Skip to main content

Wagner, Richard


early years
first operas
der fliegende hollÄnder and later works
bayreuth festival
wagner and nazism

WAGNER, RICHARD (1813–1883), German composer.

Richard Wagner was the most prominent German composer of the nineteenth century, but he was much more than a musician; he was a social movement in his own right, a focus of passionate adulation and equally passionate condemnation.

Wagner was born on 22 May 1813. He came into the world at a time of great political turmoil, which was only fitting considering the turmoil he would generate himself over the course of his life. Napoleon I was defeated at the "Battle of the Nations" near Leipzig in October 1813, a defeat constituting the beginning of the end for the French emperor but by no means the end of the cascading changes brought on by the French Revolution. Those changes helped define the political and social context in which Wagner—a true Napoleon of the arts—lived and worked.

early years

One of the victims of the typhus epidemic that swept over Leipzig in the wake of the Battle of the Nations was Friedrich Wagner, a police registrar and father of nine children, the youngest being six-month-old Richard. But in fact, Friedrich Wagner may not have been Richard's father at all, because Wagner's mother, Johanna, was intimate with a local painter and poet named Ludwig Geyer, whom she then married nine months after Friedrich's death. Although Geyer became the only father Richard actually knew, the composer could never be sure about the identity of his biological father. More vexing still, at least in his eyes, was the suggestion (since proven to be baseless) that Geyer was Jewish. The thought that he might himself carry the "taint" of Jewish blood undoubtedly fueled Wagner's growing anti-Semitic phobia. The composer's enduring anxieties about his origins also found expression in his operas, which, among other idiosyncrasies, betray an obsession with fatherless children.

The first years of Wagner's childhood were happy and secure enough, for Geyer obtained a position in the court theater in Dresden and dutifully cared for the large family he had inherited. Geyer died, however, when Richard was only eight, leaving an emotional hole in the boy's life. Before departing the scene, Geyer passed on to his youngest son a budding passion for things theatrical. In introducing the boy to the Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber, Geyer also kindled in him an enthusiasm for music. As a schoolboy, however, Wagner did not demonstrate any great skill in music—certainly he was no child prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His primary interest was in drama, especially William Shakespeare, who appealed to his sense for the fantastic and grotesque. He also cultivated a passion for the ancient Greek tragedians, whose influence, like that of Shakespeare's, later appeared prominently in his operas.

Wagner began his study of musical composition in his late teens, when he fell under the electrifying influence of Ludwig van Beethoven. His first significant musical undertaking was a piano

transcription of Beethoven's Choral Symphony. At Leipzig's Thomasschule he took violin lessons from a member of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and he studied counterpoint and harmony with the cantor of the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach had worked a century earlier. Yet musical study was by no means Wagner's sole preoccupation. Upon entering Leipzig University he became caught up in the rowdiness of student life, and in 1830, when the revolutionary spirit emanating from France spread to Leipzig, Wagner enthusiastically joined a mob of students in sacking a brothel and laying siege to a prison.

first operas

Wagner's initial forays into operatic composition did not give much evidence of the innovative mold breaker he was to become as a mature artist. His first three operas, Die Feen (1833–1834; The fairies), Das Liebesverbot (1834–1836; The ban on love), and Rienzi (1837–1840), followed in the traditions of German and Italian Romantic opera, employing the conventional recitative, aria, duet, and choral forms. While writing these pieces, and for some time thereafter, Wagner was forced to make his living conducting other men's works in provincial theaters. Meagerly compensated for these duties, but determined not to live like a church mouse, Wagner began to run up large debts. Money problems and creditor-evasion would remain fixtures in his life.

The need to escape creditors lay partly behind Wagner's move to Paris in 1839. As an impoverished and unknown provincial from Germany, Wagner was in no position to make an impact in Louis-Philippe's Paris, where charismatic virtuosi such as Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin ruled the day. While in Paris Wagner received invaluable assistance from the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, whom Wagner later came to despise and to blame for all the tribulations that attended his sojourn in Paris. In his essay Das Judentum in der Musik (1850; Judaism in music), Wagner held up Meyerbeer as an example of alleged creative sterility among Jews.

der fliegende hollÄnder and later works

Wagner's opera Der fliegende Holländer (The flying Dutchman) premiered (with Meyerbeer's assistance) in Dresden in 1843. Although this work still contained many trappings of conventional opera, it anticipated the composer's later "musicdramas" in its use of leitmotivs. Holländer was not a critical or popular success, and Wagner began increasingly to clash with the musical establishment. The clashes continued during his tenure as Kapellmeister (a conducting post) at the Royal Court of Saxony in Dresden, where he served from 1843 to 1849. Although he was able to get his next opera, Tannhäuser, mounted in Dresden in 1845, he fought with the orchestra and court officials over its staging. When the revolutionary turmoil of 1848 swept into Saxony the following year he joined in the fighting, motivated both by political idealism and the hope that a new social-political order might be more receptive to his work.

