A slow-acting, addictive, dangerous drug: 200 years of Wagner

He was an opportunistic ego-maniac and his legacy was sullied by Nazism, but after two centuries, Richard Wagner’s music has lost none of its power and fury


Dwarves, giants and deities, all fighting over an enchanted band of gold: JRR Tolkien knew he was on to a winning formula when he wrote The Lord of the Rings . Some 80 years before Frodo, Gandalf and Gollum, however, there was Siegfried, Brünnhilde and Richard Wagner: the Lord of the Ring.

Tolkien’s epic has always enjoyed popular success yet Wagner’s Ring cycle, a fantasy soup with similar ingredients, is viewed with suspicion as an impenetrable, elitist fortress.

This year, the eastern German state of Saxony hopes to change all that. Today, Wagner’s home town of Leipzig will mark his 200th birthday with a concert and the unveiling of a new statue to its famous son. An energetic, year-long calendar of events, it hopes to re-establish Saxony’s claim on Wagner’s early life and career in the hope of shifting attention back to the music from many Wagnerian distractions.

It is a tall order given the composer’s hair-raising reputation as an opportunistic, devious egomaniac who emitted piercing screams should a conversation in his presence not revolve around him.

Wagner’s nationalism was strident, his anti-Semitic views odious if contradictory: he penned vile tracts against Jews yet had Jewish friends, pumped Jewish donors for money and allowed Jewish conductors premiere his work. After his death, his equally anti-Semitic and opportunistic family was delighted to welcome into the fold that über-Wagnerian, Adolf Hitler.

Anyone intrigued by Wagner’s fascist legacy, fanatic fans and family feuds, which make the Ewings look like the Waltons, will enjoy the late Jonathan Carr’s hilarious and fluid book, The Wagner Clan .

But reading Wagner is no replacement for hearing the composer’s fantastical, complex and troubling melodies, which revolutionised music and theatre.

The trouble is that, like the composer himself, modern Wagner productions have an off-putting reputation for fat, shrieking Valkyries in plaits and helmets. Otherwise, Wagner attracts directors determined to provoke – a new Düsseldorf production of Tannhäuser was cancelled this month after protests about, among other things, opening scenes that appeared to be staged in a gas chamber.

There’s nothing intimidating about Leipzig Opera’s new assured production of The Rhinegold . Devised as a prelude evening to the Ring Cycle, British director Rosamund Gilmore shows her more excitable German colleagues that, with spare, stylish sets, first-rate singers and a cool, confident touch, it is possible to put on Wagner to touch both heart and head.

It seems that Richard Wagner was predestined for a stormy life. He was born on March 22nd, 1813, when Leipzig was occupied by French forces.

Seven months later the surrounding countryside was engulfed by the Battle of the Nations, which ended in a devastating defeat for Napoleon at the hands of a coalition of Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Swedish armies.

Theatrical introduction
Wagner was born into this chaos as the ninth child of Johanna and Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wagner, who died six months later. His mother married Ludwig Geyer, a family friend and actor, who moved the family to Dresden and brought his young stepson to theatre rehearsals.

When Geyer, too, died young, the young Richard moved between relatives and landed back in Leipzig, now a blossoming trade and cultural capital, living with his uncle Adolf in the elaborate rococo Königshaus on the main market square.

In his uncle’s well-stocked library the young Wagner began to delve into literature, in particular Shakespeare and the German romantics. Here, Wagner completed his first musical dramatic work in 1828, Leubald and Adelaide , which he later described as a “mix of Hamlet and King Lear . . . . and the disastrous work of a 15-year-old”.

Letting school slide, he focused on music studies with musicians from Leipzig’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was still in existence.

Many of Wagner’s early compositions premiered in his hometown and attracted favourable reviews. It was in Leipzig, too, that Wagner developed his taste for revolution. When France’s Charles X, the Bourbon monarch, was overthrown in the July revolution of 1830, the shockwaves soon spread across the Rhine. A young Wagner set aside his composition book to join worker-student street gangs in running street battles with police.

A decade later in Dresden, Wagner was at it again. Several of his operas had premiered in the Saxon capital, including Tannhäuser and Lohengrin , but their mixed success left the composer frustrated.

By 1848, revolution was in the Dresden air and Wagner penned pamphlets demanding an end to feudal, monarchist structures in favour of a unified German republic – a daring move for a man earning his keep as director of the orchestra to the royal Saxon court.

As always, Wagner’s motives were self-serving: he hoped a political revolution would overturn theatrical and musical conventions to his artistic benefit. But Germany’s 1848 revolution foundered and, thanks to his polemic pamphlets, Wagner was a wanted man.

He fled to Switzerland and would not return for 13 years where, under the idolising patronage of Bavaria’s king Ludwig II, Wagner finally escaped the hamster wheel of chasing donors and fleeing creditors.

With money and plans for a custom-built theatre in Bayreuth, he channelled his revolutionary ideas into transforming the operatic form from a bitty evening of strung-together arias, with audiences coming and going, into the Ring: a unified, eye-popping, ear-filling art-form – the Gesamtkunstwerk .

Thomas Mann best described the Wagner experience as “hours of deep, lonely happiness in the theatre crowd”. Like a slow-acting but highly addictive drug, he could neither get enough of Wagner’s music, nor shake feelings of mistrust about its effects.

For anyone who has ever wondered what all the fuss is about, Saxony’s 200th birthday back-to-the-roots celebration of Wagner opens a welcome window into the troubled, gripping world of a man and his music.

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