Richard Wagner: A Life in Musicby Martin Geck
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Best known for the challenging four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner (1813–83) was a conductor, librettist, theater director, and essayist, in addition to being the composer of some of the most enduring operatic works in history, such as The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Tristan and Isolde. Though his influence on the development of European music is indisputable, Wagner was also quite outspoken on the politics and culture of his time. His ideas traveled beyond musical circles into philosophy, literature, theater staging, and the visual arts. To befit such a dynamic figure, acclaimed biographer Martin Geck offers here a Wagner biography unlike any other, one that strikes a unique balance between the technical musical aspects of Wagner’s compositions and his overarching understanding of aesthetics.
Wagner has always inspired passionate admirers as well as numerous detractors, with the result that he has achieved a mythical stature nearly equal to that of the Valkyries and Viking heroes he popularized. There are few, if any, scholars today who know more about Wagner and his legacy than Geck, who builds upon his extensive research and considerable knowledge as one of the editors of the Complete Works to offer a distinctive appraisal of the composer and the operas. Using a wide range of sources, from contemporary scholars to the composer’s own words, Geck explores key ideas in Wagner’s life and works, while always keeping the music in the foreground. Geck discusses not only all the major operas, but also several unfinished operas and even the composer’s early attempts at quasi-Shakespearean drama.
Richard Wagner: A Life in Music is a landmark study of one of music’s most important figures, offering something new to opera enthusiasts, Wagnerians, and anti-Wagnerians alike.
“Martin Geck’s new biography deftly weaves both familiar and unfamiliar facts about the composer to create a striking fresh portrait, or rather a tapestry, shot through with insightful remarks on musical matters as well. The contributions of language, harmony, leitmotif, voices, instrumentation, and stage production to the elusive goal of a ‘total artwork’ are illuminated from the perspective of Wagner’s own life and writings as well as that of many notable contemporaries. Geck engages the politics of Wagner’s legacy honestly and without polemics. A series of brief inter-chapters on key Jewish figures in the composer’s biography and in his reception offer a novel, constructive approach to the vexed theme of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The scholarly frame of reference is truly international. Geck succeeds brilliantly in synthesizing the complex phenomenon of Wagner in a thoroughly approachable yet consistently provocative study.”
“Geck, one of the most distinguished contemporary German musicologists, knows an enormous amount about every aspect of Wagner’s life and works, but this book is . . . much more about the works than the life. . . . The book is best read . . . as a fairly loose-knit series of improvisations on themes that Geck has been mulling over for most of his life.”
“Geck adds to the crowded field of literature on Richard Wagner with this intriguing exploration of the composer’s life and thought as exemplified by his music. . . . An excellent biography.”
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A Life in Music
By Martin Geck, Stewart Spencer
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Archetypal Theatrical Scene
FROM LEUBALD TO DIE FEEN
"The wildest anarchy"—The paternity issue—Sense of separation in early childhood—Early enthusiasm for the theater—The "more intimate objects" in his sisters' wardrobe and Proust's madeleine—The schoolboy drama Leubald—The myth of Hero and Leander as Wagner's archetypal theatrical scene—Composition exercises to set Leubald to music—Beethoven's incidental music to Egmont as a model—Early sonatas, overtures and a C-major symphony for the Leipzig Gewandhaus—A "wedding" not to the liking of Wagner's sister Rosalie—Die Feen: a respectable first opera for a twenty-year-old composer—Wagner's discovery of the redemptive power of music as the embodiment of love—An anticipatory glance at Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music—A look ahead to later chapters: "Redemption through Destruction" as a leitmotif—Congruence between Wagner's life and works?
Wagner's childhood memories revolve constantly around two key ideas—chaos and the theater: "I grew up in the wildest of anarchy," he told his second wife, Cosima, in July 1871. And in his autobiography he speaks of a mother whose "anxious and trying relations with a large family" were never conducive to a "comforting tone of motherly solicitude," still less to feelings of tenderness: "I hardly remember ever being caressed by her, just as outpourings of affection did not take place in our family; on the contrary, quite naturally a certain impetuous, even loud and boisterous manner characterized our behaviour."
