About the Society
The Wagner Society in Queensland was formed to promote the artistic, scholastic, and public awareness of the musical, dramatic, and theoretical works of Richard Wagner.
It organises talks, screenings, recitals and symposia relevant to the composer’s life and works and their historical, cultural, and philosophical context. It encourages the performance of Wagner’s works by supporting, singers, composers, and instrumental musicians.
The society strives to create a convivial social atmosphere in which to celebrate the composer.
WHO WAS RICHARD WAGNER?
by Peter Bassett
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813 in Leipzig in the Kingdom of Saxony during the Napoleonic Wars. He was the ninth child of Karl Friedrich Wagner a Registrar of Police with a passion for the theatre, and Johanna Wagner (née Pätz) who, in her youth, had seemed destined for an acting career. Karl Friedrich died during a typhus epidemic spread by troops returning from Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign when the boy was barely six months old. Johanna subsequently married a close family friend, the actor and painter Ludwig Geyer. Richard’s eldest brother was a singer, actor and theatre director, and four of his sisters were named after heroines of Goethe and Schiller. His paternal uncle was a scholar of repute who knew most of the principal literary figures of the day and who had a considerable influence on Richard’s awareness of the classics.
Richard Wagner had a somewhat chaotic childhood, enduring six moves and six schools before the age of seventeen, going without the care and affection of his mother for long periods and having no lasting masculine role model after his stepfather died when the boy was eight years old. No wonder he sought refuge in the world of his imagination and in attention-seeking escapades. He quickly learnt to set his own course and follow his own star.
It was during those teenage years that he became obsessed with music and drama and even wagged school for half a year to pursue his secret passion – to the astonishment of his family who thought he had been going dutifully to the classroom each day! He began to study composition, firstly with the help of a borrowed textbook (on which he ran up a fine so large that he had no hope of paying it), then with a musician in the Leipzig orchestra, and finally with Theodor Weinlig who occupied Bach’s former position of Cantor at St Thomas’s church in Leipzig. The experiences of those formative years explain much about the adult – above all his belief in himself.
He wished only to be an artist who was both a poet and a musician. At the age of nineteen he wrote a (somewhat Schubertian) Symphony and started, and then abandoned, an opera to his own text. At the age of twenty, he completed his first opera Die Feen (The Fairies) after a play by Gozzi. Again, he wrote his own libretto and he finished the music in ten months. In the music we hear echoes of Rossini, Mendelssohn, Weber, Marschner and Beethoven and – now and then – the first indications of an original voice. He then began work on his next opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Soon after marrying his first wife, the actress Wilhelmina Planer, he was involved in a flight in perilous circumstances from Riga where he was music director of the Opera but had run up debts he couldn’t pay. He then endured a bitterly frustrating stay in Paris before writing Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman, both of which had successful first performances in Dresden. It is in The Flying Dutchman that we first hear the authentic voice of Richard Wagner. While working as Kapellmeister to the King of Saxony in Dresden he also composed two beautiful and highly dramatic operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin and began thinking about several subjects that would form the basis of his most important works in later years.
The 1830s and ’40s were marked by political instability and revolutions in many parts of Europe, and Wagner became involved in the Dresden uprising of 1849. A warrant was issued for his arrest and he fled into exile in Switzerland. He was effectively exiled from his homeland for the next thirteen years. It was during this time that he composed most of the great cycle of four dramas, The Ring of the Nibelung, as well as another work which would influence the direction of western music, Tristan und Isolde, and his only mature comedy, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. It was also during this time that he married his second wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, and began to sketch out Parsifal, which would not be completed until January 1882.
Wagner’s career was, in many respects, the most astounding in the history of opera. Not only did he revolutionise the art form, but also he had a profound effect on composers of many nationalities. He displayed a mastery of orchestral sound and even invented new instruments. He broke new ground in the art of conducting, was one of the first stage directors as we understand them today, and he oversaw the construction of a revolutionary theatre at Bayreuth for the performance of his works. He influenced writers and painters as well as musicians. In short, as a creative artist, Richard Wagner has few parallels in the history of western culture.
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