EARLY LIFE OF WAGNER
[Music: (Die Walküre.) (Sword Motif.)]
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, in 1813. He was the youngest of a
family of nine children. His father died when Richard was only a baby.
Mrs. Wagner was left with a large family of little children to care for.
Her eldest son was a lad of but fourteen years of age.
After her husband's death, Mrs. Wagner received a small pension from the
government. She was a thrifty little woman and made the best use of
every penny of her small income. It was not sufficient, however, to feed
and clothe her large family of boys and girls.
An old friend of the father came to her aid. He helped the Wagner
children in many ways. In 1815 he became their stepfather. Shortly
afterward they moved to Dresden. The children's new father was an actor,
and he had been appointed to a position in the Royal Theater in that
city. In a few years the four eldest brothers and sisters became
The boy, Richard, heard nothing talked about so much as music and the
theater. When he was allowed to go to the theater he clapped his hands
for joy. When his mother thought it best that he should stay at home, he
was sometimes naughty. He would stand in a corner and cry.
Richard was a delicate child and on this account was greatly petted. Up
to the time that he was nine years old, he had no lessons either at
school or at home. He spent his time with his stepfather. The two good
friends took many long rambles into the woods. On these little trips
Richard took a sketch-book and pencil. His father tried to teach the boy
to draw, but soon made up his mind that Richard would never become an
At that time almost every family in Germany had a piano. There was one
in the Wagner household. Richard's mother managed to give her little
daughters music lessons, but Richard had none. He was not even taught
his notes. He sometimes fingered and thumbed the keyboard as every boy
likes to do. The bits of music that he could play he had learned by ear.
He heard his sisters practicing their music lessons. He liked one piece
that they played better than any other. It was a wedding song. He heard
it played so often, that he could hum it to himself. One day, when
alone, he went to the piano and tried to play it. The first time he was
not pleased with his efforts; but the second time he could play it
perfectly. His mother, overhearing, stopped her work to listen.
Richard's stepfather was ill at this time. When his wife told him how
well the boy had played the wedding song, he was delighted. Richard was
asked to play it again. He did so, and his father said, "Can it be that
the child has a talent for music?"
Soon after the stepfather died. As Richard grew to manhood his father's
words came back to him again and again. It was six years, however,
before he began really to work at music.
In 1822 it was decided that Richard should attend a boy's school in
Dresden. For some time his uncle had been helping the lad with his
lessons. He was to enter a school that he might have more studies.
School opened on the 22d of December. The Wagner children were all busy
preparing for the Christmas tree. The three days before Christmas were
always such happy days in this German home. Richard did not wish to
begin school until after the holidays; so he coaxed and pleaded to stay
at home. His wise mother would not give her consent, for she did not
wish him to miss even a day at school. But he begged that he might just
help trim the tree, and was allowed to rise at dawn to do his share.
Richard Wagner always spoke very tenderly of his mother. He called her
his "dear little mother." In after years he said to a friend: "I can not
see a lighted Christmas tree without thinking of my mother. I can not
keep the tears back when I remember how she toiled to give her children
At school, Greek was Richard's favorite study. He liked history and
geography also. He was a patient worker, and never gave up a point
before he had mastered it. For five years he remained at the school in
Dresden, working so well that he became a favorite with his teachers.
During these years he had a few piano lessons, but made little progress.
In 1827 Richard's mother moved to Leipzig, and for three years the boy
attended school there. Later he entered the university in that city.
When Richard was about fifteen years old, he listened to some of
Beethoven's music for the first time. The boy thought the symphonies of
that great composer were the most beautiful that he had ever heard. They
ran through his mind all the day, and he dreamed of them at night. He
thought Beethoven the greatest composer in the world. He longed to be
like him. Richard now decided how his life should be spent; he, too,
would be a musician.
Then for the first time young Wagner worked at his music in earnest. He
had an excellent teacher who encouraged the boy to do his best. The lad
soon began to write music. Beethoven, the great composer, was his daily
study. He knew much of the master's music by heart. The Ninth Symphony
was his especial favorite.
