an influential German composer , conductor , music theorist , and essayist , primarily known for his groundbreaking symphonic-operas (or "music dramas"). His compositions are notable for their continuous contrapuntal texture , rich harmonies and orchestration , and elaborate use of leitmotifs : themes associated with specific characters or situations. Wagner's chromatic musical language prefigured later developments in European classical music , including extreme chromaticism and atonality . He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total art-work"), epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876 ). His concept of leitmotif and integrated musical expression was a strong influence on many 20th century film scores . Wagner is also an extremely controversial figure, both for his musical and dramatic innovations, and for his anti-semitic views.
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig , Germany , on May 22 , 1813 . His father, Friedrich Wagner, who was a minor city official, died six months after Richard's birth. In August 1814 his mother, Johanne Patz, married the actor, Ludwig Geyer. Geyer, who is rumored to have actually been the boy's father, died when Richard was six, leaving him to be brought up by his mother.
In 1822, at age 11, Richard was enrolled in the Dresden Kreuz School where he received some small amount of piano instruction from his Latin teacher, but could not manage a proper scale and mostly preferred playing theater overtures by ear.
Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831 . One of his early musical influences was Ludwig van Beethoven .
In 1833 , at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen . This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber , would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer's death in 1883 .
Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg , during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot , based on William Shakespeare 's Measure for Measure . This second opera was staged at Magdeburg in 1836 , but met with little acclaim.
On November 24 , 1836 , Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer. They moved to the city of Riga , where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer, who later left her penniless. Wagner accepted Minna back, but this was the beginning of a troubled marriage that ended in misery three decades later.
By 1839 , the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for the rest of his life). During their flight, they took a stormy sea passage to London , from which Wagner obtained the inspiration for Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Wagners lived in Paris for several years, where Richard made a living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers.
Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840 . Fortuitously, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre in the German state of Saxony . In 1842 , the couple moved to Dresden , where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser , the first two of his three middle-stage operas.
The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics . A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States , calling for increased freedoms and the unification of the weak states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel , who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin .
Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a boil in April 1849 , when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved his Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris, and then to Zürich . Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and were forced to endure long years of imprisonment.
Exile, Schopenhauer, and Mathilde Wesendonck
Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850 .
Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into the mammoth work Der Ring des Nibelungen , seemed to have no prospects of seeing performance. His wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas , which made it difficult for him to continue writing.
Wagner's primary output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849 ), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; "Judaism in Music" (1850 ), an anti-Semitic tract directed against Jewish composers; and "Opera and Drama" (1851 ), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.
In the following years, Wagner came upon two independent sources of inspiration, leading to the creation of his celebrated Tristan und Isolde . The first came to him in 1854 , when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer . Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer's philosophy - a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.
One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in "Opera and Drama", that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person).
Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck , the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852 . Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857 , Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story of the knight Tristan and the (already-married) Lady Isolde.
The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858 , when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice . The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to efforts of Princess de Metternich . The premiere of the new Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by aristocrats from the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.
In 1861 , the political ban against Wagner was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich , Prussia , where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg . Remarkably, this opera is by far his sunniest work. (His second wife Cosima would later write: "when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose.") In 1862 , Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866 .
Patronage of King Ludwig II
Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864 , when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich . He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10 , 1865 .
In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow , one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult , and 24 years younger than Wagner. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. In April 1865 , she gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.
Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Triebschen , beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne . Die Meistersinger was completed at Triebschen in 1867 , and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce. Richard and Cosima were married on August 25 , 1870 . (Liszt would not speak to his new son-in-law for years to come.) On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life. They had an additional daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.
It was at Triebschen, in 1869 , that Wagner first met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche , who quickly became a firm friend. Wagner's ideas were a major influence on Nietzsche, who was 31 years his junior. Nietzsche's first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie ("The Birth of Tragedy", 1872 ), was dedicated to Wagner. The relationship eventually soured, as Nietzsche became increasingly disillusioned with various aspects of Wagner's thought, such as his pacifism and anti-Semitism. In Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner", 1888 ) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (Nietzsche vs. Wagner, 1889 ), he would condemn Wagner as decadent and corrupt, even criticizing his earlier adulatory views of the composer.
Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre , were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house .
In 1871 , he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner societies " were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were only raised after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874 . Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German ).
The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since
In 1877 , Wagner began work on Parsifal , his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882 , and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29 , he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi , and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13 , 1883 , Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of Wahnfried
Anti-Semitism and Nazi appropriation
During the 20th century , the public perception of Wagner increasingly centered on his anti-semitism , due in large part to an event that occurred after the composer's death: the appropriation of his music by the Nazi party during the 1930s .
