Before focusing on Wagner’s mind, I need to give enough biographical details to make his mental development intelligible. I will do this in two parts. The first part will take us to the point he decided to become a composer, drawing the portrait from his own autobiography as well as a variety of secondary sources.1 The second part will be focused less on biography per se, but more on his emotional development in adulthood, with his own letters providing the road map, supplemented with necessary biographical information. This will be a rapid tour, highlighting those things I think important to understanding his mind, but please see both my bibliography here and the footnote below if you want a want a more extensive biography.
Wagner was born in May of 1913 into a large family of nine children; he was the second to last child in the family.2 His birthplace was Leipzig3 in the Saxony region, which was soon to be the location of one of Napoleon's greatest defeats: the Battle of Leipzig, in which about 100,000 were killed. In the aftermath of this battle, his father, Carl, caught typhus and died. While he would obviously have no memory of this time, it can’t be great for a baby’s development to have lived through the chaos of the war, along with the ensuing loss of his father and his income, plunging the family into economic woe.
An actor, painter and playwright named Ludwig Geyer soon rescued the family by marrying his mother, Joanna, and the family moved to Dresden. For his formative years, then, Geyer was seen by Wagner as his father, and he was given his last name. (He changed it himself at 14 for reasons I will go into below.)
Geyer, in fact, may have been his true father. It is impossible to say this definitively, but there is evidence on both sides, with more on the Geyer side of the equation. Very much is made of this issue, probably way too much. It certainly wasn’t a preoccupation of his youth, and there is no documentation that Wagner even thought about the issue until fairly late in his adulthood. Most biographers jump to all sorts of fanciful conclusions. For instance, many say Wagner was “tormented” by this question, but that is a fairly strong word for virtually no evidence of this—and significant contrary evidence—beyond opera analysis.4
For those who want to play the “who was Wagner’s father” game, some of the evidence is visual. Take a look:
|His brother Albert (14 years his senior)|
|Wagner at 29 as drawn by his friend Ernst Kietz|
|Wagner in his 50s|
I came to no conclusions from the pictures. Albert (whom we know was Carl's son) looks like Richard, but the younger Wagner has similarities to Geyer. His son, Siegfried looks more like Geyer than Wagner does. Evidence: inconclusive. Moving on...
Wagner was a sickly toddler, and later recounted that his mother had told him that she “almost wanted me dead owing to my seemingly hopeless condition.” He rallied to health and became “a bundle of energy, ” generally wild, incorrigible and extremely sensitive, crying or screaming or otherwise emoting regularly. Geyer called him “the Cossack,” given his penchant for resisting authority and following his own drummer.5 According to Cosima, Richard said of his childhood, "I grew up in the wildest of anarchy; it had to be, for then as later no known method ever fitted me, but how much should I have been spared if I had been accoustomed to obeying! To my sister I was just a wild and forsaken being who never conformed.” (Cosima's diary, July 5, 1871)
He had a very vivid imagination and was full of fears. For instance, while he loved to look at fruit or flowers, he refused to touch them. (One biographer suggested this was because Geyer had yelled at him for touching those things while painting still-life canvases.) He had fears of reflections, such as those on the stone beer bottles as they “seemed to him to be ‘grimacing devils’, taunting and mocking him with their ‘constantly changing shapes.’” He even had a fear of bells, as he looked into what he referred to as their “jaws.”
Beyond fears, as a child he developed deep aversion and horror when seeing people and, particularly, animals, in pain. This aversion remained intense throughout his life, and the depth of his feelings in this area were frequently recounted by friends as well as a oft-mentioned in in his letters.
Because he was such a difficult child, he was often shunted off to live with others. At the age of seven, his first “exile” occurred, when he was sent to live with a pastor for more than a year, ostensibly to help with his education, but primarily due to his unruly nature. His stepfather, in the meantime, had his own problems. According to the author Joachim Köhler, in Wagner: The Last of the Titans, Geyer “started to withdraw from his friends and seemed to sink into deep despondency. Whereas they had earlier been struck by the ‘dual aspects of his character’, causing him to veer between high spirits and melancholy, he was now in a permanent state of depression.” He contracted tuberculosis and died when Wagner was eight.
