"... about the wizard, the charlatan, the minotaur..." on Richard Wagner's 200th Birthday in 2013

22 May 1813, Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig.

“All things considered, I could never have survived my youth without Wagnerian music. For I seemed condemned to the society of Germans. If a man wishes to rid himself of a feeling of unbearable oppression, he may have to take to hashish. Well, I had to take to Wagner” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

“Of Modern Mythology: Wagner’s deification in Bayreuth” (Ulk, Berlin 1876)

Richard Wagner is undoubtedly one of the most important composers of the 19th century. He changed the whole being of serious music not only by his innovative use of harmonies and orchestration, but by understanding and staging music not only as a medium experienceable with one but with all senses, as a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk).

While this view permeated demands on artists as well as the audience, Wagner went one step further, up to the point of enacting his works with the conception of a sacred festival drama as an enhancement and even substitute of religion. He wrote music with a purpose, expressing thought and feeling and attributing the elements to the various characters of his music dramas, condensing it in the leitmotif, audible when the character appears on stage.

A monochrome showing the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1895

The beguiling rush of his music, the leitmotif and the never-ending melody, especially in his late work, cast a spell on the audience that was and is mostly unaware of what exactly Wagner intended to transport with his music. Especially the good middle- and upper class clientele would have probably been quite shocked if they comprehended the revolutionary content and metafiction of Wagner’s music dramas, telling sensual, nerve- and intellectually inciting and irritating tales of not only the vie de la bohème but a society beyond plutocracy on grounds of liberty, equality, fraternity and universal love. The tragicomical paradox of Wagner’s reception, as Thomas Mann put it once.

Anton Werner: "Revealing the Wagner Memorial in Berlin" (1908)

In terms of reception, the professed and outspoken anti-Semite, Wagner and his work experienced the notorious reframing and excess of the Third Reich’s lunatic petit bourgeois understanding of the world that stained indulgence in his art within living memory, much like the re-appearing bloodstains in Wilde’s Canterville Chase.

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