Wagner frequently and prominently accused Jews, particularly Jewish musicians, of being a harmful foreign element in Germany. His first and most controversial anti-Semitic essay was "Das Judenthum in der Musik " ("Jewishness in Music"), originally published under the pen-name "K. Freigedank" ("free thought") in 1850 in the Neue Zeitschrift. The essay purported to explain "popular dislike" of Jewish composers, such as Wagner's contemporaries (and rivals) Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer . Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their alien appearance and behavior - "freaks of Nature" with "creaking, squeaking, buzzing" voices - so that "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, because they had no connection to "the genuine spirit of the Folk". In the conclusion to the essay, he wrote of the Jews that "only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus - going under!" Although this has been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it refers to the eradication of Judaism. In essence, Wagner was calling for the abandonment of Jewish culture and the assimilation of the Jews into German culture. The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869 , leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg . Wagner repeated similar views in several later articles, such as "What is German?" (1878 ).
During the late 20th century , scholars such as Robert Gutman advanced the claim that Wagner's anti-semitism was not limited to his articles, and that the operas contain hidden anti-Semitic messages. For example, characters such as Mime in the Ring and Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger are supposedly anti-Semitic stereotypes, even though they are not identified as Jews. Such claims are much disputed. The purported "hidden messages" are often convoluted, and may be the result of biased over-interpretation. It should be noted that Wagner, over the course of his life, produced a huge amount of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, including his operas and his views on Jews (as well as practically every other topic under the Sun); these purported anti-Semitic messages were never mentioned.
Wagner's own religious views were idiosyncratic. He admired Jesus , but insisted that he was of Greek origin rather than Jewish. He also argued that the Old Testament had nothing to do with the New Testament, that the God of Israel was not the same God as the father of Jesus, and that the Ten Commandments lacked the mercy and love of Christian teachings. Wagner was also fascinated by Buddhism , and for many years contemplated a Buddhist opera, Die Sieger ("The Victors"), based on Sârdûla Karnavadanaan, an avadana of the Buddha 's last journey. Aspects of Die Sieger were finally absorbed into Parsifal , which depicts a peculiar, "Wagnerized" version of Christianity; for instance, the ritual of transubstantiation in the Communion is subtly reinterpreted, becoming something closer to a pagan ritual than a Christian one. Despite his very public anti-Semitic views, Wagner maintained an extensive network of Jewish friends and colleagues. The most notable of these was Hermann Levi , a practicing Jew whom Wagner chose to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, his last opera. Wagner initially wanted Levi to become baptized before conducting Parsifal, presumably due to the religious content of the opera, but later dropped the issue. Levi maintained a close friendship with Wagner, and was asked to be a pallbearer at the composer's funeral. Historian Will Durant pointedly states that Wagner himself was Jewish; however, there is no evidence of this. Nevertheless, during his childhood Wagner was known by the surname of his step-father, Ludwig Geyer. Geyer is a common surname among German Jews, though Ludwig himself had no known Jewish ancestors. Wagner may not have known this. His own physiognomy was later caricatured in a manner that resembles anti-Semitic images of the time (hooked nose and over-large head). The possibility that Geyer may have been his real father combined with sensitivity about his looks may have been a motive for Wagner's intense desire to stress his rejection of Jewishness and commitment to Germanness.
Around the time of Wagner's death, European nationalist movements were losing the Romantic , idealistic egalitarianism of 1848 , and acquiring tints of militarism and aggression, due in no small part to Bismarck's takeover and unification of Germany in 1871 . After Wagner's death in 1883 , Bayreuth increasingly became a focus for right-wing German nationalists attracted by the mythos of the operas, who came to be known as the Bayreuth circle . This group was endorsed by Cosima, whose anti-Semitism was considerably less complex and more virulent than Richard's. One of the circle was Houston Stewart Chamberlain , the author of a number of philosophic tracts which later became required Nazi reading. Chamberlain married Wagner's daughter, Eva. After the deaths of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930 , the operation of the Festival fell to Siegfried's widow, English born Winifred , who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler . Hitler was an admirer of Wagner's music, and sought to incorporate it into his heroic mythology of the German nation (a nation that had no formal identity prior to 1871 ). Hitler held many of Wagner's original scores in his Berlin bunker during World War II , despite the pleadings of Wieland Wagner to have these important documents put in his care; the scores perished with Hitler in the final days of the war.
Some scholars have argued that Wagner's views, particularly his anti-Semitism, influenced the Nazis, but these claims are controversial, and, according to historian Richard J. Evans, there is no evidence that Hitler even read any of Wagner's writings. Wagner's works do not inherently support Nazi notions of heroism. For example, Siegfried , the ostensible "hero" of the Ring cycle, may appear (and often does so in modern productions) a shallow and unappealing lout - although this is certainly not how Wagner himself conceived him; the opera's sympathies may seem to lay instead, in these circumstances, with the world-weary womaniser Wotan. Such ambivalence - between what the music can tell us and what we know of Wagner the man - lies at the heart of the debate on Wagner's supposed 'proto-Nazism'. Many aspects of Wagner's personal philosophy would certainly have been unappealing to the Nazis, such as his pacifism and support for Jewish assimilation. For example, Goebbels banned Parsifal in 1939 , shortly before the outbreak of total war, due to the pacifistic overtones of the opera.
