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Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

The German operatic composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was undoubtedly the most important seminal figure in 19th-century music, Beethoven notwithstanding. Wagner was also a crucial figure in 19th-century cultural history for both his criticism and polemical writing.

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in Leipzig into an unassuming family. His father died shortly after Richard's birth, and within the year his mother married Ludwig Geyer. There is still some controversy as to whether or not Geyer, an itinerant actor, was Wagner's real father. Wagner's musical training was largely left to chance until he was 18, when he studied with Theodor Weinlig in Leipzig for a year. He began his career in 1833 as choral director in Würzburg and composed his early works in imitation of German romantic compositions. Beethoven was his major idol at this time.

Wagner wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), in 1833, but it was not produced until after the composer's death. He was music director of the theater in Magdeburg from 1834 to 1836, where his next work, Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love), loosely based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure was performed in 1836. That year he married Minna Planner, a singer-actress active in provincial theatrical life.

In 1837 Wagner became the first music director of the theater in Riga, where he remained until 1839. He then set out for Paris, where he hoped to make his fortune. While in Paris, he developed an intense hatred for French musical culture that lasted the remainder of his life, regardless of how often he attempted to have a Parisian success. It was at this time that Wagner, in financial desperation, sold the scenario for Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) to the Paris Opéra for use by another composer. Wagner later set another version of this tale.

Disillusioned by his lack of success, Wagner returned to Germany, settling in Dresden in 1842, where he was in charge of the music for the court chapel. Rienzi, a grand opera in imitation of the French style, enjoyed a modest success; the Overture is still popular. In 1845 Tannhäuser was premiered in Dresden; this proved the first undoubted success of Wagner's career. In November of the same year he finished the poem for Lohengrin and began composition early in 1846. While at work on Lohengrin he also made plans for his tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen), being captivated by Norse sagas. In 1845 he prepared the scenario for the first drama of the tetralogy to be written, Siegfried's Tod (Siegfried's Death), which later became Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).

Years of Exile

Wagner had to flee Dresden in 1849 in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848. He settled in Switzerland, first in Zurich and then near Lucerne. He remained in Switzerland for the most part for the next 15 years without steady employment, banished from Germany and forbidden access to German theatrical life. During this time he worked on the Ring, which dominated his creative life over the next 2 decades.

The first production of Lohengrin took place in Weimar under Franz Liszt's direction in 1850 (Wagner was not to see Lohengrin until 1861). By this time Wagner was moderately notorious as a polemicist, and his most fundamental work of theory, Opera and Drama, dates from 1850-1851. In it he discusses the significance of legend for the theater and how to write singable poetry, and he presents his ideas with regard to the realization of the "total work of art" which would effectively change the course of theatrical life in Germany if not the world.

The year 1850 also saw publication of one of Wagner's most scurrilous tracts, The Jew in Music, in which he viciously attacked the very existence of the Jewish composer and musician, particularly in German society. Anti-Semitism remained a hallmark of Wagner's philosophy the rest of his life.

Between 1850 and 1865 Wagner fashioned most of the material to which he owes his reputation. He purposefully turned aside from actual composition to plan an epic cycle of such grandeur and proportion as had never been created before. In 1851 he wrote the poem for Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), the work now known as Siegfried, to prepare the way for Götterdämmerung. He realized he would need not only this drama to clarify his other work but two additional dramas as well, and he sketched the remaining poems for the Ring by the end of 1851. He completed Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) in 1852 after he had revised the poem for Die Walküre (The Valkyrie).

In 1853 Wagner formally commenced composition on the Rheingold; he completed the scoring the following year and then began serious work on the Walküre, which was finished in 1856. At this time he was toying with the notion of writing the drama Tristan and Isolde. In 1857 he finished the composition of Act II of Siegfried and gave himself over entirely to Tristan. This work was completed in 1859, but it was mounted in Munich only in 1865.

Last Years

In 1860 Wagner received permission to reenter Germany except for Saxony. He was granted full amnesty in 1862. That year he began the music for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremburg), which he had first thought of in 1845. He resumed composition on Siegfried in 1865 and began sketching what would eventually become Parsifal, also a vague possibility since the mid-1840s. He began Parsifal at the urging of the Bavarian monarch, Ludwig II, then Wagner's patron. The Meistersinger was completed in 1867; the first performance took place in Munich the following year. Only then did he pick up the threads of the Ring and resume work on Act III of Siegfried, which was finished in September 1869, a month that also saw the first performance of the Rheingold. He wrote the music for Götterdämmerung from 1869 to 1874.

