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Richard Wagner

- Richard Wagner -

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 - February 13, 1883) was an influential 19th century German composer and essayist primarily known for his operatic works. His music is still widely performed and the Ride of the Valkyries and Bridal Chorus are among his best known pieces.

Table of contents

Musical Works

Wagner's primary artistic legacy are his ground-breaking operas, which have had a powerful and lasting impact on the world of classical music. His music, often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, involved unprecedented explorations of emotionality. He introduced new ideas in harmony and form, including extremes of chromaticism and popularized the use of leitmotifs.

Additionally, Wagner is responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house which he had specially constructed, toward the end of his life, for the performance of his operas. These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is still in use; it is the center of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth each summer.

Wagner was an extremely prolific writer. Over his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as a massive amount of correspondence. He wrote on a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often self-contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include "Oper und Drama" ("Opera and Drama", 1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Judaism in Music", 1850), a polemic which claimed Jewish music was innately inferior.


Wagner's musical output was largely confined to his operas, which he referred to as "music dramas". The plots of most of his operas were based on European myths and legends. Unlike other opera composers, who generally delegated the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems".

The operas can be roughly divided into three groups. The early-stage operas are Die Feen[?] (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot[?] (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi[?]. These are works of little merit, and are seldom performed today. His middle-stage output, which is of remarkably higher quality, began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin.

The first of Wagner's mature operas was Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde), which is often considered his masterpiece. The score of Tristan is notable for its innovative use of dissonance, and certain historians of music have placed the beginning of modern classical music at the first notes of Tristan (the so-called Tristan chord[?].)

Wagner's next opera was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), the only comedy in his oeuvre apart from Das Liebesverbot and one of the longest operas still performed. This was followed by Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), also known as the Ring cycle, a 14-hour set of four operas based on German and Scandinavian myths, including the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga. The Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious artistic work ever made.

Wagner's final opera was Parsifal, a contemplative work based on Christian myth.




Non-operatic music

Wagner composed a number of pieces of music apart from his operas, including a single symphony (written at the age of 19), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces. His single non-operatic composition of consequence is the Siegfried Idyll, a beautiful chamber piece written for the birthday of Cosima, his second wife. The Idyll draws on many motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. It was his intention, after the composition of Parsifal, to turn to the writing of symphonies, but these plans were curtailed by his death.

Musical extracts from Wagner's operas are commonly played as concert pieces, especially the overtures and orchestral passages from his middle and late-stage operas. The most famous example is the Bridal Chorus[?] (popularly known in the United States as "Here Comes the Bride") from Lohengrin, which is often played as the processional at Christian weddings.

Such extracts are often modified for playing in concert form. For example, the concert form of the Tristan overture, which was written by Wagner himself, uses an extra page of scoring to bring the music to a conclusion.


Early Life

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 22, 1813. His father, a minor city official, died 6 months after the birth, and his mother married the actor Ludwig Geyer in August 1814. Geyer, who is rumored to have actually been the boy's father, died when he was six, leaving him to be brought up by his mother.

Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig[?] in 1831. One of Wagner's early influences as a composer was Ludwig van Beethoven, whose music he would never cease to admire.

In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner had finished composing his first complete opera, Die Feen. This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later. Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot, based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second attempt was actually staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but met with little acclaim.

Later in 1836, Wagner married actress Minna Planer, and they moved to the town of Riga where he became the musical director at the local opera house. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer who left her penniless. Wagner accepted her back, but it was the start of a troubled marriage that would end, three decades later, in misery.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such a large amount of debt that they were forced to flee Riga to escape their creditors; the recurring problem of debt would plague Wagner for the rest of his life. During their flight, they took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner obtained the inspiration for Der fliegende Holländer. The Wagners then lived in Paris for several years, where Richard made a living writing articles and making arrangements of operas by other composers.

The Dresden Years

Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Fortuitously, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre in the German state of Saxony. In 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-stage operas.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for increased freedoms and the unification of the weak states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a boil in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved his Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. An uprising broke out in May, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. However, the incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner managed to avoid capture and fled to Zürich, Switzerland. His compatriots Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and were forced to endure long years of imprisonment.

Exile, Schopenhauer, and Mathilde Wesendonk

Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into The Ring of the Nibelung, had no prospects of seeing performance. Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner's primary output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: "The Art-Work of the Future" (1949), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; "Judaism in Music" (1850), an anti-Semitic tract directed against Jewish composers; and "Opera and Drama" (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.

In the following years, Wagner came upon two independent sources of inspiration, leading to the creation of his celebrated Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh[?] introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. Certainly, his personal circumstances made him an easy convert to Schopenhauer's philosophy, which was centered on a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition, although Wagner would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer even after his fortunes improved.

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in "Opera and Drama", that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian 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. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti; for example, the self-renouncing character of Hans Sachs[?] from Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation.

Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852, and Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed the house next to his own at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story of the knight Tristan and the already-married lady Isolde - a situation with obvious parallels to Wagner's own.

The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice. The following year, he moved again to Paris to produce a new revision of Tannhäuser. The premiere, given in 1861, turned out to be an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by aristocrats from the Jockey Club. The opera was withdrawn, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.

Wagner led a peripatetic existence for the next several years. He held a final bitter meeting with Mathilde in Venice, where it became completely clear that Mathilde had no intention of being his lover. Shortly afterward, Wagner began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his sunniest work. ("When future generations seek refreshment in this unique work," his second wife Cosima would later write, "may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose.") In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he - or at least his creditors - continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.