Friedrich Wagner died six months after Wagner's birth, and nine months later his widow, Johanna Rosine, married a family friend, Ludwig Geyer, and, together with the rest of her family, moved from Leipzig to Dresden. Wagner was known as Richard Geyer until his fifteenth year and in maturity he was never entirely certain if he was in fact Geyer's son. But it may be significant that he chose a vulture (German Geyer, or Geier) as a heraldic beast on the first page of his privately published autobiography, the initial volume of which appeared in 1870. And in 1879, in a letter to King Ludwig II, he described a family celebration held to mark his sixty-sixth birthday in the following words: "In front of a new painting of my wife by Lenbach [...] stood my son Siegfried in black velvet, with blond curly hair (just like the portrait of the young Van Dyck): he was intended to represent my father Ludwig Geyer, reborn to significant effect."
The real Geyer seems to have been a good replacement as a father figure, albeit extremely strict. In August 1873 Wagner spoke about his childhood over lunch and recalled (via Cosima) "how he was thrashed by his father Geyer with the whip he had bought with stolen money, and how his sisters cried outside the door." Known to his sisters as "Master Moody" on account of his hypersensitivity, Wagner was seven when he was sent to board with Pastor Christian Ephraim Wetzel in Possendorf near Dresden. When Geyer died a year later, the boy found board and lodging with Geyer's younger brother, Karl, in Eisleben, where he spent the next thirteen months. He then spent a brief period with his Uncle Adolf in Leipzig, but was obliged to sleep in a large, high-ceilinged room whose walls were hung with sinister-looking paintings of "aristocratic ladies in hooped petticoats, with youthful faces and white (powdered) hair." According to his—much later—reminiscences, not a night passed without his waking up "bathed in sweat at the fear caused by these frightful ghostly apparitions."
Adolf Wagner was unwilling to undertake any real responsibility for his nephew's education, and so at the end of 1822 Wagner returned to live with his family in Dresden, where he attended the city's Kreuzschule. In 1826 his mother moved to Prague with four of his sisters, Rosalie, Clara, Ottilie, and Cäcilie, and the now thirteen-year-old youth was offered a room in the home of one Dr. Rudolf Böhme, whose family life was later described by Wagner as "somewhat disorderly." At the end of 8 7 he finally moved back to Leipzig, where his mother and sisters had settled following their Bohemian adventure. He attended St. Nicholas's School, and it was during this time as a fifteen- and sixteen-year-old schoolboy that he wrote his "great tragedy" Leubald.
A decade later we find Wagner writing to his fiancée, Minna Planer: "O God, my angel, on the whole I had a miserable youth." His youth may not have been any harsher than that of many another adolescent from his social background, but there is no doubt that it was anarchically unsettled: "Who is my father?," "Does my mother love me?," "Where is my home?," and "Who are my models?"—these are questions that the young Wagner presumably asked himself more frequently than most other children of his age. And if he was dissatisfied with having to swim with the tide, then he himself would have to provide his existence with a sense of direction and open up new horizons.
Such views are never conjured out of thin air but are found within the subject's own immediate environment, and this brings us to the second of the key ideas that emerge so forcefully from Wagner's reminiscences of his youth: the theater. It would be wrong to lay undue emphasis on Friedrich Hölderlin's lines, "But where there is danger, rescue, too, is at hand," yet as far as Wagner is concerned, there is no doubt that the theater saved his life in the deepest sense, especially during his early years. From the very outset the anarchy of his environment was directly related to his tendency to indulge in theatrical, self-promotional behavior. More specifically, it was related to his love of the stage. Although his mother warned all her children against the godlessness of a life in the theater, she was so lacking in the courage of her own convictions that four of Wagner's six elder siblings embarked on such a career: Rosalie was to be the Gretchen in the first Leipzig production of Goethe's Faust in 1829; Clara was only sixteen when she sang the title role in Rossini's La Cenerentola; and Rosalie was seventeen when she took the main part in Weber's Preciosa. Wagner's elder brother Albert, finally, enjoyed a successful operatic career in Leipzig in a repertory that included Mozart's Tamino and Belmonte.
