Wilhelm Richard Wagner (/ˈvɑːɡnər/; German: [ˈʁiçaʁt ˈvaːɡnɐ] (About this sound listen); 22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, “music dramas”). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas, or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, greatly influenced the development of classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.
Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. The Ring and Parsifal were premiered here and his most important stage works continue to be performed at the annual Bayreuth Festival, run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).
Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment, notably, since the late 20th century, where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; his influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre.
Wagner’s birthplace, at 3, the Brühl, Leipzig
Richard Wagner was born to an ethnic German family in Leipzig, Germany.
In 1831, Wagner enrolled at the Leipzig University, where he became a member of the Saxon student fraternity. He took composition lessons with the Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig. Weinlig was so impressed with Wagner’s musical ability that he refused any payment for his lessons. He arranged for his pupil’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major (which was consequently dedicated to him) to be published as Wagner’s Op. 1. A year later, Wagner composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenesque work performed in Prague in 1832 and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1833. He then began to work on an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he never completed.
In 1833, Wagner’s brother Albert managed to obtain for him a position as choir master at the theatre in Würzburg. In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). This work, which imitated the style of Weber, went unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer’s death in 1883.
Having returned to Leipzig in 1834, Wagner held a brief appointment as musical director at the opera house in Magdeburg during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In June 1837, Wagner moved to Riga (then in the Russian Empire), where he became music director of the local opera.
By 1839 debts would plague Wagner for most of his life. He took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner drew the inspiration for his opera Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Wagners settled in Paris in September 1839 and stayed there until 1842. During this stay he completed his third and fourth operas Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer.
Wagner had completed Rienzi in 1840. Rienzi was staged to considerable acclaim on 20 October.
Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. January 1843) and Tannhäuser (19 October 1845),the first two of his three middle-period operas.
Wagner’s involvement in left-wing politics abruptly ended his welcome in Dresden. Wagner was active among socialist German nationalists there and in 1849, when the unsuccessful May Uprising in Dresden broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. Warrants were issued for the revolutionaries’ arrest. Wagner had to flee, first visiting Paris and then settling in Zürich where he at first took refuge with a friend, Alexander Müller.
In exile: Switzerland (1849–1858)
The warrant for the arrest of Richard Wagner was issued on 16 May 1849. Wagner was to spend the next twelve years in exile from Germany. He had completed Lohengrin, the last of his middle-period operas, before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.
Nevertheless, Wagner was in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any regular income. In 1850, Julie, the wife of his friend Karl Ritter, began to pay him a small pension which she maintained until 1859. With help from her friend Jessie Laussot, this was to have been augmented to an annual sum of 3,000 Thalers per year; but this plan was abandoned when Wagner began an affair with Mme. Laussot. Wagner even planned an elopement with her in 1850, which her husband prevented. Meanwhile, Wagner’s wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Wagner fell victim to ill-health, according to Ernest Newman “largely a matter of overwrought nerves”, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.
Wagner’s primary published output during his first years in Zürich was a set of essays. In “The Artwork of the Future” (1849), he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stagecraft were unified. “Judaism in Music” (1850) was the first of Wagner’s writings to feature antisemitic views. In this polemic Wagner argued, frequently using traditional antisemitic abuse, that Jews had no connection to the German spirit, and were thus capable of producing only shallow and artificial music. According to him, they composed music to achieve popularity and, thereby, financial success, as opposed to creating genuine works of art.
In “Opera and Drama” (1851), Wagner described the aesthetics of drama that he was using to create the Ring operas. Before leaving Dresden, Wagner had drafted a scenario that eventually became the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He initially wrote the libretto for a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), in 1848. After arriving in Zürich, he expanded the story with the opera Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), which explored the hero’s background. He completed the text of the cycle by writing the libretti for Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and revising the other libretti to agree with his new concept, completing them in 1852. The concept of opera expressed in “Opera and Drama” and in other essays effectively renounced the operas he had previously written, up to and including Lohengrin. Partly in an attempt to explain his change of views, Wagner published in 1851 the autobiographical “A Communication to My Friends”. This contained his first public announcement of what was to become the Ring cycle:
I shall never write an Opera more. As I have no wish to invent an arbitrary title for my works, I will call them Dramas …
I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude (Vorspiel). …
At a specially-appointed Festival, I propose, some future time, to produce those three Dramas with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a fore-evening [emphasis in original].
