L U X U R Y  T R A V E L E R

Leipzig Celebrates Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner, the most influential composer of the High Romantic era, was born in Leipzig on 22 May 1813 in the Haus zum Roten und Weißen Löwen (Brühl Street, no. 319, later nos. 1-3, demolished in 1886), the youngest of nine children. He was christened in St Thomas Church. Richard was only five months old when his father died: Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Wagner, who had worked for the police as a recording clerk, succumbed to typhus caused by the military conflicts taking place in and around Leipzig. Six months later, Richard's mother, Johanna Rosine Wagner (nee Paetz), married the actor and portrait artist Ludwig Geyer, whom Wagner always believed to be his biological father.

Two years later the family moved to Dresden. Wagner’s step-father kindled Wagner’s love for the theatre. From 1822 he attended the Kreuzschule in Dresden - the choir school of the Church of the Holy Cross. In 1827 Johanna and the fourteen-year-old Richard returned to Leipzig, as her daughter Luise had been offered employment at the theatre there. Richard Wagner became a pupil of St Nicholas School, where he was placed in the Obertertia form on 21 January 1828. This aroused his mother's displeasure, as he had previously been in a higher class at the Dresden Kreuzschule, and instead of tackling the poems of Homer, Richard had to go back to the easier Greek prose writers. One of the teachers he had little liking for was the rector, Karl Friedrich August Nobbe. By way of compensating for the school's bureaucratic inflexibility, Wagner began to teach himself the arts of poetry and musical composition.

From 26 June 1830 Wagner attended St Thomas School, but left without taking the school-leaving examination. The young Wagner secretly went to the Gewandhaus musician Christian Gottlieb Müller for his first musical training in the theory of harmony. In order to devote himself fully to music and the student life, on 23 February 1831 Wagner enrolled as a studiosus musicae in the register of Leipzig University. Soon he became a pupil of the Cantor of St Thomas, Christian Theodor Weinlig, who spotted Wagner's musical talent and encouraged him to develop it. Wagner later expressed his admiration for his teacher when he dedicated his Opus 1 to him, the Piano Sonata in B major, and his piece for a male choir, "Das Liebesmahl der Apostel" to his widow in 1843.

Literary stimulation came Wagner's way from his uncle Adolf Wagner, and from his childhood friend Guido Theodor Apel and the writer Heinrich Laube. From 1934 Wagner would contribute articles to Laube's "Zeitung für die elegante Welt" ("Newspaper for the Elegant World"). During the September uprising in Leipzig Wagner developed his first interest in politics, dreaming of unification for his fatherland.

At the Gewandhaus he became familiar with Beethoven's nine symphonies and was inspired to write his own. Wagner was 17 years old when music composed by him was first performed in Leipzig: it was his Overture in B major, at the Comödienhaus on 24 December 1830. Wagner's music was first played at the Gewandhaus on 23 February 1832 - his Overture in D minor.

On 7 June 1834 Wagner gave official notice that he was moving out of his apartment at number 3, Nordstraße, and left Leipzig to become a choir master in Würzburg. His career led him to a variety of cities, including Magdeburg (in 1834), Königsberg (1836) and Riga (1837). Deep in debt, he fled to Paris in 1839, where he survived by doing casual work. The operas he had composed were not achieving the success he desired, but, finally, it came - with the première of "Rienzi" at the Dresden Court Theatre on 20 October 1842. All at once Wagner became known as a composer of operas and was called to Dresden to take up a position as deputy Kapellmeister. This period saw the emergence of important works including "Tannhäuser" and "Lohengrin".

Wagner was more than a composer, however - he was also an ardent democrat. He was a member of the patriotic Dresden group, the "Vaterlandsverein", and supported the people's revolution in Saxony, which failed in mid-May 1849. This brought the career of the radical firebrand to an abrupt end, as on 16 May 1849 a warrant was put out for his arrest and he had to give up his secure post. Aided by Franz Liszt, he fled into exile in Zurich. There he established a new circle of friends, which included the writers Gottfried Keller and Georg Herwegh.

In Zurich Wagner was gradually able to build on his earlier musical achievements. Alongside music-drama compositions such as "Rheingold" and "Siegfried" he also produced his most important theoretical essays, including the dissertation "Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft" ("The Artwork of the Future"), in which he aspired after the amalgamation of the various art forms. Opera needed to shed its function as mere entertainment and evoke more elevated values instead, he argued. Wagner's goal was the attainment of a higher reality. He wanted music drama to arouse religious feelings, and through these things he reformed the genre of opera.

In August 1858, following an intense affair with the wife of his benefactor and landlord Otto Wesendonck - which formed the inspiration for "Tristan und Isolde" - Wagner travelled to Vienna, via Venice, Lucerne and Paris. Then, on 28 March 1862, news came from Saxony that he had been granted amnesty. So, after an absence of many years, on 1 November 1862 Wagner found himself back at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig for a concert. In the almost empty concert hall he conducted his overtures to "Tannhäuser" and the "Meistersinger" - the latter being a première performance. The applause was so tumultuous, however, that Wagner had the work played once again.

