Richard Wagner

1813 - 1883

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, "music dramas"). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama. He described this vision in a series of essays published between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

"I write music with an exclamation point! "

        Richard Wagner       

Key Works

The Flying Dutchman - overture

DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER

The Flying Dutchman was Wagner’s first attempt at reinventing opera. It has no distinct arias, and everything that happens, whether on the stage or in the pit, is there to enhance the drama. The Flying Dutchman himself is a man doomed to sail the seas alone until he finds the love of a true woman, which will save his soul.

Tannhauser - overture

Based on a poem by Ludwig Tieck, Tannhauser received its first, not very successful, performance at Dresden in 1845. Its hero, Tannhauser, returns to Germany from the realms of the goddess Venus and competes in a song contest for the hand of Elisabeth, his old love. Singing of the joys of the flesh rather than the spirit, Tannhauser is banished. The pair are eventually reunited in death.

Lohengrin - overture

Based on a German epic poem, and first performed in Weimar in 1850, Lohengrin tells of the rivalry between Telramund and Lohengrin over the succession to the dukedom of Brabant and the love of Elsa. Lohengrin’s famous swan (on which he arrives to meet Elsa) turns out to be Gottfried, the missing heir to the dukedom.

(b. Leipzig, May 22, 1813; d. Venice, February 13, 1883)
 

German composer and conductor, author of the greatest German operas of the 19th century and of revolutionary advances in harmony, orchestration, musical dramaturgy, and aesthetics. Alone among the great figures in the history of opera, he never worked with a librettist, crafting the texts for all of his works himself. In addition to being one of the supreme geniuses in the history of opera he was, apart from Beethoven, the most influential composer of the 19th century. As an artist he was an unyielding perfectionist, governed by a visionary insight into character and emotions and by an unerring instinct for what could be achieved on stage and in sound. His early works carried forward the precepts of German Romanticism (owing much to Weber and Heinrich August Marschner [1810-53]), Italian bel canto (owing much to Bellini), and French grand opera (owing much to Auber and Meyerbeer), while boldly breaking new ground. His mature music dramas achieved an entirely novel synthesis of elements; in their scale, emotional intensity, and stunning disclosure of a glorious, hauntingly sensuous tonal language, they changed the course of history not only in music but in the other arts as well.

Precocious, intellectually gifted, and largely self-taught in composition, Wagner received his early schooling in Dresden and finished his education in Leipzig as a student at the Thomasschule (where he received training in harmony and counterpoint from Theodor Weinlig), and at the University of Leipzig. His father, Carl Friedrich Wagner, worked for the Leipzig police department and died when Richard was six months old; less than a year later Richard’s mother married family friend Ludwig Geyer, an actor and painter based in Dresden, who died when Richard was eight. Though many have speculated that Geyer was the boy’s actual father (citing the adult Wagner’s physical resemblance to his stepfather and obvious artistic gift), there has never been any proof. What is certain is that Wagner had a love of literature, theater, and music, along with a powerful creative drive, from childhood. He spent his youth writing plays (corpse-ridden melodramas) and music (piano sonatas, songs, overtures, and a symphony). He was not yet 20 when he stepped into his first professional post, as chorusmaster and rehearsal conductor at a theater in Wurzburg, and not quite 21 when he finished his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). He made his official debut as an opera conductor, with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in 1834; the following year, at  the age of 22, he composed his second opera, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), a comedy based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and began making notes for his autobiography

 Tristan und Isolde -  Prelude

Wagner’s epic music drama of love and death, written in 1857-59, was first performed in Munich in 1865.
ACT ONE King Marke’s henchman Tristan is returning to Cornwall with the Irish princess Isolde, Marke’s betrothed. Isolde’s first husband died at Tristan’s hand, and although she nursed the wounded Tristan, she now hates him for what he did. She orders her servant Brangane to prepare a poison, but Brangane substitutes a love-potion. Each drink it, expecting death, but instead fall in love.

ACT TWO While Marke is away on a night-time hunt, arranged by the treacherous Melot, who is also in love with Isolde, the lovers meet for an extended tryst. Tristan and Isolde express their passion in powerful, erotically charged music, but daylight comes, the hunting party returns, and Tristan is mortally wounded by Melot.

