Wagner (1983)





Starring:     Richard Burton (Richard Wagner ),  Gemma Craven (Minna),  Vanessa Redgrave (Cosima von Bulow),  László Gálffi (King Ludwig II of Bavaria),  John Gielgud (Pfistermeister),  Ralph Richardson (Pfordten),  Andrew Cruickshank (Narrator),  Laurence Olivier (Pfeufer),  Marthe Keller (Mathilde Wesendonck),  Gabriel Byrne (Karl Ritter),  Ekkehard Schall (Franz Liszt),  Richard Pasco (Otto Wesendonck),  Miguel Herz-Kestranek (Hans von Bülow).

TV series.

Hitler's favorite composer




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Prior to the 1860s Germany consisted of independent city-states in a loose association called the German Confederation.

Part One. 

February 14, 1883.  Wagner has died in Venice, Italy.  His coffin is being transported to a railway. 

A statue is made of Wagner. 

Flashback.  In 1842 Wagner moves to Dresden with his wife Minna Planer, a former actress.  Wagner is a free thinker, a democrat and of good temperament.  In Dresden he becomes the Royal Saxon Court Conductor to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. 

In 1848, while still living in Dresden, Wagner gets involved in the revolutionary fervor that swept over Europe.  But he still had to compose music for monarchs. 

Arriving late, Wagner and his wife walk up from the river dock and Wagner joins a chorus of men singing a tune composed by Wagner.  The King asks who is responsible for this "noise".  Herr Wagner. 

At dinner Wagner tells a story about his musical adventures. 

In front of a large audience, Wagner gives a speech about German unification.  He says there is something about being German.  Germany is a hodge-podge of 36 principalities.  He wants the kings and princes to set aside their titles for the sake of unification.  Republic versus Monarchy.  In monarchy you see "a blinded and corrupt tribe, the rulers of Hess, Bavaria, Prussia".  He calls for the King of Saxony to declare Saxony a free state.   "Let he be rid of his sycophants."  He tells the audience that their fatherland is Germany, 'love it above all, and more through action than through words".  He finishes with "Germany must have its place in the sun."  The audience roars with enthusiasm for German unification.  Mixed in the applause is a chant from the future:  the Nazi salute of "Sieg, heil!" (meaning "Hail Victory").

Wagner is thinking of an idea for a new opera to be called Lohengrin.  At a performance of his music with Wagner as the conductor, in the audience a gentleman tells Mrs. Wagner that her husband may find it difficult to produce plays from now on because he has been writing to the newspapers and makes speeches he shouldn't make.  The King of Saxony had to prevent one of his officers from challenging Wagner to a duel. 

Wagner goes to see his publisher.  He demands to know why his music has been removed from the shop display window.  He says the publisher is an incompetent idiot.  The publisher says that his music is not been doing well at all.  He says that many of the subjects about which Herr Wagner are not suitable for operas and many people do not wish to hear his music.  Compose some music that the people want to hear is the publisher's advice.   Wagner is offended and leaves the store. 

At home his wife asks him if he is not going to the communal guard anymore?  Wagner says he has resigned, that he has a double hernia.  He does this because he does not want to belong to the guard until it is known if it will fight for or against the revolution.   He says:  "There isn't a Germany yet, and until there is a Germany or a German consciousness, I'm not going to have an audience.  Damn it!"   People with free minds are always going to be subservient to amateurs beholden to the king.  Minna is not very supportive and that is mainly because she is afraid of what might happen to them if her husband keeps stirring up trouble with his talk of revolution.

The Wagners hear a cannon explosion.  Wagner wants to go join the others for it's "Revolution at last!"  Minna locks the door to keep Richard at home.  There is a knock at the locked door and Minna says they have come for Richard.  A man comes in and tells Minna to tell her husband that he is to come to the foundry.  He leaves.  Minna still won't unlock the door.  She says they were just getting out of poverty and now all this.  Minna says that her husband has been borrowing money from everyone, even from his musicians.  When Minna doesn't hear any more objections from Richard, she unlocks the door.  Her husband has gone out the window to the revolution. 

