Wagner, Richard Wilhelm

1813-1883

Love of the stage Richard Wagner inherited from his father, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm, clerk to the city police courts at Leipsic, and during the French occupation, chief of police, a man of considerable cultivation, something of a linguist, fond of poetry and the drama, and an amateur actor. The mother is described as a woman of much refinement and intelligence. Richard, the youngest of nine children, was born in a quaint old house in the Bruhl, Leipsic, May 22, 1813. When Richard was not yet   six months old the father died a victim of the epidemic that followed the battle of Leipsic. The widow was left to bring up her large family on a very limited pension, the eldest son being only fourteen years old. She presently married Ludwig Geyer, actor, singer, playwright, and in addition a portrait painter of no mean skill. After the marriage the family moved to Dresden, where Geyer had a position at the Court Theatre. He died in  1821, leaving the mother again a widow with an income very limited in proportion to the demands on it. Finck records: "Throughout his life Richard Wagner referred to his mother as mein liebes Mutterchen (my dear little mother), and Praeger is undoubtedly right in suggesting that the exquisitely tender strains in Siegfried with which the orchestra accompanies the reference to Siegfried's mother, symbolize Wagner's love for his own mother." To help solve the financial problem her three older children went on the stage. At the age of nine Richard was sent to a classical school in Dresden, which he attended under the name of Richard Geyer. He remained there five years, showing a special fondness for the Greek classics. Out of school hours he translated the first half of the Odyssey; studied English by him r self that he might read Shakespeare in the original; wrote some acceptable verse, and at the age of fourteen set to work to write a tragedy founded upon Hamlet and Lear. During the boyhood days in Dresden he formed his deep-rooted attachment for Weber; grew very fond of Der Freischütz, trying to play the overture of this opera when he should have been practising his finger exercises, and was always on the lookout to catch a glimpse of the composer as he passed by on his way home from rehearsals. In the autumn of 1827 Richard left the Dresden School, early the following year entering the Nicolaischule in Leipsic, the family having moved there some time before. It was now that he became interested in Beethoven at the Gewandhaus concerts, and began to neglect his studies because of growing absorption in music. In response to urgent pleading he was given an opportunity to take lessons in counterpoint, and at eighteen Wagner had a thorough knowledge of the works of Beethoven.

Following matriculation at the University, in 1830,   there was a season of student dissipation, when music as well as books was neglected; but this phase soon passed, and, finding an inspiring teacher, he became engrossed in the study of counterpoint. Of the compositions of this time, a concert overture was performed at the Gewandhaus and met with success. In 1832 he wrote the symphony in C major, his one symphony, which was performed at a Gewandhaus concert, January, 1883. On the way home from a visit to Vienna, in the summer of 1832, Wagner stopped off for a while at Prague, and here wrote his first libretto, Die Hochzeit, a rather brutal tragedy, which was so disliked by his sister, Rosalie, that he eventually destroyed the verses. The music was begun and the first number of the opera written after his return to Leipsic. There is extant, in manuscript form, the introduction, a chorus and septet of Die Hochzeit. Wagner was now twenty years old, and was in need of money. The University work did not appeal to him, and he decided that the time had come for him to settle upon a career. His brother, Albert, dramatic singer and stage-manager at Würzburg, offered him the place of chorus-director there, a position he eagerly accepted; and here began his practical experience. At Würzburg, in addition to his duties as director, he wrote a number of compositions, including the words and music of the opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). The Fairies brought to completion, Wagner returned to Leipsic, in the hope of getting his opera produced in that city. It was accepted by the theatredirector, but was not performed at this time, Italian and French Opera having such ascendency that a German writer's chance was of the slightest. In his disappointment over his failure to get the opera presented the young composer turned for a season from his worship of Weber and Beethoven to consideration of vastly inferior models. Longing for success was influenced by the easy popularity of the operas of Bellini and Auber. While filling the post of music-director at the theatre in Magdeburg he wrote Das Liebesverbot (Love Forbidden), two-act opera, supposed to be based upon Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; in reality an audacious apology for Free Love. Wagner at this time was tossed about by strange doctrines. During his University days he had become intimate with Heinrich Laube, editor and revolutionary poet, and Hadow refers to Wagner and Laube at this period as two unfledged enthusiasts. In 1834 he commenced work on Das  Liebesverbot; at Magdeburg it was given its first and sole performance in March, 1836.