The first entire Ring cycle (Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung) was given at the Festspielhaus, the shrine Wagner built for himself at Bayreuth, in 1876, over 30 years after the idea for it had first come to mind. He finished Parsifal, his final drama, in 1882. Wagner died on Feb. 13, 1883, in Venice and was buried at Bayreuth.

Philosophy of the Ring

The Ring is central to Wagner's career. Here he wished to present new ideas of morality and human activity that would completely alter the course of history. He envisioned a world made entirely free from subservience to supernatural bondage, which he believed had adversely affected Western civilization from ancient Greece to the present. Wagner also held that at the source of all human activity was fear, which must be purged so that man can live the perfect life. In the Ring he attempted to set forth the standards for superior humans, those beings who would dominate individuals less fortunate; in turn, such lesser mortals would recognize their own inferior status and yield to the radiance offered by the perfect hero. The implications inherent in a quest for moral and racial purity are vital to Wagner's intentions in the Ring.

It is interesting to note that Wagner believed it was only by submitting completely to the sensuous experience that man could be liberated from the restraints imposed by rationality. However valuable the intellect might be, the rational life was regarded as a hindrance to achieving the fullest development of human awareness. Only when perfect man and perfect woman came together could a transcendental heroic image be created. Siegfried and Brünnhilde together are invincible after each has submitted to the other; apart they are imperfect.

There is no charity or idealism present in the Wagnerian myth world. The perfect ones exult only in each other. All men must recognize the superiority of certain creatures and then bow to their will. Man may quest for his destiny, but he must submit to the will of the superior one if the two come into conflict. In the Ring Wagner wanted to turn his back upon the civility inherent in the Hellenic-Judeo-Christian world. He preferred a realm dominated by the strength and savagery exemplified in the Norse sagas. The implications for the future of Germany were immense.

Philosophy of Other Operas

In Tristan Wagner rejected the affirmative way he developed in the Ring. Instead, he explored the dark side of love in order to plunge to the depths of negative experience. Tristan and Isolde, liberated and not doomed by a love potion they drink, willingly destroy a kingdom in order to love and to live; the sensual power of love is seen here as a destructive force, and the musical style of devious chromaticism and overwhelming orchestral pulsation is perfect for the messages of the drama.

Wagner's egomania, never tolerable to anyone save those who could blind themselves totally to his flaws, came to the fore in the Meistersinger. The tale of the young hero-singer who conquers the old order and forces a new, sensually more exciting style upon the tradition-bound Nuremburg society is the tale of the Ring in a slightly different guise. (Wagner openly claimed Tristan to be the Ring in microcosm.) It is obvious in the Meistersinger that Wagner identifies himself with the messianic figure of a young German poet and singer who wins the prize and is finally accepted as the leader of a new society.

In Parsifal Wagner identified himself even more intensely with the hero as the savior, the world's redeemer. The mysteries celebrated in Parsifal are those prepared for the glory of Wagner himself and not for any god.

Musical Language

The scope of Wagner's vision is as breathtaking as his ideas and metaphysics are repugnant. Without the music his dramas would still be milestones in the history of Western thought. With the music, however, Wagner's importance is greatly magnified. He conceived a musical language that would most effectively present his philosophies. He intended to batter down the resistant forces of reason by means of the music. Ideally, there would be an unending melody in which the voice and text are but part of the fabric, united with a magnificent orchestral web which becomes the action at a distinctly musical pace. The verbal language, often very obscure and tortured in syntax, is acceptable only through the music.

For Wagner, music was in no sense additive, tacked onto the dramas after completion, anymore than it was an exercise in formal rhetoric, mere "art for art's sake." Music could bind all life, art, reality, and illusion together into one symbiotic union that would then work its own unique magic upon an audience. It is no accident that Wagner's musical language is intended to dethrone reason and to ask for unquestioning acceptance of the composer's beliefs. In Wagner's reading of Schopenhauer, the musical ideal in his dramas would be not a reflection of the world but would be that very world itself.

