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Perspectives . . .                                            Richard Wagner: visionary or villain?


                                                                      by Martin Ederer                                              Prior to Wagner, operas tended
                                                                       robably  nobody  personifies
      2021 We need to keep                                          Pwhat people love, hate, or ridi-                            to  hinge  more  on  dialogue  strung
                                                                                                                                 together  by  lovely  arias  and  ballet
      relearning old lessons                                        cule about opera better than Richard                         scenes. The whole idea of integrat-
                                                                    Wagner. In some ways nobody pop-                             ing  music  –  acting  –  drama  –  and
         by Martin Ederer                                           ularized opera better than Wagner’s                          visual  elements  was  pathbreaking.
         As the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan, I couldn’t help thinking about  works and their production. Popular          His use of the Leitmotiv, essentially
      what one of my father’s friends once told him. This person had served in  culture from serious movies all the              a trademark theme for each charac-
      the German Army on the Soviet front during World War II as a medical  way down to Looney Tunes (“Kill                      ter that helped to guide the audience
      corpsman – which meant he got to deal with the awfulness of war in a  the Wabbit”), images of singers in                   through  the  (always  complicated)
      uniquely up-close-and-personal way. His conclusion was that a short war,  Nordic horned helmets and the ex-                story  lines  was  another  significant
      no matter how brutal, was always more humane than a long war.  pression that “it ain’t over till the fat                   innovation. Was Wagner the proto-
         There are some sobering takeaways here. One is that things can get so  lady sings” all serve as caricatures             typical Hollywood producer?
      bad that someone actually finds himself choosing what sort of war is the  of Wagner operas. So who was he?                    Wagner was also a prolific writ-
      best kind of war. In an ideal world, nobody should need to face such a  Wagner was born in 1813 into a                     er  of  prose  works  –  and  these  are
      choice in the first place.                                    large  family  (he  was  ninth)  in                          what make him controversial. Often
         Another takeaway is that war is always some sort of failure: a failure of  Leipzig.  He  was  baptized  in  the         they are angry, shamelessly nation-
      diplomacy,  and  on  more  fundamental  levels  a  failure  of  humanity  and  Thomaskirche,  where  Bach  had  Wagner in 1871, by Franz Hanfs-  alistic  and  anti-  (umm…well,  Se-
      morality. There’s a reason why decent people generally view war as a last  been  the  Kapellmeister.  By  the              mitic and anti-a whole lot of other
      resort.                                                       1820s,  Wagner  had  developed  an  taengl                   people and things that he could have
         That stated, war sometimes becomes a necessary last resort, especially  interest in theater, but by the end of Hans von Bülow remained a good been  more  polite  about).  It  didn’t
      when someone refuses to stop behaving awfully or an injustice becomes  the 1820s – thanks to his exposure friend of Wagner even after learning help, either, that Wagnerian every-
      simply too outrageous. Unfortunately, some humans always seem plenty  to Beethoven’s works – he had redi- of the affair with his wife. All of this thing  served  Nazi  purposes  ex-
      ready to behave badly. Indeed, bad behavior happens often enough that it  rected his interest to music.  scandal was too much for the Bavar- tremely well later on, or that a good
      would be almost unthinkable to not have a military at the ready.  By the 1830s, he had begun to ian government. Wagner had to go number  of  Wagner’s  descendants
         Say a prayer for all our troops who generously take on their high-risk  compose operas. Some were never – but not before Ludwig suggested embraced  the  movement.  Wagner
      tasks  in  unimaginable  and  impossible  situations.    Say  a  prayer  for  our  produced.  Others  were  immediate abdicating in protest. Wagner talked also was hardly the model husband
      troops who have paid the ultimate price in life, limbs and peace of mind.  flops. A good many years of angry him  out  of  that.  Meanwhile  Wag- or friend or investment risk.
      Say a prayer too for the majority of the civilians on the ground who mainly  creditors and a tumultuous marriage ner’s wife had died. Cosima asked  So…visionary or villain? Both?
      want to get through life.  All too often in modern warfare they end up  to Minna Planer followed.  her husband for a divorce. Von Bül- Love  him  or  hate  him  (and  strong
      paying the highest price of all.                                Wagner’s luck began to improve ow  only  granted  it  after  she  bore cases  can  be  made  either  way),
                                                                    after his move to Dresden in 1842. Wagner’s third child. Then she and Wagner  certainly  influenced  the
       Welcome to Dortmund                                          Here  his  Rienzi  showed  promise, Wagner married in 1870.  music world, and had gained a long
                                                                    and his Flying Dutchman and Tan-  Finally  Wagner  settled  in  Bay- list  of  musical  admirers,  even
         Most of us know that Dortmund is Buffalo’s sister city in Germany. I
                                                                    nhäuser  had  considerable  success. reuth,  where  he  hatched  elaborate among composers much nicer (and
      confess  to  knowing  little  more  than  that.  Yes,  it’s  an  industrial  city  in
                                                                    Then  Wagner  got  involved  in  the plans  for  a  great  opera  house.  At much less Aryan) than he was. Op-
      Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhrgebiet. Yes, it got flattened spec-
                                                                    Revolution   of   1848     in first  Ludwig  refused  to  finance  it, era  was  never  the  same.  Classical
      tacularly  during  World  War  II  and  it’s  now  a  very  modern  city.  Yes,
                                                                    Dresden…and  befriended  a  good but later he did offer Wagner a loan. music was never the same. But it’s
      Dortmund has a great beer culture. Yes, Buffalonians and Dortmunders
                                                                    number  of  socialists.  When  more Wagner’s   great   Festspielhaus tough to deny the sheer genius be-
      visit back and forth and have exchange programs. All great stuff.