The famous anarchist Bakunin is on the barricades.  Wagner speaks to him.  They go together over to the Saxon soldiers to tell them to lay down their arms and joins them, the people of Dresden.  The soldiers don't do anything.  Later Wagner helps print out leaflets telling the soldiers to lay down their arms.  He reads a statement to the crowd of revolutionaries.  A man named Semper says he thinks that Bakunin is just using people like him and Wagner for his own purposes.  

Many buildings are set on fire, including the theater.  Wagner laughs while parts of Dresden burn.  Fighting continues.  It has been going on for weeks now and Wagner is a bit tired of it. 

May 1849.  Thousands of Prussian soldiers now pour into the city.  The troops march right up to the revolutionaries.  The commander talks with Wagner who is in the front line.  The Prussian has met Wagner before and, as he says, he doesn't fight musicians.  He tells Wagner to prepare themselves.  The troops start chasing after the revolutionaries and shooting them down.   Prussian cannons open up on the people.  Large groups of massed revolutionaries are shot down by the soldiers. 

Wagner gets in his carriage and leaves the area.  At home Minna tries to fight off the soldiers ransacking the house, but to no avail. 

Wagner leaves Dresden.  An order for his arrest is issued.  He travels around for two months, but then has to flee Germany altogether.  He goes to Bavaria and from there, alone and in disguise, slips into Switzerland.  For over a decade, he could not return to Germany.  He would not build his theater and show one of his operas for some 27 years. 


Part Two.

Wagner is having the door taken off of a room.  He uses the doors to stand on as a stage.  Wagner tells his small audience that he wants to give the reasons for why he hasn't even written one note of music while being in exile for over a year.   He stresses his search for the myth and legends of Germany's past.  He then reads from his text about the origins of the Germanic people. 

The narrator says that Wagner began his exile in Zurich, Switzerland, which did have a musical society and some friendly people.   It took Minna awhile to come to Zurich.  She was reluctant to leave Dresden.  She had been happy there.  And she feared that she would never be able to return to Germany and would have to live a lifetime of exile.  Then she learned that there were no charges against her, so she could come and go between the two countries of Germany and Switzerland free of worry.  So now she joins her husband. 

Wagner continues reading his play that will become part of an opera.

September 1849.  Minna and her daughter by another man start fixing up the interior of the house. 

Wagner finally finishes his drama and the Swiss fellows tell him to take it to Paris, but it must have music in it for the Parisians.  Wagner gives a concert for the locals in Zurich.  At the reception he gets a big applause.  He launches into a criticism of Paris.  His wife mentions to an older woman that there are those who helped Wagner in Paris, but as with all those that help her husband, they are met eventually with scorn and derision. 

Minna and Wagner unite and Minna tells him how much they missed him.  He says that Minna was an actress that he had to court for two years and two months before he could call her his.  Now Minna can no longer bear children.  Richard is going to get money from a Mrs. Ritter to teach her son to be a composer of operas.  Minna doesn't want him to take her money because she herself complains about the lack of it. 

Richard speaks about his friend, the composer Franz Liszt.  He says he is grateful to the man, but Liszt is more of a performer, "the darling of the salons".  He talks about what would come to be known as Lisztomania.  But he knows the future of music. 

Wagner says that he has been offered some money by a Mrs. Taylor to write some music for a lady from Edinburgh, Scotland who lives in Bordeaux, France.  She and a Mrs. Ritter had met the lady's daughter, named Jessy Taylor, called Lozo now, in Dresden.  She is married to a wine merchant. 

Richard is now walking on the beach with a pretty blonde.  It's none other than Jessie Taylor, who tells him that his words fill her with confusion and love.  A drunken man follows them along the beach.  The couple kiss.  The man follows them to the house of the Taylors.  The Taylor family and Wagner have dinner together.  The husband says that he has heard that Wagner's friends in Dresden have been sentenced to death for their part in the Dresden uprising.  This statement upsets Jessie and she runs from the table.  After awhile, she returns to the table.  Wagner plays footsie with Jessie, while talking with the family.     

