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  • Nationality: German
  • 1813 - 1883
  • You might know him for: Bridal Chorus (from Lohengrin), Ride of the Valkyries (from The Ring, featured in the film Apocolypse Now), The Flying Dutchmen, Tristan and Isolde

Richard Wagner was a German composer whose work had a massive impact on the development of western music. He was born in Leipzig on 22. May 1813 the same year as his father Friedrich, a civil servant, died. Later his mother Johanna Rosina married Ludwig Geyer, a painter and singer-actor. The artistic and theatrical environment of his early years had a very formative influence on Wagner and he became on opera enthusiast after seeing a performance of Leonore in “Fidelio”.

At the Kreuzschule, Dresden and the Nikolaischule, Leipzig, he was a negligent pupil. But he showed great interest in Shakespeare, Weber, Schiller, Goethe and Beethoven, he taught himself the piano, widened his skills of composing while at Leipzig university and in particular he studied Beethoven’s symphonies.

At the age of twenty he was in Würzburg as a choir director where he composed his first opera “Die Feen” (The Fairies). The following six years he spent in Magdeburg, Königsberg and Riga as a conductor of third-rate opera houses, living in poverty owing to his poor pay. In 1836 he conducted the only performance of his second opera “Das Liebesverbot” (The Ban on Love”) after Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. The same year he married the actress Minna Plana with whom he had a turbulent marriage till Minna’s death in 1866.
In 1839 Wagner had to flee from his creditors, the first of many flights. The stormy voyage took him to Paris via Norway and London. While at anchor in Norway, he heard the story of “The Flying Dutchman”, which he found very gripping,  from the sailors. The three years in Paris were a disaster; he could not break into the closed circle of the opera world, but he completed “Rienzi” and “The Flying Dutchman”.

Humiliated, he returned the Dresden in 1842, where “Rienzi” was triumphantly performed. Next year`s performance of “The Flying Dutchman” was far less successful, probably a consequence of it’s innovative style. Nevertheless he was appointed Hofkapellmeister (royal court band master) at the court opera “for lifetime”. “Tannhäuser” increased his standing and became a steady attraction but “Lohengrin”, though completed in 1848, could not be performed in Dresden. The revolution of 1848/1849 brought a drastic change. Wagner supported the insurgents and took part in the uprising. When the revolution failed, Wagner had to flee and found temporary refuge with his friend Liszt in Weimar. As there was a price on his head, he had to leave Germany and went to Zürich, Switzerland where he lived till 1858. Thus he could not attend the first performance of “Lohengrin” which Liszt gave in Weimar in 1850. In Zürich, Wagner composed “Tristan and Isolde”. Also in Zürich he wrote the first sketches of “Siegfried’s Death” (Siegfrieds Tod), which formed the basis of the tetralogy of the musical drama “The Ring of the Nibelung” (Der Ring des Nibelungen) consisting of “The Rhinegold” (Das Rheingold), “The Valkyrie” (Die Walküre), “Siegfried”, and “The Twilight of the Gods” (Götterdämmerung). In 1857 Wagner suspended work on the “Ring”, and inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, composed “Tristan and Isolde” (1857-1859). The amnesty of 1861 permitted him to return to Germany. Soon after returning home he went to Vienna, used all his money to buy a home and hoped for the production of “Tristan”. When this failed he started work on the comedy-opera “The Mastersingers of Nürnberg” (Die Meistersänger von Nürnberg). But his lavish lifestyle and habit of borrowing money resulted in disaster again. To avoid imprisonment for debt, he had to flee from Vienna. When he arrived in Stuttgart in 1864, he was without a penny and almost at the end of his tether.

A miracle happened. The Bavarian King Ludwig II., an ardent  admirer of Wagner’s art came to his rescue. The king set him up in a villa in Munich where Wagner lived with Cosima von Bülow, Liszt`s daughter. During the next six years all of his representative works were successfully performed in Munich, including the first performance of “Tristan” (1865), “The Mastersingers” (1868), “The Rhinegold” (1869) and “The Valkyrie” (1870). At first, a new theatre was projected for these performances, but not only Wagner`s way of living raised a storm; despite his princely salary he ran into debt again and he even attempted to interfere in the governing of the kingdom. And he lived with von Bülow`s wife Cosima, with whom he had three children, Isolde (1865), Eva (1867) and Siegfried (1869). After von Bülow`s divorce from Cosima  and the death of Wagner`s wife Minna (1866) they got married in 1870. Due to all these circumstances he had to leave Munich – another flight. Again he found refuge in Switzerland at Lake Zürich.

Though it had been agreed with the King that the first performance of the “Ring”, when completed, should be given in a new kind of theatre in Munich, Wagner neglected this agreement. He had found a suitable site in Bayreuth where he had moved to in 1872. He raised funds by touring Germany and conducting concerts and by encouraging the formation of societies to support his plan, and so in 1872 the foundation stone for a new kind of theatre (Festspielhaus) was laid. In 1872 Wagner moved into a house which he named “Wahnfried” (Peace from Madness) and completed the “Ring” in the same year.The German Emperor and numerous dukes were present at the first triumphant performance of the “Ring” in the new “Festspielhaus” on the 13., 14., 16. and 17. August 1876.
Wagner spent the rest of his life at “Wahnfried”. He made several visits to Italy and one to London (1877) where he gave a series of successful concerts. His last work “Parsifal” was completed and performed in 1882 in Bayreuth. Wagner died on 13. February 1883 and was laid to rest in the grounds of “Wahnfried”.

Wagner`s development and achievements must be viewed from his own point, that of a composer and musical dramatist. Music interested him as an emotional and psychological expression. Beginning with “The Flying Dutchman” in which his mature and romantic style emerged, and then in “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin” he succeeded in arranging musical and dramatic climax after climax in a masterly way. During a period of cogitation over social theories Wagner found his definite style. He prophesied the disappearance of opera as entertainment for an elite and a new kind of musical stage work for all people which was to be called music drama later. This new form of art would be created by a single artist writing a poetic drama that would find its full expression when embedded in a continuous vocal-symphonic texture.. The texture would be developed from basic thematic ideas called “Leitmotive” (leading motives/leitmotives). The concept was fully embodied in “The Ring”, except that the “leitmotives” were  not exclusively based on vocal expressions but were often introduced by the orchestra to portray emotions, events and characters of the drama. Schopenhauer`s theory of the supremacy of music among the arts caused him to shift the balance of musical drama towards music. The result of this new form of art was the distinctive feature of a profound and complex symbolism, which was indivisible and expressed itself on the verbal, dramatic and musical plane.

Though Wagner`s influence as a musical dramatist and composer was powerful, his effect in the purely musical field was even more far-reaching. He developed such an immense tonal colour so that a unique emotional world was inherent in all his works.

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