Richard Wagner

Perhaps best known for his operas, Wilhelm Richard Wagner is one of the most widely recognized composers of the 19th century. His works, especially those written in his later years, are noted for their harmonies, orchestrations, complex texture, and the implementation of leitmotifs. Along with changing tonal centers and extensive chromaticism, Wagner’s advancements in music influenced countless writers, musicians, and composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. His influences stretched beyond music and into philosophy, literature, visual arts and theatre. Though his life was marred with personal tragedy, political exile, and poverty, he achieved great success in his lifetime and remains one of the most controversial composers in history.

Born in Leipzig, Richard was the ninth child in the family. His father died six months after his birth, and his mother remarried when he was a boy. When he started school in 1820, he began piano lessons. Beethoven became a large source of inspiration after hearing his symphonies performed in 1828, and it is during this time that Wagner’s first piano sonatas and attempts at orchestral overtures were written.

In 1831, Wagner enrolled at the University of Leipzig and took composition lessons under Christian Theodor Weinlig. In 1833, at the age of 20, he had composed his first complete opera. Unlike most operatic composers, Wagner wrote the libretto to all of his compositions, in addition to the musical scores. Marrying actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer in 1834, the couple moved to Riga, where Wagner became the music director of the local opera. However, the couple amassed such a large amount of debt that they had to flee the country in 1839, and spent the next 3 years living in Paris. During their years in France, he completed Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman. The two moved back to Germany in 1842 and continued to work on the staging and production of his operas for the next 6 years, until his involvement in leftist politics forced him to flee the country. While in Germany, he finished work on Tannhauser and Lohengrin.

Once he fled, Wagner spent the next 12 years in exile, completely isolated from the German musical world and without any source of income. During these years, he also began to reconsider his entire perception of opera and ultimately decided that what he had written did not represent what he had hoped to achieve. Essentially disowning his previous works, he decided to branch out into a new direction of opera. Though he would eventually reclaim and accept his early operas, he reworked them several times throughout his life. It was also during his time in Germany that he began writing essays—including one which contained his view of opera as a “total work of art”, in which all elements of the work are unified and share equal importance.

Wagner began what would eventually become the first half of the Ring cycle during 1853-1854 and started work on a third opera but abandoned the project midway through to focus on a new idea, which would lead to Tristan und Isolde.

The political ban was removed in 1861, and Wagner moved to Prussia, finishing Die Meistersinger. Considering the personal struggles he had endured and the challenges he faced financially and emotionally with his operas, it is understandable why this is his only mature comedy. He divorced in 1862, though continued to financially support Minna until her death four years later.

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