The Composer and his Muse: Richard Wagner

Born on May 22, 1813. German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas"). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works.

Until his final years, Wagner's life was characterized by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment since the late 20th century, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; his influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theater.

Wagner began composing the music for Das Rheingold between November 1853 and September 1854, following it immediately with Die Walküre (written between June 1854 and March 1856). He began work on the third Ring opera, which he now called simply Siegfried, probably in September 1856, but by June 1857 he had completed only the first two acts. He decided to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.

One source of inspiration for Tristan und Isolde was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, notably his The World as Will and Representation, to which Wagner had been introduced in 1854 by his poet friend Georg Herwegh. Wagner later called this the most important event of his life.


A second source of inspiration was Wagner's infatuation with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks, who were both great admirers of his music, in Zürich in 1852. From May 1853 onwards Wesendonck made several loans to Wagner to finance his household expenses in Zürich, and in 1857 placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal,which became known as the Asyl ("asylum" or "place of rest"). During this period, Wagner's growing passion for his patron's wife inspired him to put aside work on the Ring cycle (which was not resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan. While planning the opera, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder, five songs for voice and piano, setting poems by Mathilde. Two of these settings are explicitly subtitled by Wagner as "studies for Tristan und Isolde".


Amongst the conducting engagements that Wagner undertook for revenue during this period, he gave several concerts in 1855 with the London Philharmonic Society, including one before Queen Victoria. The Queen enjoyed his Tannhäuser overture and spoke with Wagner after the concert, writing of him in her diary that he was "short, very quiet, wears spectacles & has a very finely-developed forehead, a hooked nose & projecting chin."

Wagner's uneasy affair with Mathilde collapsed in 1858, when his wife Minna intercepted a letter to Mathilde from him. After the resulting confrontation with Minna, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice, where he rented an apartment in the Palazzo Giustinian, while Minna returned to Germany. Wagner's attitude to Minna had changed; the editor of his correspondence with her, John Burk, has said that she was to him "an invalid, to be treated with kindness and consideration, but, except at a distance,  a menace to his peace of mind." Wagner continued his correspondence with Mathilde and his friendship with her husband Otto, who maintained his financial support of the composer. In an 1859 letter to Mathilde, Wagner wrote, half-satirically, of Tristan: "Child! This Tristan is turning into something terrible. This final act!!!—I fear the opera will be banned ... only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad."


After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years. (The premiere had been scheduled for 15 May, but was delayed by bailiffs acting for Wagner's creditors, and also because the Isolde, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, was hoarse and needed time to recover.) The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, a child not of Bülow but of Wagner.

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d'Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter's involvement with Wagner, though nevertheless the two men were friends. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner also fell into disfavour with many leading members of the court and was finally forced to leave Munich.

Minna had died of a heart attack on 25 January 1866 in Dresden. Wagner did not attend the funeral. Following Minna's death Cosima wrote to Hans von Bülow on a number of occasions asking him to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused to concede this. He only consented after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally sanctioned, after delays in the legal process, by a Berlin court on 18 July 1870. Richard and Cosima's wedding took place on 25 August 1870. On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance (its premiere) of the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life.




Passions of the Great Composers: Carlo Gesualdo

Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613) was Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza.



As a musician he is best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals and pieces of sacred music that use a chromatic language not heard again until the late 19th century.

Gesualdo  published six books of madrigals and three books of sacred pieces. He turned out to be one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history. The works of his mature period—he died in 1613, at the age of forty-seven—bend the rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner.

Donna Maria D'Avalos
He is also known for his cruelty and lewdness: the best known fact of his life is his gruesome killing of his first wife and her lover upon finding them in flagrante delicto. The fascination for his extraordinary music and for his shocking acts have gone hand in hand. 

Longing, passion, sex and death – all are intertwined in Gesualdo’s orgies of deliciously daring harmonies. It’s no surprise that the prince of Venosa’s madrigal settings of confessional love poems contain such heart-wrenching, visceral chromaticism.

Four hundred years after the brutal crime, the police report still makes for shocking reading. Gesualdo’s wife and first cousin, Donna Maria d’Avalos, was stabbed multiple times. The body of her paramour, the handsome Duke of Andria, was found dressed in her nightgown, and both mutilated corpses were put on display in front of the palace. Some accounts have Gesualdo murdering his infant son, having doubted the young boy’s paternity.

Escaping prosecution because of his noble status, Gesualdo returned to Venosa and lived as a recluse.

