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In the Footsteps of Richard Wagner: Leipzig

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Anyone who loves opera surely knows by now that 2013 marks the bicentennial of the births of Richard Wagner (May 22) and Giuseppe Verdi (October 10), the colossi of 19th Century opera.

Their having been born only a few months apart makes one naturally want to compare the two men and perhaps arrive at a preference for one rather than the other. I am fascinated by both composers, their magnificent operas, and their lives that were so intertwined with the fates of their emerging nations and, for that matter, all of Europe.

I plan to publish numerous articles on Wagner and Verdi throughout the year, though my approach will be about what made each man distinct. I have decided to look at Wagner through his itinerant life. He sometimes had to leave a place rather quickly to escape arrest, debts or a romantic entanglement. There are, however, certain locales that formed him and on which he had profound impact. I have traveled, or soon will, to all of the places I will cover. As Wagner said, “to love life is to love change and transition.”

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, in Saxony. He was the youngest of nine children of Carl Friedrich and Johanna Rosine Wagner. I had always thought of Leipzig as a capital of music, but that designation does not do it justice. For anyone who cares about music, Leipzig is astonishing. Most people first associate the city with Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived there from 1723 until his death in 1750, producing vast amounts of glorious music and supervising many of the city’s musical activities. A big part of his work was centered on the Thomaskirche, the remarkable church that resounds with his music in weekly concerts and is the site of his grave. A few steps from where Bach is buried is a baptismal font where Richard Wagner was christened on August 16, 1803.

You might wonder why it took so long to christen a child born almost three months earlier. The reason is that the other big event in Leipzig at the time was the troops gathering for the Battle of Nations that took place just outside the city in October of that year. This battle was a turning point as the allied troops of several European nations defeated Napoleon’s armies following their loss to Russia in 1812 that you may have read about in War and Peace or seen in Prokofiev’s opera of the same name. 

The scope of the Battle of Nations was operatic. Three-hundred thousand allied troops battled two-hundred thousand Frenchmen. By the time hostilities ended on October 18, about 80,000 people were dead and the same amount were injured. The sick and injured were housed all over the city, including many churches and public areas. The disarray and disease that resulted hit the Wagner family directly: his father died of typhus not long after the battle.

In the summer of 1814 Wagner’s mother married the actor and portrait artist Ludwig Geyer, a close family friend, and they moved with the children to Dresden. Geyer died in 1821 and Wagner’s mother and family returned to Leipzig. He received the rest of his education in his hometown at the St. Nicholas School, the St. Thomas School and Leipzig University. 

It was in Leipzig, in 1829, that the sixteen-year-old Wagner heard Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804-1860) as Leonore in Fidelio. She had, in fact, performed it for Beethoven in Vienna in 1822. It was at this performance that Wagner decided to become a musician and, in fact, found his first muse. He saw the soprano as his ideal interpreter, both in musical and dramatic terms. He created the roles of Adriano (in Rienzi), Senta (in Der fliegende Holländer) and Venus (in Tannhäuser) for her. In what would become a pattern throughout the composer’s life, Wagner and Schröder-Devrient had a falling-out because he owed her money.

Wagner’s first compositions--two overtures and a symphony--were created in Leipzig. It is important to understand that most of Wagner’s formative years were spent in a city that had an intense and profound musical culture. This city was liberal and commercially-oriented. Its renowned trade fair was founded in 1165 and brought merchants of all types to town three times a year. I learned that it was Germany’s center of publishing, with a highly literate populace. 

In addition to books, Leipzig became one of Europe’s foremost centers of music publishing. Its orchestra, the Gewandhaus, founded in 1743, is one of the world’s best. They also play in the pit of the Leipzig Opera and at the Thomaskirche. Two other illustrious musical residents of Leipzig were Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann along with his wife Clara Wieck. Edvard Grieg came to Leipzig in 1858, at the age of 15, to study and returned to the city often. 

Leipzig also has the Museum of Musical Instruments, the second-largest in Europe after the one in Brussels. There is a wonderful 3-mile (5 km) walking tour you can do yourself to visit the numerous musical landmarks in the city, though only a few are devoted to Wagner. Each stop has a marker as well as a phone number to hear explanations in German and English on your mobile phone. 

The man who has done more than anyone to make Wagner’s connection to Leipzig known to the world is Thomas Krakow, president of the local Wagner Society and Vice President of the International Association of Wagner Societies, which has 24,000 members in 139 chapters. If Angela Merkel is Germany’s hardest-working woman, Krakow is surely the nation’s hardest-working man. Although his training is in African studies, he developed a great passion for Wagner, reading hundreds of books about the composer and immersing himself thoroughly in the operas (his favorite is Parsifal).

The city government has given him the title of Wagner Commissioner of Leipzig and he has, with great determination, striven to make the city as much of a destination for Wagner lovers as it is for admirers of Bach, Mendelssohn and Schumann. While these musicians are associated with Leipzig, Wagner was the only great composer to be born there. Krakow and the Leipzig Wagner Society have fostered a bountiful series of events and exhibitions throughout 2013, but especially in May to coincide with the birthday. There will be the International Richard Wagner Congress (May 18-22) for the Wagner Societies as well as a conference called Richard Wagner--The Man, His Work and His Legacy--at the University of Leipzig (May 20-25). A small permanent exhibition on Wagner’s youth (1813-1834) just opened at the Old St. Nicholas School. 

In May there will be performances of Wagner’s first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. These works are seldom seen and are not in the repertory of the Bayreuth Festival, though these Leipzig casts will perform at the shrine of Wagner’s art this summer under special arrangement. Leipzig in May will also have Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der fliegende Holländer and Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Leipzig Opera’s new Ring Cycle. Wagner was proud that Leipzig was the first place outside of Bayreuth to perform a complete cycle, in 1878. The conductor was Arthur Nikisch, whose musical assistant was none other than Gustav Mahler.

Krakow said that, when he came to Leipzig in 1985 to study at the university, the city had no Wagner Society and few advocates for the composer. It was still East Germany and Wagner’s political radicalism and sexual freedom did not conform with the authoritarian ways of the Communist regime. When the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was unified, Krakow slowly but consistently tried to restore Wagner to prominence in his home town. A Wagner Society was founded. In 2006 it had 44 members; it now has 352.

Most of the tangible initiatives to make Wagner as honored a Leipzig musician as Bach, Mendelssohn and Schumann have been led by Krakow. He has been at the center of much of the planning and direction of this year’s Wagner activities, but doing it in a way that is of service to the composer and his city rather than attracting attention to himself. The Leipzig Wagner Society has produced a valuable brochure [PDF] that enables you to walk in Wagner’s footsteps in Leipzig even if you can’t get there yourself.

Krakow’s dream is that Leipzig have a vibrant museum and cultural center about Wagner’s life and legacy. There are buildings housing tributes or documentation to the other great composers who made Leipzig their home. While private donors have offered important documents and artifacts to be shown in a Wagner Museum, the challenge is the high price of real estate. This is, after all, the city that allowed the building where Wagner was born to be demolished three years after the composer’s death, to be replaced by a store (it is now a shopping center!). Krakow has already achieved a remarkable amount in making Leipzig stand with Bayreuth as the most important locus of the Wagner Bicentennial celebrations. I hope that the city government sees fit to acquire space for a museum for its greatest native musician.