The Red and White Lion was the name of an inn in a row of residences in Leipzig where Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813. He was the ninth child of Carl Friedrich and Johanna Rosine Wagner. The inn no longer exists, but the St. Thomas Church certainly does. It's where Richard was christened and got lessons a few years later from the cantor and music teacher Thomas Weinlig.
In the year Wagner was born, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Great Britain and Sweden formed an alliance against Napoleon, the French occupier. In October 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon suffered a defeat, memorialized today by a monument in Leipzig. Some 125,000 soldiers died, and one victim of the typhus outbreak that immediately followed was Richard Wagner's father, Friedrich.
In August 1814, Wagner's mother married the actor and poet Ludwig Geyer. He was the best friend of her husband and is rumored to have been Richard's real father. In the family's new home of Dresden, Geyer taught the Wagner children to love the theater. At age four, Richard had his first (but silent) role on stage.
In April 1829, Richard Wagner watched the young Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore in Beethoven's opera "Fidelio." He was fascinated. The prima donna didn't just sing beautifully, she was also a gifted actress - a rare combination at the time. The young man discovered what he wanted to do: write a world-famous opera with Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient in the lead role.
Wagner's enthusiasm for music was immense, but he was even hungrier for life experience. He admired the ideas of the young generation of Germans and the literature in vogue. He also developed a passion for games of chance and for bars and duels. As a student, Richard Wagner postured as an anarchist and rebelled against bourgeois society.
Richard Wagner was a self-taught author and had a natural talent for conducting. He studied music theory and piano, but many early compositions have unfortunately been lost. Wagner destroyed some of them himself. But he quickly found some initial success and jobs as well - as choral director in Würzburg and as music director in Magdeburg and Königsberg.
Wagner moved to Königsberg for a woman: actress Minna Planer. In November 1836, wedding bells rang for the pair. Soon thereafter, the theater went bankrupt. In debt, Wagner fled to Riga, where he took charge of music in the court. He racked up more debt and fled again - this time taking to stormy seas on a sailboat for London. The stuff of opera!
From London, the young couple traveled to Paris, remaining there for a few years. Richard Wagner got to know poet Heinrich Heine and poked around in the popular theaters and opera houses of the city. During this time, he also composed "The Flying Dutchman" and "Rienzi," an opera about a failed revolutionary.
"Rienzi" had its premiere in Dresden and was a huge hit - finally a success for Wagner. He settled in the city, became a music director and theorized about reforming opera. Wagner wanted it to move away from associations with luxury and pleasure and towards progressive and democratic aims. He likely shared his ideas with composer and pianist Franz Liszt, his good friend in nearby Weimar.
It's thanks to King Ludwig II of Bavaria that Wagner ultimately landed in Bayreuth. Unconcerned by the fact that Richard Wagner had taken part in the May Uprising in Dresden in 1848 and was a fugitive, the monarch took the composer under his wing. Meanwhile, "The Ring of the Nibelung," a 25-year project, was taking final form.
The Bavarian king brought Wagner to Munich, but the locals didn't take to him, considering him too reform-minded, ungrateful and undemocratic. Ludwig II remained Wagner's friend but sent him on his way. A country residence offered asylum, where Friedrich Nietzsche was also a regular guest. Initially, the philosopher celebrated Wagner's service to German culture, but would later mock him.
In 1853, Richard Wagner met Franz Liszt's daughter Cosima when she was just 15 years old. By 1870, both had a marriage behind them and multiple children. They then married in Lucerne. Shortly thereafter, Wagner selected Bayreuth as the site of his own opera festival house. The cornerstone was laid on May 22, 1872, and a year later the Wagner family moved into the Wahnfried residence.
August 1876 marked the first festival summer in Bayreuth with a major social event - the premiere of "The Ring of the Nibelung." Kaiser Wilhelm I came, along with his entourage and pretty much everyone with a prominent name. Wagner was now world famous, but also criticized for his regal style and polemics.
"Triste, Triste, Triste. Wagner è morto!" mourned the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi after learning that Richard Wagner had died on February 13, 1883 in the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi in Venice. Wagner's embalmed corpse was returned to Bayreuth and buried in a garden near Villa Wahnfried, where his remains still rest today.
Richard Wagner was a composer, dramatist, director, conductor, poet and genius. A man of the 19th century, no stranger to controversy and a passionate reformer.