Though it may be a cliché, it is often presumed that great artists lead troubled, tortured and turbulent lives. In the case of the great German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), this seems to be the case. Two hundred years after his birth, his music works still electrify audiences—some of whom travel thousands of miles to see good productions of his masterworks. And, yet, some of the troubling aspects of his life still hover over his legacy, perhaps promoting even more scrutiny as the decades mount.
Wagner was the ninth sibling born to his family. His father died when Richard was six months old and the boy grew-up believing that his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer (a playwright and actor), was his biological progenitor. Young Richard was enchanted with the theatre and participated in Ludwig's productions. Richard was given music lessons, though he struggled with the technical rigors of the piano exercises. He preferred to reproduce opera scores by ear. He also tried playwriting. At 13, he began writing a tragedy which he hoped to musicalize. And the next year, after he first heard Beethoven, he wrote a piano transcript of the 9th Symphony. Mozart inspired him, too. Wagner wrote his first piano sonatas as a young teen.
Wagner's greatest achievement is his "Ring Cycle," the four opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. Loosely based on Medieval Germanic and Norse legend and characters, the four epic operas combined music, playwriting and grand stage production to revolutionize the art form. Sometimes mounted as individual operas, Wagner intended the four operas to be performed together over the course of four evenings. The cylce took Wagner 26 years to complete (1848 -1874). He built the Bayreuth Festspielhaus music hall, the cutting-edge theatre space of its day, and the first Ring Cycle was performed there in 1876. Today, nearly 150 years on, Wagner's descendants still operate the annual Beyreuth Festival where Wagner's works are mounted. Delirious fans scramble to book the limited tickets and spare little expense to travel there for the summer gala. Mounting the ambitious Ring Cycle is the biggest production challenge an opera company can face. The timeless music continues to inspire contemporary composers—especially in the realm of film and television music writing.
But Wagner's life was not only a series of highlights. He lead a troubled personal life, beset by romantic sturm und drang, financial difficulties, depression and socio-political opinions which have haunted him ever since. Wagner was a committed and active Socialist, which closed many doors to him in the tony circles occupied by patrons of the arts. His support of the May Uprising in Dresden (1849) lead to 12 years of exile from Germany—which left him without an income or connection to the German music world. While living in Switzerland, isolated, broke and depressed, he began writing essays including one titled Jewishness in Music (1850). He argued that Jews were not "real" Germans and, thus, could not truly understand the heart of German identity. As such, he argued, Jewish composers sought to cash-in with shallow and crowd-pleasing music—not the true artistic achievements which only a German could write. This Nineteenth Century thinking was not rare or Wagner's idea alone. While he had many Jewish friends and supporters (and may have been part Jewish himself, through his father), Wagner's anti-semitic writings have clouded his musical legacy. To make things worse, the Nazis (decades after Wagner's death) embraced the composer's grand and valiant vision of German heroism, not to mention his throbbing, exhilarating music.
Wagner was a complex man and, it seems, not an easy person to love. However, if one is able to separate the art from the artist, one can recognize that Wagner produced the highest artistic achievements in his field. These days, however, academia and other influencers seem resistant to distinguish between a subject's positive and negative attributes or contributions.
The heavy and handsome bookends, shown above, were made by Bradley & Hubbard (Meriden, CT) in the 1920's or 1930's. They are finely-cast iron, finished with a bronze patina and punctuated with light golden highlights. A bas relief bust of the Maestro gazes West in-profile. Click on the photo above to learn more about them.
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