ACT THREE The dying Tristan, who has been taken back to Kareol, his castle in Brittany, by the faithful Kurwenal, waits for Isolde to come to him. She comes, followed by King Marke, but Tristan dies in her arms. As she sings the “Liebestod”, an astonishing Wagnerian tour de force, in which eternal love is consummated by death, Isolde is transfigured, then dies herself.

Lohengrin - Prelude to Act III

Das Rheingold - Prelude

DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN

OPERA CYCLE

In ils lull form Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner's most ambitious masterpiece, is actually a complete opera festival in itself, taking place over three days and a preliminary evening.
 

DAS RHEINGOLD (1 ACT, 150:00) The dwarf Albcrich steals the Rhinemaidens’ gold to make a magic ring. The giants, I’afner and Fasolt, agree to exchange Freia - the goddess whose golden apples keep the gods young - for the gold Albcrich has gained through the power of the Ring. They then demand the Ring in addition to the gold; Fafner kills Fasolt, taking the Ring.


DIE WALKURE (3 ACTS, 225:00) The two mortal children of the god Wotan, Siegmund and Sieglinde, fall in love. Sieglinde’s husband kills Siegmund, although Brunnhilde the Valkyrie tries to protect him. Sieglinde is pregnant with Siegfried, the saviour of the gods. To punish BrUnnhilde for trying to save Siegmund, Wotan puts her to sleep on a rock ringed with llames.

SIEGFRIED (3 ACTS, 255:00) Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, succeeds in forging his father’s shattered sword. He goes to Fafner’s lair (the giant is now a dragon), and, killing Fafner, gains the Ring. Finding Brunnhilde on her rock, he wakes her with a kiss.

GOTTERDAMMERUNG (PROLOGUE AND 3 ACTS, 255:00) Siegfried, in love with Brunnhilde, gives her the Ring, but his enemies Gunther and Hagen give him a drugged potion. He brings Brunnhilde, with the Ring, from her rock. Hagen kills Siegfried and Gunther as he fights for the Ring. Brunnhilde builds a pyre for Siegfried, and burns herself and Valhalla. The Rhine overflows and the Rhinemaidens drown Hagen and take back the Ring.

 

The Valkyrie -  Ride of the Valkyries

The Valkyrie - Magic Fire Music

Wagner c. 1840, by Ernest Benedikt Kiet

In 1836, Wagner married the singer Minna Planer. During a brief stint as music director in Riga (1837-39), he began work on his third opera, Rienzi (a grand opera to end all grand operas based on Bulwer-Lytton’s sprawling novel of medieval Rome), and conducted six of Beethoven’s symphonies. His contract was not renewed, and in the summer of 1839 he and Minna slipped out of Riga to avoid creditors, enduring a difficult voyage across the Baltic and the North Sea to London before reaching Paris in September. There he finished the score to Rienzi and composed DER FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER (The Flying Dutchman), its overture a vivid depiction of a storm at sea much like the one he had braved on his crossing to London.
 

Wagner returned to Germany in the spring of 1842 to prepare Rienzi for its premiere at the Dresden Court Opera. Its blazing success established his reputation in Germany and propelled his career to new heights. On January 2, 1843, he conducted the premiere of Der fliegende Hollander at the Dresden Opera; a month later he was appointed Kapellmeister of the royal Saxon court. In full stride as he turned 30, he moved quickly from one project to the next. In the spring of 1843 he began work on Tannhauser, completing the score in 1845. He considered historical figures Frederick Barbarossa and Jesus of Nazareth as possible operatic subjects. These were both eventually dropped, but during the years 1845-48 work went forward on a new Romantic opera, Lohengrin.
 

The revolutionary unrest of 1848-49 deflected Wagner from his normally obsessive focus on composing; in the spring of 1849 he was actively associating with anarchists and revolutionaries, and there is evidence that he built improvised explosive devices. During the May 1849 uprising he climbed the tower of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche to report on troop movements. After the insurrection failed, he had to flee Dresden to escape arrest, and for years a warrant for his arrest remained in force throughout Saxony. Wagner sought refuge in Switzerland (where he would live in exile, on and off, for more than two decades). He based himself in Zurich from the summer of 1849 until the summer of 1858. The year 1850 saw the premiere of Lohengrin in Weimar, under the baton of Franz Liszt, and the creation of Wagner’s two best-known prose works: the anti-Semitic pamphlet Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) and the book-length Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama), laying out his artistic credo.
 

