German composer and musical theorist, one
of the most influential figures of 19th-century Europe.
Born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Wagner
studied at the University of Leipzig. Between 1833 and 1839 he worked
at provincial opera houses in Würzburg, Magdeburg, Königsberg,
and Riga. During these years he wrote the operas Die Feen (The Fairies,
1833) and Das Liebesverbot (The Forbidden Love, 1836) and several orchestral
works. In 1836, while at Königsberg, Wagner married the actor Minna
Planer (1809-66). At Riga he completed the libretto and the first two
acts of his first important opera, Rienzi.
In 1839 Wagner sailed to London. During
the tempestuous voyage across the North Sea, he conceived the idea for
his second major opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman,
completed in 1841). After eight days in London, he traveled to France,
settling eventually in Paris, where he became acquainted with the music
of Hector Berlioz. He remained in Paris until April 1842, at times reduced
to the direst poverty. On Oct. 20, 1842, Rienzi was produced at the Court
Theater at Dresden, Germany. Its success led to the production of Der
fliegende Holländer at Dresden on Jan. 2, 1843. In the same month
Wagner moved to Dresden, where he became one of the conductors at the
Wagner's romantic opera Tannhäuser was produced at Dresden on Oct.
19, 1845. This work, with innovations in structure and technique, perplexed
audiences accustomed to the conventional opera of the day and elicited
a storm of adverse criticism. Nevertheless, Tannhäuser was produced
at Weimar, Germany, three years later by the Hungarian composer
Liszt, who afterward became an enthusiastic proponent of Wagnerian music
drama (see below). The meeting of Liszt and Wagner in 1848 resulted in
a lifelong friendship. In the same year the romantic opera Lohengrin was
completed, but the management of the Court Theater at Dresden, apprehensive
of public and critical reaction to another work by the composer of Tannhäuser,
declined to produce it. Liszt once more came to the rescue and produced
Lohengrin at Weimar on Aug. 28, 1850.
A Political Radical
Wagner was an extreme radical in politics. He participated in the abortive
Revolution of 1848 in Germany and, in consequence, was obliged to flee
from his homeland, first to Paris, and then to Zürich. There he amplified
the sketches, previously begun, for his famous tetralogy of music dramas,
known collectively as Der Ring des Nibelungen, and based on the 12th-century
Middle High German epic poem of the Nibelungenlied. The texts of the Nibelung
dramas were written in reverse order. Finding that certain narrative episodes
in Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final work
of the tetralogy, required elaboration and dramatic exposition to make
the story altogether comprehensible, Wagner wrote the third part, Siegfried.
Still not satisfied, however, he wrote Die Walküre and, as a further
explanatory prelude, Das Rheingold. Wagner began work on the score of
Das Rheingold in November 1853, completing it in May of the following
year. By the end of December 1856, the score of Die Walküre was finished.
Meanwhile, in 1852, Wagner had made
the acquaintance of the wealthy merchant Otto Wesendonck (1815-97) and
his wife Mathilde (1828-1902). The former placed at the disposal of Wagner
and Minna a small cottage, the Asyl (Ger., "Asylum"), on the
Wesendonck estate near Zürich; this situation furnished the composer
with the inspiration for some of his finest music. Close association between
Wagner and Mathilde soon developed into love, which they were forced to
renounce. Their romance eventually found expression, however, in Wagner's
passionate score of Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), which is one of the
longest and the most difficult to produce of all the Wagnerian music dramas.
Its first performance was on June 10, 1865, at Munich, under the auspices
of Louis II, king of Bavaria, who had become Wagner's patron. From this
period also are the Wesendonck Lieder, settings for voice and orchestra
or piano (1857-58) of five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck.
In 1861 the political ban against
Wagner was lifted. Upon his return to Prussia the composer settled in
Biebrich, where he began work on his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger
von Nürnberg, completed in 1867. The work was produced on June 21,
1868, at Munich, where in 1869 and 1870 Das Rheingold and Die Walküre
also were given by command of the king.
Immediately after the production of
Die Meistersinger Wagner resumed work on the score of Siegfried, completing
it in February 1871. At the same time he began the composition of Götterdämmerung.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 25, 1870, the composer, who had been separated from
his first wife for nine years, married Cosima von Bülow (1837-1930),
the divorced wife of the pianist and conductor Hans Guido von Bülow
and the daughter of Liszt. Wagner's orchestral work Siegfried Idyll (1870)
was written for Cosima. In the summer of 1872, Wagner composed the last
part of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by November 1874, orchestration of
Götterdämmerung had been completed. On Aug. 13-17, 1876, the
premiere performance of the whole tetralogy took place at the Festspielhaus,
a theater in Bayreuth designed and constructed especially for the presentation
of Wagnerian music dramas. In 1877 Wagner began work on Parsifal, based
on legends of the Holy Grail. The last of the Wagnerian music dramas,
Parsifal was produced for the first time on July 26, 1882.
In 1882 the composer's health began
to fail. Thinking he might benefit from a change of climate, Wagner rented
the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal in Venice; he died there suddenly
on February 13 of the following year. Five days later his body was interred
in the mausoleum of his Bayreuth villa.
Wagner highly influenced late 19th-century thought, not only in the arts,
but also in political issues such as nationalism and social idealism.
In Oper und Drama (1850-51) he set forth his vision of a revolutionary
kind of stage work, integrating dramatic, visual, and musical elements
into a wholly unified work of art, or Gesamtkunstwerk. His other theoretical
writings include Über deutsches Musikwesen (On German Music, 1840),
Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art Work of the Future, 1849), Religion
und Kunst (Religion and Art, 1880), Über das Dirigieren (On Conducting,
1869), Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama (On the Application
of Music to the Drama, 1879), and Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A
Communication to My Friends, 1851). Wagner also wrote an autobiography,
My Life (1865-80; trans. 1911).
Wagner's reputation is based on his musical creations, which represent
the highest expression of romanticism in European music, and also on the
revolution he effected in both the theory and practice of operatic composition.
He began his career as a composer of opera in the conventional manner,
but by the time he started work on Der Ring des Nibelungen he was creating
an entirely new musico-dramatic form. The true line of development of
the Wagnerian music drama is from Greek drama (on which Wagner deliberately
modeled his texts) through the dramas of
Shakespeare and the German poet
Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. On the purely musical side, because
of its architectural structures, its lineal evolution is from
Bach through Ludwig van Beethoven. In his treatment of harmony, Wagner
pushed the traditional system of tonality to its limits, breaking down
the conventions that gave keys and chord relationships their identity,
and leading inevitably to 20th-century atonality.
Pre-Wagnerian opera had become little
more than a succession of stereotyped arias, recitatives, duets, interludes,
and finales. A fundamental principle of the music drama is the subservience
of all the arts involved, including music, to the dramatic needs of the
story. By means of the leitmotiv, or leading motive, a continuous thematic
development is achieved. The complex evolutions of each leitmotiv and
its intertwinings with others underline the emotional meaning of the drama.
The increased dramatic unity of post-Wagnerian opera was one consequence
of the tremendous influence of his art on every form of music.