The composer’s most influential fan was Igor Stravinsky, who, in 1960, wrote a piece called “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” and, eight years later, contributed a preface to Glenn Watkins’s scholarly study “Gesualdo: The Man and His Music.”



The fascination has hardly abated in recent decades. There have been no fewer than eleven operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life, not to mention a fantastical 1995 pseudo-documentary, by Werner Herzog, called “Death for Five Voices.”


Great Classical Music Scandals

Symphony No 3: ‘Eroica’, formerly known as ‘Bonaparte’ by Ludvig van Beethoven (1804)

The story behind the dedication of Beethoven’s third symphony is the stuff of musical legend.  

‘Napoleonic’ certainly describes the scale on which Beethoven conceived the work – he even sketched out a programme of Bonaparte’s life within the symphony’s movements – until the moment in 1804 when he was informed that Napoleon had styled himself Emperor. The original dedication to Bonaparte was defaced: Beethoven announced that Napoleon was “a tyrant”, who “will think himself superior to all men”, and re-named the symphony the “Eroica”.

The symphony was also controversial musically, causing Beethoven’s great admirer Hector Berlioz to exclaim at one point “if that was really what Beethoven wanted… it must be admitted that this whim is an absurdity!”

Absurd or otherwise, the Eroica stands as one of the most important cultural monuments of all time.




The Battle of the Sopranos



The opera house has always been rowdier than the concert hall, but even so the riot at the King’s Theatre Haymarket on June 6 1727 has gone down in history. On stage were two great rival sopranos, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, who fought a “horrid and bloody battle”, according to one eyewitness. As did their supporters.

In Handel's opera Alessandro (1726) the importance of the two ladies' roles had to be very carefully balanced, which at one point in the opera's plot made Senesino, playing the name part, look a complete fool. Her rivalry with Faustina, fanned by the press, eventually became scandalous when, in a performance of Bononcini's Astianatte (6 June 1727), attended by princess Caroline, "Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other" gave rise to "Catcalls, and other great indecencies". Such was the rumpus that the performance, and the rest of that opera season, were abandoned. The satirical pamphleteers had a field day, depicting the two prime donne exchanging insults and pulling at one another's head-dresses, though recent research has revealed that it was the ladies' rival supporters, rather than the singers themselves, who were the cause of the disturbance.



Belgium in uproar

Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) caused barely a murmur when it opened in Paris in 1829. But when it was performed at La Monnaie Opera House in Brussels in 1830, revolutionary feelings were in the air, and the aria “Sacred Love of One’s Country” sparked the July revolution that led to Belgian independence.






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The Composer and his Muse: Mothers

Brahms: German Requiem

While the death of his dear friend Robert Schumann provided an initial impetus for Brahms's German Requiem, the composer dedicated it to his mother, who died nine years later. The memory of Johanna Brahms is particularly apparent in the work’s fifth movement, which takes Isaiah 66:13 for its text: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you.”





Strauss’s “Muttertändelei” 

Any proud mama would be charmed by Richard Strauss’s “Muttertändelei” (Mother-chatter) in which a new mom brags about her angelic-looking child, with a disposition to match. Using verse from the 18th-century German poet Gottfried August Burger, Strauss wrote the piece in 1899, two years after his wife Pauline gave birth to their son Franz. Apparently Pauline was so taken with the work she would not lend the manuscript to fellow musicians.



Dvorak: "Songs My Mother Taught Me"

Dvorak’s melancholy folk melody “Songs My Mother Taught Me” is part of the Czech composer’s collection of Gypsy songs. The short melody tells of a woman passing down the songs she learned to her own children. It was an immediate hit when Dvorak composed it and still remains one of his best-known melodies.




Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra

Though Anton Webern dedicated his Six Pieces for Orchestra to his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, the works attempt to sort out his emotions from his mother’s recent death. "The first piece is to express my frame of mind when I was still in Vienna, already sensing the disaster, yet always maintaining the hope that I would find my mother still alive,” wrote Webern. The subsequent miniatures express the composer’s grief and also joyous memories with his mom.




Barber: Knoxville Summer of 1915

Samuel Barber’s destiny towards becoming a composer seems to have been cemented in a prophetic letter the nine-year-old composer wrote to his mother, begging her to let him make music rather than playing football (“I have written to tell you my worrying secret...I was meant to be a composer, and will be I’m sure”). While Barber dedicated his orchestral suite, Knoxville Summer of 1915, to his father (as did its original author, James Agee), the piece tenderly describes a mother “who is good to me.”