Wagner and the Wesendonck Lieder
Richard Wagner: May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883
The late 1840s saw revolutionary uprisings across Europe. In early May 1849, a popular uprising broke out in Dresden, capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, when King Frederick Augustus II refused to accept the Frankfurt Constitution and called Prussian troops to support his rule. The king and his government were soon forced to flee to the fortress of Königstein, leaving the capital in the hands of revolutionaries. However, the rebel victory (this sounds like Star Wars, doesn’t it?). was short-lived, and within a week, the Saxon army, supported by Prussian troops, retook Dresden and restored the king’s rule in Saxony.
After the performances of his operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman in Dresden, Wagner was appointed the Royal Saxon music director of the court orchestra for life in 1843. After the completion of Lohengrin in May 1848, Wagner passionately engaged himself in the revolution. Under the influence of his friend August Röckel, who introduced him to utopian-socialist ideas, he supported the democratic/republican movement. He thought that the revolution would bring a thorough democratization and a renewal of society, a unified nation-state, and basic reforms in the sphere of culture and the arts that should put in practice his theoretical ideas on art, especially his conception of the complete work of art. His “Proposal for the Organization of a German National Theater for the Kingdom of Saxony” remained, however, unnoticed. At a meeting of the Dresden fatherland union on June 14, he lectured on the subject “What about the character of the republican efforts vis-à-vis the kingdom?” in which he appealed to the Saxon king to renounce the throne and to place himself at the head of the Free State of Saxony as a president. After this incident Wagner was defamed and snubbed in the court circles and by noble society in Dresden.
Wagner was actively engaged in the Dresden uprising from May 3-9, 1849. He supported the provisional government, took part in the information service of the insurgents, and called upon the Saxon military to fraternize with the insurgents. Together with the leaders of the uprising, he left Dresden on May 9 for Chemnitz, from which the music director avoided the warrant for his arrest by flight, first to Weimar, then, with the help of Liszt, to Zurich, Switzerland, where he sought the support of friends.
While in exile in Zurich Wagner continued to work on his theoretical works and the opera Das Rheingold; he also participated in local musical life. One thing that did not change for him during his exile was the precariousness of his pecuniary position. That is to say that, as usual, he was broke.
Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy silk merchant made a generous loan to Wagner in 1852. More important to this Spiel is that Wagner, through Wesendonck, met Mrs. Wesendonck, the young, pretty, and artistic wife of the merchant. She quickly fell under Wagner’s spell. Wagner, however, had equally succumbed to Mathilde’s charms, resulting in her becoming both his lover and muse.
There were two chief inspirations that occurred simultaneously in 1854 that gave birth to the idea for his opera Tristan und Isolde: his reading of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and his ongoing love for Mathilde. In August of 1857 he set aside work on the opera Siegfried to begin work on the poem for Tristan und Isolde. While all of this was happening, Otto Wesendonck, who had bought an estate outside of Zurich, allowed Wagner and his wife to move into a cottage on the grounds for a nominal fee. This took place in late April of 1857. As he worked at the poem of Tristan beginning in August, the close proximity to Mathilde induced him to read to her each evening his work in progress. (It was during this time that Wagner made the acquaintance of his future wife Cosima, just then a newlywed to his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow; Wagner’s life was nothing if not messy.)
This intense interaction with the poet/composer inspired Mathilde to compose five passionate poems of her own, which Wagner set for voice and piano, during the winter of 1857 as he worked on the first act of Tristan. Mathilde later wrote in her memoirs that he took each of her poems upon their completion and gave to them a “supreme transfiguration and consecration” with his music.
I just have to say, and this is of course my opinion, that the poetry in German is really bad.