fairy-tale King'), as he was later called, built his ideal fairy-tale castle and dubbed it "Neuschwanstein", after the Swan Knight.


Wagner was to spend 11 years in exile. He and Minna set up home mostly in Zurich. He continued to work on the libretto of a cycle of four epic operas known as the Nibelungen.


These consisted of Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). They were to be performed on four successive nights.

Giacomo Meyerbeer
Giacomo Meyerbeer
He also wrote some notable essays: The Art-Work of the Future", in which he described opera as a "total work of art", in which music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified. He also wrote Judaism in Music, a tract directed against Jewish composers.

In his exile when his vision of German opera had little chance of prospering, he was particularly resentful of the success of the fabulously wealthy, German Jewish composer, Meyerbeer. Wagner suspected him of bribing the critics to praise the sumptuous productions of such operas as Robert the Devil and The Huguenots.

He quoted the poet Heinrich Heine:
HEINE: Meyerbeer will be immortal during his lifetime, and perhaps for some years afterwards, for he pays in advance.
NARRATOR: Wagner also wrote Opera and Drama, describing the aesthetics of drama, which he was using to create the Ring operas. Ernest Newman has written:
Wagner reinvented himself in Zurich
Wagner reinvented
himself in Zurich
The years between 1848 and 1856 were one long spiritual convulsion for him, during which his attempts to shape and to understand himself inwardly were sometimes of even more importance than the events of his outward life.

In Zurich his extraordinary personality and the bubbling richness of his mind soon made this penniless exile the centre of a circle of intelligent men and women. His dog, Peps, and his parrot, Pago contributed to his domestic happiness. Whenever Wagner scolded his wife she had taught Papo to call out: "Bad man, poor Minna!"
NARRATOR: He also took advantage of the inspiring Alpine scenery to go on strenuous walks.
NEWMAN: His frequent bad health was almost certainly the result of his resorting to violent physical exercise after a prolonged period of intellectual strain.
NARRATOR: On a trip from St. Gallen to Zurich with his friends Karl Ritter and Theodor Uhlig he decided to take the shortest route across an eight thousand foot mountain.
Wagner reinvented himself in Zurich
Returning to Zurich from a trip to St.Gallen,
Wagner scaled the 8,000 foot Santis Mountain
Crossing the Santis was by no means easy. lt was my iirst experience of travelling over an extensive snowfield in summer. After reaching our guide's hut, which was perched on a rugged slope, where we regaled ourselves with exceedingly frugal fare, we had to climb the towering and precipitous pinnacle of rock which forms the summit of the mountain, a few hundred feet above us. Here Karl suddenly refused to allow us to continuw, and to shake him out of his effeminancy I had to send back the guide for him. But now we had to clamber from stone to stone along the precipitous cliff. I realised how foolish I had been in compelling Karl to share our perilous adventure. His dizziness evidently stupelied him. We had to hold him fast between our alpenstocks, every moment expecting to see him collapse, and tumble into the abyss. When we at last attained the summit, he sank senseless on the ground. We at last reached the guide's cottage in safety.

Uhlig and myself were still determined to descend the precipitous further side of the mountain, a feat which the guide informed us was not without danger.

NEWMAN: Rest was impossible for a nature so energetic. Wagner enjoyed climbing not only for the splendour of the views, but also for the exhilaration of danger. Few men have had heads as steady as Wagner's. The perfect correlation between brain and body, the completeness of nervous control that shows itself in his copperplate handwriting and in the neatness of his scores, which are as legible as if they were engraved, manifested itself in an exultant freedom from giddiness at great heights: he would have made an excellent steeplejack or tight-rope walker.
NARRATOR: Another of Wagner's extreme enthusiasms was for a water cure, invented by a Doctor Rausse. Wagner described his daily regime at Albisbrunn near Zurich.
Albisbrunn near Zurich
Albisbrunn near Zurich
1. At half -past five in the morning, wrapping up in a wet sheet until seven; then a cold tub and a walk. Eight o'clock, breakfast dry bread and milk, or water.
2. Another short walk; then a cold compress.
3. About twelve, a rub-down with damp towels; a short walk; another compress. Then dinner in my room, to avoid unpleasant consequences. An hour's idleness; a stiff walk of two hours, alone.
4. About five, another damp rub-down and a short walk.
5. About six, a hip-bath, lasting a quarter of an hour, followed by a walk to get my circulation up. Another compress. Supper about seven dry bread and water. Then a whist party until nine, after which another compress, and about ten o'clock to bed.
NARRATOR: As Newman put it:
NEWMAN: His constitution was sound enough to stand even this murderous treatment, which included giving up his beloved snuff-taking.
NARRATOR: After further strenuous hikes across the Alps and into Italy, Wagner was inspired to compose the music for Das Rheingold, the first part of the Nibelungen. One afternoon in Spezia on the Italian Riviera, he experienced a revelation:
Minna in 1853
Minna with Peps in 1853
I awoke in sudden terror from my doze, feeling as though the waves were rushing high above my head. I at once recognised that the orchestral overture to the Rheingold which must long have lain latent within me, though it had been unable to find definite form, had at last been revealed to me. I then quickly realised my own nature; the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within. I decided to return to Zurich immediately, and begin the composition of my great poem. I telegraphed to my wife to let her know my decision, and to have my study in readiness.

NARRATOR: Here is the opening dialogue to this massive work of the Nibelungen, which plays over four nights.
WOGLINDE: Weia! Waga! Roll on, waves! Flow to your cradle! Wagalaweia! Wallala! weiala weia!
WELLGUNDE: Woglinde, are you alone?
WOGLINDE: Come and join me.
WELLGUNDE: How are you?
WOGLINDE: Safe from you up here!
FLOSSHILDE: Heiaha weia! Crazy girls!
WELLGUNDE: Flosshilde! Woglinde's getting away! Swim after her; help me catch her!
FLOSSHILDE: You aren't watching the Gold. Guard it, or you'll be sorry!


Episode 3

The Great Composers


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