Richard Wagner: Overview
- Born: 1813 - Leipzig, Germany
- Died: 1883 - Venice, Italy
- Historical Period: The Romantic era
- Musical Media: Opera, Orchestra, Chamber music, Keyboards, Choral
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in 1813 in Germany. He would go on to become one of the most influential and charismatic composers of his time and beyond. Impulsive and determined, he was able to revolutionarily affect Western musical culture in a way that would forever bear his signature one way or another. To name some of his top works, we remember:
- Der Ring des Nibelungen
- The Flying Dutchman
- Tristan und Isolde
- …and more!
After an obviously long career filled with ups and downs ranging from much-deserved critical acclaim as well as the chagrin of a debt-ridden lifestyle, the master breathed his last in 1883 in Venice, Italy. Behind his veil of greatness, lies the history of a man of modest roots and raw compositional prowess.
Richard Wagner: The Architect of a New Frontier
Wagner was carefree and negligent as a young man at the Kreuzschule, Dresden and was known for being a regular attendee at concerts. He was self-taught at the piano and increased his dramatic and artistic knowledge through the works of Schiller and Shakespeare. His over-indulgence in matters of music led to an acute impatience for academic pursuit. Wagner’s real “education” was a deep and comprehensive study of historical scores, especially that of Beethoven’s.
Wagner wrote the Symphony in C Major (1832) for the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts and then he penned his very first operatic piece, Die Feen (1834) inspired from a tale of fantasy by Carlo Gozzi. After failing to have the opera produced, Wagner became a conductor in a theatrical troupe and fell for Wilhelmine Planer, or Minna, who would go on to be his wife in 1836. His second opera, Das Liebesverbot (1836), based on the Shakespearean work, “Measure for Measure”, met with complete disappointment.
In 1840, while in Paris, Wagner wrote Rienzi (1840), and Der fliegende Holländer (1840), also known as The Flying Dutchman, which tells the story of a cursed captain who has to sail the seas for all time. The next production of Wagner’s efforts was Tannhäuser (1945), and it achieved some level of praise and following. He was also the court opera conductor in Paris until 1849. This period included much criticism when, for example, the court authorities did not agree to stage Lohengrin (1850). This was because they were appalled by Wagner’s artistic and administrative differences from tradition. Wagner was responsible for authoring various articles focusing on revolution and was a part of 1849’s Dresden uprising, the failure of which prompted him to leave Germany. Lohengrin’s debut performance, therefore, was conducted by Franz Liszt at Weimer in 1850.
Wagner settled and remained in Switzerland until the year 1858, and spent his years conducting and composing, even directing 1855’s London Philharmonic concerts. During this period, the now-aging master went through Norse myths in detail, the result of which was the opera Siegfrieds Tod (1848). These were followed by the likes of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1850), Die Kunst und die Revolution (1849), Oper und Drama (1851) and Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (1851). In 1852, Siegfrieds Tod, along with three other pieces, came to be known as Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). The other music dramas were Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Der junge Siegfried.
Wagner wrote the tragic Tristan und Isolde (1859), the stimuli of which, apart from his newfound ideal, was his love for Mathilde Wesendonk, a married woman. Consequently, Wagner and his wife, Minna, separated.
In 1861, the master composer turned over a new leaf, receiving an amnesty from Germany. Traveling to Vienna, he was finally able to witness Lohengrin’s performance for the first time in his life. During this time, he started writing a comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862). His debt-related issues resurfaced and in addition to it, he became involved in an affair with Cosima, who was Liszt’s daughter, and musical conductor Hans von Bülow’s wife. The lovers had three children before Cosima divorced her husband to marry Wagner. This was a highly volatile time for the composer and he left Munich in 1865, to eventually settle in Venice.
The compositions following this include Parsifal (1882) and his own autobiography, “Mein Leben” (1865). After his passing from heart complications, his body was placed in a tomb at his home, Wahnfried.
It has been said that Wagner was strictly anti-Semitic, and this may be reflected in the fact that the Nazis themselves used him and his work as a mascot of their regime. This was, of course, decades after Wagner had died. On the brighter side, Wagner, along with Beethoven, carved out a very special place for himself in history and just like the former, he became an inspiration for many eminent prodigies, such as Strauss, Schoenberg, and Mahler.
- About Richard Wagner on Eno
- About the dramatic life and music of Richard Wagner on NPR
- About Richard Wagner on Spiegel
- About the revolutionary operas by Richard Wagner on Opera Wire
- About the German composer, Richard Wagner on Britannica
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