Patronage of King Ludwig II

Wagner's fortunes underwent a dramatic improvement in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer located and brought to Munich. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After great difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde finally premiered to enormous success at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865.

In the meantime, Wagner had become embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima herself was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. In April 1865, Cosima gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, named Isolde. News of their affair, which was conducted with little secrecy, scandalized the Munich public. Furthermore, Wagner had fallen into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the impressionable Ludwig. As a result, in December 1865 King Ludwig was forced to ask the composer to leave Munich.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Tribschen[?], beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. The young king apparently toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dismissed this notion. At Tribschen, Wagner completed Die Meistersinger in 1867, and it premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally left Hans von Bülow, on apparently amicable terms, to live with Wagner. They were married on August 25, 1870, and in December of that year Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life. They had an additional daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.


Settled into his newfound domesticity, Wagner turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were given at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.

In 1871, he decided to locate this opera house in the small town of Bayreuth. The Wagners moved to Bayreuth the following year, and the foundation stone for the Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner societies" were formed in many cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. Nevertheless, the project appeared doomed, until King Ludwig interceded with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa which Richard dubbed Haus Wahnfried ("Freedom from Illusion".)

The Festspielhaus finally opened in 1876, with the premiere of the Ring cycle. Present at this unique musical event was an illustrious list of guests: Kaiser Wilhelm, Dom Pedro II of Brazil, King Ludwig (who attended in secret, probably to avoid the Kaiser), and other members of the nobility; and such accomplished composers as Anton Bruckner, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Franz Liszt.

Artistically, the Festival was an outstanding success. ("Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember," wrote Tchaikovsky, attending the Festival as a Russian correspondent.) Financially, however, it was an unmitigated disaster. Plans for a second festival the following year were abandoned, and Wagner travelled to London to conduct a series of concerts, in an attempt to make up the deficit.

Final Years

In 1877, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.

Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from the conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.

After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin[?] on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of Haus Wahnfried.

Anti-Semitism and Nazi Appropriation

Wagner promulgated many anti-semitic views. During the 20th century, this anti-Semitism would become a large part of public perception of Wagner and his works, largely due to the appropriation of his music by Nazi Germany. It should be noted that Wagner's anti-semitism was conveyed explicitly through his writings and conversations. Several scholars have also argued that his operatic compositions contain anti-Semitic ideas, although this claim is debated.

The most notorious of Wagner's anti-Semitic writings was "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (1850). Originally published in the Neue Zeitschrift under the pen-name "K. Freigedenk" ("free thought"), the essay argued that Jewish composers such as Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer could only be capable of creating music that was shallow and artificial. Wagner called Jews ugly "freaks of nature", "blabbering" incomprehensibly and in shrill voices, egoistically devoted to profit and incapable of expressing passion when speaking to non-Jews, and, in spite of their alleged wealth, unable to shed their primitive roots (see Das Judenthum in der Musik for details). The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger.

Wagner's anti-semitism was not unique; anti-semitic ideas were widespread in the European intellectual world of the 19th century, and similar positions were echoed by writers such as Theodor Fritsch[?], Richard Francis Burton and Heinrich von Treitschke. Wagner also believed that Jews were a foreign element hindering the reunification of Germany. In "What is German?" (1878), he wrote:

The Jew... [took] German intellectual labour into his own hands; and thus we see an odious travesty of the German spirit upheld to-day before the German Folk, as its imputed likeness. It is to be feared, ere long the nation may really take this simulacrum for its mirrored image: then one of the finest natural dispositions in all the human race were done to death, perchance for ever.

While Wagner consistently argued for the expulsion of Jews - or, failing that, their assimilation into German culture - it is doubtful that he wished their extermination. In the conclusion to Judenthum (1850) he wrote: "There is only one way of redeeming the Jews from the terrible curse that hangs over them - annihilation." This has often been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, though in the context of the essay it probably refers to the eradication of Judaism and the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Later, in a 1878 conversation with Cosima, he mentioned that "if I wrote about the Jews again, I would say that there is nothing to be held against them, only they came to us Germans too soon; we were not stable enough to absorb this element."

Wagner had several Jewish friends. For example, Hermann Levi, the conductor to whom he entrusted performances of his later operas, was a practising Jew. Wagner made several attempts to convert Levi to Christianity, including asking him to become baptized before performing Parsifal. Levi maintained considerable affection for Wagner, returning to direct each Bayreuth festival until 1894.

After Wagner's death in 1883, Bayreuth became a meeting place for a group of extreme right-wing Wagner fans, who came to be known as the Bayreuth circle[?]. After the death of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930, the operation of the festival fell to Siegfried's widow Winifred, who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was a fan of Wagner, drawn to Wagner's anti-Semitism as well as the Germanic themes in his music; he once stated that "there is only one legitimate predecessor to national socialism: Wagner". The Nazis frequently made use of Wagner's music, playing it at their rallies.

Mostly due to this Nazi association, Wagner's works were not performed in the modern state of Israel. Past attempts at staging performances were halted by protests, especially from Holocaust survivors. The situation may be changing: There was a public performance in 2001 of Die Walküre, conducted by Daniel Barenboim; this caused heated debate in Israeli society. It is generally felt now that the informal social ban against playing Wagner in Israel is gone.

Sound sample

Related Topics

  • What's Opera, Doc?, a famous cartoon using Wagner's Nibelungen music, in which the Ride of the Valkyries is sung by Elmer Fudd with the words "Kill the wabbit!"

External Links

Some of Wagners most famous essays:


  • Magee, B., The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Metropolitan Books (2001)
  • Tanner, M., Wagner, Princeton University Press (1995)

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