Richard Wagner (Leipzig, 1813 - Venice, 1883) was a German composer, the son of a Saxon petty bourgeois family involved in literary and musical circles of the time.
His father, a police clerk who acted in his spare time, died six months after his son’s birth.Shortly after his mother married actor Ludwig Geyer (Wagner stated later that he was his natural son, although no historical fact categorically proves this) who also died an untimely death, in 1821.
The youngest child in a family of nine children, four of whom were singers and actors, Wagner was immersed from his adolescence on in classical music and culture, particularly under the tutelage of his uncle, Adolf Wagner, a man of letters.
As a student at the Kreuzschule in Dresden and later at the Nikolaïzschule in Leipzig, he developed a passion for Weber and especially for Beethoven (1827) who put him on the path towards musical composition.He took up poetic and musical composition initially as a self-taught students, writing his first pastorale, and he continued his technical and harmonic initiation more seriously under the guidance of Cantor Theodore Weinlig. He then wrote mainly for the piano, on the theme of his own youth, and some of his works were performed publicly even then.
Then, at the age of 20, he entered active musical life, first as choirmaster in Würzburg (1833), then as orchestra conductor at the Magdeburg opera (1834) where he composed his first opera, The Fairies (which he never saw performed), and then a second, The Ban on Love (1835) which was something of a failure and led to his resignation.
Wagner then went through a dark period.First, as an orchestra conductor in Riga (1837-1839), he was forced to leave for Paris under the threat of his creditors.His ship encountered a storm along the Norwegian coast and his trip stretched on.It was during this trip that the idea came to him for his dramatic work The Flying Dutchman, based on tales told by the ship’s sailors.
As an unknown in Paris, where he stayed three years, he resigned himself to the lowest tasks to earn a living, since the theatres shut their doors to him, and he finished writing Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman.After a brief encounter with Heine, Liszt and Berlioz, he decided to go back to Dresden, where Rienziwas a smashing success (1842).
He was then named Kappellmeister to the Court of Saxony, but he suffered a failure with The Flying Dutchman (1843), and experienced a very limited success with Tannhaüser(1845).
He finished Lohengrinand began composing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg(1848).
Having always been filled with liberal ideas of German youth, and overcome by the provocations he was subjected to in Saxony, he took an active part in the fighting in the spring of 1849.However, the failure of the popular uprising forced him to leave Dresden to join Liszt in Weimar, and then he fled to Zurich (1849) for ten years, all the while travelling around Europe.
It was during this period of reclusion, plunged into bitterness and profound pessimism, that he wrote his first theoretical essays, the foundations for all his later work.He associated philosophy and music, denounced the conventions of contemporary opera, and defined musical drama in the manner of the great works of Ancient Greece in which music and poetry are one, so as to best represent the expression of purely human action and man’s inner conflicts.
His Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Niebelungen, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdammerung) had its origins in this period, when we discover a Wagner full of contradictions:by turns socialist and anarchist, pagan and Christian, pessimist and optimist.
It was during these years that Tristan und Isolde(1859) came about, an attestation of his relationship with Mathilde Wesendonk.
Wagner again tried to conquer Paris with Tannhäuser(1861), another resounding failure, boycotted by his German rivals and the members of the Jockey Club.He did however earn the support of some notables of the time, among them Baudelaire and Tolstoy.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who idolised Wagner, enabled him to mount several of his works in Munich under the guidance of H. von Büllow.This encounter led to a dalliance involving the latter’s wife, Cosima, and Wagner.This private affair caused a scandal, and Wagner was forced to leave Munich for Triebschen, Switzerland, where Cosima joined him.They married in 1870. The happiest years of the composer’s life then followed.
Inspired by this love affair, Wagner finished the Ring Cycle, inspired by Slavic and Germanic mythology and Medieval tales.Ludwig II had the first two parts put on in Munich, where they were a resounding success.
After a new literary period (autobiography and pamphlets), Wagner completed the project most dear to him:he had a hall (Festspielhaus) built in Bayreuth, which was to be the site of one of the greatest lyric festivals ever held up to that time.In fact almost all of his works were performed there, and the festival was a huge success.It was inaugurated with William I, Emperior of Germany, in attendance.
This inauguration marked the high point of Wagner’s career; he finished out his life as an affirmed optimist, with Parsifal(1882). He died during a trip to Italy, in Venice in 1883.