[Music: (Siegfried) Siegfried's Horn Call.]
WAGNER AND HIS WORK
The early years of Wagner's manhood were spent in different cities of
Germany. Sometimes he was leader of a chorus. Sometimes he was composing
operas. At all times he had a hard struggle to support himself. His
compositions were not popular, for no one had ever written such music
before, and the people could not understand it.
It was while Wagner was managing an opera company in a small German town
that he was married. He and his wife soon went to the eastern part of
Germany, but did not remain there long. They were heavily in debt.
Wagner was paid little for his work and had no idea how to save his
Stories reached his ears of the large sums of money which composers
received for their work in Paris. He resolved to go to France. In Paris
he met with disappointments and failures. He had wished to have one of
his operas sung there, feeling sure that the French people would admire
his music after hearing it. But the Paris opera company would not even
consent to sing it.
Then Wagner tried to obtain some position as a musician. He was willing
to take the poorest appointment and do the hardest work, but he failed.
For many months the Wagners, sad and lonely, lived in Paris.
After three weary years in France, Wagner returned to his native
country. How happy he was to see the land of the Rhine! He said to his
wife, "Is it not good to be in the Fatherland again?"
When he lived in Paris, he wrote an opera and sent it to Dresden. It was
accepted and the opera company of that city sent for Wagner to come to
take charge of the music. This took place in 1842. Three years before,
he had left Germany because the people did not care for his music. Now,
they were glad and proud to welcome him on his return from France.
After several weeks, all was ready for the first performance of Wagner's
opera. The theater was crowded. The singers who took part had said much
in praise of the music, and every one was anxious to hear it. They were
not disappointed. Indeed, they all praised it highly, and Wagner became
the hero of the hour.
Not long after this, another of Wagner's operas was sung in Dresden. It
is called The Flying Dutchman. It was so well liked that every one in
the city was glad to honor the composer. That made Wagner very happy.
His life was filled with joy, for he was doing the work that he loved.
How different were these days from those spent in Paris--those days of
hunger and poverty! Now that all was sunshine and happiness, Wagner's
life in France seemed like a bad dream.
Tannhäuser, one of Wagner's greatest operas, was written in Dresden.
Sung for the first time in 1845, it was even better liked than his first
two operas. After it had been given, people stopped the composer on the
streets to give him words of praise.
The best loved of all Wagner's works is Lohengrin. Not only in Europe
is this opera known and loved, but in America as well.
In 1848 Wagner was obliged to leave the country on account of political
troubles. Switzerland became his home. The beautiful scenery there
afforded the composer much pleasure. The snow-capped Alps could be seen
all about, and in many places clear mountain lakes reflected the blue
Wagner lived in Switzerland about ten years. In that time he composed
several operas. He wrote not only the music for these operas, but the
words as well. The words alone form beautiful poems. Four of the operas
written in Switzerland tell the old fairy story of the gold hidden at
the bottom of the Rhine. Indeed, the first one of them is called The
Rhinegold. Richard Wagner put the legend into poetry and then composed
exquisite music to fit the words.
While Wagner was in Switzerland, the German people were learning to love
his music more and more. You remember that Lohengrin was written just
before he left Germany. At that time it had not been sung.
Franz Liszt, a friend of Wagner's, became greatly interested in
Lohengrin. Under his direction it was sung in a small town. All who
heard it liked the beautiful story and still more beautiful music.
Soon nearly every one in Germany had heard Lohengrin, the beautiful
opera of the Swan Knight.
Wagner, far from home, was cheered by the news that his opera was well
liked. He longed to hear it himself. He said: "Nearly every German has
heard Lohengrin. Soon I shall be the only one who has not heard it."
After many years Wagner returned to the Fatherland. He and the king of
Bavaria became great friends. The king had heard Lohengrin sung many
times. It was his favorite opera. It is said that he used to dress
himself in armor like Lohengrin's and sail about the lake in a swan boat
for hours at a time.
The king thought the theaters in Germany were not well built. He thought
that a special opera house should be erected in which Wagner's operas
could be given. Plans were made and a model opera house was built.