Wagner began composing the music for Das Rheingold between November 1853 and September 1854, following it immediately with Die Walküre (written between June 1854 and March 1856). He began work on the third Ring opera, which he now called simply Siegfried, probably in September 1856, but by June 1857 he had completed only the first two acts. He decided to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.
Portrait of Mathilde Wesendonck (1850) by Karl Ferdinand Sohn
One source of inspiration for Tristan und Isolde was the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, notably his The World as Will and Representation, to which Wagner had been introduced in 1854 by his poet friend Georg Herwegh. Wagner later called this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer’s philosophy, a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He remained an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life.
One of Schopenhauer’s doctrines was that music held a supreme role in the arts as a direct expression of the world’s essence, namely, blind, impulsive will. This doctrine contradicted Wagner’s view, expressed in “Opera and Drama”, that the music in opera had to be subservient to the drama. Wagner scholars have argued that Schopenhauer’s influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle, which he had yet to compose. Aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine found their way into Wagner’s subsequent libretti.
A second source of inspiration was Wagner’s infatuation with the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks. From May 1853 onwards Wesendonck made several loans to Wagner to finance his household expenses in Zürich, and in 1857 placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner’s disposal, which became known as the Asyl (“asylum” or “place of rest”). During this period, Wagner’s growing passion for his patron’s wife inspired him to put aside work on the Ring cycle (which was not resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan. While planning the opera, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder, five songs for voice and piano, setting poems by Mathilde. Two of these settings are explicitly subtitled by Wagner as “studies for Tristan und Isolde”.
Return and resurgence (1862–1871)
The political ban that had been placed on Wagner in Germany after he had fled Dresden was fully lifted in 1862. The composer settled in Biebrich, on the Rhine near Wiesbaden in Hesse.
In Biebrich, Wagner at last began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only mature comedy. Wagner wrote a first draft of the libretto in 1845, and he had resolved to develop it during a visit he had made to Venice with the Wesendoncks in 1860. Throughout this period (1861–64) Wagner sought to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna. Despite numerous rehearsals, the opera remained unperformed, and gained a reputation as being “impossible” to sing, which added to Wagner’s financial problems.
Wagner’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, had the composer brought to Munich. The King, who was homosexual, expressed in his correspondence a passionate personal adoration for the composer, and Wagner in his responses had no scruples about counterfeiting a similar atmosphere. Ludwig settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and proposed to stage Tristan, Die Meistersinger, the Ring, and the other operas Wagner planned.
After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years.
Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter’s involvement with Wagner, though nevertheless the two men were friends. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner also fell into disfavour with many leading members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.
Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on 21 June the following year. At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of the first two works of the Ring, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner retained his dream, first expressed in “A Communication to My Friends”, to present the first complete cycle at a special festival with a new, dedicated, opera house.
In 1871, Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, which was to be the location of his new opera house. The town council donated a large plot of land—the “Green Hill”—as a site for the theatre. The Wagners moved to the town the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”) was laid. Wagner initially announced the first Bayreuth Festival, at which for the first time the Ring cycle would be presented complete, for 1873, but since Ludwig had declined to finance the project, the start of building was delayed and the proposed date for the festival was deferred. To raise funds for the construction, “Wagner societies” were formed in several cities, and Wagner began touring Germany conducting concerts. By the spring of 1873, only a third of the required funds had been raised; further pleas to Ludwig were initially ignored, but early in 1874, with the project on the verge of collapse, the King relented and provided a loan. The full building programme included the family home, “Wahnfried”, into which Wagner, with Cosima and the children, moved from their temporary accommodation on 18 April 1874. The theatre was completed in 1875, and the festival scheduled for the following year. Commenting on the struggle to finish the building, Wagner remarked to Cosima: “Each stone is red with my blood and yours”.
