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Richard Wagner

[vahg' ner] opera composer

Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Kingdom of Saxony, on May 22, 1813. His father died six months after his birth; his mother remarried the following year, and the family moved to Dresden. His step-father died in 1821, and, in 1827, the family moved back to Leipzig.

In 1826, a 13-year-old Wagner translated 12 volumes of the Odyssey from the old Greek. His first creative effort was a spoken tragedy, Leubald and Adelaide, which was published in 1828. He then decided to write music, and from 1831 to 1832 spent six months training with Leipzig cantor C.T. Weinlig.

Early Career

Wagner's first musical work was Symphony in C, which he completed in 1832. In 1833, he became chorus master at the Würzburg Theatre.

In 1834, Wagner completed his first opera Die Feen (The Fairies). That same year he was appointed music director at a traveling theater based in Magdeburg. Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love), for which Wagner drew inspiration from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, was first performed in Magdeburg in 1836.

It was while at Magdeburg that Wagner met opera singer Minna Planer, whom he married in 1836. The two moved to Königsberg that same year, where he became musical director at the theatre. In 1837, he took a similar post in Riga.

Although Wagner was almost continuously employed, his finances were seldom good and he was often in debt. In 1839, to elude creditors, the Wagners sailed to London. It was during the trip that Wagner conceived the idea for Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), which was completed in 1841. The couple then traveled to France, and eventually settled in Paris.

In April 1842, Wagner relocated to Dresden, Germany. On October 20, 1842, Wagner's opera Rienzi was produced at that city's Court Theater. The success of the opera led to production of The Flying Dutchman at the same theater, on January 2, 1843. Soon after he became a conductor at the theater.

About this time Wagner's work came to the attention of noted German composer Franz Liszt, who, in 1845, personally produced the romantic opera Tannhäuser, at Weimar, Germany. When the management of the Court Theater refused to produce Wagner's romantic opera Lohengrin, Liszt produced it at Weimar, on August 28, 1850.

Almost always in debt, Wagner was convinced that musicians were being treated unjustly. His resentment led to his participation in an unsuccessful revolution in 1849. Afterward, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he fled to Switzerland. He would not return to Germany until 1860.

Later Career

While in Switzerland, Wagner wrote very little music. Instead, he examined his own philosophy of art and life and wrote on social and artistic problems. He also began the libretto for what would become his greatest work, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), a cycle of four operas based on the 12th-century Middle High German epic poem of the Nibelungenlied. He began work on the music for this cycle in 1853. He finished Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) in 1854, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) in 1856, and the first two acts of Siegfried by 1857. Then he composed another work he had been planning, Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde), which was finally completed in 1859. He did not compose the third act of Siegfried until 1869.

In 1860, Wagner was granted partial amnesty in all of the German states except for Saxony. Between 1860 and 1862, he lived and worked in a number of European cities, including Paris, Zürich, Karlsruhe, Weimar, Nürnberg, Vienna, Leipzig, and Dresden. In 1862, he was granted complete amnesty in Saxony, and moved to a suburb of Vienna that same year. By this time he and Minna had parted ways, and he soon became involved with Cosima von Bülow, the married daughter of Franz Liszt; the two were married in 1870.

Always in debt and hounded by creditors, Wagner finally got relief when, in 1864, King Ludwig II of Bavaria became his patron. Ludwig, a great admirer of Wagner, paid off all his debts and promised future financial support. Wagner became the king's adviser in Munich. It was through the king's patronage that he was finally able to get Tristan produced, at Munich, on June 10, 1865.

Meanwhile, Wagner had started work on his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), which he completed in Switzerland in 1867. It was produced at Munich on June 21, 1868. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were produced by command of the king in 1869 and 1870, respectively, and Siegfried was produced in February 1871.

In 1874, Wagner concluded the entire Ring cycle with the completion of Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). With the king's aid, Wagner was able to build a theater of his own in Bayreuth in which to perform the Ring. The entire cycle was performed for the first time at the Festspielhaus on August 13-17, 1876. In 1878, King Ludwig agreed to pay all of Wagner's debts, in return for all rights to the Ring series.

Wagner's last work was the opera Parsifal, which he based on the legends of the Holy Grail. Begun in 1877, it was produced for the first time on July 26, 1882, at the Festspielhaus.

Richard Wagner died in Venice on February 13, 1883, and was buried in the garden of the family property, Wahnfried, in Bayreuth.

His Philosophy

Wagner believed the basic error in opera was that music had become the sole end and that the drama served merely as an excuse for the music. He instead aimed to create a work in which all the various elements in operatic composition were in perfect harmony and directed toward a single artistic end. He disliked "operatic" acting, and insisted that singers use only those movements and gestures required by the music.

His Writings

Über deutsches Musikwesen (On German Music), 1840
Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art Work of the Future), 1849
Art and Revolution
, 1849
Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama), 1850-1851
Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A Communication to My Friends), 1851
Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama
(On the Application of Music to the Drama), 1879
Religion und Kunst (Religion and Art), 1880
My Life, his autobiography, 1880


World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

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This page was last updated on 08/13/2018.