Thursday, 5 May 2016


German composer Richard Wagner
To commemorate the 203rd anniversary of the birth of 19th century Romantic composer Richard Wagner who was born at Leipzig on the 22nd of this month, unravelingmusicalmyths takes a look back at the chaotic circumstances surrounding the making of one of the German maestro's most epic works, his 1850 opera Lohengrin.
Just as Wagner was issuing plans to premier the work (Lohengrin would be the composer's sixth opera), a revolution was beginning to brood across Europe. As Paris was engaging in conflict, so to was Germany, home of 19th century Romantic composer Richard Wagner. Although much of Wagner’s association with radicals in favor of freeing Saxony (see: May Uprising in Dresden) remains under hot debate, scholars and historians of this period are certain the megalomanic composer engaged in public oration in favor of this purported movement, appearing as a guest speaker at riots, and is believed to have been present at barricades during actual fighting amongst partisan sects in May of 1849. By the time royal troops had been made engaged to disperse the rioters, Wagner had already flown the coop, escaping arrest by fleeing to Weimar and the home of his friend and future father in law, composer Franz Liszt, who masterfully smuggled the revolutionist west, across the border into France, wherein Wagner would set off for the neutral haven of Switzerland for what would become an extended period of self-imposed exile (and which would conveniently double as a hideout from his many creditors).

It would be here that Wagner, with much idle time to dedicate to introspective thought, decided to become a pamphleteer. Caring nothing for audience approval but rather for the advancement of music as he saw fit, Wagner would pen a scathing criticism of contemporary composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn in his infamous diatribe against the “Jewish influence” then present in Western Classical Music: his “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music.”)

As a direct result of this social unrest and a political ban enforced on the composer by officials in Germany, Wagner’s Lohengrin, whose composition was completed in late April of 1848, would not premiere until August 28th in 1850 at the city of Weimar and under the baton of Franz Liszt, who had chosen the date of the work’s premiere in honor of celebrated German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was born on the same day in 1749. The premiere was an instant success for Wagner, and would set in motion what would arguably be considered Wagner’s golden period of composition following a production of the opera attended by the Bavarian King, Ludwig II, who would later usher the illusive composer out of exile and into a lavish residence in Munich, where Wagner would live a life of luxury, free from debt (Ludwig famously paid off all of the composer’s creditors) and free to compose undeterred by distraction. Ludwig was ever the generous patron, providing Wagner with an annual salary and showering the German composer with large donations of largesse that would help fund the building of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, which would famously become synonymous with Wagner’s most epic works, not the least of which would be the megalithic Ring Cycle tetralogy.

Listen below to one of my most beloved arias, the gorgeous tenor aria “Mein Leiber Schwan” (“My little swan”) from Act III scene III of
Lohengrin as sung by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann:

Did you know?

Wagner’s ever popular Bridal Chorus (“Treulich geführt ziehet dahin”) (“Faithfully guided, draw near”) from Lohengrin’s third act has become a staple wedding march at nuptials celebrated in the West - with many a bride and groom opting to 'walk down the aisle' to the music they know as “Here comes the Bride.”

The march, originally sung by the wedding party of Lohengrin’s bride Elsa after she is wed to the mysterious Lohengrin and as she is ushered into the bridal chamber, was made popular as a processional piece for real couples in the West following it’s famous use by Victoria the Princess Royal to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858.

Wagner's famous bridal chorus (LSO):



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