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Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner has attracted more than his share of both fervent admirers and equally passionate detractors.  Much of the controversy surrounding Wagner relates to his anti-Semitism, as evidenced in his 1850 essay “Judaism in Music.”  Long after Wagner’s death, the Nazis found support for their own beliefs in Wagner’s writings, and he became one of the Third Reich’s preferred composers.  Such is the association of Wagner with Nazism that none of his works were performed in Israel until 2000.


The birth of Richard Wagner in Leipzig on May 5, 1813 was followed a few months later by the death of his father Karl Friedrich. His mother, Johanna Rosine was left in charge of the couple’s nine children.  In August 1814 she married again; her new husband was the painter, actor and poet Ludwig Geyer. It has been alleged (initially by Nietzsche) that the latter was Wagner’s real father, a claim that, however, could not be verified, and it seems that Wagner himself was never sure.

At age nine, Wagner entered the Kreuzschule in Dresden, where the family had moved to accommodate Geyer’s career. The family stayed there for six years, and then moved back to Leipzig.

In his youth, Wagner was a great admirer of Beethoven and it was largely this admiration that led him to become a musician. Wagner’s taste for theater developed early as well. Until 1831, however, he remained essentially self-taught in music, with the exception of three years of harmony lessons (from 1828 to 1831) with a local musician, Christian Gottlieb Müller.

The lack of official credentials did not prevent him from securing a performance of one of his overtures at the Leipzig Theater on December 24, 1830.  In 1831, he entered the University of Leipzig as a music student. He also took counterpoint and composition lessons with Christian Theodor Weinlig, then cantor of the St. Thomas Church. After composing a few piano and orchestral works, Wagner produced his first operas. The first works to be completed were Die Feen (The Fairies) (1834) and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) (1835).

Early Career

In 1833, Wagner received his first appointment and became a chorus master at the Würzburg theater for one season. He then served as the musical director of a traveling theater company from 1834 to 1836. Wagner’s attraction to the actress Minna Planner, a member of the company, motivated his seeking this second appointment. Wagner accompanied her to Berlin and Königsberg, where they entered, on November 24, 1836, into an unfortunately troubled marriage. Although he had obtained a position at the Königsberg opera, shortly thereafter Wagner left the town to become the director of the theater of Riga in the fall of 1837. He traveled to Riga alone, as Minna had already been unfaithful to him. However, she joined him there a few months later.

Wagner’s position in Riga hardly satisfied his ambitions; he was dreaming of success at the Paris Opéra and had worked on several librettos with the Parisian audience in mind. The first libretto to develop into a completed work was Rienzi, after the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Wagner left Riga for Paris where he hoped the grandiose style of Rienzi would bring him success. The trip to Paris, via Prussia and England, was somewhat tense: it involved a clandestine departure (Wagner was in debt, and therefore not authorized to travel) and a turbulent sea crossing. This dangerous episode inspired Wagner to compose Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), which he started while in Paris.

Wagner arrived in the French capital in September 1839. There, despite the support of esteemed composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, he did not manage to have any of his operas produced. He later noted the sole positive aspects of his stay to be the discovery of the works of Berlioz and of Habeneck’s Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Wagner mentioned the quality of its playing in his later work on conducting Über des Dirigierens (1869). Wagner’s meager revenue from writing concert reviews and opera transcriptions did not keep him afloat, and at the end of 1840, he was threatened with imprisonment for the debts he had incurred. He left Paris for Dresden in April 1842, utterly disappointed.

After both Rienzi and the recently completed Der fliegende Holländer were given at the Dresden court theater, Wagner was offered, early in 1843, the position of Kapellmeister for the King of Saxony, Federick August II. This allowed him financial security and time for composition. Thus, in 1845 Wagner completed the score of Tannhäuser and conducted the work’s premiere in the fall.

Aside from composition, Wagner absorbed himself in classical literature and German legends. These readings inspired all of his future compositions: in 1845, he sketched preliminary plans for both Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which took place in the sixteenth century, and Lohengrin, based on a medieval legend. Wagner typically authored his own operas. His work on a project started with a prose sketch of the story, which he later versified and put to music. Wagner believed the music had to be literally generated from the poetic verse (as he later explained in his essay "Oper und Drama").

Works such as Aeschylus’ Orestie and the Scandinavian mythology of the Prose Edda inspired to write an opera on the legend of the Ring of the Nibelung, the prose of which Wagner started to sketch in 1848.  However, this period of professional and domestic stability soon ended following the 1848 Revolution, a widespread series of insurrections against local nobilities in Europe.

Dresden was similarly affected by these events. Being an employee of the Saxon King, however, did not deter Wagner from getting involved in the local republican movement. His motivation was the belief that music and theater ought not to be written for and controlled by the courts, but rather nationalized, democratically led, and opened to all. The insurrection was repressed in the spring of 1849 and Wagner and Minna were forced to flee.  They first stopped in Weimar, where Liszt hosted them, then went to Zürich, Switzerland, with forged passports. Wagner remained an outlaw in Germany until 1860. He therefore missed the premiere of Lohengrin conducted by Liszt in Weimar in August 1850.

