Richard Wagner – a summary

22 May 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth

Richard Wagner was born on 22 May 1813 in Leipzig, Germany; a city renowned for its cultural and literal traditions and its musicians and writers, such as Bach, Goethe, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schumann.  Despite losing his father at six months, his stepfather when only eight and having no guiding hand, Wagner grew into a charismatic but complicated and very rare individualist who sought absolute perfection; primarily in himself, but also in the people around him.  And yet, he was a controversial character whose lifestyle was unorthodox; his beliefs, politics, writings and operas were contentious to the extreme.  In his works he incorporated poetry, visual, musical and dramatic arts with music subordinate to drama; later, his operas were referred to as ‘musical dramas’.

Richard WagnerIn his lifetime Richard Wagner found many friend and followers, but true happiness only arrived in his life at the age of fifty.  After struggling financially for most of his life, the ideal patron and follower found him; whereas, he found the perfect wife whom he adored: Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, Wagner’s best friend.  They had two daughters, Isolde and Eva, and a son Siegfried; the family that Wagner had always yearned for.

The Composer

Richard Wagner is noted as a prolific composer of operas and musical dramas, a conductor and theatre director.  He wrote the librettos for his own works as well as the music.  In his early years he composed in the styles of his heroes, Shakespeare, Meyerbeer and Weber but soon found his own style.

At the age of twenty, Wagner completed his first opera.  The Fairies (Die Feen) was in the style of Weber, but it was not performed until fifty years later, in1883.  Having accomplished one opera he knew exactly what he wanted to do.  He set out to advance the current musical language and did it so effectively it influenced the development of classical music.  It was a concept combining the dramatical, musical, poetical and the visual; thus creating ‘total works of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk); as espoused in the first half of his four opera cycle called, The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen).

In the early stages most of the composers of the day found Wagner’s works utterly confusing; they were too fast, too new and too complex.

The young Wagner was attempting to be different, which he was, but more importantly, to gain recognition.

He continued to produce the revolutionary and original in his attempt to make people notice him and his music. He was certainly noticed but not always in the way he wished.  In his latter decades he was equally innovative but his works were more prolific and even more progressive.  He did gain recognition as the master of mythical storytelling, as shown in Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The Ring was his greatest and the longest work.  It took twenty-six years (1848-1874) to complete the Ring circle in its entirety and to Wagner’s satisfaction, and it was on such an extraordinary scale that performances took fifteen hours.  Wagner produced four separate operas; Rheingold, Walküre, Siegried and Götterdämmerung.   The four operas when blended together and became one magnificent example of his ‘total works of art’ theory, which Wager referred as ‘the artwork of the future’.

The Writer

Richard WagnerRichard Wagner was also a prolific writer and wherever he went he was always writing.  As well as thirteen operas, he wrote innumerable letters; indeed, just the correspondence between his best friend, Franz Liszt, and himself was so extensive it filled two books.  He also wrote masses of essays, poems, articles, and books in a variety of subjects, not only analysing operas and music, but also on philosophy and politics and latterly, his autobiography.

The two volumes of his autobiography, 1813-1842 and 1850-1861, were both called My Life, (Mein Leben) and were dictated to his second wife, Cosima (daughter of Liszt. Despite being a controversial polemicist, he had many friends and followers, and quite surprisingly was a great dog lover.  He spoke at length in his books of Fips, Papo, Peps, Mark, and Robber; the dogs he had loved down the years; relating their antics, their foibles and his utter inconsolable grief when they died.


Wagner was always a controversial character and was even born into controversy.  It was widely thought that Ludwig Geyer was Richard’s biological father and Richard thought so too, but there is no uncontroversial evidence.  Geyer certainly became his stepfather when he married Richard’s mother.

It was thought that Wagner was Jewish but he never admitted or denied it; his family did live in the Jewish quarters, and he had many Jewish colleagues, friends and supporters.  However, he also knew people of different denominations, indeed, his second wife and his best friends were Catholics, and so there was no undisputable evidence either way.

Money and Music

Wagner spent most of his early life dodging creditors.  Like most artists he had to prove he had talent; the problem was finding the money to achieve that first step on the ladder of success.  During the 1830s he wrote several national orchestral overtures to earn some money.  One was Rule Britannia, which was sent off to the London Philharmonic Director.  Since Wagner was totally unknown it was rejected and seemingly disappeared.  It mysteriously reappeared after Wagner’s death and was performed by Henry Wood in 1905

He had various jobs, mostly in theatres.  Firstly he became the musical director of the Magdeburg Opera House, where he wrote The Ban on Love (Das Lieberverbot).  It was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and performed once in 1836 … it was an utter failure.  The closure of the Magdeburg Opera House was catastrophic because it left Wagner in serious financial straits.

