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Wagner's escape to freedom with the help of Liszt

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

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Richard Wagner needed a false passport after an arrest warrant was issued

Richard Wagner needed a false passport after an arrest warrant was issued

Franz Liszt helped Wagner obtain a false passport

Franz Liszt helped Wagner obtain a false passport

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Richard Wagner needed a false passport after an arrest warrant was issued

It sounds like something from a Jason Bourne movie. Our hero needs to get out of town, and fast. And the only way he's going to manage it is with fake papers.

So far, so Hollywood. Except that this is Germany in 1849. The renegade is opera's heavy-hitter Richard Wagner, and the man procuring the false passport is none other than the concert hall's greatest showman, the pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

The pair, direct contemporaries, first met in Paris in 1840. Liszt was the talk of the town, a 19th century rock star, who had audiences swooning in their seats as he played and squabbling over the green silk gloves and pocket square he would leave behind on stage after his encore.

Wagner was struggling to make any kind of mark. He couldn't find a producer for his first attempt at opera. His second had closed after only one performance.

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Franz Liszt helped Wagner obtain a false passport

Franz Liszt helped Wagner obtain a false passport

Franz Liszt helped Wagner obtain a false passport

Broke, he headed for Paris. They loved their opera there, and Wagner felt it was the best place for him.

He sought out Liszt, looking for support as he tried to get a break. While nothing came of it, their paths would cross again, when Wagner had found his feet and was back in Germany, as conductor to the royal court in Dresden.

Writing to him some time after they had reconnected, Liszt recalled: "Your genius flashed its light on me." They collaborated, Liszt conducting Wagner's opera Tannhäuser.

Events were to take a dramatic turn. The Revolutions of 1848 that had been sweeping across Europe reached Germany - then a confederation of 39 separate states - in the form of a demand for national unity.

In Dresden, the capital of Saxony, the anti-unity king dissolved the state parliament, provoking an uprising. Wagner actively supported the insurgents. The composer had posters printed that he handed out to local soldiers, urging them not to co-operate with the military reinforcements being sent in from Prussia to quell the unrest.

He acted as a look-out. He organised hand grenades. All of this left him somewhat exposed when, days later, the revolution was crushed.

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He went on the run. "Wanted for examination on account of his active participation in the recent rising," read the arrest warrant, which also included a pretty inadequate description: "of middle height, has brown hair, and wears glasses".

Wagner met up with Liszt at his house, west of Dresden. With the police on his tail, he couldn't stay, but Liszt had taken care of arrangements.

He had "borrowed" the passport of a friend of his, a Professor Widmann, to give to Wagner to help him get out of Germany and beyond the reach of the warrant.

Paris was his intended destination, but with heavy police activity on the direct route, he was advised to head south and take the ferry across Lake Constance into Switzerland.

He wondered how he would get away with it. The good professor was from southern Germany, with an accent to match. If Wagner was asked to explain himself, there was a serious risk he'd be found out.

He needn't have worried. All the ship's passengers had surrendered their papers together. With no photographs involved, when the time came to hand them back, Wagner was able to claim "his" unchallenged.

With one bound, he was free. Just like in the movies.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.


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