Wagner had been summoned from the pastor’s house when it was clear that Geyer was dying, but was returned to the pastor the very next day. Soon he was shunted to Geyer’s brother for ten months, and then to his paternal uncle, Adolf Wagner. At this house there were portraits on the wall which he hallucinated were alive, and he had nightly nightmares about them. In fact he was generally terrified “of inanimate objects coming to life.” According to Köhler, “[e]ven ordinary pieces of furniture could induce a sense of terror in him when he was alone in a room and fixed his attention on them. In his panic-stricken fear that they might suddenly come to life, he would invariably scream for help.”
Adolf couldn’t handle the terrified child, so he returned him to his mother. Thus, his two-year exile ended at age nine. Back at Dresden, though, Wagner’s nightmares continued. He said of them:
Until late in my boyhood no night passed without my awakening with a frightful scream from some dream about ghosts, which would end only when a human voice bade me to be quiet. Severe scoldings or even corporal punishment would then seem to be redeeming kindness. None of my brothers and sisters wanted to sleep near me; they tried to bed me down as far from the others as possible, not stopping to think that by doing so my nocturnal calls to be saved from the ghost would become even louder and more enduring, until they finally accustomed themselves to this nightly calamity.
To the end of the days, he hated solitude—except when composing—which his biographer Newman suggests was because “solitude brought up out of the subconscious depths of him all sorts of lurking fears.”
In should be noted that his family was highly theatrical, with most of his siblings making their living through the acting or singing arts. Wagner was, therefore, a “theater brat”—he knew it as well as anything in life. Of the theater, he wrote that the world “would serve as a lever to lift me out of a monotonous everyday reality into that fascinating demoniacal realm. Everything connected with the theater had for me the charm of mystery, an attraction amounting to intoxication.”
In his autobiography, Wagner spoke highly of his mother, but it is clear through his actions—and later letters—that he was also critical of her and generally preferred distance from her. The highly sensitive child who grew up to be a very sensual man lived as a youth in a home, as he put it, in which “there was little tenderness...particularly as expressed in caresses.” In a letter to his younger sister Cäcilie when he was 29 he said, “our good mama is utter hell for everyone around her...[still] I always enjoy seeing her once in a while: she has many charming qualities.” What is clearly true is that he never enjoyed the parental love he craved. He told his first wife Minna that “on the whole...[I had] a miserable youth.” The one bright spot of his youth was his older sister, Rosalie, who filled the role of early supporter, protector, inspiration and muse.
By adolescence, though relatively small,6 Wagner was physically fit and quiet athletic. He had a life-long ability and interest in acrobatics, having learned to walk a tightrope at age ten, and retained the love of such feats—and an ability to preform them—for the rest of his life. For instance, to greet—and impress—a female visitor at age 60, he scurried up a tree. Throughout his life, he enjoyed walking, includes long hikes and mountaineering. These outings helped to calm his nerves, and put him in the peacefulness of nature, which he found tremendously regenerative. He never liked the noise and hustle and bustle of cities and longed always for quiet and solitude.
As a student, he showed no follow-through for subjects he considered dull, such as mathematics. But he was an avid reader to the point of obsession with those things he found fascinating, such as the classics, particularly Greek culture and mythology.
Wagner's living arrangements became somewhat random in his early adolescence: sometimes with his family, who had moved to Prague where the breadwinner, Rosalie, had a well-paying acting job; sometimes with a Dresden family; sometimes with his Uncle Adolf, in Leipzig. By his early teens, he was quite independent. He would set off on journeys by foot of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles to move from place to place, occasionally with a lift from a passing coach. Such a walking trip took him to his Uncle’s house in Leipzig as a 14 year-old. This trip was a turning point towards the more cerebral, as he bonded with his Uncle, who conversed with him about ancient Greece and other wide-ranging literary and philosophical issues. It was at this time he first read Shakespeare and Goethe’s works. He learned from his uncle that he inherited a number of books from his father, and was ecstatic with acquiring the library. From this point on, Wagner viewed his uncle as the father-figure that he had been long missing. It was to please his uncle—who always hated Geyer— that he took back the name of Wagner.