Personal Characteristics

Such a summary of Wagner's creative life hardly hints at the extraordinary complications of his personal life which, in turn, affected his dramas. Wagner was that rare individual—a truly charismatic figure who overcame all adversities. During the years in Switzerland he managed to live for the most part on charity by means of the most amazing conniving and manipulation of people conceivable. The Wesendonck family in particular contributed to his well-being, and Mathilde Wesendonck, one of Wagner's many mistresses, was credited with partially inspiring Tristan.

Wagner's life after leaving Saxony was a constant series of intrigues, harangues, and struggles to overcome the indifference of the world, to find the ideal woman worthy of his love, and to be the worthy recipient of the benefits offered by the perfect patron. Cosima Liszt von Bülow was the answer to his quest for the ideal female, subservient and fanatically devoted to his well-being. Although Wagner and Minna had lived apart for some time, Wagner did not marry Cosima until 1870, almost a decade after Minna's death. Over 30 years her husband's junior, Cosima was to be the dominating, guiding spirit in the Wagnerian shrine at Bayreuth until her death in 1930.

The perfect patron proved to be Ludwig II, who literally rescued Wagner from debtors' prison and brought the composer to Munich with a near carte blanche for life and creativity. Once salvaged, however, Wagner was so offensive to all save the blindly adoring young monarch that he was forced to flee within 2 years. Ludwig, despite eventually disillusionment, remained a loyal supporter of Wagner. It was his generosity that made possible the first festival performances of the Ring in Bayreuth in 1876.

Never one of amenable disposition, Wagner held convictions of his own superiority that developed monomaniacal proportions as he grew older. He was intolerant of any questioning, of any failure to accept him and his creation. His household revolved completely in his orbit, and his demands upon wives, mistresses, friends, musicians, and benefactors were legion. Those who ran afoul of him were pilloried unmercifully, often unscrupulously, such as Eduard Hanslick, the distinguished Viennese music critic who became the model for Beckmesser in the Meistersinger.

When the young philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first met Wagner, he thought he had found his way into the presence of a god, so radiant and powerful did Wagner seem to him. Later Nietzsche realized that the composer was something less than the perfection of the superman incarnate he had imagined him to be and turned away in disgust. Wagner never forgave Nietzsche for his desertion.

Place in History

In retrospect, Wagner's accomplishments outweigh both his personal behavior and his legacy for the 20th century. He has even managed to survive the predictable rejection by later generations of composers. Wagner created such an effective, unique musical language, especially in Tristan and Parsifal, that the beginnings of modern music are often dated from these scores.

Wagner demonstrated that music was not restricted to being pure formalism and abstract theoretical exploration but was a living, vibrant force capable of changing men's lives. He also proved that the music theater is a proper forum for ideas as opposed to being an arena for only escape and entertainment. And he demonstrated that a composer could rightfully take his place among the great revolutionary thinkers of Western civilization, questioning and attacking what seemed intolerable in traditional modes of behavior, experience, learning, and creation. Together with Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, Wagner must be given his rightful due as one of the greatest forces in 19th-century cultural history.

Further Reading

A representative sampling of Wagner's important prose writings is in Wagner on Music and Drama, edited by Albert Goldman and Evert Sprinchorn (1964). The standard biography in English is that of the great English Wagnerian, Ernest Newman, The Life of Wagner (4 vols., 1933-1946). See also Newman's other important studies, The Wagner Operas (1959) and Wagner as Man and Artist (1960). Recommended to bring Newman's work up to date are Robert Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (1968), and Chappel White, An Introduction to the Life and Works of Richard Wagner (1970). Also valuable are the specific studies, such as Jack Stein, Richard Wagner and the Synthesis of the Arts (1960); Robert Donington, Wagner's Ring and Its Symbols: The Music and the Myth (1963); and Elliot Zuckerman, Tristan: The First Hundred Years (1964). □