The Festspielhaus finally opened on 13 August 1876 with Das Rheingold, at last taking its place as the first evening of the complete Ring cycle; the 1876 Bayreuth Festival therefore saw the premiere of the complete cycle, performed as a sequence as the composer had intended. The 1876 Festival consisted of three full Ring cycles (under the baton of Hans Richter). At the end, critical reactions ranged between that of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who thought the work “divinely composed”, and that of the French newspaper Le Figaro, which called the music “the dream of a lunatic”. Amongst the disillusioned were Wagner’s friend and disciple Friedrich Nietzsche, who, having published his eulogistic essay “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” before the festival as part of his Untimely Meditations, was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner’s pandering to increasingly exclusivist German nationalism; his breach with Wagner began at this time. The festival firmly established Wagner as an artist of European, and indeed world, importance: attendees included Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, Anton Bruckner, Camille Saint-Saëns and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Last years (1876–1883)
Following the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy for health reasons.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera, which premiered on 26 May. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on 29 August, he entered the pit unseen during act 3, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. Wagner died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on 13 February 1883. After a funerary gondola bore Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth.
Early works (to 1842)
Wagner’s earliest attempts at opera were often uncompleted. Abandoned works include a pastoral opera based on Goethe’s Die Laune des Verliebten (The Infatuated Lover’s Caprice), written at the age of 17, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), on which Wagner worked in 1832, and the singspiel Männerlist größer als Frauenlist (Men are More Cunning than Women, 1837–38). Die Feen (The Fairies, 1833) was unperformed in the composer’s lifetime and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836) was withdrawn after its first performance. Rienzi (1842) was Wagner’s first opera to be successfully staged. The compositional style of these early works was conventional—the relatively more sophisticated Rienzi showing the clear influence of Grand Opera à la Spontini and Meyerbeer—and did not exhibit the innovations that would mark Wagner’s place in musical history. Later in life, Wagner said that he did not consider these works to be part of his oeuvre; none of them has ever been performed at the Bayreuth Festival, and they have been performed only rarely in the last hundred years (although the overture to Rienzi is an occasional concert piece). Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi were performed at both Leipzig and Bayreuth in 2013 to mark the composer’s bicentenary.
“Romantic operas” (1843–51)
Wagner’s middle stage output began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), followed by Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850). These three operas are sometimes referred to as Wagner’s “romantic operas”. They reinforced the reputation, among the public in Germany and beyond, that Wagner had begun to establish with Rienzi. Although distancing himself from the style of these operas from 1849 onwards, he nevertheless reworked both Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser on several occasions. These three operas are considered to represent a significant developmental stage in Wagner’s musical and operatic maturity as regards thematic handling, portrayal of emotions and orchestration. They are the earliest works included in the Bayreuth canon, the mature operas that Cosima staged at the Bayreuth Festival after Wagner’s death in accordance with his wishes. All three (including the differing versions of Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser) continue to be regularly performed throughout the world, and have been frequently recorded. They were also the operas by which his fame spread during his lifetime.
“Music dramas” (1851–82)
Wagner’s late dramas are considered his masterpieces. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring or “Ring cycle”, is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Germanic mythology—particularly from the later Norse mythology—notably the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga, and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Wagner specifically developed the libretti for these operas according to his interpretation of Stabreim, highly alliterative rhyming verse-pairs used in old Germanic poetry. They were also influenced by Wagner’s concepts of ancient Greek drama, in which tetralogies were a component of Athenian festivals, and which he had amply discussed in his essay “Oper und Drama”.
The first two components of the Ring cycle were Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), which was completed in 1854, and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which was finished in 1856. In Das Rheingold, with its “relentlessly talky ‘realism’ [and] the absence of lyrical ‘numbers'”, Wagner came very close to the musical ideals of his 1849–51 essays. Die Walküre, which contains what is virtually a traditional aria (Siegmund’s Winterstürme in the first act), and the quasi-choral appearance of the Valkyries themselves, shows more “operatic” traits, but has been assessed by Barry Millington as “the music drama that most satisfactorily embodies the theoretical principles of ‘Oper und Drama’… A thoroughgoing synthesis of poetry and music is achieved without any notable sacrifice in musical expression.”
Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger
While composing the opera Siegfried, the third part of the Ring cycle, Wagner interrupted work on it and between 1857 and 1864 wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde and his only mature comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), two works that are also part of the regular operatic canon.
Tristan is often granted a special place in musical history; many see it as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century. Wagner felt that his musico-dramatical theories were most perfectly realised in this work with its use of “the art of transition” between dramatic elements and the balance achieved between vocal and orchestral lines. Completed in 1859, the work was given its first performance in Munich, conducted by Bülow, in June 1865.
Die Meistersinger was originally conceived by Wagner in 1845 as a sort of comic pendant to Tannhäuser. Like Tristan, it was premiered in Munich under the baton of Bülow, on 21 June 1868, and became an immediate success. Barry Millington describes Meistersinger as “a rich, perceptive music drama widely admired for its warm humanity”; but because of its strong German nationalist overtones, it is also cited by some as an example of Wagner’s reactionary politics and antisemitism.
When Wagner returned to writing the music for the last act of Siegfried and for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), as the final part of the Ring, his style had changed once more to something more recognisable as “operatic” than the aural world of Rheingold and Walküre, though it was still thoroughly stamped with his own originality as a composer and suffused with leitmotifs. This was in part because the libretti of the four Ring operas had been written in reverse order, so that the book for Götterdämmerung was conceived more “traditionally” than that of Rheingold; still, the self-imposed strictures of the Gesamtkunstwerk had become relaxed. The differences also result from Wagner’s development as a composer during the period in which he wrote Tristan, Meistersinger and the Paris version of Tannhäuser. From act 3 of Siegfried onwards, the Ring becomes more chromatic melodically, more complex harmonically and more developmental in its treatment of leitmotifs.
Wagner took 26 years from writing the first draft of a libretto in 1848 until he completed Götterdämmerung in 1874. The Ring takes about 15 hours to perform and is the only undertaking of such size to be regularly presented on the world’s stages.
Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal (1882), which was his only work written especially for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus and which is described in the score as a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (“festival play for the consecration of the stage”), has a storyline suggested by elements of the legend of the Holy Grail. It also carries elements of Buddhist renunciation suggested by Wagner’s readings of Schopenhauer. Wagner described it to Cosima as his “last card”. It remains controversial because of its treatment of Christianity, its eroticism, and its expression, as perceived by some commentators, of German nationalism and antisemitism. Despite the composer’s own description of the opera to King Ludwig as “this most Christian of works”, Ulrike Kienzle has commented that “Wagner’s turn to Christian mythology, upon which the imagery and spiritual contents of Parsifal rest, is idiosyncratic and contradicts Christian dogma in many ways.” Musically the opera has been held to represent a continuing development of the composer’s style, and Barry Millington describes it as “a diaphanous score of unearthly beauty and refinement”.
The opening of Tristan und Isolde, featuring the ‘Tristan chord’
Wagner’s later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif) and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onwards, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, which include the so-called Tristan chord.
Opponents and supporters
Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions, supporters of Wagner and supporters of Johannes Brahms. Another Wagner detractor was the French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who wrote to Hiller … Wagner is not a musician, he is a disease.”
Even those who, like Debussy, opposed Wagner (“this old poisoner”) could not deny his influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers, including Tchaikovsky, who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was so unmistakable and overwhelming. Gioachino Rossini, said “Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour.”
Wagner’s followers (known as Wagnerians or Wagnerites) have formed many societies dedicated to Wagner’s life and work.
Since Wagner’s death, the Bayreuth Festival, which has become an annual event, has been successively directed by his widow, his son Siegfried, the latter’s widow Winifred Wagner, their two sons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, and, presently, two of the composer’s great-granddaughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner. Since 1973, the festival has been overseen by the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung (Richard Wagner Foundation), the members of which include a number of Wagner’s descendants.
Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner’s music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation; in a 1922 speech he claimed that Wagner’s works glorified “the heroic Teutonic nature … Greatness lies in the heroic.” Hitler visited Bayreuth frequently from 1923 onwards and attended the productions at the theatre.