Many people throughout Germany became interested in Wagner's opera
house, as it was called. The money that they gave, with the sum given by
the king, paid for the building. The building, which Wagner himself
planned, is still used, and Wagner's operas are still sung there.
The last opera that Wagner composed is called Parsifal. Many think it
is finer even than The Rhinegold and Lohengrin. Like Lohengrin it
tells a story of the Holy Grail.
In 1870 Wagner was married for the second time. The last years of his
life were spent in Venice, with his wife and children. Theirs was a
bright and happy home, for the gentle Wagner was a kind and loving
father. All the people of Venice loved him. In a short time all the poor
and needy of the city knew the great-hearted man, for he was ever ready
to help those in trouble.
Wagner's unselfish life and sweet character won him many friends. At his
death people on both sides of the Atlantic mourned for him.
The great composer died in Venice, and his body was taken to Germany for
burial. At every station on the way to Germany, fresh flowers were
scattered on the casket. The king sent a beautiful wreath, on which were
words meaning, To the Deathless One.
[Music: (The Rhinegold.) (Motif.)]
The Holy Grail
An old, old story of the cup from which Christ drank has come down to us
through the ages. This cup was called the Holy Grail. At Christ's death
an angel bore the cup away. It was taken to a far-off castle, where it
was hidden from the sight of men.
The knights of the castle guarded the Grail well, for it was a sacred
treasure. When, once a year the Holy Grail was unveiled, a white dove
flew down from heaven and hovered over it. Only the pure in heart could
see the cup. Throughout the year the knights performed righteous deeds
that they might be worthy to look upon the Grail.
The knights of the castle were brave men and true, and they fought for
none but those who battled for the right. Victory was theirs, and they
conquered through the power of the Truth.
The Coming of the Knight
In the tenth century Henry was king of the Germans. Once each year the
king visited all of his provinces. It was the custom for the people to
ask him to settle any disputes that had arisen during the past year.
On one of these visits, so the story goes, the king found the people of
one province in great trouble. As they had no ruler, the king sent forth
a messenger to tell the people to meet him the next day on the bank of
The day dawned bright and clear. The king took his seat on the throne
which had been placed for him in the shade of the great Oak of Justice.
At his command a nobleman approached the throne. It was Frederic,--a
tall man, with black hair and eyes. He wore always a scowl upon his
face, and an angry light gleamed from beneath his heavy brows.
Near him stood Ortrud, his wife. She wore a rich robe of crimson velvet.
The proud woman watched the movements of all about her, and not a word
that was spoken escaped her.
"I am happy, O King, that you have come to help us in our trouble," said
Frederic. "Hear the truth. When our good duke lay dying, he intrusted
his children, a boy and a girl, to my care. Well did I love and guard
them, looking to the time when the boy should become ruler of the
"One day, the girl, Elsa, took her brother by the hand. Laughing and
singing, the two went forth into the woods together. Elsa returned
alone, saying that her brother was lost in the wood. Her eyes were red
with weeping, and her voice trembled when she spoke. To all my questions
she only replied, 'I know not where he is.'
"I spoke sharply to the maid. Pale and shuddering, she turned from me.
Then did I know that Elsa had taken her brother's life, so that she
herself might one day become ruler of the province."
The king listened in silence to Frederic's story. He was sad and
troubled. He could not believe that the young princess had been guilty
of so great a crime. He resolved to question the maid himself; so a
messenger was sent for her in haste.
The crowd of people who had assembled waited in silence for their
princess. Soon many voices were heard to whisper: "See, she comes! Our
own princess! Now we shall know the truth!"
As she approached, the crowd parted to make room for Elsa and her
ladies. The soft robes of the maidens were of palest blue. The young
princess was dressed in pure white. Her long bright hair gleaming like
gold in the sunlight, fell softly about her shoulders. As they drew near
the throne, the people stood apart, and Elsa knelt before the king
alone. Gently he questioned her. The girl's blue eyes were filled with
tears as she answered, "My poor brother! My poor brother!"
"Fear nothing, Elsa. Tell me all," spoke the king. His voice was so kind
and his manner so gentle that the young princess knew she could trust
him as a true friend.