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Wagner, (Wilhelm) Richard

Wagner, (Wilhelm) Richard (b Leipzig, 1813; d Venice, 1883). Ger. composer, conductor, poet, and author. One of the handful of composers who changed the course of mus. Went to sch. in Dresden and attended Thomasschule, Leipzig, 1830–1. Deeply interested in literature as youth. Mus. inclination intensified by hearing Schröder-Devrient in Bellini. Wrote sym. 1832 and later that year made first attempt at opera, Die Hochzeit, which he destroyed. Choral cond. at Würzburg 1833 and in 1834 completed opera Die Feen. Became cond. of orch. at th. in Lauchstädt and later in 1834 mus. dir. of th. at Magdeburg. His 2nd opera Das Liebesverbot, based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, prod. there 1836. Married actress Minna Planer. Ass. cond. at Riga 1837–9. Went to Paris 1839. Wrote Rienzi 1838–40 and Der fliegende Holländer 1841. Lived in poverty in Paris, doing mus. hack-work and writing articles. In 1842 returned to Dresden, where Rienzi was prod. with great success. Der fliegende Holländer equal success in 1843, leading to Wagner's appointment as court opera cond. Cond. legendary perfs. of Beethoven's 9th Sym. and works by Mozart, Weber, and Gluck. Tannhäuser prod. at Dresden 1845. Began project for series of operas based on Nibelungen sagas, completing lib. of Siegfrieds Tod, 1848. Sided with revolutionaries in 1849 uprising in Dresden. Fled to Liszt at Weimar after police issued warrant for his arrest, eventually settling in Zurich where he wrote series of essays, incl. the important Oper und Drama in which he expounded his theory of music drama, the unification of mus. and drama superseding all other considerations (such as singers’ special requirements in the way of display arias). Also continued to write text of his Nibelung operas and comp. mus. of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. In permanent financial straits, was helped by Julie Ritter and by Ger. merchant Otto Wesendonck, with whose wife Mathilde Wesendonck he had affair. Under the influence of this emotional experience he wrote lib. and mus. of Tristan und Isolde (1857–9), interrupting Siegfried after completing Act 2. In 1855 visited London as cond. of Phil. Soc. concerts. Wife Minna left him (not for first time) in 1858 because of Wesendonck affair but rejoined him in 1859. Cond. in Paris 1860 and rev. Tannhäuser for perf. at Opéra in 1861; but tried to withdraw it after riots instigated by Jockey Club. Allowed to re-enter Ger., except Saxony. Heard Lohengrin (comp. 1846–8) in Vienna and hoped for prod. there of Tristan, but it was abandoned after 77 rehearsals as ‘unperformable’. Amnesty granted from Saxony 1862. At work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from 1862. Fled Vienna 1864 because of pressing debts, but while in Stuttgart was ‘rescued’ by young King Ludwig of Bavaria, a passionate admirer of Wagner's mus., who became his patron and invited him to Munich, where Tristan was prod. 1865, cond. by Hans von Bülow, with whose wife, Cosima, Wagner had been in love since 1863. Work resumed on Nibelung operas under stimulus of Ludwig's enthusiasm. Opposition to Wagner in Munich political circles led to his departure from Munich and his settling at the villa of Tribschen, Lucerne, where Cosima, having borne him 2 daughters, joined him in 1868. Minna having died in 1866 and Cosima's marriage being annulled in 1869 (the year in which she gave birth to Wagner's son Siegfried), Wagner and Cosima were married in 1870. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre prod. in Munich 1869 and 1870, Die Meistersinger in 1868. In 1871 persuaded Bayreuth municipal authority to grant land for erection of th. specially designed for staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen; foundation-stone laid 1872. Toured Ger. to seek artists and raise funds for first Bayreuth Fest. Settled into new home, Wahnfried, at Bayreuth 1874, where he completed Götterdämmerung, 4th opera in Ring project begun in 1848. Bayreuth th. opened August 1876 and Ring perf. complete under Hans Richter, supervised in every detail by Wagner. In 1877 cond. series of concerts at Royal Albert Hall, London, to raise funds to cover Bayreuth deficit, and then began work on Parsifal, which he had first contemplated in 1857 (completed 1882, perf. in July at Bayreuth). From 1878, suffered series of heart attacks, fatal one occurring in Venice on 13 Feb. 1883. Buried at Wahnfried.

