Richard Wilhelm Wagner
(22 May 1813, Leipzig - 13 February 1883, Venice)
Richard Wagner was a German composer, theater director, polemicist, and conductor whose operas and music had a revolutionary influence on the course of Western music, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them. Born in a family that had no particular interest in music, Wagner began to take interest in art from an early age and this was encouraged by his step father, Ludwig Geyer (his biological father died 6 months after his birth). In late 1820 he was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel's school at Possendorf near Dresden. Although negligent as a scholar, he received a little piano instruction from his Latin teacher. He frequented concerts, taught himself composition and improved his piano skills.
After Geyer's death (1821), Richard was sent to the Kreuzschule, the boarding school of the Dresdner Kreuzchor (a boys' choir of the Church of the Holy Cross in Dresden), at the expense of Geyer's brother. In spite of his inclinations towards literature and theater, he dedicates himself to music, studying composition with Theodor Weinlig who was cantor at the Saint Thomas Church. His real schooling consisted of a close personal study of the scores of the masters, notably the quartets and symphonies of Beethoven.
During the 1828-1832 period he composed his first symphonic and chamber works, including his seven compositions on Goethe's Faust and his Polonia overture in C major. For a decade (1833-1843), he was active in different European centers: Würzburg, Magdeburg, Königsberg, Riga and Paris. This was an era of continuing fluster, in which he composed his first operas The Fairies (1833)and The ban on love (1836), obviously influenced by contemporary dramatic works. Harassed by his creditors, he fled to Paris with Minna Planner, a singer from the Theater of Magdeburg with whom he had married in 1836.
Hoping to find favorable conditions for affirmation in the French capital, he was hit by the harsh reality of that time. In his novel ”A German musician in Paris” (1839), he describes the entire Parisian artistic environment and the fall of the musical taste. Although difficult, these years spent in Paris played an important role in his development as a composer. Here he met numerous renowned musicians of the time: Liszt, Chopin, Meyerbeer and Berlioz, whose creation was much appreciated by Wagner. In 1840 he completed Reinzi (after Bulwer-Lytton's novel), and in 1841 he composed his first representative opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), based on the legend about a ship's captain condemned to sail forever.
In 1842, he returned to Dresden, where Rienzi was triumphantly performed on October 20. He remains here as a conductor of the Opera Theater until 1849. The next year The Flying Dutchman (produced at Dresden, January 2, 1843) was less successful, since the audience expected a work in the French-Italian tradition similar to Rienzi and was puzzled by the innovative way the new opera integrated the music with the dramatic content. Other important works date from this period, the most representative being Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Although composed in the same traditional structures, these works configure their own style and makes his new musical drama processes known.
Preoccupied with ideas of social regeneration, he then became embroiled in the German revolution of 1848–49. Wagner wrote a number of articles advocating revolution and took an active part in the Dresden uprising of 1849. When the uprising failed, a warrant was issued for his arrest and he fled from Germany. Following the next 15 years, Wagner was not to present any further new works. With the exception of a few trips to London, Paris and Bordeaux, he spends his exile in Zürich until 1859, when he is pardoned, and in 1862 receives the right to return to Germany. In the next years to come, Wagner was well received by the public as a conductor and composer, he conducted concerts in many musical centers such as: Leipzig, Dresda, London, Vienna, Petersburg, etc.
Between 1857 and 1864 Wagner wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde and his only mature comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), two works that are also part of the regular operatic canon. In 1872 he moved back to München. Ludovic II built a special theater in Bayreuth particular for Wagnerian performances and a villa in Wahnfried in which Wagner lived. His last opera, Parsifal (1882), has a storyline suggested by elements of the legend of the Holy Grail. It also carries elements of Buddhist renunciation suggested by Wagner's readings of Schopenhauer. Located in Venice, Wagner died around the age of 70.
Wagner's aesthetic thinking appears strongly from his critical work. He asked artists to reflect life, but opposed the excessive generalization and abstractization of symphonic music. His later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif) and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onwards, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay "About Conducting" (1869) advanced Hector Berlioz's technique of conducting and claimed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison.
Wagner’s influence, as a musical dramatist and as a composer, was a powerful one. Although few operatic composers have been able to follow him in providing their own librettos, all have profited from his reform in the matter of giving dramatic depth, continuity, and cohesion to their works.
In the purely musical field, Wagner’s influence was even more far-reaching. He developed such a wide expressive range that he was able to make each of his works inhabit a unique emotional world of its own, and, in doing so, he raised the melodic and harmonic style of German music to what many regard as its highest emotional and sensuous intensity. Much of the subsequent history of music stems from him, either by extension of his discoveries or reaction against them.
Wagner's legacy had an overwhelming influence on the further development of music. Composers such as Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schönberg, Richard Strauss developed under the influence of Richard Wagner's music.
Here you can find a complete list of Richard Wagner's compositions.