Composer and theorist of the "music-drama" (symphonic opera); b. Leipzig, May 22, 1813 (baptized Wilhelm Richard); d. Venice, Feb. 13, 1883. His putative father, Karl F. Wagner, a police court actuary, died when Richard was six months old, whereupon his mother, Jo-hanna (Paetz) Wagner, married Ludwig Geyer, an actor, who died when the boy was eight. His music training progressed by uneasy stages (at 14 he composed his first opera, to a tragedy he had written) until discovery of Beethoven's symphonies liberated his creative forces. After a prentice period ending with Rienzi (1842) and The Flying Dutchman (1841) he delivered Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1847), conventional "grand" operas, albeit suggestive of the break to come. Then came the masterpieces of the new "music-drama" style: Tristan und Isolde (1859); the "Ring" tetralogy [Das Rheingold (1854), Die Walküre (1856), Siegfried (1871), and Götterdämmerung (1872)]; and his self-styled "sacred dramatic festival," Parsifal (1882), after a chauvinistic indulgence in Die Meistersinger (1867), Wagner's only national (i.e., German) or comic opera.
Wagner was the supreme egoist, living luxuriously off his friends' largesse, intriguing against his opponents, dallying with inaccessible women (his three children were born to liszt's daughter Mrs. Cosima von Bülow, whom he later married). At the same time, in his pseudophilosophic writings (mainly a rationale for his aesthetic departures), as in his librettos, he posited a dreamworld populated by a purified, redeemed humanity (his Volk ), unfettered by law or religious dogma—a Faustian distillation of all the influences he had absorbed from the romanticist Zeitgeist: from Feuerbach's sensualist Hegelianism, Schopenhauer's pessimism, "Father" Jahn's "German Jacobinism," Nietzsche's will to power (Wagner was actually the model for superman), and the anarchism of Bakunin, his fellow revolutionary in the 1849 Dresden insurrection. In his dramaturgy, erected on the Teutonic or Celtic counterparts of Greek mythology, this redemption takes as many forms as there are musicdramas: in the "Ring," a "nuclear" liberation, in the self-destruction of humanity; in Tristan, a Manichaean escape into divinization of erotic passion; in Parsifal, a para-Christian type, in the hero's compassion for all suffering (the "vegetarian" Eucharistic interpretation being simply bizarre). Wagner's allusions to Christianity range from aloof, quasi-nostalgic tolerance to virtual hatred of the "Catholic God" (as in his letter apropos Liszt's Dante symphony). In his texts he bends Christian truth to his narcissistic mentality; thus the Jesus in his projected opera of that subject "wills his death because he knows that the world is not worthy of him" (P. Bekker)—which is how Wagner felt about his world. Yet Christian notes do serve his dramatic ends, e.g., the "Dresden Amen" of J. G. Naumann (1741–80), featured in Parsifal. Wagner's one "religious" work, Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (1843), a commissioned cantata that he included on his "list of uninspired compositions," begins simply and reverently but grows increasingly theatrical, and is cited now only as rehearsing the Grail effects in Parsifal.
On the other hand, thanks to Liszt's inspiration and the publication of the first anthologies of 16th-century polyphony, as well as to his own unerring artistic taste, Wagner lent his weight to the incipient church-music reform (see caecilian movement); and his memorandum, "Plan of Organisation of a German National Theatre"(1849), contains a devastating commentary on current Catholic music based on his six-year (1843–49) experience as Dresden Hofkapellmeister (see Prose Works 7:319–60). He embraced palestrina's polyphony as the ideal of tonal purity, and, by way of promoting the return of true a cappella church music, he "arranged" Palestrina's Stabat Mater and conducted it on March 8, 1848, at a subscription concert at the royal chapel. While his efforts went "for nought," as he said, the shimmering incandescence of Parsifal's best passages reveals his debt to Palestrina's harmonies. Moreover, he encouraged church-music reform in a practical way through his abandonment of "set," symmetrical numbers—arias, duets, and other ensembles—which were cluttering the concerted Masses as much as the opera of the period, in favor of primacy of the word. And if his Gesamtkunstwerk —a construct in which music and the space arts would self-lessly, anonymously subserve the drama's exigencies—was unthinkable in the theater, it had already been realized in the sacred-art synthesis of the Christian past, and may be realized anew in the art of the liturgical renaissance.
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m. e. evans]