Wagner's birthdays remembered

 

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Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813.

From his childhood Wagner had been accustomed to seeing family-life made enjoyable at every opportunity. Long afterwards, he wrote 'Ah! then one still had household garlands! Then a poem was composed and enacted for every birthday; no festival without its special ode.'

1841: 28th birthday (Meudon, outside Paris)

Wagner and his first wife Minna moved to Meudon in April. On 22 May Wagner had a cheerless twenty-eighth birthday.

1843: 30th birthday (Dresden)

While he was living in Dresden, the Dresden Glee Club sang a serenade in honour of Wagner's thirtieth birthday.

1852: 39th birthday (Zurich)

Wagner and Minna found a fairly comfortable place to stay on the Rinderknecht estate, situated halfway up the Zurich Berg. They were able to enjoy an alfresco meal on his thirty-nineth birthday with a view of the lake and the distant Alps. 

1853: 40th birthday (Zurich)

Concerts of opera excerpts from RienziFliegender HolländerTannhäuser and Lohengrin - his first ever  Wagner Festival - were held on 18, 20 and 22 May, the last being Wagner's fortieth birthday. A banquet in his honour on 21 May, and the birthday concert ended with the throwing of bouquets, the presentation of a laurel wreath to Wagner and the reciting of a poem of praise.

1854: 41st birthday (Zurich)

Wagner wrote in his autobiography 'My Life': 'About the time of my birthday I had a visit from my old friend Tichatschek of Dresden, who remained faithful to his devotion and enthusiasm for me--as far as so uncultured a person was capable of such emotions. I was awakened in a touching way by the strains of my beloved Adagio from Beethoven's E minor Quartette. My wife had invited the musicians in whom I took a special interest for this occasion and they had, with subtle delicacy, chosen the very piece of which I had once spoken with such great emotion. At our party in the evening Tichatschek sang several things from Lohengrin, and really amazed us all by the brilliancy of voice he still preserved.'

1857: 44th birthday (Zurich)

Wagner recovered from a bad cold in time for his forty-fourth birthday. Sitting outside in the evening, he heard one of the songs of the Three Rhine Maidens, from the finale of Rheingold, from across the gardens. He had allowed Frau Karoline Pollert to practise the last act of Walküre, and the Rhine Maidens scenes from the Rheingold, with her two daughters, and frequently in the course of the winter they had given short performances of this music for his friends. That evening, this music made him anxious to take up Tristan again. But first he began to complete the composition of the second act of Siegfried, which had only just been begun.

1860: 47th birthday (Paris)

Wagner wrote: 'I passed my forty-seventh birthday in a far from happy frame of mind, to which, however, on the evening of this day, the peculiarly bright glow of Jupiter gave me an omen of better things to come. The beautiful weather, suitable to the time of year, which in Paris is never favourable to the conduct of business, had only tended to increase the stringency of my needs. I was and still continued to be without any prospect of meeting my household expenses, which had now become very heavy.'

1861: 48th birthday (Zurich)

Wagner wrote: 'As my birthday fell just at the time of this return journey, I resolved to celebrate it at Zurich. ... Next morning at early dawn I returned to Zurich. The wonderfully clear air decided me to try the long and circuitous path through the familiar haunts of the Sihlthal to Wesendonck's estate. Here I arrived quite unannounced; and when I inquired what the habits of the household were, I learned that about this time Wesendonck usually came down to his dining-room to breakfast alone. There I accordingly seated myself in a corner, where I awaited the tall, good-tempered man, who, on entering quietly for his morning coffee, broke out into joyous astonishment on beholding me. The day passed most sociably; Sulzer, Semper, Herwegh, and Gottfried Keller were all sent for, and I thoroughly enjoyed the satisfaction of a well-contrived surprise, under such strange circumstances, as my recent fate had only just been forming the daily topic of animated discussion among these friends.'

1862: 49th birthday (Biebrich, near Mainz)

On 22 May Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck that it was his birthday and someone had brought him flowers. ‘And there I sat alone. Suddenly I had an idea for an orchestral introduction to the third act (of Die Meistersinger).’

He was not left alone for the whole of his birthday. ‘My other acquaintances who lived near my place of refuge in Biebrich were kind and friendly when, on the evening of my birthday ..., I entertained this little company in my flat. Mathilde Maier with her sister Frederike and her lady friend were very clever in utilising my small stock of crockery, and in a certain sense she did the honours as mistress of the house’. (Wagner flirted with Mathilde though also having an affair with her sister.)

