In the Footsteps of Richard Wagner: Dresden

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DRESDEN, GERMANY -- This Saxon city, so beautiful and so marked by centuries of tragedy and glory, was Richard Wagner’s second home. Although he was born in Leipzig in 1813, his mother and her new husband moved to Dresden when he was an infant. Through his childhood and young adulthood, Dresden was central to his life and development as an artist.

His older siblings were immersed in the artistic scene of Dresden, which was a royal seat. His sister Rosalie made her debut as an actress at the Dresden Court Theater in 1820. His sister Klara made her debut as a singer at the Dresden Opera in 1824. Wagner lived in Dresden until 1827, when he joined his mother and siblings in Leipzig. He would do university studies in Leipzig and embark on the first of many travels that characterized his life. He returned to Dresden briefly in 1837 and it was there that he had the idea for his opera Rienzi. This large work had a slow gestation as Wagner earned money and experience as a conductor in Riga, Latvia, a post he lost in 1839. 

After Riga, he moved to Paris, where he lived for two-and-one-half years. In Paris, he met Franz Liszt, worked more on Rienzi and on his next work, Der fliegende Holländer, and was imprisoned for debts. In what became a lifelong trait, he was a bad money manager who cadged other people to pay his bills. Although he created his third and fourth operas abroad, they would first be performed in Dresden. This was due, in part, to his reckless expenditure in Paris, gaining him a bad reputation. To pay his debts, he sold the libretto for Der fliegende Holländer, which was called Le Vaisseau Fantôme, for 500 francs to a composer named Pierre Dietsch, who set it to music.

Rienzi der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes), had its premiere at Dresden’s Königliches Hoftheater on Oct. 20, 1842 and was an instant hit. Der fliegende Holländer premiered in the same theater on Jan. 2, 1843 and, though it was not an unqualified success, Dresden found itself with a musical genius, difficult though he was, in its midst. 

Wagner was named to the job of Hof Kapellmeister, a post he held until 1849. This was the number two musical post in Dresden, which was fortuitous. It gave Wagner an income but also enough time to write librettos and new music. He also said he would not conduct sacred music, which was a key part of the post. This might not have been a question of faith (or lack thereof) as pragmatism about how to use his time.

City of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin

The city’s Stadtmuseum will have an exhibition about Wagner in Dresden this year from April 22 through August 29. There have been previous Dresden exhibitions about him in 1933, 1963 and 1983 (all "3" years because of his 1813 birth) that addressed not only what Wagner stood for but the ideology at the time of the exhibition. Wagner, during the time of the DDR (East Germany), was considered a progressive thinker, an anti-capitalist revolutionary. His anti-Semitic beliefs and activities were entirely ignored.

It was in Dresden that Wagner wrote the libretto and music for Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, indisputable masterpieces that would eventually secure his fame throughout Europe. The first version of Tannhäuser premiered here on Oct. 19, 1845. This is now known as the Dresden version because he revised it for a Paris production in 1861 in which there was a long ballet added following the overture at the start of the opera. This change caused a scandal in Paris because the men of the Jockey Club, whose girlfriends danced in the corps de ballet, were accustomed to arriving late, seeing their mistresses dance in the second act of an opera and then leave with them. Because Wagner stubbornly (but astutely) put the ballet in the first act, this led to a riot. The Jockey Club members liked the social scene at the Opèra but cared little for the art form.

If you walk around Dresden, especially on a cold winter day with snow on the ground and only a few hours of light, you get a sense of what life would have been like there for Wagner. A visit to cemeteries such as the Alte Annenfriedhof may not seem like a cheery thing to do as you walk in Wagner’s footsteps, but it is worth your time. Here is the grave of his first wife Minna (1809-1866), known to eternity as Frau Christiane Wilhelmine Wagner geb. (née) Planer. On the cross above her grave is the word Wiedersehn! (See you again!). In the same cemetery are the graves of Joseph Tichatscheck (the first Rienzi and Lohengrin), and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Malvine Schnorr Carolsfeld, who are buried together. They were the first Tristan and Isolde. Also here is the final resting place of Carl Maria von Weber. He was originally buried elsewhere in town but his remains were interred here in 1844. The funeral oration was conducted by Wagner.

The city is stately and beautiful, though many of its landmark buildings were reconstructed following the extensive bombing raids that leveled much of the city during the Second World War. If you know the book, Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, you have a sense of what that was about.

Despite the destruction of much of Dresden, what remained unscathed is the shape of the city that hugs the banks of the Elbe River, much loved by Wagner. In the fine weather he would swim in the river and, he wrote, he would hear people whistling music from Tannhäuser. He liked to sit in vineyards on the river’s banks. Dresden has about 50 hectares (about 125 acres) of grapes within the city limits. Wagner also went for long walks in the nearby Lieberthal vallley and said that it was there that he discovered the wonders of nature he evoked in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the Ring Cycle.

The glowing silences, if one can use such a term, that one hears in Lohengrin, were created in what is called the Lohengrinhaus in Pirna, a tranquil spot very close to Dresden. It is just near the new Wagner museum that opened in January. I love how Thomas Mann described the opera: “Lohengrin, the overture of which is perhaps the most wonderful thing Wagner ever wrote, and whose silvery-blue beauty I still love most dearly...” I recently had the thrill of hearing Lohengrin in Dresden’s stunning Semperoper, one of the world’s most beautiful opera houses. The Semperoper was built between 1838 and 1841 and was lovingly reconstructed after World War II. The opera was conducted by Christian Thielemann who, with the excellent Staatskapelle Dresden, will perform at Carnegie Hall on April 17

Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Schiller

This is a city that takes its music very seriously and, much more than Leipzig, claims Wagner as its own. Schumann lived here and other composers spent a lot of time in Dresden as well. Although Richard Strauss never lived in Dresden, nine of his operas were given their world premieres here. Puccini was invited to stage the German premiere of Tosca here. Rachmaninoff lived in Dresden. Friedrich Schiller lived in Dresden and wrote two plays, Die Rauber and Don Carlos, that became source material for Verdi’s I Masnadieri and Don Carlo.

I noticed that when one enters a church in Dresden (I visited the Kreuzkirche and the Frauenkirche on a Sunday), you can hear exquisite choral singing by children and young adults.It was in the Frauenkirche that Wagner organized big concerts with singing competitions and choral conventions. He wrote a work for this church called Das Liebesmal des Apostels (the Supper of the Apostles), an early inspiration for the music of the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal. Wagner was already thinking about Parsifal in Leipzig, even though he would not write that opera for another thirty years, because this character was the father of Lohengrin.

Despite its close associations with Dresden, Lohengrin did not have its premiere there. This is because Wagner became involved in revolutionary activities against the royal family of Saxony. On Oct. 5, 1848 he was dismissed from the Dresden Hoftheater and he was imprisoned May 7-8, 1849 after taking part in an insurrection on the market square in Dresden that contained the Hotel Saxe (where Liszt stayed and performed) and the Frauenkirche.

When Wagner was able to escape Dresden, he went into exile for many years in Zurich, from which I will report in the spring. Being in exile, he was unable to attend the premiere of Lohengrin, which was given on Aug. 28, 1850 in the small court theater in Weimar. It was led by none other than Franz Liszt, at the time Wagner’s friend and advocate and, though it was not yet apparent, his future father-in-law.

Photos: 1) Tomb of the Carolsfelds (the first Tristan and Isolde) 2) The Frauenkirche in Dresden (Fred Plotkin/WQXR)