When Richard Wagner died, newspapers all over Europe were filled with obituaries several pages long. Naturally, this was also the case in Prague, where it was repeatedly emphasised that Wagner’s rise as a composer was also connected with Bohemia, as several of his stage works were created in connection with his stays at spas in western Bohemia. Wagner won many followers in this country and especially in Prague. František Škroup was responsible for the first performances of Wagner’s music dramas in Bohemia. Tannhäuser was performed at the Estates Theatre in 1854, followed by Lohengrin in early 1856 and by Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) on 7 September of that year.
Wagner had known the tale of the love of Tristan and Wagner since his student days. He became familiar with it through the poem King Mark and Isolde by Julius Mosen (1803–1867), which was based on the medieval fragment of a versified romance by Gottfried von Strassburg. Gottfried’s version of the story is full of bizarre occurrences, linked sequences of episodes, and intrigues. Consumed by passion, the lovers violate the laws of society and religion, and they bring destruction upon themselves and those around them. For several years, Wagner had been living in Switzerland in exile, and he was undergoing a creative crisis. He was at work on his monumental musical setting of the myth about the Nibelungs, but he had no hopes that the work would ever be performed. He had already been thinking about Tristan und Isolde, and he mentioned the subject in 1854 in a letter to Franz Liszt. The idea came to life three years later, when Wagner was visiting the Brazilian and was told that Emperor Dom Pedro II wanted a Wagner opera performed in Rio de Janeiro, but in Italian. “I said to myself that I really ought to be able to create a passionate musical poem that would make a good impression in Italian. My thoughts turned back to Tristan and Isolde”, wrote Wagner. As he himself reported, he interrupted work on Siegfried, which was not going well, and he began writing Tristan und Isolde for Rio de Janeiro. Nothing came of the plan for an Italian opera, however, and Tristan und Isolde grew into something very different from what the composer had in mind for Brazil and even from what he was still saying he desired to write in 1860: “a lighter work, easier to produce, with modest demands for staging and a smaller scope”. Wagner completely omitted the episodes from his historical model and created a psychological study of what was going on inside the two heroes, with the “Handlung” (action), as he referred to the work, taking place in human souls. King Mark gets only one scene, but it is a long, important one that also offers magnificent insight into the depths of a human being.
Wagner worked on the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) for nearly a quarter century. The idea came to him during the revolutions of 1848–1849, when an order for his arrest was issued as a consequence of those events. He had to flee Germany, and he was not allowed to return until 1864. The mythical realm of the Nibelungs was meant to be an allegory of the social, moral, and political conflicts of the day. As was usual with Wagner, the second part of the Ring, titled Die Walküre, came into being first as a poetic text that was finished in July 1852, then he worked on the musical setting from the summer of 1854 until March 1855. While working on the tetralogy, he began to consider the building of a theatre of his own, where only his works would be played. His intention was to have the entire four-part cycle premiered in a new mecca for the arts, but this was not realised. King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had become a Wagner enthusiast, commanded (contrary to Wagner’s wishes) that Das Rheingold be performed on 22 September 1856 at the Court Theatre in Munich, and that Die Walküre be performed on 26 June of the following year. Die Walküre was performed for the first time as part of the whole Ring cycle on 14 August 1876 at the ceremonial opening of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth with the conductor Hans Richter. The Prelude to Act III, known as the “Ride of the Valkyries”, has become a frequently performed concert piece. In a great scene, Wotan parts with his daughter Brünnhilde, who has disobeyed him by helping mankind. He punishes her by depriving her of her divinity and declares that she shall be left to fall prey to whatever man finds her sleeping on the rock. In order to lessen her punishment, he surrounds the rock with a ring of flames made by Loge, the god of fire.