1863: 50th birthday (his new bachelor pad in the Penzing, Vienna)

Although penniless, Wagner wrote ‘On the 12th of May, in lovely spring weather, I took possession of my pleasant home, and for a while wasted much time over the exciting cares connected with the fitting up of my comfortable apartments. ... The grand-piano arrived in due course, and with the addition of various engravings after Raphael, which had fallen to my lot in the Biebrich division, my music-room was completely furnished in readiness for the 22nd of May, when I celebrated my fiftieth birthday. In honour of the occasion the Merchants' Choral Society gave me an evening serenade with Chinese-lantern illuminations, in which a deputation of students also joined and greeted me with an enthusiastic oration. I had laid in a supply of wine, and everything passed off excellently.’

1864: 51st birthday (Villa Pellet on Lake Starnberg, Bavaria)

In the summer of 1864, King Ludwig II rented the Villa Pellet for Wagner. When Ludwig wished to honour his friend on his fifty-first birthday, he commissioned Carl Bechstein to make a special piano. The specially designed Bechstein piano was the one Wagner used to compose Meistersinger, part of Siegfried and Parsifal.

[Today, visitors to Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth are always shown the large square desk, with drawers, built-in ink-stands and space for a beerstein, which turns out to have a piano inside it. And in Bechstein's house in Berlin (not far from the sumptuous Bechstein salon in new, smart West End) rests the white marble bust of Richard Wagner which the composer sent in gratitude.]

1866: 53rd birthday (Villa Tribschen, Switzerland)

Wagner moved into his new home Tribschen, in Switzerland, on 30 March 1866. His estranged first wife Minna died that year. In May Cosima von Bülow, whom he married in 1870 following her divorce, came to Tribschen with her daughters, but did not stay with Wagner permanently until 1868. Here the Wagners developed a family tradition of marvellous birthday parties between 1866 and 1872.

On 22 May 1866 Ludwig paid a visit to Tribschen with Prince Paul of Thurn and Taxis to surprise the 'Dear One' on his fifty-third birthday. They stayed there incognito at until 24 May.

1869: 56th birthday (Villa Tribschen, Switzerland)

The night before Wagner’s fifty-sixth birthday, Cosima set up his bust surrounded by flowers.

Early in the morning, Hans Richter blew Siegfried’s (horn) call loudly outside Wagner’s bedroom. The children stuck candles on his bathtub and surrounded it with wreaths and bunches of flowers. When Wagner came down to breakfast, he found his room turned into a flower garden. The four children, who were lined up as heralds of peace from Rienzi, approached him with palm branches in their hands, and the two eldest recited old Greek poems in celebration of Spring. Presents were laid out, including those from King Ludwig.

Cosima had arranged for Richter and the Maurin-Chevillard String quartet from Paris to come and play at 10.30am. Wagner was very surprised and delighted. In the course of the day they played the B Minor, the A Minor, and the C-sharp Minor Quartets (of Beethoven). Telegrams came from the King and from Hungary.

1870: 57th birthday (Villa Tribschen, Switzerland)

During the night before Wagner's fifty-seventh birthday, Cosima decorated the stairs and the vestibule.

At 8am she and the children held wreaths of roses: Isolde and Eva at the front door; Blandine farther down in the bower, beneath a laurel; herself and Siegfried at the bottom of the steps, beside the bust loaded down with flowers; and Daniela at the end of the tableau. At 8.30am Huldigungsmarsch (which Wagner had composed to celebrate the birthday of Ludwig II on 25 August 1864) was played by 45 soldiers grouped under the fir tree, instead of the one horn played by Richter. Deeply moved, Wagner emerged sobbing from the house and thanked the conductor. Afterwards the children recited poems to him, they all breakfasted in gay spirits and then went off to rest. In the afternoon some birds were to be released and fireworks lit, but a huge storm came up and they ended the day quietly.

Wagner received many letters and telegrams including those from the King, Richter and Josef Standhartner, a poem from Hans Herrig (The Three Norns), a letter from Friedrich Nietzsche which closed by stating that his whole life was dedicated to his ‘esteemed Master’ and a telegram from Franz Liszt ('Forever with you, on bright as on gloomy days').

