May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1884, Venice, Italy
In his own words . . .
"True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to communicate in the most immediate way with a collective public. . . .Thus especially the art of tone, developed with such singular diversity in instrumental music, will realize in the collective artwork its richest potential—will indeed incite the pantomimic art of dancing in turn to wholly new discoveries and inspire the breath of poetry no less to an undreamed-of fullness. For in its isolation music has formed itself an organ capable of the most immeasurable expression—the orchestra."
German opera composer, conductor, and musical writer. Wagner changed the concept of opera by viewing it as a "total art work" ( Gesamptkunstwerk ).
It is telling that Richard Wagner's artistic beginnings lie in both music and drama. At the age of fifteen, he wrote his first play and a year later his first musical composition. He was largely self-taught in music, although he did study privately when he was a university student in Leipzig. His career centered almost exclusively on the theater, and he wrote his first opera at the age of twenty, while serving as chorus master at the opera theater in Wurzburg. His first great success came with Rienzi in 1842, followed soon after by Der fliegender HollŐnder (The Flying Dutchman, 1843), Tannhauser (1845), and Lohengrin (1850).
Wagner fled Germany after the political upheavals of 1848, spending the bulk of his time in Zurich writing the text for his Ring cycle, as well as a number of books on music. The most famous is the two-volume Opera and Drama, in which he set out his new ideas on reforming opera. The most infamous is his Jewishness in Music , a virulent antisemitic diatribe. In 1862, he returned to Germany, settling in Bavaria under the patronage of young Ludwig II. Here Wagner completed Tristan und Isolde, a tale of forbidden love made all the more fitting by the fact that he was at that time having an affair with Cosima von Bulow, daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Tristan's conductor, Hans von Bulow. In 1866, Wagner returned to Switzerland and continued work on the Ring, stopping to compose a completely different type of work, the comedic Die Meistersinger von Nčrnberg .
As each part of the Ring cycle was finished and performed, Wagner became more and more determined to create a theater capable of realizing the complicated lighting and staging he envisioned. Once again, Ludwig stepped in. In 1874, he committed to building just such a theater in Bayreuth. Two years later, Wagner's complete cycle of four music dramas was presented there. While an artistic success, it was a financial disaster, and Wagner had to turn his efforts to recouping his losses. Out of this effort grew his final music drama, Parsifal--a tale of love and redemption. It premiered in 1882; Wagner died that winter while on a trip to Venice.
It is no overstatement to say that Wagner changed the face of opera. From his earliest works, he began to break away from the structure of separate numbers to one of continuous drama (he ultimately called his works music dramas rather than operas). Other composers were heading in this direction, but none so relentlessly as Wagner. Perhaps more important was his concept of the "total art work," in which the composer controlled all the elements of the dramatic production and put them to work in projecting the drama. Musically, this was reflected in the idea of the Leitmotiv, a musical theme that stands for a person, thing, or idea. Wagner's music dramas are seamless webs of these musical ideas, with the music itself telling as much of the story as the action on the stage.
Perhaps due to the uncompromising nature of Wagner's musical ideals, or perhaps due to the difficulty of his politics and personality, he served (and still serves) as a polarizing figure in music. His admirers (often devotees) carried his legacy into the twentieth century, while his detractors either went in opposite directions or made use of some of his ideas while distancing themselves from him as much as possible. Although Wagner's place in history is established, the judgment of that position will be a source of controversy far into the future.
13 Musikdramas (operas)
Orchestral music, including Sigfried Idyll (1870)
Piano music, vocal music, and choral music