Wagner tells Mrs.. Taylor that due to her beneficence, he will travel east.  He will use half the 3,000 francs a year to take care of his wife.  Jessie gets upset again and leaves the table. Mrs. Taylor goes in to see how Jessie is doing and Jessie tells her that she is going with Wagner, because she is "vital to his development as an artist".  Mrs. Taylor says that she has saved her husband from bankruptcy and is happy to help Wagner, but not for Jessie to run away with Wagner.  Jessie tells her mother-in-law that she never loved Eugene.  Her mother already knows that Jessie has never loved her husband, but she herself has.  This infuriates Jessie and she leaves. 

Wagner sets himself up in an apartment.  The man following Wagner is still following him.  He writes down Wagner's new address. 

There is a knock at the door.  The guy that has been following Wagner now asks him some questions, such as why have you come back to Paris?  And he is to look at a list of names of revolutionaries and say if he has tried to contact any of these people.  He may go anywhere except for Bordeaux where he once lived. 

The narrator says:  "Wagner suffered from ill health all his life."  He is in a boat with his greatest supporter Franz Liszt.  They row over to the William Tell chapel across the lake.  Liszt talks to Karl Ritter, the music student rower of the boat, and says if a person doesn't agree that France is the cultural center of Europe, then he must be a baboon.  Karl feels personally insulted.

Liszt plays the piano at a party for his birthday.  Later Wagner plays the piano and a woman sings with Richard.  Karl is going to demand an apology from Liszt. 

Wagner and the hostess of the party notice each other and keep exchanging glances.  Minna notices and doesn't like it.  Wagner now talks loudly to himself as he approaches the woman from the back.  All of a sudden, he shouts out:  "Listen to me, damn you, damn you!.  I am Wagner."


Part Three.

The narrator says:  "In 1851, Wagner's health gave out entirely, entirely."  He had to spend two months in a sanatorium.  He suffered from shingles, constipation, gastric ulcers and despair.  Wagner had not written any music for five years.  He wanted to go back to Germany, but he was still considered a revolutionary criminal in Dresden.  He wrote:  "Determined, I shall return to Zurick to die or to compose."

Wagner walks in the mountains with Semper and Karl Ritter.  They then take the water cure at the sanatorium.  Wagner has been raving over the dark philosophical dark of Schopenhauer.  

Wagner is composing music again.  There are quite a few scenes of men hammering out items of iron.  Wagner goes to see the construction boss to ask him to work in the morning and work into the night, so he won't disturb the composer's music making during the afternoon. 

Otto Wesendonck is a wealthy business man.  He gives Wagner some money to live on.  Otto says his wife always tells him that Wagner is a genius and his own sensibility confirms it.  The only person who doesn't think Richard Wagner is a genius seems to be his wife.  The woman sends Wagner into despair.  She won't live with him and then she says she can't live without him and goes back and forth like this.  Wagner comes in and Otto tells him that he will lend him 7,000 francs. 

The woman at Liszt's birthday party exchanging  glances with Wagner turns out to be Mathilde Wesendonck, Otto's wife.

Wagner comes out with Minna and says:  "A house and garden of my own. . . . This shall be my last move of all."


(to be continued)


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

1813 (May 22)  --  Wilhelm Richard Wagner born in Leipzig, Germany.  Six months after his birth, his father, a minor city official, died.

1814  --  his mother married actor Ludwig Geyer.  (There were rumors that Geyer was the biological father.)

1819  -- at 6 years of age, Wagner's step father died. 

1822  -- at age 11, Richard was taught a small bit of piano playing by his Latin teacher. 

He wanted to be a playwright so he was not that interested in music.  He grew interested in music as a way of enhancing his plays. 

1831  --  he enrolled at the University of Leipzig; an early musical influence was Ludwig van Beethoven. 


1832  --  Wagner started working on an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he later abandoned.

1833 – Die Feen (The Fairies) imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber.  (It was not premiered until after his death in 1883.)

Briefly, Wagner was musical director at the Mageburg and Konigsberg opera houses.

1836 – Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

1863  --  Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer and moved to the city of Riga (Wagner was music director of the local opera).  His wife ran off with an army officer, after just a few weeks of marriage.  Minna returned after the officer left her penniless.  She came back to Wagner and (probably unwisely) he took her back. 

1837 – Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes)

1839  --  because of mounting debt, Wagner moved to London to escape his creditors.

He lived in Paris for several years.

