Watch Listen Learn

The Life of Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813. His father had died before his birth, and his mother later married Ludwig Geyer, an actor. As a child, Wagner showed no particular musical ability but was fascinated with the theater. His elder sister, Rosalie, was an actress. At the age of 15, he wrote a grisly play in which some 27 characters died by the end of the first act. He studied music in Leipzig and Dresden, taking his first professional assignment in 1833, as chorusmaster in Wurzburg, where he composed his first opera, Die Feen, a mythic fairytale influenced by the operas of Carl Maria von Weber. He first conducted in Magdeburg, where he met an actress, Minna Planer, whom he made his wife. When he was 24, he conducted there his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, a version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that had musical connections to Vincenzo Bellini. He, Minna, her daughter, and their dog went on to Riga, in what is now Latvia, where Wagner was chief conductor. He began work on Rienzi, an opera derived from Bulwer Lytton’s novel about the last of the Roman Tribunes. He had completed three of its five acts when, hounded by debt collectors, he and his family fled Riga and sailed to Bordeaux. The passage on the North Sea was rough.

Wagner and Minna lived in Paris from 1839 until 1842. They almost starved, and they moved frequently, always one step ahead of their creditors. Debtors’ prison faced Wagner at all times, but he seemed to be incapable of living within his means. While in Paris, he completed Rienzi and sent it to the director of the Paris Opera, asking the well-established composer Meyerbeer to help him. Meyerbeer did recommend the young composer’s work, but Leon Pillet, the Opera’s director, was not interested. Wagner composed some songs, began work on Der fliegende Holländer (inspired by his rough sea passage) and even composed a substitute aria for Oroveso’s final aria in Norma, which he presented to the famous bass LaBlache who, though he liked the aria, declined to sing it.

Rienzi was finally accepted for performance in Dresden, and Wagner and Minna happily left Paris. In Dresden, Rienzi was produced with enormous success, followed soon after by equal success in Berlin and other German cities. Its five-hour length proved no problem with audiences, nor did the difficulties of the tenor title role—two characteristics of all of Wagner’s operas to follow.

Wagner had composed Der fliegende Holländer while in Paris and was eager to produce it in Dresden as well. Given on January 2, 1843, and a much more characteristically Wagnerian work than Rienzi, it left its first audience somewhat confused. The piece had the requisite arias and ensembles, but the audience had never experienced the dark obsession of the characters, the use of the orchestra, and the lack of pageantry. Wagner had wanted it played in one act; it was divided into three.

Appointed chief conductor in Dresden later that year, Wagner was already working on his next opera, Tannhäuser, and over the next several years developed plans for modernizing the orchestra and reorganizing the Saxon theaters. His plans, though by our standards more than intelligent, upset the entire bureaucracy. He had also become friends with many of the liberal social thinkers and anarchists of the time, including Bakunin. Tannhäuser was a huge success at its premiere, in October 1845, rivaling Rienzi in its popularity, and was very soon performed in many other German houses. In its hero’s conflict between sex, represented by Venus, and the noble, pure woman, Elisabeth, the theme of the man saved by the good woman, already present in Der fliegende Holländer, was further amplified.

Wagner began work on Lohengrin (which had occurred to him when he was taking a cure; deep into his mud bath, the whole idea of Lohengrin had come to his mind. He leapt out of the bath and quickly wrote down the first prose sketch of the opera.) and kept up his revolutionary connections. In early 1848, revolution broke out in Dresden. Wagner’s role is unclear. At times, he talked of actually being on the battlements; at other times, he was only an observer. What was important was that he escaped after the revolution failed, going first to visit the composer Franz Liszt in Weimar, then on to Switzerland.