                                                                    conservative  forces  gained  the  up- opened in 1876 with the first (annu- hind his operas.
         Dortmund  –  currently  located  in  Nordrhein-Westphalen  –  was  first
                                                                    per hand, Wagner fled to Zürich.  al) Bayreuth Festival. This marked
      mentioned in monastic chronicles in the late 800s, but Charlemagne was  In   Zürich   he   completed the  rollout  of  Wagner’s  complete
      already busy fighting Saxons in the area (Sigiburg) in the late 700s. In 1016
                                                                    Lohengrin…and began a love affair. Ring (four operas: Rheingold – Die
      the Imperial Parliament met there. Then Dortmund burned.      In Switzerland, he also began work Walküre  –  Siegfried  –  Götterdäm-
         Frederick Barbarossa rebuilt the town in 1152. Through the 1200s and
                                                                    on  Der  Ring  des  Nibelungen…but merung), on which he had worked
      1300s, Dortmund became prosperous. It was a member of the Hanseatic  then set it aside to compose Tristan intermittently since the 1850s. The
      League.
                                                                    und  Isolde.  He  also  engaged  in  a debts  meanwhile  continued  to  pile
         Then the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-1648 ravaged the region. A  new (and very unstable) love affair up  as  he  regularly  lived  between
      1661  earthquake  added  the  final  insult  and  destruction.  Dortmund  re-
                                                                    with  Mathilde  Wesendonck,  the Bayreuth and Venice.
      mained a backwater place as local rulers – and the Napoleonic Franch –  wife of one of his greatest admirers.
      fussed and fumed over who should control what. Then 19th-century indus-                        He  began  composing  his  final
                                                                    The  affair  ended,  in  part  because opera, Parsifal, which he completed
      trialization put Dortmund back on the map. Ideally situated in prime coal  Wagner’s  wife  found  out  and  left in 1882. He died in Venice in 1883.
      and iron regions, Dortmund roared back to life, and grew and prospered.
                                                                    him… at least for a while. Remark- His  body  was  shipped  back  to  his
      In the wake of World War I, French troops occupied the area from 1923-  ably, Wagner and the Wesendoncks home – Wahnfried – in Bayreuth.
      1925.
                                                                    remained  on  good  terms.  Then  It’s safe to conclude that Wag-
         Dortmund’s industrial might made it a prime target in World War II.  Wagner  went  to  Paris  to  oversee ner was – to say the least – a compli-
      Allied bombings delivered 4, 851 tons of bombs on Dortmund during one
                                                                    production  of  Tannhäuser.  Short cated  person.  There  was  always
      raid (March 12, 1945). It was the record for one target in one operation.
      66% of Dortmund’s housing was destroyed. 98% of the city center was  form:  Paris  hated  it.  Wagner’s  fi- plenty of drama in his personal life.
                                                                    nances tanked… again.         He was one of the few opera com-
      leveled.
                                                                      Finally in 1862, it was safe for posers to compose both the libretti
                                                                    Wagner  to  return  to  German  soil and  the  music.  He  also  pioneered  Richard  and  Cosima  Wagner,
                                                                    after (legal) memories of his revolu- the concept of opera as music dra- photographed in 1872.
                                                                    tionary  activities  faded.  He  com- ma. The entire work gets sung.
                                                                    posed  Die  Meistersinger  von
                  January - February    March - April               Nürnberg. He also tried to produce
                      May - June     July - August                  Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. Vien-
              September - October  November - December              na wasn’t interested.
                                                                      Wagner’s  fortunes  turned  dra-
                                                                    matically for the better when King
                                                                    Ludwig II of Bavaria – equally as
                                                                    unstable  as  Wagner  and  an  ardent
                                                                    admirer (in a creepy sort of way by
                                                                    19th-century standards) – gave him
                                                                    solid financial patronage to produce
                                                                    his operas in Munich. That arrange-
                                                                    ment held up only until court offi-
                                                                    cials  found  their  relationship
                                                                    less-than-wholesome.
                                                                      Wagner’s new affair with Cosi-
                                                                    ma von Bülow, the wife of his con-
                                                                    ductor  for  his  Munich  productions
                                                                    didn’t  help  either.  Even  stranger,





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