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Master or Monster : Richard Wagner at 200

Hail to the Chief. Exhibit Poster

Virtual Exhibit Forthcoming...

In 2013 the world marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. Masterworks such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, and the Ring tetralogy are cornerstones of the operatic repertoire, and milestones in the history of western music. Wagner developed a new conception of opera (which he called “music drama”), wrote about it at exhaustive length, and then composed the librettos and music that put his theories into action. His works astounded—and sometimes dismayed—audiences and critics with their innovative techniques, bold harmonies, dazzling orchestration, shocking plots, and sheer length. His genius and his charismatic personality inspired cult-like devotion from legions of admirers. Most composers of his era were subject to his influence, whether they adopted his methods, or reacted against them.

Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813. His stepfather was an actor, and he was steeped in drama as well as music from an early age. As a young man, he embarked upon a musical career, but for several years he struggled to make ends meet. In 1837-38 he found work as a conductor in Latvia; he gained valuable experience, but left in a flurry of disputes and debts. Next he moved to Paris, where he had to make piano arrangements of music by other composers to pay the bills. He finally achieved success with Rienzi (1842) and Der Fliegende Holländer (1843); the ensuing acclaim led to his appointment as music director in Dresden. Tannhäuser was also a triumph, but Wagner’s burgeoning career was interrupted when he took a leading role in the revolution of 1849 in Saxony. After the authorities suppressed the uprising, Wagner was a wanted man, and he lived in exile from his native Germany for more than a decade. These years saw the premiere of Lohengrin and the beginnings of the Ring cycle, but the Ring’s vast scale and unusual requirements made performance impracticable, so Wagner turned his attention to the almost equally monumental Tristan and Meistersinger instead.

In 1864, the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria began providing Wagner with the money and official backing that he had long sought. Tristan and Meistersinger were performed in 1865 and 1868, and Wagner was finally able to complete the Ring, some two and half decades after its inception. The premiere took place in 1876, in a theater built especially for Wagner in Bayreuth, Germany. The second Bayreuth festival, in 1882, saw the premiere of Parsifal. By the time of his death (in Venice on February 13, 1883), Wagner was one of the most famous men on earth.

Wagner married twice. His first wife, Minna, was an actress; his second, Cosima, was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Hans von Bülow. Wagner and Cosima had three children: Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried, all of them named after characters in his operas. After Wagner’s death, Cosima managed the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, and it has remained under the direction of members of the family ever since.

But Wagner’s remarkable achievements are not the whole story. He cheated on his wives, exploited and betrayed his friends, ran away from his creditors, and ranks among the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. In 1850 he wrote an essay on “Judaism in Music,” which argued that Jewish musicians could never achieve true greatness because they were always cultural outsiders. He continued to express such views throughout his life. Although Wagner himself died long before the rise of the Nazism, members of his family had close ties to Adolf Hitler, who enthusiastically admired Wagner’s music.

An exhibit of this size can only scratch the surface of a topic as broad as Wagner. It features several of his letters, along with one by his father-in-law, Franz Liszt. We have also included rare photographs of 19th-century singers in costume, as well as a variety of writings by and about Wagner. Some of Wagner’s modern admirers have sought to avoid or downplay his anti-Semitism, but we think it best to face that issue head-on, by including his most infamous essay in its original edition.

—Richard Boursy, Archivist