1842-1848   --  Wagner moved to Dresden, where he stayed for six years, because of the Dresden Court Theatre in the state of Saxony, Germany, where Rienzi was staged.  It was a success. Later, he was appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor.


1843 – Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Wagner was inspired by his stormy sea voyage to London. 

1845 – Tannhäuser.

1848  -- revolutionary fever swept Europe.  Wagner was swept up in it and knew several left-wing radicals personally. 

1848 – Lohengrin.

1849  --  the May Uprising against King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony was put down by Saxon and Prussian soldiers. Wagner fled to Paris and then to Switzerland. 



From exile in Zurich, Wagner wrote a letter to his friend Franz Liszt to stage his latest opera in his absence. Wagner was in deep trouble.  He was very hard up for money, his wife fell into deep depression and he could hardly write (he suffered from erysipelas, a severe skin infection). 

1850  -- Liszt staged the opera.  

1850  --  Wagner wrote the anti-Semitic "Judaism in Music" directed against Jewish composers.

1852  --  Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zurich.  Silk merchant Otto Wesendonck was a Wagner fan and let him make use of a cottage on his estate.  The composer soon was infatuated with the man's wife, the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck. 

1854  --  his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the dark, pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.   The influence made him even more committed to music as one of Schopenhauer's arguments was that music was supreme (including drama). 

1854 – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), part of the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

1856 – Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), part of the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

1857  --  Wagner's infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck led him to abandon the Ring cycle to start on a new opera. 

1858  --  Wagner's affair ended when his wife intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde and soon Wagner by himself left Zürich for Venice.

1859  --  he moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser (staged thanks to Princess de Metternich). 

1859 – Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde), based on the Arthurian story of knight Tristan in love with the already-married Lady Isolde.

1861  --  the premiere of the revised Tannhäuser  was spoiled by aristocrats from the Jockey Club, and Wagner hurriedly left Paris. 

1861  --  because the political ban against Wagner in Germany was lifted, he settled in Biebrich, Prussia. 

1862  --  he and his wife parted company.  (She died in 1866.)

1864  -- at age 18, King Ludwig II took the throne of Bavaria.  The King was a great admirer of Wagner's operas and he had the music man brought to Munich.  He also paid Wagner's debts.

Wagner began an affair with his conductor's wife Cosima von Bülow, the illegitimate daughter of composer Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult (who was 24 years younger than Wagner). Wagner and Liszt were friends, but Liszt still did not approve of his friend seeing his daughter.

1865 (April)  --  Cosima gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich.

1865 (June 10)  --  the King of Bavaria planned the production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which premiered at the Munich Court Theatre.  It was a great success.  The conductor of the orchestra was Hans von Bulow.

1865 (December)  --  because of the scandal of his affair and the fear among the influential that Wagner was gaining too much influence with the King, the Bavarian King asked Wagner to leave Munich.  The King let Wagner stay at the villa Triebschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne.   

1867 – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), his sunniest work.

1868 (October)  --  Cosima finally convinced her husband to give her a divorce.

1869  --  Wagner met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (31 years younger than Wagner), who believed in the "superman" philosophy that later so complimented Hitler's philosophy. 

1870 (August 25)  --  Richard and Cosima married.  (Together they had two more children.)

1871 – Siegfried, part of the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

1871  --  Wagner decided to build a new opera house in the small town of Bayreuth, Germany. 

1872  --  the Wagners moved to Bayreuth; the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid.

1872  --  Nietzsche's dedicated hi first book, The Birth of Tragedy, to Wagner.

1874 – Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), part of the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

1874  --  King Ludwig II chipped in a large some of money for the Festival House at Bayreuth.  Wagner moved to the family's permanent home in Bayreuth.

1876  --  the Festival House opened with the premiere of the Ring cycle.  (It has been the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.)

1882 – Parsifal, part of the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).  It took him four years to compose.

1882  --  Wagner was suffering from angina attacks so the family went to Venice for the winter. 

1883  -- death of Wagner of a heart attack in Venice. 

1888 & 1889  --  in further works, Nietzsche condemned Wagner for being corrupt and decadent.  He did not care for Wagner's pacifism and anti-Semitism. 



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