• 1824 — 1874
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Carl August Peter Cornelius was the son of two actors, Carl Joseph Gerhard Cornelius and Friedereike Cornelius (née Schradtke). His father trained him as an actor, and as part of that training, he was also given music lessons. By the age of 15 he was a violinist in the theater orchestra in Mainz, and in 1842 he became an actor in the theater company in neighboring Wiesbaden. Meanwhile, he had started composing music when he was 12.
After his father died in 1843, the family decided he should study music full-time. He was sent to live with his uncle, the famous painter Peter von Cornelius (1783 - 1867), in Berlin from 1844 to 1852, where he began serious musical studies with Siegfried Dehn and became part of a literary and artistic circle. He was hired by Franz Liszt to translate his French-language articles. Liszt read Cornelius' early art songs and encouraged him, admitting him into his own artistic group in Weimar. Cornelius demonstrated talent for both poetry and music.
In 1855 Cornelius started work on his opera Der Barbier von Baghdad, written to his own libretto. The premiere of that opera, on December 15, 1858, at Weimar under Liszt's baton, became one of the great scandals in music in the nineteenth century. The opera and conductor became victims to a pre-arranged hostile demonstration, directed against Liszt, not Cornelius or the new opera, except insofar as the work was representative of the "New Germans," Liszt's progressive group of musicians and composers, which included Wagner. The hostile demonstration resulted in Liszt resigning from his positions in Weimar. The resignations were turned down, and Liszt remained in Weimar for three years to serve out his contracts, but he had no more contact with the opera house.
When Liszt left Weimar, Cornelius did, too, and settled in Vienna, where he worked on another opera, Le Cid. His existence there was marginal, so when he was hired by Wagner as a rehearsal coach in Munich, he felt he could not decline, even though he was wary of again becoming closely connected with one of the towering and most controversial artists of his day, fearing that his talent would be overwhelmed by his work for the great genius. And, indeed, Wagner angrily demanded Cornelius' resignation when the less well-established composer actually dared to take time off to see his own Le Cid finally get a premiere in Weimar while Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was in rehearsal. Cornelius held on to his post, got an additional job teaching at the Royal School of Music in Munich, and married Bertha Jung. The premiere of Le Cid, by the way, was successful, but soon Cornelius got caught up in preparations for the premiere of Wagner's Der Meistersinger, and with the planning and building of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. This kept him from completing what might have been a major work, a mythic opera called Gunlöd before he died in 1874.
Cornelius was well-regarded by his contemporaries, considered honest, honorable, sophisticated, and engaging in conversation and personal manner. His music is particularly admired in Germany, where The Barber of Baghdad remains a perennial favorite, and his substantial number of songs, duets, and choruses are highly regarded. His only orchestral and instrumental works are immature student writings, but the Overture to the Barber is frequently heard in concert halls. Despite the enduring success of Der Barbier, Cornelius' fears that he would be eclipsed by his associations with Liszt and Wagner proved well-founded.