Although Friedrich Wagner was a police actuary by profession, he came from a family of artists and academics. He studied law and had an amateur's love of the theater. Among his circle of acquaintances were Goethe, Schiller, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. But in this regard he could not begin to compete with his eccentric brother Adolf, a well-known figure in Leipzig who held a doctorate in philosophy and was a distinguished translator of Sophocles and the proud possessor of a silver beaker presented to him by Goethe as a token of the poet's gratitude for the dedication of a collection of Italian verse. According to his autobiography, the young Wagner enjoyed listening to his uncle's effusions. In the course of their extended walks together, Adolf also declaimed Shakespeare's plays to him.
Wagner's surrogate father, Ludwig Geyer, was the quintessential bohemian. A successful playwright, actor, and portrait painter, he also helped to train Wagner's older brother and sisters for their careers in the theater. It seemed only natural that Wagner himself would follow in their footsteps. In adulthood he recalled "how at the age of 5, since he could not sing, he imitated Caspar's piccolo and flute trills with 'Perrbip,' climbed on a chair to represent Samiel looking over an imaginary bush, and said, 'Perrbip, perrbip.'" In point of fact Wagner must have been seven when he first encountered Der Freischütz, but there is no doubt that he came into contact with leading musicians such as Weber at a very early age. "If I had never had the experience of Weber's things," he told Cosima in October 1873, "I believe I should never have become a musician."
Initially it was his love of the theater in general that proved the dominant factor:
What attracted me so powerfully to the theatre, by which I include the stage itself, the backstage area and the dressing rooms, was not so much the addictive desire for entertainment and diversion that motivates today's theatregoers, but rather the tingling delight in my contact with an element that represented such a contrast to normal life in the form of a purely fantastical world whose attractiveness often bordered on horror. In this way a piece of scenery or even a flat—perhaps representing a bush—or a theatrical costume or even just a characteristic piece of a costume appeared to me to emanate from another world and in a certain way to be eerily interesting, and my contact with this world would serve as a lever that allowed me to rise above the calm reality of my daily routine and enter that demoniacal realm that I found so stimulating.
Nor was it long before Wagner had had his first taste of the theater: "After being terrified by The Orphan and the Murderer and The Two Galley Slaves and similar plays that traded in gothic horror and that featured my father [Ludwig Geyer] in the role of the villains, I was obliged to appear in a number of comedies. [...] I recall featuring in a tableau vivant as an angel, entirely sewn up in tights and with wings on my back. I had to adopt a graceful pose that I had found hard to learn." When he was twelve, he recalled reading aloud from Schiller's The Maid of Orleans to the "well-educated" wife of his godfather, Adolf Träger. That his godfather gave him not only a pike-gray dress coat with an impressive silk lining but also a red Turkish waistcoat may well have helped to blur the distinction between "art" and "life."
But what was all this when set beside the intimacies of his sisters' boudoir! There, according to Wagner's later account,
it was the more delicate costumes of my sisters, on which I often observed my family working, that stimulated my imagination in the most subtly exciting ways. It was enough for me to touch these objects, and my heart would beat anxiously and wildly. Despite the fact that, as I have already said, there was little tenderness in our family, particularly as expressed in the form of hugging and kissing, my exclusively feminine surroundings were bound to exert a powerful influence on my emotional development.
Readers so inclined may see in this passage a justification for Wagner's later fondness for choice silks and exquisite perfumes and may dismiss that predilection as feminine or even abnormal. In this they would be following a well-worn path. But it would be more helpful in this context to follow up a remark that the composer made to the music critic Karl Gaillard at the time he was working on Tannhäuser: "And so, even before I set about writing a single line of the text or drafting a scene, I am already thoroughly immersed in the musical aura of my new creation." He was aware of his "foolish fondness for luxury," he admitted to his benefactress Julie Ritter in 1854, but he needed it to survive. Less than a week earlier he had told Liszt: "I cannot live like a dog, I cannot sleep on straw and drink common gin. Mine is an intensely irritable, acute, and hugely voracious, yet uncommonly tender and delicate sensuality which, one way or another, must be flattered."
