Monday 25 September 2017

The composer favoured by Adolf Hitler

When it comes to composers you either love or hate, there can't be many up there to touch Richard Wagner. It was on this day in 1813 that he was born.

To say that he was larger than life would be putting it mildly. For a start, there's the question of just who his dad was. Was it the man his mum was married to, or was it the man she wed just nine months after her husband's death in his early 40s when Richard was an infant? Here's the clue to the thread of paternal anxiety that runs through his operas.

The composer, who was to become the favourite of Adolf Hitler, was writing plays in his teens and from there it was a short step to opera.

He married an actress, Minna Planer, and by the time he was 30, he'd made it. Later, he got the job as head of music at the court in Dresden. Not for long, though. Revolution was in the air across Europe as 1849 dawned -- and although the King of Saxony was paying his wages, Wagner sided with the republicans.

He had to get out of town. And with the help of his good friend Franz Liszt, he went first to Weimar, then on to Zurich where the Swiss had less difficulty accommodating his politics. He was in debt and making no money, but he found a backer in a retired merchant, Otto Wesendonck, who was a fan of his music. Wagner was free to develop his ideas, and work on his dream -- an epic four-drama opera cycle, The Ring, that would eventually be staged in a theatre he built for it.

But things got complicated when he fell for Wesendonck's wife. Though this inspired Tristan and Isolde, it ended Wagner's Zurich chapter. With Minna, Wagner shuttled between Venice and Paris.

His exile ended with a softening of attitudes, and with Minna now ailing and back in Dresden, he settled in Munich where he enjoyed the backing of Ludwig, the eccentric Bavarian king best known for his fantasy castles. Before Minna died, Wagner took up with Cosima, Liszt's daughter, who was the wife of Hans von Bulow, a Wagner champion and the man who conducted the premiere of Tristan and Isolde. They later married.

With sponsorship from Ludwig, Wagner's festival theatre was built in the northern Bavarian city of Bayreuth -- where he had settled -- as Munich wouldn't have it. It opened with the full Ring cycle in 1876. The Wagners later moved to Venice where the composer died, aged of 69, of a heart attack in 1883.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE Lyric FM from 9.30 on Saturday mornings. ghamilton@independent.ie

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