During his final months in Dresden, Wagner had begun drafting the prose outline for what would become the central work of his career, the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). In Swiss exile he continued to work on the Ring text, bringing it to completion early in 1853. Without a position and with debts mounting, he found it expedient to cultivate patrons, the most important of whom was the retired businessman Otto Wesendonck, whom Wagner met in 1852. The composer quickly became infatuated with his benefactor’s wife, Mathilde, a poet, and they began an affair that lasted six years. In 1857, Wagner set five of Mathilde’s poems to music as his Wesendonck Lieder.

Wagner in Paris, 1861

Siegfried Idyll

Siegfried - Siegfried funeral march

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg - overture

When Wagner decided to write a comedy in 1861, he turned away from the high drama of the Ring cycle to focus on the small tale of a competition organized by the Meistersingers, societies of singers who guarded the integrity of the German song tradition.
ACT ONE (85:00) In 16th-century Nuremberg, the knight Walther von Stolzing is in love with Eva, Pogner’s daughter. Pogner will give her in marriage to whoever wins the singing contest of the Meistersingers’ guild.
ACT TWO (85:00) Walther does not know (he rules of the contest, but the (real-life) cobbler and poet Hans Sachs coaches him, and helps him to fend off the town clerk Bcckmesser, who also wants to marry Eva.

ACT THREE (85:00) Walther, singing a song composed by Hans Sachs, wins the contest and gains Eva’s hand in marriage; he is then enrolled as a full member of the Meistersinger’s guild.

Symphony in C Major

1. Sostenuto e maestoso - Allegro con brio
2. Andante ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
3. Allegro assai
4. Allegro molto e vivace

Parsifal - Act I Prelude 

Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)

Parsifal - final

As usual, Wagner wrote his own libretto for Parsifal, based on the epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Set in Arthurian times, it tells the story of the Grail knights. Their wounded king can only be cured by a “pure fool, wise through compassion”. Parsifal arrives, and proves to be both a fool and pure. He fights the evil Klingsor, restores the holy spear to the Grail castle, and leads the rite of the Holy Grail.

Meanwhile, Wagner forged ahead on the music for his Ring operas, completing Das Rheingold in 1854, Die Walkure in 1856, and finishing the first two acts of Siegfried in 1857. But the affair with Mathilde Wesendonck had opened the composer’s artistic eyes to the deepest realm of human passion, and in August of 1857 he reluctantly broke off work on Siegfried, leaving its hero asleep under a linden tree, and began to sketch the opera Tristan und Isolde, based on the medieval romance by Gottfried von Strassburg. To tell the story of two lovers undone yet ultimately transfigured by their love, Wagner had to coin a new musical language, in which intense passion and unfulfilled longing could be conveyed, and sustained, across three acts and four hours. The score was finished in 1859, and marked a breakthrough in musical technique that would allow Wagner, ten years later, to create the incandescent love music of Act III of Siegfried and limn the monumentally intense drama of the final Ring opera, Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods). 
 

In 1863 he fell in love with the 25-year-old Cosima von Bulow, daughter of Marie d’Agoult and Franz Liszt, and wife of Hans von Bulow. By 1864 he was living with her. Cosima and Wagner had three children—Isolde, Eva, and Siegfried—all born out of wedlock (as Cosima herself had been).
 

In 1870, Bulow divorced her, and she and Wagner were married.
 

In a way that can only be described as operatic, fate intervened in Wagner’s life in March of 1864, when an 18-year-old who was idolatrously devoted to the composer became Fling Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig promptly summoned his hero to Munich, and paid off his debts. A starstruck friendship developed, one of the most important in the history of music. As generous with the crown’s money as he was nutty, Ludwig wanted to erect a monumental stone opera house in Munich dedicated to Wagner’s works, and commissioned the architect Gottfried Semper to draw up the plans. (Though that house was never built, within a decade Ludwig would provide Wagner with something even better.) In due course Ludwig paid for the premieres, in Munich, of Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, 1868); over the 19 years between their first meeting and Wagner’s death, the king lavished a total of 562,914 marks on the composer. From 1866 to 1872 Wagner lived in a lakeside house called Tribschen, just outside Lucerne, where in 1868 Cosima joined him. Those years would be the closest to an idyllic existence the composer would ever enjoy. Wagner evoked the peace he felt at Tribschen in the calm, pensive music of his Siegfried Idyll, written as a birthday present for Cosima and first performed on the staircase outside her bedroom on Christmas Day, 1870.

