Richard Wagner

Cast Iron Richard Wagner Bookends with Bronze Finish by Bradley & Hubbard (LEO Design)


Richard Wagner was born on this day in 1813, the ninth child in 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 father.  Young Richard took music lessons and was enchanted with the theatre.  He participated in Ludwig's stage productions.  While he struggled with the technical rigors of piano exercises, he was able to write music and reproduce opera scores by ear.  He also pursued playwriting.  At 13, he began writing a tragedy which he hoped to musicalize. The next year, after he first heard Beethoven, he wrote a piano transcript of the composer's Ninth 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 operas which comprise 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 operatic art form.  While they are 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 cinematic music composition.

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 in 1849 (which attempted to unify the disparate German states) lead to 12 years of exile from Germany—which left Wagner 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 offensive 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 may recognize that Wagner produced the highest artistic achievements in his field.  These days, alas, academia and other intellectual influencers seem unwilling to distinguish between a controversial subject's positive and negative attributes or contributions.  In some circles, Wagner's artwork is dismissed along with his ugly bigotry.

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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