Richard Wagner: Death in Venice

If I’m going to die, why not do it in Venice. Thus thought to himself Richard Wagner, the great German composer of monumental opera and never one to downsize. Like many writers, artists and musicians of his stature, Wagner had a longstanding love affair with Venice, having made six trips to Italy during his lifetime. His death of a heart attack in Venice in 1883 also started a process through which the composer and his legacy have become integrated into the city’s own pop culture.

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was defined by political exile, torrid love affairs and perpetual run from creditors. In his writings on music, he dabbled in antisemitism – an unsavoury reputation which has also tainted his music. As a composer, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works and built his opera house in Bayreuth. In doing so, he synthesised the musical, dramatic and visual arts to create what he himself called the Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’.

To Wagner, Venice was a place of creative and physical refuge from an otherwise messy private life. His first visit in 1858 came during a Swiss exile following his involvement in the 1849 Dresden Uprising, a violent anti-monarchist revolt. While in Zurich, Wagner also became intimate with the wife of his wealthy Swiss patron and when his first wife intercepted a love letter addressed to the mistress, the composer fled south to Venice. The change of scenery made all the difference.

The 1858 trip produced the second act of Tristan und Isolde while an 1861 visit led to a whole opera – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. According to Wagner’s memoir, the opera was inspired by his sighting of Titian’s Assunta, then on display in the Accademia. “Venice is a far off world of other times so deeply in harmony with my own desire for solitude,” he wrote in his diary. In 1882, he confided to Cosima, his second wife, that he’d like to die in Venice. He got his wish a year later.

In September 1882, Wagner and Cosima sub-leased an entire floor of Ca’ Vendramin Calergi – the Renaissance palazzo on the Grand Canal designed by Codussi. The Hungarian composer and Cosima’s father Franz Liszt joined them for Christmas. Wagner conducted one last private concert at La Fenice and, a few weeks later, he died in the palazzo. His remains were taken by gondola to the Santa Lucia railway station and from there by train to Bayreuth to be laid to rest in the garden of his villa.