“Richard Wagner” (1882) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
“I write music with an exclamation point!” -Richard Wagner
There’s no middle ground on Richard Wagner. You either love him or hate him. Correction: there is a kind of middle ground that most people, including me, dwell in. To oversimplify, it is this: love the art; hate the artist. Wagner was a despicable man. He was proudly anti-Semitic and wrote those views into his characters (Alberich, anyone?). He was self-centered, violent, and had bad manners. But, oh, that music!
Tomorrow is Wagner’s 200th birthday. In celebration, here are 16 things about Wagner you may not know.
-We don’t know who his real father was. Most people believe his dad was Carl Friedrich Wagner, a police actuary, who died six months after Richard was born. Others think it might have been actor Ludwig Geyer, whom Richard’s mother Johanna later married.
-He once played an angel in one of Ludwig Geyer’s plays.
-He flunked out of most of his classes in school, only excelling in music.
-He considered himself to be “the most German of men.”
-His musical hero was Beethoven. Wagner and Bruckner shared mutual admiration for each others’ music.
-He briefly was the music director of the local opera company in Riga.
-His first purely musical composition was a Piano Sonata. He also wrote a String Quartet, two Symphonies, and patriotic music for Great Britain and the United States.
-He was once heterosexual life partners with Friedrich Nietzsche, before a famous falling out.
-He proudly sported the Neck Beard
-His trademark slouched beret is known in Germany as a Wagnerkappe. (Literally: Wagner hat)
-He could barely play the piano–or any instrument, for that matter–and wasn’t particularly great at reading music.
-Igor Stravinsky hated Wagner.
-Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, was never produced during his lifetime.
-His manifesto was, “Kinder! macht Neues!” (“Children, make something new”)
-He knew how to handle the trombones: “Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” (This quote has also been attributed to Richard Strauss and various conductors over the years, but regardless of the source, the advice is sound.)
-He liked to wear women’s underwear.