Wagner's mus., richly expressive, intensely illustrative, and on the grandest scale, dominated the 19th cent. and split the mus. world into opposing factions. His influence, good and bad, on countless other composers is still a prime factor a century after his death. He wrote the texts of all his operas, reading copiously in the sources of the legends he selected as subjects and writing a prose sketch, then the poem (lib.) before he comp. any of the mus., though it is clear that certain ideas came to him ready-clothed in mus. He was inspired by the Ger. Romantic spirit of Weber's operas, and to some extent by the grandiose operatic aims of Meyerbeer, whom he despised. In Liszt he found a fellow-spirit from whom he learned much, as he did from Berlioz. But he surpassed them all in the single-mindedness with which he pursued his dream of an art form in which mus. and drama should be one and indivisible, his Zukunftsmusik (mus. of the future). With the chromaticism of Tristan he took tonality to its limits and beyond, and opened the way for the Schoenbergian revolution. Philosophical and psychological undertones contribute immensely to the spell of the Tristan mus. Wagner brought to a fine art the use of Leitmotiv to depict not only characters but their emotions, and wove them into an orch. texture of such richness that the orch. assumed an extra dimension in operatic terms. His operas also required a new technique of singing and a new breed of singers with the intelligence to convey the subtleties of his art. The idea that ‘bawling’ was all that Wagner needed has long been disproved by generations of singers by whom his music has been shown to be as singable as bel canto. In a sense Wagner was a dead-end, since he was a unique genius. The sheer mastery of The Ring, the sustaining of such an imposing achievement at a white-heat of inspiration for something like 15 hours of mus., is among the most amazing artistic achievements of the human spirit. But opera could never be the same after him: he made it the vehicle for the expression of the most complex emotional and psychological issues, but, being first and foremost a musician, these are still secondary to the hypnotic power of the mus., at least for those (and they number millions) who fall under its sway. Prin. works:OPERAS AND MUSIC DRAMAS: Die Feen (The Fairies) (1833–4); Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) (1835–6); Rienzi (1838–40); Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1840–1, various rev.); Tannhäuser (1843–5, rev. 1847–51, 1861–75); Lohengrin (1846–8); Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung's Ring): Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) (1853–4), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) (1854–6), Siegfried (1856–7 and 1864–71), Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (1869–74, some ideas composed as Siegfrieds Tod many years earlier); Tristan und Isolde (1857–9); Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) (1862–7); Parsifal (1877–82).ORCH.: Concert Ov. in D minor (1831), in C (1832); Ov. in E minor (to E. Raupach's play König Enzio) (1831–2); sym. in C (1832); Christopher Columbus, ov. (1834–5); Polonia, ov. (1836); Rule, Britannia, ov. (1837); Faust, ov. (1839–40, rev. 1843–4, 1855); Trauermusik (after motifs from Weber's Euryanthe), wind instr. (1844); Träume, vn., small orch. (1857); Huldigungsmarsch, military band (1864; orch. vers. 1865, completed by Raff, 1871); Siegfried Idyll (1870); Kaisermarsch (1871); Centennial March (1876).CHORAL: Weihegruss (1843); Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love Feast of the Apostles), orch. with male ch. (1843); An Webers Grabe (1844); Kinder-Katechismus, children's vv., pf (1873), rev. with orch. (1874).PIANO: sonata in B♭ (1831); Lied ohne Worte (1840); Album Sonata in A♭ (1853); Albumblätter in A♭ and C (1861).SONGS: 7 Songs from Goethe's Faust (1832); Der Tannenbaum (1838); Les deux grenadiers (1839–40); Les adieux de Marie Stuart (1840); 5 Gedichte von Mathilde Wesendonck (5 Wesendonck Songs), v. and pf. (1857–8; orch. Mottl; arr. Henze for high v. and chamber orch., 1979).WRITINGS: My Life (1865–80); German Opera (1851); Art and Revolution (1849); Judaism in Music (1850); Opera and Drama (1850–1); The Music of the Future (1860); Religion and Art (1880); On Conducting (1869).

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Wagner, Richard

Richard Wagner

Born: May 22, 1813
Liepzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883
Venice, Italy

German composer

The German operatic composer Richard Wagner was one of the most important figures of nineteenth-century music. Wagner was also a crucial figure in nineteenth-century cultural history for both his criticism and polemical writing, or writing that attacks established beliefs.

Early life

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany, into a middle-class family. Raised along with eight siblings, his father, Friedrich, died shortly after Richard's birth, and within the year his mother, Johanna, married Ludwig Geyer. There is still some controversy as to whether or not Geyer, a traveling actor, was Wagner's real father. As a child, Wagner showed little talent or interest in anything except for writing poetry.

Wagner's musical training was largely left to chance until he was eighteen, when he studied with Theodor Weinlig in Leipzig, Germany, for a year. He began his career in 1833 as choral director in Würzburg and composed his early works in imitation of German romantic compositions. Ludwig van Beethoven (17701827) was his major idol at this time.