She said: "When I have missed my brother, I have often gone alone to
pray. One day as I was praying, I fell asleep. I had a beautiful dream.
In the midst of shining clouds, I saw a knight in gleaming armor. A
golden horn hung at his side, and he leaned upon his sword. In a sweet
voice he spoke words of cheer to me. Then I awoke. My heart was filled
with joy, for I thought, 'He will defend me. He will prove that I have
done no wrong.'"
So clear was Elsa's tone that all the people believed her words. Then up
spoke Duke Frederic. "I know the maid is guilty," he said. "Let any one
who thinks her innocent stand forth and fight with me. And may God help
The king said, "Elsa, are you willing to trust to this knight of your
dream? Will he come, think you, and defend you against Frederic?"
"Yes," whispered the maiden, "he will come, for he has promised."
At the king's command the trumpeter blew a long, clear blast from his
horn. Then he called in a loud voice, "Let him stand forth who in the
right of Heaven comes here to fight for Elsa."
There was a long silence; but no answer came to the summons. Again and
yet again the trumpeter repeated his call. A hush fell upon the waiting
people. Elsa and her ladies dropped upon their knees and prayed for the
help which had been promised.
Suddenly there was a cry from the water's edge: "Look! A boat! A swan!
They draw near! In the boat stands a knight. How his armor gleams in the
At these words Elsa rose from her knees and looked toward the shore. She
saw the knight spring from the boat. Ortrud, too, saw him. She saw his
shining silver armor and the golden horn hanging at his side. She saw
his bright yellow hair and the long blue coat that fell from his
All this she saw and remained as cold and proud as before. Then she
caught a glimpse of the swan's soft white feathers and the golden chain
that formed his harness. At this sight she trembled and grew pale.
Turning to the swan, the knight sang a beautiful song as he sent it
away. "Farewell, my faithful swan!" he sang.
While the swan sailed slowly down the river the knight advanced to the
king's throne. "I have come, O King," he said, "to do battle for the
Princess Elsa." Then did Elsa and all the people mark his noble bearing.
Never before had they seen a knight so strong and fearless.
"Elsa," said the knight, "will you be my wife if I win from the Duke
"Yes," she answered.
"Then promise me three things. Never ask my name, my race, nor whence I
Elsa was about to speak, but the knight begged her to think again before
she promised. "I promise," said the maiden.
Then the battle took place. With a few swift strokes the swan knight
defeated the duke. However, in his kindness of heart, he spared
Frederic's life. Then a great shout rose from the people. "The Princess
Elsa is innocent," they cried. "Our good princess has done no wrong!"
Before Ortrud married Duke Frederic, she had lived in a castle in a
dark wood. People said that she could use magic. Indeed, some said that
she could change people into whatever shape she chose.
It was into the same dark wood, in which Ortrud had lived, that Elsa and
her brother had gone, laughing and singing. And it was from the same
dark wood that Elsa had returned alone. However, Ortrud had gone to the
wood before the young princess and her brother. Had any one noticed,
when she returned, late that afternoon, he would have seen an evil light
in her dark eyes, and a cruel smile upon her lips.
[Music: (Lohengrin.) (Wedding Song.) Faithful and true, we lead thee
The day after the battle was the day set for the wedding of Elsa and the
swan knight. Many people had gathered to see the beautiful princess walk
from the palace to the church. First came Elsa's ladies, two by two.
Their long trailing gowns were rich and costly. They formed an aisle and
waited for the princess to pass through.
Very fair and happy the princess looked as she came slowly down the
palace steps. When the people saw her, a glad cry of welcome arose. In
her soft bridal robe and with her fair hair floating about her, she
looked as beautiful as an angel.
At the door of the church Elsa was met by the knight, who was to lead
her to the altar. As they moved slowly through the church, the wedding
march was heard from the great organ.
When the marriage was over, the day was spent in feasting and
merrymaking. It was not until twilight that Elsa and the knight were
alone. By an open window they sat, talking in low tones. After some time
Elsa grew sad and silent. She heeded not the words of the knight. She
forgot the promise she had made and begged he would at least tell her
"My name sounds so sweet from your lips," she said. "May I never have
the pleasure of speaking yours?"