For the most part, the Nazi fascination with Wagner was limited to Hitler, sometimes to the dismay of other high-ranking Nazi officials, including Goebbels. In 1933 , for instance, Hitler ordered that each Nuremberg Rally open with a performance of the Meistersinger overture, and he even issued one thousand free tickets to Nazi functionaries. When Hitler entered the theater, however, he discovered that it was almost empty. The following year, those functionaries were ordered to attend, but they could be seen dozing off during the performance, so that in 1935 , Hitler conceded and released the tickets to the public.
In general, while Wagner's music was ubiquitous throughout the Third Reich, his popularity actually declined in favor of Italian composers such as Verdi and Puccini . By the 1938 -1939 season, Wagner had only one opera in the list of fifteen most popular operas of the season, with the list headed by Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo 's Pagliacci .
It is difficult to criticise someone for the views someone later in history had of him: Hitler's admiration for Wagner could not have been returned because Wagner died six years before Hitler was born (on April 20 , 1889 ). The political philosopher Leo Strauss has written about the absurdity of feeling one should dislike something just because Hitler liked it (or vice versa) -- what he called the Reductio ad Hitlerum . This would entail, for example, despising vegetarianism just because Hitler practiced it (and indeed considered it central to his ideas of Aryan purity).
Nevertheless, Wagner's works have been blacklisted in the modern state of Israel , and what few performances have occurred have evoked much controversy. Although they are commonly broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations, attempts at staging public performances have been halted by protests, especially by Holocaust survivors. For instance, after Daniel Barenboim conducted a passage from Tristan and Isolde as an encore at the 2001 Israel Festival, a parliamentary committee urged a boycott of the conductor, and an initially scheduled performance of Die Walküre had to be withdrawn. On another occasion, Zubin Mehta played Wagner in Israel in spite of walkouts and jeers from the audience. One of the many ironies reflecting the complexities of Wagner and the responses his music provokes is that Theodore Herzl , the founder of modern Zionism , was an avid admirer of Wagner's work.
Wagner's influence and legacy
Wagner's contributions to art and culture are undeniable and monumental. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion amongst his legions of fans, often considered by them to have a near god-like status. His music, Tristan und Isolde especially, broke important new ground. For years afterward, many composers felt compelled to align themselves with or against Wagner. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf are indebted to him especially, as are Cesar Franck , Henri Duparc , Ernest Chausson , Jules Massenet , Alexander von Zemlinsky , Hans Pfitzner and dozens of others. Gustav Mahler said, "There was only Beethoven and Wagner". The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg can be traced to Tristan. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during a dramatic performance of any kind, and it was his theater at Bayreuth which first made use of the orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth is entirely concealed from the audience. Wagner dreamt of an "invisible theatre" in which his works could be experienced in the imagination of the listener - with the hi-fi, his dream has become reality. A testament to the emotional power of his techniques, Wagner's style of musical theory has shaped even completely new art forms, including modern film scores and video game soundtracks. Notable works in those categories that are influential in continuing Wagner's leitmotif tradition are the internationally popular 1970s American film series Star Wars and the Japanese video game series Final Fantasy , the most widely distributed video game series ever.
Wagner's influence on literature and philosophy is also significant. Friedrich Nietzsche , author of the influential The Birth of Tragedy , initially worshipped Wagner, seeing in his music the possible rejuvenation of the European spirit. Nietzsche later broke with Wagner after Parsifal , believing that work represented a pandering to Christian pieties. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived", while James Joyce , Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. Wagner is one of the main subjects of T. S. Eliot 's The Waste Land , which quotes from his operas. Stephane Mallarme , Paul Verlaine , and Charles Baudelaire adored him. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death (or Eros and Thanatos ) in Tristan, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud .
Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions: Wagner's supporters and those of Johannes Brahms ; the latter, with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick , championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations, though the schism seems like sibling rivalry from today's perspective. Even those who, like Debussy, opposed him ("that old poisoner"), could not deny Wagner's influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was unmistakable and overwhelming. Wagner's music continues to provoke strong reactions. In his later works, he created such long spans and deep pulses that to appreciate the music fully requires listeners to yield to Wagner's concept of time. Many resist - including Rossini ("Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour"), whose own "Guillaume Tell" was, at over four hours, longer than any single Wagner evening. Wagner's ideals, from the "blonde beast" heroism of Siegfried to his enthusiastic reading of Schopenhauer and his fascination with death and apotheosis, are deeply unfashionable. Still, his operas continue to command a strong following, and Wagner is second only to Napoleon as a historical figure in the quantity of secondary literature he has stimulated. That he continues to excite controversy and admiration to such an extent, though, is due at root to his music, which is of unsurpassed nobility, power, grandeur - and a sometimes dangerously transcendent beauty.