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Richard Wagner

Composer Richard Wagner Born in 1813

A pioneer in opera, Richard Wagner was the inspiration for many composers who came after him, including Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.

Among his innovations for opera included encouraging singers to perform like actors with the use of greater facial expressions and gestures and larger orchestrations. He formed a new genre called Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning a “total work of art,” which sought to bring all aspects of the arts into a cohesive whole — this became the music dramas Wagner is known for.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1813, Wagner was the youngest of nine children. His mother was Johanna Rosine, and his father, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Wagner — a police clerk and amateur actor, who died when Richard was only a few months old.

Wagner’s mother remarried in 1814 and moved her children to Dresden. Wagner’s stepfather, actor Ludwig Geyer, often took him to the Dresden Court Theater. There, Wagner played his first stage role as an angel in Carl Maria von Weber’s The Vineyard on the Elbe

His interest in the arts grew when he went to live with his brother in Eisleben after Geyer’s death in 1821. After seeing Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, he decided to become an opera composer and wanted to set his own works to his own music — tasks traditionally done by two people.

From 1831, Wagner took composition lessons from choir conductor Christian Theodor Weinlig, who taught him free of charge. In 1834, Wagner began serving as music director of the Magdeburg Theater company, where he stayed after falling in love with the actress Minna Planer, whom he married in 1836. In 1870, Wagner remarried — his second wife, Cosima von Bülow, was the daughter of pianist Franz Liszt

Following several canceled performances and theater bankruptcies in the late 1830s, Wagner struggled with increasing debts until 1842, when the Dresden premiere of his opera Rienzi, was received to great acclaim.

Wagner’s career was further propelled by the Dresden premiere of The Flying Dutchman in 1843, featuring his own libretto and music. His interest in this opera of North European myths and legends, soon gave rise to Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1850), as well as Tristan und Isolde (1859) and the four-opera music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen, written across 26 years between 1848 and 1974.

Wagner’s largest financial backer was Ludwig II of Bavaria, who helped the composer launch the Bayreuth Festival Theatre — which is still active — where the Ring Cycle premiered successfully in 1876. The audience included many European political and cultural elite such as Kaiser Wilhelm I, Peter Tchaikovsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Comprising 15 hours of music over four performances of its four parts — Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung — the Ring Cycle remains one of Wagner’s most well known works and is performed regularly all over the world.

Wagner completed his final work, Parsifal, in 1882. Musically and financially, the music drama's success helped secure the Bayreuth Festival's longevity. 

After moving his family to Venice to heal from his deteriorating health, Wagner died on February 13, 1883.


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