Richard Wagner Biography


(History of the World: 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.

Early Life

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 briefly studying violin with a member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1830. The following year, he dabbled in musical studies at the University of Leipzig and became a pupil of Christian Theodor Weinlig.

A survey of Wagner’s earliest successes and failures during the ensuing years indicates the wide range of his ambitions. By the end of 1833, he had composed his Polonaise in D for Piano (1832), conducted his Concert Symphony in C Major (1832) in Prague and Leipzig, started and abandoned work on an opera, and secured employment at the Würzburg city theater. In 1834, he became music director of Heinrich Bethmann’s theatrical company in Magdeburg, completed his opera Die Feen (the fairies), published an essay for Robert Schumann’s Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, made his debut as an opera conductor in Lauchstadt, and completed a libretto for Das Liebesverbot (1836; the ban on love). After first attempting to have this opera presented in Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris, Wagner conducted one performance of it in 1836 in Magdeburg, before the company there disbanded.

Also in 1836, Wagner wed Christine Wilhelmina (“Minna”) Planer, an actress whom he first met in Lauchstadt. During the first years of this troubled marriage, Wagner experienced a decline in productivity. In 1837, he wrote an overture based on Rule, Britannia! (originally by Thomas Arne) and soon afterward assumed the post of music director of the city theater in Riga, where he sparked controversy (as he had in Magdeburg) by proposing numerous reforms, including plans for a subscription series.

When his contract in Riga was not renewed, Wagner traveled with Minna to Paris via the Norwegian coast, arriving in September, 1839. There he intensified his literary activity, received the support of Giacomo Meyerbeer, and became exposed to the work of Hector Berlioz. Initially occupying himself with such piecemeal work as composition for vaudevilles, he soon completed the first versions of the Faust Overture (1840), the grand tragic opera Rienzi (1840), and the Romantic opera Der fliegende Holländer (1841; the flying Dutchman). By early 1843, the premieres of the latter two works had established Wagner as a composer and conductor of note.

Life’s Work

In February, 1843, Wagner assumed the position of royal Kapellmeister left vacant after the death of Francesco Morlacchi. During his stay in Dresden, Wagner again antagonized his colleagues. Rigorous rehearsal schedules, a rearrangement of the traditional seating arrangement, and the eradication of the seniority system were among the improvements suggested by Wagner, who rarely succeeded in having his ideas enacted.

Wagner’s brilliant but unorthodox approach to conducting, eliciting an impressive range of dynamic nuance, called upon orchestra and audience members to follow an idiosyncratic series of tempo changes that fully indulged the maestro’s subjectivism. To retain his office, Wagner was forced to promise to interpret only new operas in this manner and to conform to tradition in conducting the old ones.

His talent as a creative administrator enabled Wagner to mount spectacles such as the 1843 choral festival, for which he hastily composed Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (1843; the love feast of the apostles) for more than thirteen hundred performers. He was, however, dissatisfied with this performance as well as with the premiere two years later of his grand Romantic opera Tannhäuser (1845), which he revised extensively over the years.

Wagner, who met the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1848, supported the Dresden Revolution of 1849. He fled Germany in the wake of its failure, staying briefly in Weimar, the home of his friend Franz Liszt, before settling in Zurich. Following a discouraging January, 1850, excursion to Paris, Wagner wrote the anti-Semitic essay “Das Judentum in der Musik” (1850; Jewishness and music). Wagner was also frustrated with circumstances surrounding the 1850 premiere of Lohengrin, directed by Liszt. In this Romantic opera, Elsa of Brabant loses the mysterious knight Lohengrin after the machinations of her enemies and her own curiosity compel her to ask him forbidden questions about his origin. Wagner’s distance from the production (he did not hear a complete performance of the work until 1861) prompted him to ponder the creation of a theater designed to showcase his own...

(The entire section is 2440 words.)