Richard Wagner

Composer Richard Wagner

Wagner reinvented German opera and became one of the most influential composers of all time. His reforms affected opera composition, theatrical practice in general, and the development of the orchestra.

Vital Statistics
May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany
February 13, 1883, in Venice
Performed As:
Conductor, pianist (privately)
During Lifetime:
German nationalism became a political movement, resulting in the Frankfurt Parliament in 1848-49, along with insurrections in several states of the German Confederation. Although the Parliament was suppressed, the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership (and without Austria) occurred in 1871.
Biographical Outline
  • War baby, 1813: Richard Wagner, youngest of nine children, is born during the last days of the Napoleonic Wars, and the decisive Battle of Five Armies is fought at Leipzig when he is only five months old. His father, Friedrich, dies one month after the battle. Richard is raised by his mother Johanna and stepfather Ludwig Geyer, an actor and friend of the family. Geyer introduces Richard to the theater, but dies in 1821. 
  • Tools of the trade, 1827-32: At his own request, Wagner is given composition lessons in 1828-31. He then enrolls at the University of Leipzig (1831) and takes lessons with the cantor of the St. Thomas Church. A devotee of Beethoven, Wagner composes a symphony in 1832. 
  • First gigs, 1833-37: Wagner's brother secures him a job as chorus master in Würzburg. Wagner composes his first two operas, Die Feen (The Fairies, 1833) and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836), and takes on the music directorship of a traveling theater company (1834-36.) He marries Wilhelmine (Minna) Planer, an actor in the company, and follows her to Königsberg. 
  • Dream of Paris, 1837-39: Wagner directs the opera in Riga, Latvia. But, eying Paris, he begins work on a French grand opera, Rienzi. With his contract in dispute at the opera house, Wagner decides to leave. Because of mounting debts, his passport has been impounded, so he, Minna, and their dog, cross the border secretly and, at the port of Pillau in Prussia, are stowed away on a small merchant ship and carried to London. 
  • Defeat in Paris, 1839-42: In September, Wagner arrives in Paris where he is received cordially by Giacomo Meyerbeer, the reigning champion of grand opera. Meyerbeer gives him letters of introduction to the heads of the Paris Opéra, and induces another theater to accept Liebesverbot for production. (The theater goes bankrupt before the performance occurs.) Meanwhile, Wagner ekes out a living making opera arrangements and writing music criticism. He finishes Rienzi in September 1840 and Der fliegende Höllander (The Flying Dutchman) a year later. Penniless, he is threatened with imprisonment for debt. With Meyerbeer’s help, Rienzi is accepted for performance in Dresden. 
  • Breakthrough in Dresden, 1842-48: Rienzi’s premiere is an enormous success and leads to his appointment as second Kapellmeister to the King of Saxony in Dresden. In addition to his conducting duties, Wagner composes Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848).
  • Revolution: In February 1848, a revolt in Paris brings down the French monarchy, touching off a wave of revolutionary fervor in German lands. Wagner devotes himself to the democratic-republican movement, supporting the revolutionaries in the May Uprising of 1849. When Dresden’s provisional government is crushed by Saxon and Prussian troops, Wagner escapes, with a false passport, first to Paris and then to Switzerland. In Zürich, he writes a series of famous essays. (See here for more.)
  • Conceiving The Ring, 1849-51: Before leaving Dresden, Wagner had begun to draft an opera about Siegfried, the central hero of Germanic mythology. But, influenced by his readings of older Scandinavian myths, the tragedies of Aeschylus, and contemporary philosophers, he instead expands the opera into a cycle of four, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung's Ring). He completes the librettos by 1853, and the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), in September 1854. He completes Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) in March 1856, and two acts of Siegfried by September 1857.
  • Patrons and lovers, 1850-59: With a warrant out for his arrest, Wagner is dependent on his friends for money. Eventually, a wealthy admirer, Otto Wesendonck pays Wagner's outstanding debts (nearly 10,000 francs worth), and sets him up, in 1857, in a small house near his new villa. Wagner and Otto's wife, Mathilde, begin a love affair (probably never consummated.) When Minna finds out, Wagner flees to Venice. The infatuation with Mathilde, as well as his discovery of the Buddhist-influenced, renunciatory philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, cause Wagner to set aside his Ring project and to write his great paean to Romantic love, Tristan und Isolde (completed in Lucerne, in 1859). His separation from Minna lasts until her death, in 1866.
  • Another attempt at Paris, 1860-63: The personal intervention of Princess Pauline Metternich gets Tannhäuser accepted for production at the Paris Opéra. Politically motivated disruptions cause an indignant Wagner to withdraw the opera after the first three performances. A partial amnesty allows him to return to Germany, where he begins composing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). Indulging in a luxurious lifestyle in a suburb of Vienna, he racks up more debt, has to flee, and publishes an open request for financial aid.
  • Ludwig and Cosima, 1864-71: The 20-year-old king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, takes up Wagner’s cause, paying off his debts; giving him a large, luxuriously furnished house in Munich; and ordering the first production of Tristan (1865). At the same time, Wagner forms a liaison with Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow. Their daughter, Isolde, is born in 1865. The scandal and political objections to Wagner’s influence over the king cause Wagner to retreat, with Cosima, to a villa overlooking Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. There the composer finishes Meistersinger (1867) and Siegfried (1864-1871). He and Cosima have two more children, and after Hans grants a divorce, they marry, in 1870. The first performance of Meistersinger (Munich, 1868), is a triumph.
  • A festival theater, 1871-76: Wanting the full Ring to be performed at a national theater, Wagner sets about creating one in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, funding it through the donations of supporters, Ludwig being the major donor. In 1874 the theater and Wagner's villa are finished, and in November, so is the score to Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final opera of the Ring. The cycle is given three times in summer 1876, and is a major event.
  • Final years, 1877-83: Wagner works on his last opera, Parsifal. In March 1882, he suffers a major heart attack. After the opera is produced that year, in the second Bayreuth Festival, Wagner journeys to Venice, where he dies of a second heart attack.
Fun Facts
  • Making an impression: Wagner was short, with a large head and blue eyes. In person, he was theatrical and possessed an ability to take people into his confidence.
  • Mama’s boy: Wagner’s attachment to his mother and older siblings affected him in later life. With the exception of Minna, Wagner was attracted to married or attached women. He was addicted to luxury items like soft silks and perfumes, which played havoc with his finances.
  • In theory: Wagner's prose writings include his autobiography (My Life), which he dictated to Cosima in the 1860s, and numerous essays. The essays took up eight volumes, in the first English translated edition, and cover his views on art and politics in both practical and theoretical detail. The most important are the Zurich essays: Art and Revolution (1849) decries the influence of capitalist profit-taking in art. The Artwork of the Future (1849) presents his ideas for reunification of the arts in artworks responsive to the needs of “the people.” Opera and Drama details his ideas for a renewal of opera as drama-through-music. Jewishness in Music (1850) is an anti-Semitic pamphlet, which, in addition to attacking Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, repeats many standard anti-Semitic lies and claims that Jewish cultural productions are inert. In some later writings, he also amplified the anti-Semitism he displayed in Jewishness in Music.
  • In practice: The auditorium of Wagner’s theater at Bayreuth was designed in a simple semicircle, like ancient Greek theaters, and without the box seats for the social elite. The orchestra pit was invented in Bayreuth, and is hidden from audience view by a convex wall, or lip, which also helps mix the orchestral sound. It was also in Bayreuth that the practice began of turning out the auditorium lights for the performance, resulting in the theater’s becoming a leader in stage lighting innovation.
  • Wagnerism: After the premiere of Tristan, in 1865, Wagner became a celebrity; Wagner Societies sprang up, where his aesthetic theories and music were discussed. Young composers from all over Europe, from Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, to Claude Debussy and Giacomo Puccini and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, were influenced by Wagner’s harmonic usage, his through-composed approach to opera (in which individual “numbers” were subordinated to the entire progression of an act), and his incomparable orchestration. Many among Europe’s intellectual and cultural elite made “pilgrimages” to Bayreuth to hear Wagner.
  • Nationalism and narcissism: Having written a body of great works based on Germanic and Norse mythology, Wagner became extremely important to German nationalists who hailed his music dramas as the ne plus ultra of musical development and history. Wagner reveled in this position, and attacked alternative viewpoints. Johannes Brahms, in particular, was derided for adopting classical forms and procedures that Wagnerians had declared obsolete.
  • The Bayreuth legacy: The story of the Bayreuth Festival is a saga in itself. Winifred Wagner, an Englishwoman who married Richard’s son, Siegfried, was an early and passionate admirer of Adolf Hitler, who was a Wagnerphile. Her service to Hitler included campaigning to secure his early release from prison after the Munich “Beer-Hall Putsch.” Bayreuth, under her leadership, became a Nazi shrine, frequently hosting the dictator and serving as a cultural propaganda arm for the party. As a result, the de-Nazification of Bayreuth, accomplished by Richard’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang, was particularly fraught, and the family has remained guarded and secretive about its history and management of the festival.
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Explore the Music