1872: 59th birthday (in temporary accommodation, Bayreuth)

On the day of Wagner’s fifty-nineth birthday, he conducted a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the Markgräfliches Opernhaus of Bayreuth which was followed by the laying of the foundation-stone of the Festspielhaus, a new theatre atop the so-called Green Hill outside Bayreuth. The band played his Huldigungsmarsch while Wagner struck the stone three times with a hammer and said, 'Bless this stone! May it stand long and hold firmly.' Ludwig telegraphed his congratulations. Rain fell, and the assembly returned to the old theatre to complete the ceremony. Musicians and singers, the Wagner family, the composer, the burgomaster and others were grouped on the stage. The burgomaster delivered an address of welcome, and then Wagner read a fervent speech. At the close of it he raised his hands and the chorus burst into the chorale from the last scene of Die Meistersinger.

1872

Cosima Wagner and Richard Wagner in 1872

1873: 60th birthday (in temporary accommodation, Bayreuth)

Daniela carried in the Laurana Gallery etchings of Raphael, drawings which Wagner had once seen and admired at the home of the painter Hubner; Blandine presented l’Histoire du Bouddhisme by Burnouf; and the two little girls gave him Le Roman de Douze Pairs from Wagner’s former library. They also surprised him with a performance of the play The laughter of the Innocents, which had been written by his stepfather Ludwig Geyer. Wagner was greatly touched by it.

Wagner’s sixtieth birthday concluded with a surprise concert in the Markgräfliches Opernhaus which included his Neujahrs-Kantate, for chorus & orchestra, WWV 36 and his Concert Overture No. 2 in C major.

1874: 61st birthday (Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth)

Wagner’s sixty-first birthday was spent in their new home, a large house in Bayreuth, which he named Wahnfried (“madness” + “peace”) and which the family had moved into in April 1874. It had been financed by King Ludwig.

1877: 64th birthday (London)

The Wagners were in London from 1 May to 4 June 1877 for six (extended to eight) concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, which were hoped to recoup losses at the first Bayreuth Festival the year before. The Royal Choral Society (comprising almost a thousand singers) celebrated Wagner's sixty-fourth birthday with a banquet in the Albert Hall. Women however, including Cosima, had to watch from the gallery.

The following evening, Dr Siemens arranged a small dinner for Wagner at the Atheneum.

1880: 67th birthday (Villa d’Angri in Posillipo, near Naples)

While at Villa d’Angri in Posillipo for Wagner's health, their youngest daughter Isolde wrapped 67 pots of rosebushes in paper, on which she had painted pictures in watercolour depicting an event for each year of his life, to celebrate his sixty-seventh birthday. Wagner was delighted.

And Engelbert Humperdinck (who was visiting), Joseph Rubinstein and Martin Plüddemann with the four Wagner daughters (who had been rehearsed by Humperdinck) performed the Grail scene from Parsifal.

1881: 68th birthday (Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth)

At 8am on his sixty-eighth birthday, Wagner was given the Flower Greeting by the children in flower costumes, and a clock presented by his son Siegfried. Wagner was also given the coats of arms of the Wagner Society towns. Wagner then strolled to the summerhouse with Cosima, and they exchanged gold pens and little poems.

Lunch included guest of honour Count Arthur Gobineau, who made a five-week visit to Wahnfried, Siegfried reciting a poem by Heinrich von Stein (Siegfried's tutor) proposing the health of eternal youth, and then daughter Elsa sang Nicht Gut noch Pracht from the gallery above. Over coffee Faf from the Festival Theatre appeared with the program for that evening on his back. The children acted out the little farces by Lope and Sachs, and Daniela recited Wolz's linking epilogue. At the conclusion of the Sachs play, Rubinstein linked the Prelude to Die Meistersinger. When Wagner went into the salon, the children, in different costumes, sang his Gruss der Getreuen. At the conclusion of the evening, after the meal, came the Kaisermarsch with altered text.

1881

Above: Richard Wagner and family in front of Villa Wahnfried in 1881:
L-R, top row: Blandine von Bülow (Wagner's stepdaughter), Heinrich von Stein (Siegfried's tutor),
Cosima Wagner, Richard Wagner, Paul von Joukowsky (family friend)
L-R, bottom row: Isolde (Wagner's daughter), Daniela von Bülow (Wagner's stepdaughter),
Eva (Wagner's daughter) and Siegfried (Wagner's son)

1882: 69th birthday (Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth)

At Wagner’s sixty-nineth and final birthday, the boys’ choir rehearsed and conducted by Humperdinck sang the last chorus from Parsifal, Act 1. Count Gobineau was again guest of honour at Wagner's birthday party.