First works

Wagner wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), in 1833, but it was not produced until after the composer's death. He was music director of the theater in Magdeburg from 1834 to 1836, where his next work, Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love), loosely based on William Shakespeare's (15641616) Measure for Measure was performed in 1836. That year he married Minna Planner, a singer-actress active in local theatrical life.

In 1837 Wagner became the first music director of the theater in Riga, Russia (now the capital of Latvia), where he remained until 1839. He then set out for Paris, France, where he hoped to make his fortune. While in Paris, he developed an intense hatred for French musical culture that lasted the remainder of his life, regardless of how often he attempted to have a Parisian success. It was at this time that Wagner, in financial desperation, sold the scenario for Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) to the Paris Opéra for use by another composer. Wagner later set to music another version of this tale.

Wagner returned to Germany, settling in Dresden in 1842, where he was in charge of the music for the court chapel. Rienzi, a grand opera in imitation of the French style, enjoyed a modest success. In 1845 Tannhäuser premiered in Dresden and proved the first undoubted success of Wagner's career. In November of the same year he finished the poem for Lohengrin and began composition early in 1846. While at work on Lohengrin he also made plans for his tetralogy (a series of four dramas), Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen), being captivated by Norse sagas. In 1845 he prepared the scenario for the first drama of the tetralogy to be written, Siegfried's Tod (Siegfried's Death), which later became Die Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).

Years of exile

Wagner had to flee Dresden in 1849 in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848, which resulted in an unsuccessful uprising against the German monarchy or king. He settled in Switzerland, first in Zurich and then near Lucerne. He remained in Switzerland for the most part for the next fifteen years without steady employment, banished from Germany and forbidden access to German theatrical life. During this time he worked on the Ring this dominated his creative life over the next two decades.

The first production of Lohengrin took place in Weimar under Franz Liszt's (18811886) direction in 1850 (Wagner was not to see Lohengrin until 1861). The year 1850 also saw publication of one of Wagner's most vulgar tracts, The Jew in Music, in which he viciously attacked the very existence of Jewish composers and musicians, particularly in German society.

In 1853 Wagner formally began composition on the Rheingold; he completed the scoring the following year and then began serious work on the Walküre, which was finished in 1856. At this time he was toying with the notion of writing the drama Tristan and Isolde. In 1857 he finished the composition of Act II of Siegfried and gave himself over entirely to Tristan. This work was completed in 1859, but it was mounted in Munich only in 1865.

Last years

In 1860 Wagner received permission to reenter Germany except for Saxony, an area in eastern Germany. He was granted full amnesty (political freedom) in 1862. That year he began the music for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremburg), which he had first thought of in 1845. The Meistersinger was completed in 1867; the first performance took place in Munich the following year. Only then did he pick up the threads of the Ring and resume work on Act III of Siegfried, which was finished in September 1869, a month that also saw the first performance of the Rheingold. He wrote the music for Götterdämmerung from 1869 to 1874.

The first entire Ring cycle (Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung ) was given at the Festspielhaus, the shrine Wagner built for himself at Bayreuth, in 1876, over thirty years after the idea for it had first come to mind. He finished Parsifal, his final drama, in 1882. Wagner died on February 13, 1883, in Venice, Italy, and was buried at Bayreuth.

For More Information

Gutman, Robert W. Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Reprint, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Lee, M. Owen. Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Magee, Bryan. The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Newman, Ernest. Wagner as Man and Artist. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

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Wagner, Richard

Richard Wagner, 1813–83, German composer, b. Leipzig.

Life and Work

Wagner was reared in a theatrical family, had a classical education, and began composing at 17. He studied harmony and the works of Beethoven and in 1833 became chorus master of the theater at Würzburg, the first of a series of theatrical positions. Die Feen (composed 1833), his first opera, was in the German romantic tradition begun by Weber; Das Liebesverbot (1835–36) demonstrated his assimilation of the Italian style. In Paris he completed Rienzi (1838–40) but was unable to have it performed there. Its production in Dresden in 1842 was highly successful, and in 1843 Wagner was made musical director of the Dresden theater.

Der Fliegende Holländer (1841) was less successful. It was based on Heine's version of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a legendary phantom ship, and it foreshadows the idea, developed in Tannhäuser (1843–44) and prevalent in later works, of redemption by love. Tannhäuser, based in part on the actual life of Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin (1846–48) brought the German romantic opera to culmination. In Lohengrin, Wagner for the first time is more interested in his characters as symbols than as actual personages in a drama.

