May 21, 2012. Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813 in the Brühl, a street in the Jewish quarter of the city of Leipzig – an ironic twist of fate, considering Wagner’s eventual anti-Semitism. Richard’s father died six months after his birth. The following year, his mother married the playwright Ludwig Geyer and the family moved to Dresden. In 1821 his step-father died and Richard was sent off to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden. At the age of thirteen Richard decided to become a playwright and produced a tragedy, Leubald. Determine to set it to music, Richard persuaded his mother to allow him to receive proper musical instruction. Moving back to Leipzig with his family in 1827, Wagner took his first formal lesson in harmony. There he was introduced to the symphonies of Beethoven, who became a huge influence. In 1831, he entered the University of Leipzig and began composition lessons with the cantor of the St. Thomas Church. He composed a Symphony in C major, his only one and written very much under Beethoven’s influence; the symphony later received performances in both Prague and Leipzig. At the age of 20, Wagner completed his first opera, Die Feen (“The Faires”); it was never staged during his lifetime. He married his first wife, Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer, on November 24, 1836. A year later Wagner and Minna moved to Riga, then a part the Russian Empire, as the music director of a local opera. However, within two years the couple had incurred so much debt that they were forced to flee from their creditors. Their escape led them first to London and soon after to Paris. It was the stormy passage by sea to London that led to Wagner’s inspiration for his opera, The Flying Dutchman. During his four years in Paris (1839-42), Wagner produced Rienzi, his first successful opera, and The Flying Dutchman.
Returning to Dresden in 1842, Wagner was able, through the support of Giacomo Meyerbeer, a noted German Jewish composer, to secure a performance of Rienzi by the Dresden Court Theatre. Further productions included The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. However, his return to Dresden was brief. Wagner became increasingly involved with a socialistic movement that sought to unify Germany and the adoption of a new constitution. When discontent finally reached the breaking point in 1849, the uprising was quickly put down by an alliance of Saxon and Prussian troops. Wagner was forced to flee Dresden for fear of being arrested. The following twelve years were spent in exile in Zurich, Switzerland. During this time he composed Lohengrin and was able to convince his friend, Franz Liszt, to stage the opera in Weimar in August 1850. It was also during this time, that Wagner laid the groundwork for his colossal opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.
We’ll have many occasions to talk about Wagner’s mature period, but today we’d like to note the passing of one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died on May 18 at the age of 86. Here’s Firscher-Dieskau in an aria from Tannhäuser with the Orchestra of Staatsoper Berlin under the direction of Franz Konwitschny (courtesy of Youtube). This recording was made in the early 1960s. What an incredible voice!
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