In the Footsteps of Richard Wagner: Leipzig

Friday, January 25, 2013 - 11:17 AM

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.


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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

News today by the general manager of LA SCALA, Stephane Lissner that the world-famous opera house that was VERDI's outreach to the musical world is suffering government subsidy cutbacks and diminished attendance records will cut back on its scheduling, its season length and the number of productions. Worldwide the excuse by governments for cutting back on support of their cultural institutions, the opera, the symphony, the music conservatories, the museums, the universities and television and radio public broadcasting is 'we can't afford it." What we can't afford is the ignorance of our respective cultures that provide the incentive for achieving, that entertain and inform In the USA we are not even paying attention to our intrastructure with thousands of bridges and roadways and hospitals and schools in dangerous conditions, falling bridges with vehicles plunging into the waterways below. Terrorists terror but simple-minded, ethically challenged politicians potentially are even more destructive of an enlightened civilized society. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer and
director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute.

May. 27 2013 10:02 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Wagner was in every respect as much a revolutionary figure against monarchy, yet for a united Germany as was Verdi's compatriot Giuseppe Garibaldi for a united Italy. Wagner, as many leaders against an imperial status quo governing body, was imprisoned. His opera RIENZI, a man of the people, the historical last tribune of Rome was partially written, the overture especially exciting, while Wagner was in prison. The genius Mozart, like Wagner, depended on the financial support of royalty, yet pictured them for what they were, oppressive and the counts and Dons freakish womanizers.

May. 25 2013 11:20 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Bloggers you have every right to "stick to your guns." The two incredible mammoth size talents in opera are VERDI and WAGNER. They have been given short shift on Radioland including WKCR which has done better than one would need to expect given its potential rival. The average person might be mortified learning the names of many of their icons of art and politics and science and teaching that had major flaws in their psychological persona. The product of genius is what we should ourselves accommodate in adjusting our scheduling of time and our choices of seeing, reading or hearing. The 'taste test" should not require a Curriculum Vitae, a passport or a declaration from "on high," but rather our own internal gratification in the presence of masterworks. The composer Wagner had a Protestant mother JOHANNA WAGNER and a Jewish father, LUDWIG GEYER, whom the child WAGNER adored. Nonetheless, his competitiveness and professional protocol approach ruled against his own reason and intellect and produced a contemptible blind scorn, a major blemish that thwarted a true view of others. The Germany of today views its ancestral NAZI predecessors as the villains they were.

May. 23 2013 03:05 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL echt WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCESare the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco , delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained, forced and flat singing, unsupported, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and with throaty or nasal ugly voice production. Today's news deals with deficits and declining support for the arts. Tandem to this predicament for the talented is the perception that the current situation will continue for a long time to come. Speaking specifically how this precludes the motivation for young operatic singers who must early on choosing their life's work, many have turned to Broadway or the business world. Nowadays Broadway musicals are out for show-stopping sensationalism with laser distractions, monster sets, acrobatic feats and space age technical projections and featuring dancing over singing. So, for the real thing opera singer, Broadway musicals, outside of Phantom of the Opera and an occasional Les Miserables there is little prospect of a sustainable career. The Wagner oeuvre has suffered the most. Husky physiques, witness the iconic John McCormack, do not offer similar size singing voices in power or stamina. Heroic voices like Melchior, Tamagno, Ruffo and the mature Caruso are nowhere on today's world class stages. Instead we suffer to hear miniscule, non-charismatic, non-distinctively memorable singing voices essaying roles far beyond their underpowered, thin not orotund, singing potentialities.
Why has the always controversial political or uniqueness for uniqueness's sake been the overriding context in which the Bayreuth Festival has ALWAYS manifested its presence back to the days when Hanslick then Tschaikovsky and later Verdi found it an unfriendly atmosphere or decried its "lack of melody (sic !)?" The daughters of Wolfgang Wagner like their dad have managed to incur the wrath of others either more conservative or radical in their concepts of the evolving Wagner music drama production values/concepts. It is an eviscerating condition that feeds upon confrontation rather than productive aesthetics.