Ten of Wagner’s operas, all except the first three, are regularly produced around the world. While many run four hours or more, they also contain a fair proportion of the greatest music ever written for the stage. Excerpts from the operas are concert staples, along with the Siegfried Idyll, a serenade to Cosima on the birth of their son. Listening to these excerpts is an excellent way for beginners to approach Wagner’s music.

  • Orchestra innovations: Throughout his career, Wagner steadily gave the orchestra more prominence in his work, making it a kind of omniscient narrator, or Greek chorus. For The Ring, Wagner expanded the lower brass section of the orchestra, adding several new instruments. He invented the so-called “Wagner tubas,” modified French horns with a deeper, mellower sound. With the large string section Wagner called for, the total number of instrumentalists in The Ring may reach 106, though many opera houses use fewer.
  • Loving the leitmotiv: A leitmotiv (leading motive) is a short theme, sometimes merely a chord or two, given to a character, idea, or thing. They occur in all of Wagner’s main operas. In the later operas, Wagner used them extensively to create webs of musical meaning and reference, and to help underscore the progression of the drama and character psychology. Classic movie scores took up this technique, which you can hear in famous scores by John Williams. (See here.)
  • Come again?: Wagner coined the term gesamtkunstwerk (unified work of art) in The Artwork of the Future, and it stuck as a description of his operatic reforms. His operas are also sometimes called music dramas, to distinguish them from “number” opera.
  • Wagnerian singers: For most of his lead roles, Wagner relied on singers with rich, heavy voices — meaty in the low register, with plenty of power and stamina. These voices are sometimes called heroic (as in heldentenor, “heroic tenor”), sometimes just “dramatic.”
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