Liszt eventually produced Lohengrin in Weimar, in 1850. Its premiere was as successful as had been Tannhäuser’s, and despite Wagner’s standing as a banished revolutionary, the opera made its way into most major German opera houses. Wagner in Switzerland was not composing. Though he had worked on the text for a major work, he first called Siegfried’s Death and on another called Young Siegfried, he was mainly involved in enunciating his artistic theories in several long essays called “The Art Work of the Future” and, even more importantly, “Opera and Drama.” He believed that after Gluck and Mozart, opera had gone on the wrong course, with the emphasis moving to the singers and their vocal acrobatics. He called for an emphasis on drama in opera and stated categorically that the music must come out of the words. In these treatises, several important principals were enunciated: he would henceforth compose operas only to mythic texts because myths were timeless; because of the need for the audience to understand the words, he would eschew ensembles; he would use both alliteration and assonance to allow the public to listen more clearly to the words; he would employ as often as possible words that had old German roots, avoiding any connection to the Romance languages; and, finally, he would use a system of motifs of reminiscence and presentiments. These would be short musical phrases, easily detectable by the audience, that would on their repetition call to mind the situation in which the music was first heard (the term leitmotif was not invented until 1876, when Hans von Wolzogen coined it to explain Ring motives to the first attendees of the Bayreuth Festival).

The fruit of these labors were the first Ring operas. He worked over the text of Siegfried’s Death (soon called Götterdämmerung) and the Young Siegfried, realized that Die Walküre was needed, and, eventually, Das Rheingold. Finally, in 1853, he began to compose Das Rheingold. About this time, he and Minna came under the patronage of a German-American financier, Otto von Wesendonck. Wesendonck and his wife, Mathilde, loved Wagner’s music and were fascinated by the composer. Quickly, Wagner fell in love with Mathilde. After composing Das Rheingold, he began Die Walküre in 1854, completely under her influence.

Wagner was a widely read man, and he had previously been philosophically tied to Hegel and Feuerbach, with their basically optimistic outlook on life. Disillusioned by the failure of the revolution in Dresden and his own continued banishment, in 1854 he read the pessimistic philosophy of Arnold Schopenauer and felt as though he had written it himself. The philosopher’s neo-Buddhist, negative treatment of the goals of life and his embrace of music as the highest expression of the human delighted Wagner. It caused a fundamental change in his thinking about his work. He completed Die Walküre and the first two acts of Siegfried, by August of 1857, largely adhering to the principles he had enunciated earlier. But his thought processes were leading him in a different direction: now the ideal of opera should be a composite of the genius of Beethoven and Shakespeare, governed by the needs of the musical form. In this context, ensemble was back in, and the symphonic development of his many motifs was possible.

In this spirit and consumed with what was almost surely unrequited passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner laid aside the Ring and began Tristan und Isolde in a white heat of composition. The whole opera, from the first work on the libretto to the conclusion of the score, took two years. Along the way he and Minna, who had long been a thorn in his side, separated. Minna wanted Wagner to compose works like Tannhäuser or Lohengrin which were popular; she couldn’t understand his dedication to the Ring, a work that clearly was beyond the capacities of any opera house then existing in Germany. When she discovered a love letter Wagner had written Mathilde, their happy exile in the Asyl (a house on the Wesendonck estate) was shattered. Wagner went to Venice and Minna went back to Germany. In Venice, he composed the second act of Tristan. Then he went back to Switzerland, where he completed the opera.

Through all this period and for the next five years, Wagner was constantly borrowing money, selling his scores over and over, managing just barely to stay ahead of the debt collector. At the command of Emperor Napoleon III, Wagner supervised a new version of his Tannhäuser in Paris in 1861. For all sorts of reasons, the premiere became one of the most famous fiascos in the history of opera. His embarrassment at the hands of the Parisians, however, insulted German pride, and his long banishment was over. Still, his Tristan, which he had thought would be a simple opera to produce, proved too difficult for the Vienna Imperial Opera to perform. In 1862, after an extraordinary number of rehearsals, it was set aside, and no company even looked twice at either of the finished Ring operas.

On May 4, 1864, lightning struck. Wagner received a summons to go to the newly crowned Bavarian king, Ludwig II, who had adored Lohengrin and who had visualized himself as an arts patron. Thus began a tempestuous relationship that continued until Wagner’s death, and is more or less directly responsible for the wealth of Wagner’s music enjoyed in our time. Tristan was produced in Munich in June of the next year, and Wagner began composing Die Meistersinger. Before its premiere, in 1868, Wagner’s financial demands on the crown and consequent unpopularity in Bavaria had caused him to be banished from Munich back to Switzerland, but Die Meistersinger was a great success.