Richard and Cosima Wagner,
photographed in 1872

At Tribschen, Wagner pressed toward the main goal of his life: completion of his Ring tetralogy and creation of the summer festival where it would be presented. Wagner and Cosima scouted Ludwig’s Bavarian realm for a suitable site; following a visit in 1871, they chose the small Franconian town of Bayreuth. The local authorities gave Wagner, free of charge, the land for a theater on a hill overlooking the town. Though Bayreuth already had one of the finest Baroque theaters in the world, Wagner had to have a venue built to his own specifications. The result, paid for by Ludwig, was the massive brick Festspiel-haus, which still stands. Made almost entirely of wood on the inside, it has some of the finest acoustics in the world.
 

In 1872 the Wagners moved to Bayreuth, and in 1874 they settled into a new home there, the villa Wahnfried. Two summers of rehearsals were needed as run-up to the festival, made possible when Ludwig extended a loan of 100,000 thalers to the composer. The Ring cycle was premiered in August of 1876, with Hans Richter conducting (Liszt, Bruckner, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky attended). In 1877, Wagner began work on his final opera, Parsifal. The score was completed in 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for it. The premiere and most of that summer’s 16 performances were conducted by Hermann Levi; at the final performance, Wagner secretly slipped into the pit, took the baton from Levi, and conducted the opera’s conclusion. By then he was seriously ill, and the next February, on family vacation in Venice (moments after Cosima had gone ballistic over yet another one of his serial infidelities), he suffered a heart attack and died in Cosima’s arms.
 

Wagner was not a pleasant human being. He had a voracious appetite for women, power, adulation, money, and fame, and was reptilian in his dealings with others. Like many Europeans of his day and class, he was also virulently anti-Semitic. But while in personal terms he was a horror, as an artist Wagner was honest and hardworking, and he never compromised. With a talent as large as his huge ego, he became the most prominent and influential musician of his era, and repaid his many artistic debts with interest, literally transforming music as it stood at the time of his youth into a new art form of sweeping emotive power. He revolutionized musical composition in a number of areas: architecturally, in the long-range harmonic thinking of the Ring operas and Tristan und Isolde and in the way those works are integrated through the systematic use of leitmotifs; expressively, in the rhetorical and emotive power of his musical ideas and the richness of his harmonic language, particularly his telling use of chromaticism; and coloristically, through his supremely accomplished orchestration. Wagner literally stood the orchestra on its head—where before the strings had dominated and the winds and brass augmented the orchestra’s sound, in Wagner’s music the winds and an expanded brass section are kept in constant use and do the heavy lifting, while the strings are given a more atmospheric role. The potency of this new division of labor is already apparent in Der fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser, and Lohengrin, but the real change occurs with the Ring (a classic example of the new sound is the Act III prelude from Die Walkiire, known as “The Ride of the Valkyries”. The many brilliant and colorful effects Wagner achieved turned the orchestra into the most formidable army in Europe, a force of overwhelming power capable of sweeping legions of listeners off their feet. While Wagner’s approach tended to make his operas sound like orchestral music with voices riding on top, that too became a new trend, continued in the works of Richard Strauss and many others. It lives on in the movies, where underscoring of dialogue is a technique beloved of Hollywood composers.

Seen by musicians, and by artists in other disciplines, as the avatar of a new grandeur, heroism, and sensuality in the arts, Wagner was copied by many, and reviled by many others (Debussy was not alone in being in both camps). His influence extended to literature, philosophy, and the visual arts: the path taken by the French symbolists, by painters like Kandinsky, van Gogh, and Gaugin, and by writers and thinkers like D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Claude Levi-Strauss, would have been unimaginable without his music. Hitler, too, was influenced. Wagner’s art can rightly be credited with having played an important, perhaps determinative, role in the birth of modernism, and Wagner himself with having pioneered the modernist approach to art. For he was not just interested in entertaining people, but in getting inside their thoughts and changing them. 

The Wagner grave in the Wahnfried garden;
in 1977 Cosima's ashes were placed alongside Wagner's body

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