Two hundred years after his birth, Wagner still fascinates the world. | Music | DW | 21.05.2013
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Two hundred years after his birth, Wagner still fascinates the world.

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.

A new monument in Leipzig honoring Richard Wagner Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa

A new monument in Leipzig honoring Richard Wagner

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

German actress Christine Wilhelmine 'Minna' Planer (1809 - 1866), first wife of German composer Richard Wagner, circa 1830

Christine Wilhelmine 'Minna' Planer, Wagner's first wife

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."

The Richard Wagner monument at the Zoo in Berlin-Tiergarten

Wagner is the inspiration for many monuments, some of them absurd

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."

Deus ex Machina

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.

Richard and Cosima Wagner with Wagnerians Franz Liszt and Heinrich von Stein (center)

Richard and Cosima Wagner with "Wagnerians" Franz Liszt and Heinrich von Stein

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.

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."

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?

The Festspielhaus in Bayreuth

In Bayreuth, Wagner created the ideal location for his operas to be performed

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.

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?

Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. Portrait photo, 1893

Jewish conductor Hermann Levi - adored and tormented by Wagner

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."

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.

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