"Ah, Elsa," said the knight, sorrowfully, "speak not of this. Let us
talk of other things."
"It is because you do not trust me, that you will not tell me," she
said. "You think your secret would not be safe with me."
In vain the knight tried to soothe the troubled princess. He begged her
to remember her promise, but she would not listen to his pleading.
"What is your name?" she cried.
"Ask me not."
"Where is your home?"
"I can not tell thee."
"From what race do you come?"
The words had scarcely passed her lips when she was aware that the Duke
Frederic had entered the room. Seeing the evil light in his eyes, she
thrust the knight's sword into his hand, saying, "Oh, do not let him
With a quick movement the knight turned upon his enemy, who soon lay
dead at his feet. To the men who came with Frederic he said, "Carry the
duke's body to the king."
He lifted the half-fainting Elsa to the couch. Kissing her upon the
forehead, he said, "Alas! we shall be happy no more." As he left the
room, he turned at the door, saying, in a low, sad tone, "To-morrow,
before the king, I will tell you all that you ask."
Departure of the Knight
The next day the king was again seated on his throne under the Oak of
Justice. It had been whispered that the stranger knight would make known
to all, his name, his home, and his race. A great crowd had gathered to
hear the knight speak.
Silence fell upon them as the dead body of the duke was borne before the
king. Soon Elsa followed; her step was slow; her face was sad and pale.
Her eyes no longer shone with happiness. The hearts of all who saw her
were filled with pity.
Presently the knight appeared. He wore the same shining armor that he
had worn on the day of his arrival. The golden horn still hung at his
side; the long blue cloak fell from his shoulders.
Pointing to the dead body of Frederic, he said, "Yesterday, at eventide,
this man tried to take my life. I slew him to save myself. I pray thee,
O King, tell me if I did wrong." Before the king could speak, the people
answered for him, "The knight has done no wrong."
Speaking slowly and in sad tones, the knight continued his story.
"Already the Princess Elsa has broken the promise she made to me.
Because she has asked my name, my home, and my race, I can dwell no
longer among you. I come of a race of noble knights. Proud am I of my
home, for it is the castle to which the Holy Grail was borne by angels
long ago. Neither have I cause to be ashamed of my name. I am
Lohengrin, son of that pure knight who guards the Holy Grail.
"Many times my brother knights have gone on errands of love and mercy.
The power of the Holy Grail guards them in all they do. On such an
errand was I bent when I came to defend the maid Elsa."
Looking up through their tears, the people saw the swan floating toward
them. Lohengrin, too, saw the swan approaching, and went to Elsa's side.
Filled with love and tenderness was his voice as he spoke to her. "Oh,
Elsa," he said, "hadst thou been true to thy promise, in one short year
I might have told thee all. In one short year would thy brother have
been returned to thee. Now, when he comes back to thee and I am far
away, give him this ring, this sword, and this horn."
So filled with sorrow was Elsa that she could speak no word to
Lohengrin. As the knight made his way to the river bank, all faces were
turned toward him in sorrow--all, save one. Ortrud, who had been
standing in the shadow of the great oak, came forward. With a wicked
smile she said, in a loud voice, "Yon snowy bird was once a boy, the
brother of the Princess Elsa. I changed him to his present form."
As soon as Lohengrin heard these words, he sank upon his knees. Long he
remained at prayer. As he knelt, a pure white dove floated down from
heaven and hovered over his head.
Rising from his knees, Lohengrin loosed the golden chain from the neck
of the swan. As he did so, the swan vanished from sight, and a fair
youth in shining armor appeared in its place.
The people recognized the youth as Elsa's brother and thanked God for
the power of the Holy Grail which had brought their prince again to
At the sight of the young prince, Ortrud sank lifeless to the ground.
Rejoicing that Elsa and her brother were together once more, Lohengrin
sprang into the boat. The dove, catching the golden chain in its tiny
beak, guided the boat down the river, and the knight was seen no more.