Wagner participated in the Revolution of 1848, fled Dresden, and with the help of Liszt escaped to Switzerland, where he stayed eight years. There he wrote essays, including Oper und Drama (1851), in which he began to articulate aesthetic principles that would guide his subsequent work.

Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74), his tetralogy based on the Nibelungenlied (see under Nibelungen), embodies the most complete adherence to his stated principles. In 1857, having completed the composition of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold (1853–54) and Die Walküre (1854–56), and two acts of Siegfried (1856–69), Wagner laid the Ring aside without hope of ever seeing it performed and composed Tristan und Isolde (1857–59) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862–67), his only comic opera. Tristan, based on the legend of Tristram and Isolde, was so utterly in opposition to the operatic conventions of the day that it required the intercession and support of Louis II of Bavaria to have it produced (1865) in Munich.

In 1872 Wagner moved to Bayreuth, where in 1874 he completed the third act of Siegfried and all of Götterdämmerung, the last work of the Ring cycle. There he was able to build a theater, Das Festspielhaus, adequate for the proper performance of his works, in which the complete Ring was presented in 1876. At Bayreuth, Wagner entertained the great musicians of his day. Parsifal (1877–82) was his last work.

Wagner indulged in much financial foolishness and in the end enjoyed considerable critical success. Although during his lifetime opposition to him and to his ideas went to fantastic lengths, Wagner's operas held a position of complete dominance in the next generation, retaining their enormous popularity in the 20th cent.

Assessment

Wagner's operas represent the fullest musical and theatrical expression of German romanticism. His ideas exerted a profound influence on the work of later composers. For the principle of sharply differentiated recitative and aria, Wagner substituted his "endless melody" and his Sprechgesang [sung speech], calling his operas music-dramas to signify the complete union of music and drama that he sought to achieve. He thought that music could not develop further with the resources it had employed since Beethoven's time, and he maintained that the music of the future must be part of a synthesis of the arts.

Adapting German mythology to his dramatic requirements, Wagner applied to it an increased emotional intensity, derived from the harmonic complexity and power of Beethoven's music, to produce what he termed a "complete art work." He achieved a remarkable dramatic unity due in part to his development of the leitmotif, a brief passage or fragment of music used to characterize an episode or person and brought in at will to recall it to the audience. At the same time, Wagner greatly increased the flexibility and variety of his orchestral accompaniments. He was responsible for the productions of his works from libretti to details of sets and costumes.

Family Members

Wagner's second wife, Cosima Wagner, 1837–1930, was the daughter of Liszt and the comtesse d'Agoult. From 1857 to 1870 she was the wife of Hans von Bülow. In 1870 she married Wagner. After his death she was largely responsible for the continuing fame of the Bayreuth festivals.

Their son, Siegfried Wagner, 1869–1930, composed 11 operas, orchestral and chamber music, and some vocal pieces, but was known chiefly as a conductor. With his wife, Winifred Williams Klindworth, he directed the Bayreuth festivals, a tradition carried on by their sons Wieland and Wolfgang from 1951 until 2008 (jointly until Wieland's death in 1967) and Wolfgang's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, from 2008.

Bibliography

See Wagner's prose works (8 vol., tr. 1892–99); his letters (ed. by J. N. Burk, 1950, repr. 1972); his autobiography, My Life (tr. 1911, repr. 1974); biographies by E. Newman (4 vol., 1933–46) and M. Geck (tr. 2013); studies by G. Skelton (1976, repr. 1982) and B. Millington (rev. ed. 1992, 2002, 2006, and 2012). See also biographies of Cosima Wagner by R. M. F. du Moulin-Eckart (2 vol., tr. 1930) and A. H. Sokoloff (1969); W. Wagner, Acts (1994); G. Wagner, Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family's Legacy (1999); N. Wagner, The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty (2001); J. Carr, The Wagner Clan (2008).

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Wagner, Richard

Wagner, Richard (1813–83) German composer. His works consist almost entirely of operas, for which he provided his own libretti. His early operas include Der fliegende Holländer (1843), Tannhäuser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850). With Tristan and Isolde (1865) and the four-part The Ring of the Nibelung (1851–76), the genius of Wagner is fully displayed. His rich, chromatic style gives the music great emotional depth, and the complex, ever-developing web of leitmotivs, which are heard in the voices and in the orchestra, propel the drama. Other operas include The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1868) and the sacred stage drama Parsifal (1882).

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