Wagner had married an actress, Christine Wilhelmina ‘Minna’ Planer in 1836 and the following year they moved to Riga (which was then part of the Russian Empire).  He worked as the music director for two years and in between began a new project, one which would become a monumental opera … Rienzi.  By 1839 the Wagners were in serious debt and fled with their few belongings and the precious unfinished Rienzi manuscript from Riga and headed to London and later Paris.

The passage to England was in essence indicative of the marriage; stormy and extremely rocky.  Later, they arrived in Paris which, despite their eagerness, soon became their worst nightmare; it was the most awful period of their thirty-year marriage.

Wagner wrote music constantly but the French disliked his style.  He never wavered in his quest for recognition, and even wrote a libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma for the famous Italian singer, Bass Luigi Lablache, who declined to sing it in France.

It was only with the support of Giacomo Meyerbeer that Wagner was able to complete Rienzi in 1840.  At the end of 1840 Wagner appealed to the King of Saxony to admit Rienzi as a potential opera at the Dresden Court Theatre.  The following June Rienzi was accepted, much to Wagner’s delight as, finally, it meant they could guarantee a modest income.

On 7 July 1842 the Wagners left Paris to prepare for the Rienzi premiere.  They had struggled enormously for three very long, dreadful years and were overjoyed and relieved to be going home.  Wagner took with him the manuscript to his newly completed opera; Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), which had been inspired by their stormy voyage from Riga to London.

While he waited for the premiere, Wagner wrote two prose sketches for another opera; Tannhäuser.  On 20 October Rienzi was staged at the Dresden Court Theatre and received with considerable acclaim.  Wagner was appointed as Conductor (Hofkapallmeister) to the Royal Saxony Court, which allowed them to live in Dresden for six years.

In January 1843 he conducted his own Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) premiere, which stunned critics and audience alike.  On 13 April 1845 Tannhäuser was completed and on 19 October given its first performance at the Hoftheatre.  Der Fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser are considered as the first two of his three middle period operas, but before he could produce the third, Lohengrin, he was once more fleeing into exile.

Their six years in Dresden had been profitable and allowed Wagner to clear all his old debts.  He had become embroiled in leftist politics during this time and for the next twelve years they lived in exile.  Franz Liszt had helped his friend to abscond from Germany and in Wagner’s absence staged Lohengrin, the last of his middle-period operas.  Liszt was delighted to conduct the premiere at Weimar in August 1850.

Cosima WagnerHowever, Wagner had two massive problems: his wife and his debts.  Minna no longer liked his music and was furious at their exile and losing the status she’d gained in Dresden; life had again become difficult.  By contrast, debts were merely a continuance; he could do nothing about either so buried himself into what he did best, writing and composing, and taking anything on that would make money.

Conducting engagements was one option and in 1855, Wagner gave several concerts for the London Philharmonic Society.  On 11 June Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended his sixth concert.  Wagner was invited to visit the royals in their box during the intermission.  At their request he gave an encore of the Tannhäuser overture; (on 17 May 1877 Wagner and his second wife Cosima (pictured) were invited to Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria).

The Saviour

The lack of money would continue on and off for most of Wagner’s life, but he did find patrons along the way.  However, the turning point in his career was when the benevolent eighteen-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria became his sponsor.  As a young prince of fifteen he had attended the first performance of the opera Lohengrin; and had become an instant follower of the Master.

Wagner was utterly rhapsodic; both of his problems were solved; his wife and his creditors were happy; and he could now relax and concentrate on his music.  From that day the king sponsored Wagner and his music.

Indeed, in 1864 the king paid for all of Wagner’s debts, gave him a handsome annual stipend, a retreat at Lake Sternberg and a very grand house in Munich.

In 1874 the king somewhat reluctantly provided a loan, which built the Wagner family home, which they called Wahnfried; and the magnificent theatre that overlooking the quiet, pretty town of Bayreuth.

In 1876 the king secretly arrived at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre where he attended the final rehearsal of the full Ring cycles during the sixth and ninth of August.

The last time the two men met was at the Court Theatre.  It was for a private performance of the prelude to Wagner’s last opera.

As such, Wagner had provided a legacy which guaranteed that his beloved wife and children, Isolde then aged eighteen, and Eva, sixteen, and fourteen-year-old Siegfried, were all provided for when he died 13 February 1883, aged sixty-nine.

Stella Milner

Taken from Wilhelm Richard Wagner: The Man and his Music by Stella Ann Milner.

See also list and description of Wagner’s operas.