Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig but brought up in Dresden,
where his family moved soon after his birth. Though he developed
early passions for philosophy and literature, it was music he went
to study at Leipzig University in 1831. His early pieces include a
symphony and two concert overtures, and in 1833 he began his first
opera, Die Feen, but the work was never performed during
Wagner's first work in the opera world was as a choral
conductor at Wurzburg, followed a year later by an appointment as
musical director of Magdeburg Opera. There he saw Das
Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) performed, his first opera to
gain a hearing. In 1836 he married a singer and actress, Minna
Planer, a union that lasted 30 years, although Wagner's frequent
affairs were the cause of much unhappiness for Minna.
Desperately wanting to compose rather than conduct, Wagner
embarked on a series of travels. In Paris he was reduced to
arranging dance music and writing songs and articles. The Wagners
returned to Germany in 1842 almost destitute, but not before
Richard had composed two valuable opera scores: Rienzi, a
grand historical opera influenced by both Italian and French
opera; and The flying Dutchman, the first of Wagner's
operas that points the way ahead to his own mature style.
Both were great successes when first performed in Dresden in
1842 and 1843 and led to Wagner's being appointed Court Opera
conductor in the city. During his time there he wrote
Tannhauser and Lohengrin, both addressing themes of
spiritual and sensual love. As with all Wagner's operas, the
librettos are his own, Tannhauser adapted from a
thirteenth-century German poem and Lohengrin from an
In 1849 Wagner was forced to flee Saxony when a warrant was
issued for his arrest following his support for revolutionary
causes. He spent most of his 12-year exile in Switzerland. There
he wrote books on subjects such as race, vegetarianism, and
hygiene, as well as two influential volumes on music and art.
It was also during this period that he began his
monumental masterpiece Der Ring des Nibelungen (The ring of
the Nibelung). This huge work consists or four full-length operas
- Rheingold, Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), Siegfried,
and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) - and occupied
Wagner intermittently until 1874. He found the source for his
libretto m the ancient Nibelung saga, which explores the theme
(among many others of the conflict between love and money. The
ring exemplifies Wagner's revolutionary approach to opera,
which sees him dispense with recitative and individual numbers in
favour of long stretches of continuous music. Also distinctive is
Wagner's use of "leitmotifs" — tunes or phrases that represent a
character or an idea, and are used to evoke or chart some
development in the thing they represent.
Wagner broke off from writing Siegfried to work
on Tristan und Isolde. inspired in part by his affair with
Mathilde Wesendonck, the impetus too for the songs known as
Wesendonck Lieder. Tristan deals with the theme of an
all-embracing love, denied on earth and attainable only in death.
Its startling harmonies foreshadowed the work of Schoenberg and
Berg half a century later and resulted in an opera of great
passion and beauty so difficult to
stage that the original production was abandoned after 77
One of Wagner's few purely instrumental pieces is Siegfried
Idyll, composed as a birthday present for his new wife Cosima,
whom he married in 1870 following Minna's death. It was performed
outside Cosima's bedroom on Christmas morning 1870, with Wagner
conducting. During a respite from The ring, Wagner also
composed his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
(The mastersingers of Nuremberg), produced in Munich m 1868.
During its composition Wagner's desperate financial difficulties
were relieved by the young King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, a fanatical
admirer of Wagner's music. His funds enabled Wagner to pursue his
dream of establishing a festival devoted to his own operas. At an
opera house built at Bayreuth in southern Germany, the festival
was inaugurated in 1876 with a production of The ring.
Despite interruptions during the World Wars, the festival
continues; to this day the opera house has never been used to
stage an opera not written by Wagner.
For his final masterpiece, Parsifal, Wagner drew on the
ancient legend of the Holy Grail, advancing the themes of love,
renunciation, and redemption explored in earlier works. Because of
the work's sacred nature Wagner wished it to be performed only at
Bayreuth, but when the copyright lapsed in 1913 his heirs could
not prevent performances elsewhere.
A year after the completion of Parsifal in 1882, Wagner
suffered a fatal heart attack in Venice. His operas and forceful
personality had dominated German music in the second half of the
nineteenth century, a powerful influence that has not waned in the
intervening hundred vears.