We are still concerned with the young Wagner's most basic question: what prospects did he have within his own anarchistic milieu? We are dealing here not with titillating biographical details but with the impulses that triggered Wagner's creativity. Here our principal witnesses are Marcel Proust and Baudelaire. In a famous passage in À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust recounts the way in which a madeleine dipped in tea could activate his "mémoire involontaire" and usher in an act of spontaneous memory. He goes on to explain how
Above all in Baudelaire, where they are more numerous still, reminiscences of this kind are clearly less fortuitous and therefore, to my mind, unmistakable in their significance. Here the poet himself, with something of a slow and indolent choice, deliberately seeks, in the perfume of a woman, for instance, of her hair and her breast, the analogies which will inspire him and evoke for him
the azure of the sky immense and round
a harbour full of masts and pennants.
Proust's remarks about Baudelaire could equally well apply to Wagner, whom he idolized for a time. And when Wagner, writing in his autobiography, recalls the sensual stimuli that were triggered when he touched his sisters' "more delicate costumes," this is more than a mere reminiscence of his childhood and adolescence: it is also an aesthetic reflection on the part of the composer of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Tristan und Isolde concerning the synesthetic potential of his works. According to Proust, Baudelaire's linguistic images were the result of a "slow and indolent choice," and it is in this spirit that we should read the above passage from My Life, a memoir by no means intended for a mass readership eager for gutter-press sensationalism. In writing this, Wagner was seeking reassurance and expressing his wish that "life" and "art" should be in harmony. If, in his adolescence, he had not known the stimulus of the items in his sisters' wardrobe, he would presumably have invented it or at least devised something similar to clarify his conviction that the oneness of life and art was no accident but was predetermined by fate: everything had to happen just as it did indeed happen.
The reader may find this hubristic, and yet we cannot fail to admire the consistency with which the young Wagner approached his life's work. While still at school, he not only developed a burning enthusiasm for the stage as the only thing that gave meaning to his life—after all, many other budding actors have felt the same—but he also wanted to write his own plays and in that way to create his own world of the theater both as an actor and in his own imagination. He was not content to declaim Hamlet's "To be or not to be" from the classroom lectern. Rather, he perfected his knowledge of Greek in order to be able to read Sophocles and translate passages from the Odyssey. And if his account in My Life is not an exaggeration, then he was still in his early teens when, an otherwise poor pupil, he wrote a vast epic poem on the Battle of Parnassus.
Whereas we know about such feats only from Wagner's own much later account of them, his five-act tragedy Leubald allows us to test its author's claims for ourselves. In maturity Wagner himself no longer had access to the manuscript, which he believed had been lost, and this may explain why he adopted such a mocking tone when referring to a youthful "misdemeanor" that he claimed represented an amalgam of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear and Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen. The rediscovery of the manuscript allows us to form an impression of what Wagner was capable of achieving between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Leubald is no naïve schoolboy play, as it is usually described by writers on Wagner, but an example of its author's ability to maintain three stylistic registers over an extended period—the play would last around six hours in performance. For the lofty style deemed appropriate to the characters who inhabit the highest echelons of feudal society, Wagner prefers blank verse—iambic pentameters—in the tradition of Shakespeare's plays. The common people, by contrast, speak in coarse prose that is again modeled on Shakespeare. Between these two extremes is a third stylistic register that Wagner reserves for members of the spirit world, who converse with one another in rhyme and in song.
Excerpted from RICHARD WAGNER by Martin Geck, Stewart Spencer. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Martin Geck is professor of musicology at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany. His other books include Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work and Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press. Stewart Spencer is an independent scholar and the translator of more than three dozen books.
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