Selected Letters of Richard Wagner Summary
by Richard Wagner

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Selected Letters of Richard Wagner

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Wagner’s letters reveal their author more candidly than any biography. Thousands remain unpublished and untranslated. The incomplete German edition is projected at thirty volumes. Only four of these had been published when editors and translators Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington completed this massive English edition.

The addressees of Wagner’s letters include patrons, historical figures, and fellow artists; the most revealing letters are often addressed to family members: Christine Wilhelmine (“Minna”) Planer, Wagner’s first wife; Cacilie Avenarius, his half-sister; Albert, his elder brother. There are embarrassing appeals for money, particularly during his years in Paris, to his friend, the poet-lawyer Theodor Apel. There are pleas for letters of recommendation addressed to composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Robert Schumann, and Wagner even sent unsolicited scores with letters to dramatist-librettist Eugene Scribe. All these had little positive effect until Wagner’s 1839 appointment as music director of the Dresden opera.

The tone of the Dresden letters is considerably more positive. Wagner’s opera RIENZI was produced at Dresden in 1842 to great acclaim, setting a pattern of success which he would enjoy for the entire decade. Letters to Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Liszt refer to RIENZI’s success and to that of DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER (The Flying Dutchman) and TANNHAUSER.

Wagner identified himself closely with what were considered radical ideas of social reform during the Dresden years. This stance--and several love affairs--ultimately destroyed his marriage to Minna and precipitated his flight to Switzerland under threat of arrest. His acquaintance with the philosopher-classicist Friedrich Nietzsche developed in the years following 1849. Letters to Nietzsche outline a theory of aesthetics and symbol which appears in fuller form in Wagner’s OPER UND DRAMA (“Opera and Drama”) an extended essay written in exile, and...

(The entire section is 449 words.)