Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 –February 13, 1883), a German composer, theatre director, and conductor primarily known for his operas or “music dramas,” was born in Leipzig, Germany, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, who was a clerk in the Leipzig police service, and his wife Johanna Rosine (née Paetz), the daughter of a baker. Carl died of typhus six months after Richard’s birth, after which Johanna married Carl’s friend, the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, and moved her family to Geyer’s residence in Dresden. Geyer’s love of the theatre came to be shared by his stepson, and Wagner took part in his performances. Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel’s school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received a little piano instruction from his Latin teacher. He struggled to play a proper scale at the keyboard, and preferred playing theatre overtures by ear.
Following Geyer’s death in 1821, Richard was sent to the Kreuzschule, the boarding school of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, at the expense of Geyer’s brother. At the age of nine he was hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, which he saw Weber conduct. At this period Wagner entertained ambitions as a playwright. His first creative effort was a tragedy called Leubald. Begun at school in 1826, it was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. Wagner was determined to set it to music, and persuaded his family to allow him music lessons. By 1827, the family had returned to Leipzig, and Wagner’s first lessons in harmony were taken during 1828–31 with Christian Gottlieb Müller.
In January 1828 Wagner first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, the same composer’s 9th Symphony, both in the Gewandhaus. Beethoven became a major inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony. He was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures date from this period. In 1829 he saw a performance by dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera.
In 1831, Wagner enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he became a member of the Saxon student fraternity. He also took composition lessons with the Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig who arranged for his pupil’s Piano Sonata in B-flat major,which was consequently dedicated to him, to be published as Wagner’s Op. 1. A year later, Wagner composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenesque work performed in Prague in 1832 and at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1833. He then began to work on an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he never completed. In 1833, Wagner’s brother Albert managed to obtain for him a position as choir master at the theatre in Würzburg. In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies).
Having returned to Leipzig in 1834, Wagner held a brief appointment as musical director at the opera house in Magdeburg during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. This was staged at Magdeburg in 1836 but closed before the second performance. This, together with the financial collapse of the theatre company employing him, left the composer with serious money problems. Wagner had fallen for one of the leading ladies at Magdeburg, the actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer. She helped him to get an engagement at the theatre in Königsberg, and the two married in Tragheim Church in 1836. In June 1837, Wagner moved to Riga, Latvia, then in the Russian Empire, where he became music director of the local opera.
By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to avoid their creditors. Initially they took a stormy sea passage to London, England. The Wagners arrived in Paris, France, in September of 1839 and stayed there until 1842. Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed during this stay his third and fourth operas, Rienzi in 1840 and Der fliegende Holländer. With the strong support of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Rienzi was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the Kingdom of Saxony and in 1842, Wagner moved to Dresden. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he staged there Der fliegende Holländer in 1843 and Tannhäuser in 1845, the first two of his three middle-period operas.
The Wagners’ stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard’s involvement in leftist politics. Wagner had to flee, first visiting Paris and then settling in Zurich, Switzerland, and was to spend the next twelve years in exile from Germany. He had completed Lohengrin, the last of his middle-period operas, before leaving Dresden, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.
Wagner’s wife Minna was falling into a deepening depression. Wagner himself fell victim to ill-health which made it difficult for him to continue writing. Before leaving Dresden, Wagner had drafted a scenario that eventually became the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He initially wrote the libretto for a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), in 1848. After arriving in Zurich he expanded the story with the opera Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), which explored the hero’s background. He completed the text of the cycle by writing the libretti for Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and revising the other libretti to agree with his new concept, completing them in 1852.
Wagner began composing the music for Das Rheingold between November 1853 and September 1854, following it immediately with Die Walküre, written between June 1854 and March 1856. He began work on the third Ring opera, which he now called simply Siegfried, probably in September 1856, but by June 1857 he had completed only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult. While planning the opera, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder, five songs for voice and piano, setting poems by the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonc who. made several loans to Wagner to finance his household expenses in Zurich and in 1857 placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner’s disposal.
Amongst the conducting engagements that Wagner undertook for revenue during this period, he gave several concerts in 1855 with the London Philharmonic Society, including one before Queen Victoria. The Queen enjoyed his Tannhäuser overture. In 1858, Wagner left Zurich alone, bound for Venice, Italy, while Minna returned to Germany. In November 1859, Wagner once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser. He sought a reconciliation with Minna during this Paris visit, and although she joined him there, the reunion was not successful and they again parted from each other when Wagner left. The political ban that had been placed on Wagner in Germany after he had fled Dresden was fully lifted in 1862. The composer settled in Biebrich in Prussia. Here Minna visited him for the last time: they parted irrevocably, though Wagner continued to give financial support to her while she lived in Dresden until her death in 1866.
In Biebrich, Wagner at last began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only mature comedy. Wagner’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, had the composer brought to Munich. Ludwig settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and proposed to stage Tristan, Die Meistersinger, the Ring, and the other operas Wagner planned. Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre in Munich on June 10, 1865. The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow. Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of the first two works of the Ring, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich in 1869 and 1870.
Following Minna’s death Cosima von Bulow asked her husband Hans to grant her a divorce, which was finally sanctioned, after delays in the legal process, by a Berlin court on July 18, 1870. Richard and Cosima’s wedding took place on August 25, 1870. On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance (its premiere) of the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima’s birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner’s life. Wagner, settled into his new-found domesticity, turned his energies towards completing the Ring cycle. In 1871, Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, which was to be the location of his new opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”) which finally opened on August 13, 1876, with Das Rheingold.
Following the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy for health reasons. Wagner wrote a number of articles in his later years, often on political topics, and often reactionary in tone, repudiating some of his earlier, more liberal, views. These include “Religion and Art” (1880) and “Heroism and Christianity” (1881), which were printed in the journal Bayreuther Blätter, published by his supporter Hans von Wolzogen. Wagner’s sudden interest in Christianity at this period infused Parsifal and required on his part, and the part of his associates, “the rewriting of some recent Wagnerian history,” so as to represent, for example, the Ring as a work reflecting Christian ideals. Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera, which premiered on May 26.
Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he entered the pit unseen during act 3, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion. After the festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter and died of a heart attack at the age of 69 on February 13, 1883, at Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 16th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal. After a funerary gondola bore Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth.
Wagner’s earliest attempts at opera were often uncompleted. Abandoned works include a pastoral opera based on Goethe’s Die Laune des Verliebten (The Infatuated Lover’s Caprice), written at the age of 17 and the singspiel Men are More Cunning than Women, 1837–38. Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include the Faust Overture (the only completed part of an intended symphony on the subject), some other overtures, and choral and piano pieces. More rarely performed are the American Centennial March (1876), and Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love Feast of the Apostles), a piece for male choruses and orchestra composed in 1843 for the city of Dresden. After completing Parsifal, Wagner expressed his intention to turn to the writing of symphonies, and several sketches dating from the late 1870s and early 1880s have been identified as work towards this end.
Works by Richard Wagner in my collection include the following:
Das Liebesverbot: Overture.
Das Rheingold: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.
Der Fliegende Hollander: Overture.
Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Overture (Prelude) and Hymn from Act 1.
Die Walkure: Ride of the Valkyries, Wotan’s Farewell & Magic Fire Music.
Gotterdammerung: Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March.
Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 1, Prelude to Act III, Bridal Chorus.
Parsifal: Overture (Prelude to Act 1).
Siegfried: Forest Murmers.
Tannhauser: Overture and Bacchanale.
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act 1.