As a result of his participation in the abortive Saxon revolution, Wagner was obliged to flee to Switzerland, beginning an exile in that land that would span, with various interruptions, some twenty-three years. Here he composed Der Ring des Nibelungen (1851–1874), Tristan und Isolde (1857–1859), and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862–1867), as well as his seminal prose essays Die Kunst und die Revolution (1849; Art and revolution) and Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1849; The artwork of the future). In the prose works he called for an artistic revolution through which traditional operatic forms would give way to a "total work of art" uniting poetry, music, drama, and dance in a profound exploration of the human condition. His music-dramas, above all Der Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal (1877–1882), put this ambitious conception into practice.

bayreuth festival

In order to translate his aesthetic ideals to the stage Wagner felt he needed a new kind of opera house, which in turn demanded a generous patron. The composer believed he had found his "angel" in young King Louis II of Bavaria, who upon coming to the throne in 1864 called Wagner to Munich and promised to build him a new theater there. However, Wagner's luxurious living at state expense, his meddling in royal politics, and his notorious affair with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow and illegitimate daughter of Liszt, so soured the people of Munich that Louis was forced to send Wagner away in late 1865. (Wagner married Cosima in 1870, following her divorce from Bülow.) He returned to exile in Switzerland until 1872, when, following the establishment of the new German empire, he moved to Bayreuth, in northern Bavaria, in hopes of finally realizing his dream of building a special theater for the production of his work. The choice of Bayreuth was motivated partly by Wagner's desire once again to exploit the largesse of Louis, but also by his hope of casting his envisaged annual music festival as an "artistic sister" of German unification, thereby securing financial support from the imperial government. In the end Wagner proved unable to win significant backing from Berlin, but with help from Louis and an innovative subscription system he was able to launch his "Richard Wagner Festival" with the first complete Ring production in 1876.

The inaugural Bayreuth festival was not a success financially, and Wagner was unable to put on another festival until 1882, when he premiered Parsifal. As conductor for this performance Wagner employed Hermann Levi, a Jew, whose services he was obliged to accept under an agreement with Louis.

Among the harshest critics of Parsifal, and indeed of the entire Bayreuth enterprise, was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Earlier on Nietzsche had been a fervent admirer of Wagner, whose concept of the "total work of art" helped inspire Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). But Nietzsche was disgusted by what he saw as Wagner's surrender to Christianity in Parsifal, and by the composer's toadying to the imperial government in his efforts to fund Bayreuth. Wagner, who had been flattered by Nietzsche's adulation, was deeply wounded by the criticism. The two former friends remained estranged on Wagner's death in 1883.

wagner and nazism

In addition to launching the Bayreuth music festival, which Cosima Wagner carried on after his death, Wagner brought together in Bayreuth a coterie of disciples who dedicated themselves to perpetuating his musical and philosophical legacy. Known as the Bayreuth Circle, this group interpreted the composer's contradictory ideas onesidedly as an endorsement of the authoritarian, racist, and chauvinistic views they themselves championed. Their influence, along with Adolf Hitler's personal infatuation with Wagner's operas, later turned Bayreuth into a kind of "court theater" for the Third Reich. Ever since, some commentators have seen Wagner as an intellectual "forefather" of Nazism.

The question of Wagner's connection to Nazism continues to inspire impassioned debate among historians and cultural critics, as does the relationship between his political ideas and his music. Is Wagner's art indelibly "corrupted" by his sociopolitical views? Can one enjoy his music with a clear conscience? These questions will probably persist as long as Wagner's operas are performed.

See alsoBeethoven, Ludwig van; Liszt, Franz; Louis II; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Revolutions of 1848.


Gray, Howard. Wagner. London, 1990.

Gregor-Dellin, Martin. Richard Wagner: His Life, His Work, His Century. Translated by J. Maxwell Brown-john. San Diego, Calif., 1983.

Gutman, Robert W. Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music. New York, 1968.

Large, David Clay, and William Weber, eds. Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics. Ithaca, N.Y., 1984.

Millington, Barry, ed. The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. London, 1992.

David Clay Large

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Wagner, Richard." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . 22 Aug. 2019 <>.

"Wagner, Richard." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . (August 22, 2019).

"Wagner, Richard." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Retrieved August 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.