On the personal side, in 1864, two years before Minna died, Wagner had established a relationship with Cosima Liszt von Bulow, the daughter of the composer Liszt. She was also the wife of Wagner’s devotee, and the major conductor of his works, Hans von Bülow. Wagner and Cosima kept this relationship a secret from the King (who was sure to disapprove) until after all Munich and practically all Germany knew about it. In 1869, after three children with Wagner (two daughters and a son, Siegfried), Cosima attained her divorce. Wagner and she married. King Ludwig, always faithful to Wagner’s genius, accepted their deception about the affair and continued to support the composer.

Now King Ludwig’s and Wagner’s goal was to finish the Ring. But performance was a problem. Wagner’s unpopularity in Munich was so great, and the difficulties of the cycle were also so great, that the composer wanted to find somewhere else to perform the cycle. He toured Germany, deciding that the most likely theater was the opera house in Bayreuth, which had an uncommonly large stage for the time. Wagner soon outgrew this idea and began to campaign for his own opera house, not in Munich but there in Bayreuth, fairly close to King Ludwig but not in the heart of Bavaria. He worked on Siegfried and then Götterdämmerung with feverish intensity, all the while raising money and support for his new opera house in Bayreuth. In 1872, the cornerstone was laid on the Green Hill, just on the outskirts of Bayreuth, and, in November 1874, the final passages of Götterdämmerung were composed. The cycle was completed. After two summers of rehearsals, the Ring received its premiere in August of 1876 before many of the crowned heads of Europe, including the German Kaiser, and all the musical aristocracy. King Ludwig, who was directly responsible, did not attend the premiere, he came to the dress rehearsals and did return for the third cycle.

The Ring festival left many stunned, some opposed, and many violently enthusiastic. Wagner was not happy with the production or the conducting, but he thought the singing had been generally satisfactory. He was full of ideas for improving the Ring the next time around. To his dismay, however, the debts from the three cycles presented were extraordinary. For the next five years, Wagner conducted all over Europe and constantly worked with prospective donors to raise money to pay off the debt and save his Festival House. His work cost him his health, and heart problems began to plague him. In 1877 he began working on Parsifal, a work he had imagined some thirty years before. He worked on composing Parsifal in between his conducting stints until its completion in early 1882. In August of that year, Parsifal received its world premiere at Bayreuth. Ludwig, a man full of the generosity of spirit Wagner demanded of his friends, allowed Wagner to present Parsifal only in Bayreuth. It was considered sacred to his festival theater there.

For some years,Wagner and his family had spent the winter in Italy—sometimes in Venice, sometimes in Sicily or Naples. In the winter of 1882/83, contemplating a revival of the financially successful Parsifal that summer, they wintered at the Palazzo Vedramin in Venice. Wagner’s heart problems were severe, but they had been that way for some time. During the morning of February 13, 1883, he had a bitter argument with Cosima. Sometime after 2:00 p.m. he cried out, and within an hour was dead of a massive heart attack. His body was entombed in the garden outside his house in Bayreuth called Wahnfried, a word, like so many, coined by Wagner which means “free from care” or “craziness.” He was acclaimed as a musical giant; along with Verdi, he was clearly the major opera composer of the 19th century.

Wagner was a prolific writer with a view on almost any subject known to man. It is outside the scope of this thumbnail biography to detail his explorations into Buddhism, his views on anti-vivisection, his political opinions (including his hatred of France), his deplorable anti-Semitism, and many other topics. More books in English have been written on Richard Wagner than anyone except Jesus and Napoleon. Among those currently available are Barry Millington’s Wagner and Ernest Newman’s four-volume Life of Wagner.

Check out and become a fan of Seattle Opera now on Facebook!

Join the Discussion

Save up to 50% on tickets and have fun with people your age.

Learn More

Listen KING FM Seattle Opera Channel Available On-line 24 hrs a day!

Listen Here

Photo Credit

Götterdämmerung, 2005 © Chris Bennion photo