Apr. 26

May. 02 2013 05:10 PM
Fred P

Olya, Please write to me at

Jan. 31 2013 01:28 AM
Olya from nj

Fred, PLEASE PLEASE inform us of any trips being planned to celebrate either Wagners 200th or Verdi's in Europe. I would love to accompany you on any tour that is being pulled together. I am an artist-pastellist, travelling to the next-bext place for en-PleinAir painting, great opera and food. and this summer should be a wonder!

Jan. 29 2013 05:25 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

MANY of the greatest perfprmers of Wagner's operas are or were Jewish, including the conductor Wagner himself selected to conduct the premiere performances of PARSIFAL, MAESTRO HERMAN LEVI. Some of the better known Jewish singers, stage directors and conductors: Bruno Walter, James Levine, Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Emanuel List, Frieda Leider, Erich Leinsdorf, Siegfried Jerusalem, Deszo Ernster and Herbert Graf. My own experience is that the today's typical German is NOT anti-semitic. Many are contemptuous of the role of their own ancestors during the Nazi regime. I had a longtime friendship with Friedelinde Wagner who was one of the grandchildren of Wagner, her father being SIegfried Wagner, the only son o the composer. Siegfried himself was a composer and conductor. Unlike his wife Winifred, he was NOT a Nazi. Alexander Kipnis who prepared me for my Ten Language solo debut in the main hall if Carnegie Hall in 1955 told me that when Siegfried Wagner conducted him in performances of Parfsifal he treated all the participants in the production with a warmth of personality and egalitarianism. Kipnis was the Gurnemaqnz. Winifred had supplied Hitler with the paper and pens and finances when he, imprisoned, wrote his seminal MEIN KAMPF. Friedelinde told me how when she, as a child, was placed on Hitler's lap when he visited Bayreuth, she leapt off. After the war, Friedelinde participated in the offstage production of the movie MAGIC FIRE which dealt with WAGNER. I drove Friedelinde in my Nash Ambassador to my performance in the revival of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. Her comment "that was fine, but it's no opera."

Jan. 29 2013 10:26 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

KUDOS GALORE TO YOU FRED FOR YOUR INDUSTRY IN GATHERING SIGNIFICANT HISTORICAL AND OTHERWISE ALSO ENTERTAINING KNOWLEDGE.. Despite Wagner's anti-semitism it is an indication that one's own personality idiosyncrasies and, worse still, moral defects does not deter those who respect the exceptional genius of an individual as the prime factor to be considered, in viewing or hearing from reading/seeing or hearing that individual's oeuvre. Famous maestri and one singer who are or were ardent Wagnerians are GUSTAV MAHLER, LEONARD BERNSTEIN, DANIEL BARENBOIM, JAMES LEVINE and GEORGE LONDON. Wagner's father was not the husband of his mother jOHANNA, but LUDWIG GEYER, a friend of the family who was a portrait painter in oils, a composer and a tenor and JEWISH. Wagner's official father Carl Friedrich Wagner was a stage door Johnny who died when the composer Wagner was only a new born babe. GEYER married JOHANNA and the composer child loved GEYER. JOHANNA took GEYER's name so little Richard was named Richard Geyer. But at age 13 Richard lost his father GEYER, who died rather young. JOHANNA concerned that the JEWISH name GEYER would severely curb her son's potential in a world hostile to all Jews changed it back to Wagner. The famous story how JOHANNA had taken the one year old child to GEYER, crossing battlefield territory to show him his son is one to justify their love and further indicate the close family relationships. II am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and dirctor of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download my singing in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to Recorded Selections;, and
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan Federico and Eleazar.

Jan. 29 2013 10:09 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Danke, Fred, für diese sehr interessante Meldung.

Jan. 27 2013 10:36 PM

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