b. 1813 – d. 1883
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Richard Wagner is one of the leading figures in the history of opera, who pushed the boundaries of tonality, established a trend towards through-composed structures and strongly influenced the development of the orchestra. Even during his lifetime, Wagner’s influence was not just prevalent in the musical sphere, but also politically and ideologically. It was rare for a composer to awaken interest to such an extreme degree among connoisseurs and lay listeners alike.
Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813. His first lessons in harmony with Christian Gottlieb Müller started in 1828, which was the year that he first heard Beethoven’s Symphonies 7 and 9 at the Gewandhaus. Wagner became heavily influenced by Beethoven and wrote a piano transcription of his still controversial 9th Symphony. His first professional appointment was at the theatre in Würzburg as chorusmaster at the age of 20. In the same year, he wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), in which he draws his inspiration from works of the early romantic opera composer Carl Maria von Weber, but it was not performed until shortly after Wagner’s death.
In 1837 he became the musical director of the theatre in Riga, which at that time was a town colonised largely by Germans, part of the Russian Empire. In 1839 Wagner began his Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) while fleeing the country with his wife after amassing huge debts. The dangerous journey from the Baltic sea to London gave him huge creative inspiration for the work. He finally staged it back in the fatherland after spending a dismal, financially impoverished two and a half years in Paris. The premiere took place at the Hoftheatre in Dresden on 2 January 1843. Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, which premiered two years later, and Lohengrin, which was finished around the time of the Dresden uprising, can be referred to as his middle period operas. After fleeing Dresden during the uprising and sheltering with Lizst in Weimar, he then entered Switzerland on a fake passport.
During his exile in Switzerland, he wrote many essays, one notably on the reunification of the arts into a comprehensive all-encompassing Gesamkunstwerk (‘total work of art’), in which music, dance, art and poetry are harmonised such as in Greek drama. In his essay ‘Opera and Drama’, Wagner describes the aesthetics that he planned to use in his four-opera Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The operas are called Das Rheingold (The Rhein Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), of which Wagner wrote the complete libretto and music over 26 years.During the period in which he was working on the third Ring opera, Siegfried, he abruptly put it aside for a while to work on Tristan und Isolde, the premiere of which took place on 10 June 1865. It was the first Wagner opera premiere in over 15 years, conducted by Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow’s wife, Cosima was having an affair with Wagner and had given birth to their daughter Isolde earlier that year. The famous 'Tristan chord', which had implications for the future of tonality, was later described by Arnold Schoenberg as a "wanderingchord...it can come from anywhere".
Another significant Wagner opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was in essence Wagner’s ideological campaign of the 1860s to revive the German spirit. Its premiere on 21 June 1868 was a great success for Wagner.
In the 1870s Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, which was to be the location for his new opera house. The foundation stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus was laid on 22 May 1872 and was opened for the premiere of the complete cycle of the Der Ring des Nibelungen from 13 to 17 August 1876.
The increased sophistication of Wagner’s orchestration reflects improvements in woodwind and brasswind quality in the 19th century. This was a century that saw the emancipation of winds as solo instruments whose sonorities made an increasingly impressive contribution to orchestral texture in their numerous combinations. Wagner’s mature orchestra was reinforced with a large proportion of strings to winds. In the Ring, for instance, due to the fact that he asked for quadruple woodwinds, he wrote for a considerably huge string section: 16 first violins, 16 second violins, 12 violins, 12 cellos and 8 double basses. The wall of string sound is one of his trademarks.
The impact of Wagner was colossal. It goes without saying that he had a profound effect on not just music for years to come, but also on literature, the visual arts, theatre, philosophy and politics which is no less important to mention. In literature, Baudelaire was an early admirer of Wagner in France and Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and James Joyce owe much of their inspiration to him. In the visual arts, it was among the Parisian avant-garde artists that the pace was set. In Kaiser Wilhelm II era Germany, there was an upsurge of nationalism and the Kaiser heavily subsidised Bayreuth.
In the 1880s Wagner’s health began to deteriorate. He died of a fatal heart attack in early 1883 in Venice where his family had taken up residence.