In other aspects, Wagner's experiences in Leipzig were less satisfying. The opera he composed in 1833, "Die Feen", was rejected by the Director of the Opera, Friedrich Sebald Ringelhardt, as was his "Liebesverbot". Not even Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy knew what to make of the musical revolutionary. It was only when Angelo Neumann took over at Leipzig City Theatre that things began to change for Wagner. It was the beginning of a golden age for the opera.

At a social event at the home of the Orientalist Hermann Brockhaus, Wagner met a young student: Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was greatly impressed by Wagner as a person and by his music and his views. A friendship formed between them which lasted until 1872. In 1864 the 19-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria brought the highly respected composer to Munich, and paid off his debts. Now Wagner had the best of conditions in which to work, and presented a number of operas. In 1870 he married Cosima von Bülow, who was 24 years younger than him and was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and also the former wife of his friend and sponsor, Hans von Bülow. A year later Wagner moved to Bayreuth, and in 1874 he ordered the construction of Villa Wahnfried there, in which the three children from his marriage could be raised. In 1872 the foundation stone was laid for a festival hall designed by Wagner and financed by Ludwig II. The ceremonial opening took place with the première of "Der Ring der Nibelungen". The great artist died on 13 February 1883, in Venice, where he was staying in an effort to recover his health.

After his death, Cosima took over the management of the Bayreuth Festival and continued to run it up until 1906. During the course of his life, Wagner's uncompromising striving for artistic self-realisation and his unusual lifestyle had certainly won him some friends, but the splendour of his work was overshadowed by his chauvinistic leanings and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, Wagner's fabulous on-stage world with its abysses and messages of salvation was adopted as a spiritual home by Adolf Hitler.

Whatever the political system, Leipzig has always upheld its sense of duty to its son. In 1878, the Leipzig Opera staged the first complete performance of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" to take place outside Bayreuth. And their last production before the building was destroyed in 1943 was also of Wagner's work. The new Opera opened in the autumn of 1960 with a performance of Wagner's "Meistersinger". In the years that followed, all of his music-drama works except the two operas he wrote in his youth were performed at the Opera in Leipzig, the city of his birth. The city made heavy weather of one thing, however. On 22 May 1913, to mark the 100th anniversary of Wagner's birth, the foundation stone for a monument was laid in the Ringpromenade by the city's Lord Mayor, Rudolf Dittrich. The artist Max Klinger had produced a number of designs for it, but the outbreak of the First World War and Klinger's death meant that the work was never completed. The monument's postament has been situated in the park by Große Fleischgasse since 15 January 2009. It is made of pure white marble extracted in Laas in south Tyrol, and portrays life-size figures from Wagner's operas in relief on three sides. The staircase which originally connected the west end of the St Matthew churchyard with the Promenadenring was also designed by Max Klinger.

On 13 February 2011 a new place of pilgrimage was opened in the Old St Nicholas School to commemorate its former pupil, Richard Wagner. The hall on the second upstairs floor was restored in 1994 and has been preserved just as it was in Wagner's day. It's now open to tourists as part of the Leipzig Music Trail, a guided walk linking interesting sites from Leipzig's musical history. Wagner fans might also care to visit the Alter Johannisfriedhof to see the graves of his mother and his sister Rosalie Marbach, who was married to the Leipzig poet and author Oswald Marbach.

"Wagner Wege in Leipzig" ("Wagner Walks in Leipzig") is a pamphlet published by the Richard Wagner Society It is a handy guide for those wishing to follow the Wagner trail on foot in the city centre or by car in the neighbouring areas. This very attractive leaflet can be obtained free of charge from Tourist Information. It has a street plan with photos and information about 25 Wagner-related sites.

"Richard Wagner: Leipzig born and bred" is the title of a two-hour tour of the city offered by Leipzig Erleben GmbH. Participants are regaled with anecdotes and interesting facts about Wagner and his time in Leipzig. Information: www.leipzig-erleben.com

The appreciation of Wagner in Leipzig culminates every year in the Leipzig Wagner Festival, the impetus for which is generated by the Richard Wagner Association of Leipzig 2013. The Festival always includes the anniversary of Wagner's birthday on 22 May.

Many excellent events are taking place in Leipzig to mark the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, and they are sure to make the city a Mecca for music fans from all over the world.

An anecdote: As a young music student Wagner offered his services to the well-known music publishers, C. F. Peters. To no avail. When he asked shyly whether he might earn a little money with compositions in order to finance his studies he was turned away. They told him to make a name for himself in music and then come back. He did come back: but it was many years later, with "Tannhäuser", which in 1853 became the first of his operas to be performed in Leipzig. And in the Director of the Opera Angelo Neumann he at last found a sponsor for his art. Wagner was beside himself with joy: "All hail to Leipzig, the town of my birth, with its bold theatre management," he wrote in a telegram from Bayreuth after the première of "Der Ring der Nibelungen".

Information about Richard Wagner:
The Leipzig Richard Wagner Society: www.wagner-verband-leipzig.de
The Leipzig Richard Wagner Association 2013 : www.wagner-festtage.com
The Wagner Memorial: www.wagner-denkmal.com
The Leipzig Music Trail www.notenspur-leipzig.de
Leipzig Tourismus und Marketing GmbH - Tourist Information www.leipzig.travel