Composer Profile: Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner, 1871

Quite possibly there has never been another composer in the history of classical music as controversial as Richard Wagner. He had a habit of running up debts, running out on debts, and running around with other men’s wives. And that’s before we even begin to talk about his music.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on 22nd May 1813, the ninth and last child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk with the local police, and his wife Johanna. Six months later Carl Wagner died of typhus, and shortly after his wife Johanna moved in with (and probably married) her deceased husband’s friend, an actor and playwright named Ludwig Geyer. It is quite possible that Richard spent much of his childhood under the impression that he was Geyer’s biological child: he used the name Geyer until he was in his teens. He certainly ‘inherited’ Geyer’s love of the theatre and was encouraged in both this and music by Geyer and, when Geyer himself died in 1821, by Geyer’s brother, who paid for him to attend the Kreuschule, the grammar school for the members of the choir of the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

In 1829 a performance by the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient deeply impressed him with its fusion of music and drama, and this inspiration, underpinned by a sound musical inspiration and driven by a seemingly-boundless self-confidence, would set the course for his musical career.

Interior of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big.

In 1833 his education was complete and Wagner’s brother Albert obtained a position for him as choirmaster at the theatre in Wurzburg. This was also the year that Wagner completed his first opera, The Fairies. In 1836 he married the actress Christine Wilhelmine ‘Minna’ Planer. Six months later Minna had had an affair, although she later returned to her husband, and just two years later they had amassed such massive debts that they fled to London. The stormy crossing of the Channel would provide inspiration for Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

In 1842 Wagner was delighted to be able to return to his beloved Germany for the debut of Rienzi. But his involvement in a failed socialist uprising in 1849 led to a warrant for his arrest and he was forced into exile again, setting in Switzerland. The following decade would see two affairs, one with Jessie Laussot in 1850 and another with the poet Mathilde Wesendonck which began in 1853 and lasted five years; Minna’s descent into depression; and the first expression of Wagner’s now-famous antisemitism. But it was also the period during which Wagner would develop his concept of ‘Gesamtkuntswerk’ (the ‘total work of art’) and compose some of his most famous operas: the Ring Cycle and Tristian and Isolde.

Exterior view of the Festspielhaus.

Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote his own libretto as well as composing the music, and he always had clear ideas about how his operas should be staged. He continued to cherish these dreams through the end of his affair with Mathilde, four years in Venice and Paris, his return to Germany in 1862, the end of his marriage to Minna and her death in 1866, a scandalous affair with Cosima von Bulow, the illegitimate daughter of Liszt and wife of the conductor of the première of Tristian and Isolde, who was 24 years his junior and whom he would eventually marry… and finally, in 1871, the promise of the fulfilment of his dreams when his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who was infatuated with Wagner), built a villa for him  in the town of Bayreuth.

However, the king baulked at paying to construct Wagner’s grand design, his ‘Festspielhaus’ (‘Festival Theatre’), and Wagner was unable to première his Ring Cycle there in 1873, as he had initially hoped. Help came in the form of public subscription from the many Wagner Societies which had by now sprung up in his honour, and in 1876 the Fespspielhaus hosted not one but three complete productions of the Ring Cycle. Today the name Bayreuth is synonymous with Wagner and the town has become a place of pilgrimage, with Wagner’s operas regularly performed and the Wagner villa turned into a museum. And yet Wagner himself was dissatisfied with the performances, which left a significant financial deficit in their wake.

Graves of Richard and Cosima Wagner in the garden of the villa at Bayreuth.

The final years of his life saw Wagner in increasing ill-health, and also increasingly interested in Christianity and German nationalism, both of which influenced his final opera, Parsifal, which is notorious for having distinct antisemitism. Wagner died of a heart attack on 13th February 1883 and is buried in the garden of the villa at Bayreuth.

Wagner’s most famous works are all operas:
Rienzi, 1839-40
The Flying Dutchman, 1841
Tannhauser, 1843-45
Lohengrin, 1846-48
Tristian and Isolde, 1857-59
The Ring Cycle (in four parts), 1853-74
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, 1861-67
Parsifal, 1877-82

Are you a fan of Wagner? Tell me what you love about his work.

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