Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Wagner wrote the librettos and scores of some of the world’s greatest operas, most notably Tristan und Isolde (1859) and the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (1874; the ring of the Nibelungs). A conductor, musical director, and writer as well as a composer, he raised standards for musical performances and developed the aesthetic of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), using compositional techniques based on chromaticism, variable meter, the leitmotif (a musical phrase with dramatic import), and an “infinite melody” of continuous expressiveness and significance.
Richard Wagner was born in the German cultural and commercial center of Leipzig. Legally the son of police actuary Friedrich Wagner and his wife, Johanna, the young Wagner was never certain whether his father was actually Ludwig Geyer, the painter, actor, and poet whom his mother wed nine months after the death of Friedrich in November, 1813. Geyer died when Wagner was eight years old, but the child was called Richard Geyer until his middle teens.
While Wagner never mastered score-reading or an instrument, he was an autodidact with ever-expanding interests in music, theater, and culture. His initial schooling took place during his family’s stay in Dresden, where he took piano lessons and explored ancient Greek mythology. He spent his late adolescence in Leipzig, beginning lessons in harmonic theory in 1828 and...
(The entire section is 2440 words.)
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