Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner (Born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany — Died February 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy) was a German composer known for his operas (which he preferred to call “music dramas”) and originality. He was a huge influence on countless composers and artists after him, notably including Richard Struass, Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin. He also had a close friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche, which however ended in the latter rejecting Wagner and his works.


Richard Wagner’s father was Carl Friedrich Wagner, a police clerk who died shortly after Richard’s birth. His mother was Johanna Rosine Wagner, the daughter of a German baker. They had many children, and Wagner was the ninth. After Carl Wagner’s death, Johanna and her children moved in with a friend of Carl’s, Ludwig Geyer, who lived in Dresden. Johanna and Geyer had romantic relations and may have been married.

Wagner was greatly influenced by his stepfather Geyer, who was an actor, painter, and poet. Wagner thought that Geyer was his biological father until age fourteen. Through Geyer and through Wagner’s sisters who sang opera, he became acquainted with opera and theatre. At age seven, Wagner entered the school of Pastor Wetzel in Possendorf and received piano lessons.

In 1821, Geyer passed away and Wagner went to the Kreuzschule boarding school. He began writing plays. In 1829, he was greatly inspired by a performance by the opera singer Wilhelmin Schroder-Devrient.

In 1831, Wagner went to Leipzig University. He studied under Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig. Wagner began working as a choir master in 1833. He wrote his first opera, Die Feen. Then he became the musical director at the Magdeburg opera house. He wrote Das Liebesverbot, which was performed at this opera house in 1836.

The Magdeburg opera house shut down and Wagner was in a poor financial situation. He then found work at the Konigsberg theatre. He married the singer and actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer, and then she left him after six month. In 1837 he went to Riga, Latvia. He became the music director at a theatre, worked with Minna’s sister there, and helped her, thereby reconciling himself with Minna.

Wagner went to France in search of financial success in the late 1830s, but did not find it. He returned to Germany in 1842. He had his first great success with the premiere of Tannhauser. He became the Royal Saxon Court Conductor.

Wagner had become politically involved and supported leftist and socialist movements. He supported the May Uprisings of 1849, which led to him getting on the bad side of the government and spending the next twelve years in Paris and Zurich.

In 1854, Wagner was introduced to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. He called this discovery the most important event in his life. This was a pessimistic philosophy which held the arts in high esteem, and considered music the greatest and purest of the arts. Wagner remained an admirer of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even as Schopenhauer criticized some of his works. [1]

In 1862, Wagner was able to return to Germany and settle in Biebrich. Minna soon left Wagner following her discovery of love letters Wagner wrote to the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck.

Wagner received great support from the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was performed in 1865 at the National Munich Theatre. The character Isolde was named after a claimed illegitimate daughter of Wagner’s with Cosima. Cosima was the wife of the conductor Hans von Bulow. She was an illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt.

The origin of Isolde’s name greatly displeased King Ludwig II, and he consequently made Wagner leave Munich. In 1866, Wagner’s first wife Minna died. Wagner had two more children with Cosima. She divorced Hans von Bulow and married Wagner in 1870.

In the 1870s, Wagner finished the Ring Cycle or Der Ring des Nibelungen, his largest and most ambitious work, comprising three operas: Rheingold, Walkure, Siengfried, and Götterdämmerung. Wagner had his own special opera house called Festspielhaus built in Bayreuth, and the Ring Cycle premiered there in 1876.

Wagner died from a heart attack in Venice in 1883. He had been on a vacation with his family.

Musical Style and Legacy

Wagner was a great influence on many composers and artists. He particularly influenced Alexander Scriabin, who took inspiration from Wagner’s theoretical ideas as well as his music.

Wagner’s style has been described as “characterized by a high degree of chromaticism, a restless, searching tonal instability, lush harmonies…” [2] He is known for the innovation of the leitmotif, a technique where a specific musical theme is associated with a character or plot point.

Wagner wrote anti-semitic polemics, including one titled On Jewishness in Music. He was also greatly admired by Adolf Hitler. This harmed his reputation after World War 2.





Article was written by me for Lunyr