His mother and the two other younger siblings, Ottilie and Cäcilie, had moved to Leipzig at this point, so Richard did live with them, but he spent hours walking and talking with his mentor, Adolph. He hated the school at Leipzig with a passion and decided to teach himself whatever he wanted to know, with the help of Adolph’s fine library and astute mind.
The 14-year-old thus ceased going to school—unbeknownst to his family— and instead hid up in the attic to write a Shakespearean-inspired blood-soaked tragedy, full of the stuff of his nightmares: ghosts, murder, rape and insanity. It’s name was Leubald. It was the kind of thing that would have gotten a school-kid in our day and age sent straight to a psychologist for evaluation and on a watch-list of some kind. When his labors were discovered, everybody was indeed quite upset, mostly that he was wasting his time on this, but his uncle reacted to the content with “shock and astonishment.” (To my mind, Wagner was trying to take control of his ghostly fears through artistic means, purging his subconscious fears, and replacing them with his creation.)
Wagner realized two things from this ordeal: First, since he thought his play was wonderful, he felt both misunderstood and alone, and he decided that the only real problem with the play was that it needed music to make it emotionally intelligible. Second, he concluded he needed to learn music to complete his great work. And so he went to the library and checked out a book to begin his musical education as his aim was now set: to become a great composer of dramatic works.
This is quintessential Wagner: highly optimistic and supremely self-confident, undeterred by criticism, systematically taking the steps necessary to achieve his dream, nay, his destiny.
For the next two weeks I will pause this series, as I am in the midst of “Wagner tripping,” as in a road trip to—among other things—see Wagner’s Ring in Seattle beginning Tuesday. It was such a trip in 2001 where I first conceived what has become this blog. (Originally, I was going to write a book, but blogs are so much better!) Thus, I come full cycle as befits the Ring. The next two posts, then, will be from the road and focusing on thoughts and feelings on and related to this trip.
By the way, I just got legally married to Leslie, my partner of 28 years, on Monday. We had an extra-legal ceremony 18 years ago; our ceremony Monday was on our anniversary. We had this trip to Seattle planned for years, but it became our “accidental honeymoon” when the Supreme Court made it’s ruling.
We “marched,” of course, to Wagner’s "Bridal Chorus." I wrote about the history of that chorus here. For fun, our recessional was this.
Here we are coming down the aisle:
Here we are coming down the aisle:
|Leslie (who edits and wrote the Joyce blog) is on the right.|
(photo by her sister Laura)
1 I drew this portrait from these sources: Wagner, My Life; Millington, Wagner; Köhler, The Last of the Titans; Newman, The Life of Wagner, Volume 1; Millington & Spencer, eds., Selected Letters of Wagner. I am not going to use too many footnotes in this post as I am on the road and don’t have the time. If you want specfic references for anything I assert, I am happy to give them to you. Just write.
2 He was the last child of Carl Wagner, at least that’s the story. His younger sister Cäcilie was the the child of Ludwig Geyer.
3 Leipzig was the town in which Bach served as Kapplemeister for 27 years at St. Thomas Church. Wagner was baptized in that same church, something he later saw as some sort of sign of his destiny.
4 A bunch of writers tie this question to the issue of his anti-Semitism. That is, they think he may have thought that Geyer was both his true father and Jewish (which he wasn’t), and so that is what tormented him. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Wagner thought or worried about Geyer being Jewish. It’s a complete fabrication. He did entertain the idea that Geyer might have been his father, but he came to the conclusion that Carl Wagner was, according to Cosima's diaries. In any case, he showed no torment over the subject to Cosima or in his letters. The opera analysis “evidence” is that Siegfried was tormented by wanting to know who his real parents were. Beyond that, there is no one in his works with this sort of father issue. This is pretty skimpy evidence for being “tormented.”
6 How tall Wagner was is variously reported from about 5’ to 5’6”. The latter is the only one with evidence, as a surviving passport lists him at that height. The reason many thought of him as particularly small is because his head was much larger than a normal person of the same size, highlighting the contrast.