Exile and Wanderings

During his time in Zürich, Wagner was not employed and spent most of his energy working on the four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelung. He did, however, publish several writings on his theories about the role of art in society including "Die Kunst und die Revolution" (Art and Revolution), and the development of a superior form of artwork, combining all arts in one, a concept that he named Gesamtkunstwerk (total art-work), which he discussed in "Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft" (The Artwork of the Future) and "Oper und Drama." This last essay exposes the theoretical bases used by Wagner in the composition of the Ring cycle, notably the relationship between text and music, and the use of a melodic fragment to represent recurring elements of the drama, a device known as leitmotiv.

The more infamous and less artistically-minded article from this period, "Das Judentum in der Musik"  (Music and Judaism), was written impulsively and in bitterness; Wagner felt that Meyerbeer, who had supported him both artistically and financially, was now a secret enemy (it appears, however, that his feelings toward Meyerbeer were largely unjustified). Wagner also firmly believed that wealth and financial concerns, which many people of his time associated with the Jewish community, were the enemies of “Art.”

Yet, he could not have devoted himself to writing essays and music if not for the support of generous patrons. Two of them were female admirers, Julie Ritter, a German widow from Dresden, and Jessie Laussot, of English origin, but married to a French wine merchant from Bordeaux. Together, the two women were able to give him a yearly allocation that was equivalent to about half of his previous salary. After 1851, and until 1859, Ritter had to provide the amount on her own: an affair between Wagner and Laussot caused Laussot’s infuriated husband to put and end to the sponsorship. In 1852, Wagner found another supporter in Otto Wesendonck, a retired silk merchant. It was he who paid off Wagner’s debt, which, by the fall of 1854 amounted to a year and a half of his salary in Dresden.

Thanks to Wesendonck’s generosity, Wagner was also able to give a public reading of the Ring after the libretto was completed at the end of 1852 and the result of this event was the financing of the costs for printing fifty copies. Later that year, he also conducted three concerts featuring his works and traveled to Italy. Shortly thereafter, in 1854, Wagner came to know the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, which had a great impact on him.

In 1855, Wagner spent four months in England, where he had been invited to conduct for a series of eight concerts for the Philharmonic Society. With the exception of this trip, Wagner devoted the years from 1853 to 1857 entirely to composing the music of the Ring. In the spring of 1857, Wagner moved with his wife to a small house provided by Wesendonck, which was adjacent to the Wesendonck family home. A few months later, in August, Wagner abandoned his work on the Ring. By then he had advanced to the second act of the third opera, Siegfried, but in the meantime had felt an urge to write an opera on the story of Tristan and Isolde.

Indeed, Wagner found himself at that point in a situation similar to that of Tristan: indebted to a man (Otto Wesendonck), yet in love with the man’s wife (Mathilde). Wagner’s own marriage with Minna had been on shaky ground for years (Minna had even had an illegitimate daughter by another man), and ultimately Wagner left their home for Venice, where he remained from August 1858 until March 1859. He then went to Lucerne.

In the fall of 1859, Wagner decided to try to forward his career in Paris for the second time. Performances of his works between 1860 and 1861, while influential on Parisian musical life, were nonetheless financial debacles; Wagner was once again greatly indebted. However, he was optimistic about the premiere of Tristan und Isolde and in the completion of his plan for the popular comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

After an amnesty in his favor, Wagner was able to visit Karlsruhe and Vienna, both places having showed an interest in producing Tristan und Isolde. However, the project was postponed several times and eventually abandoned. Wagner then devoted his energy to the writing of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and, by January 1862, he had completed the poem for the work. In order to stay in close contact with his editor, Schott of Mainz, Wagner took lodgings in the nearby town of Biebrich. There, he made one last attempt to live with Minna, which failed. Afterwards, she settled in Dresden, where Wagner provided for her financially. Minna died in 1866, having seen Wagner only one time after their separation.

By October 1862, the music of Die Meistersinger was not yet finished. Schott lost patience and refused to continue his financial support of Wagner. Consequently, Wagner had to interrupt all creative work for two years and to engage in giving concerts (featuring newly completed segments of the Ring and Die Meistersinger), in order to support himself.

For these performances, Wagner traveled to Vienna, Prague, St. Petersburg and Moscow. The performances were received triumphantly, and provided Wagner with temporary financial relief. In March 1863, he was able to move back near Vienna and to resume his work on Die Meistersinger, but numerous conducting engagements slowed the progress. Moreover, the absence of a regular income, combined with some unexpected expenses, brought Wagner back to the edge of ruin in less than a year. 

A King to the Rescue

In October 1862 Schott wrote to Wagner, “No mere publisher could satisfy your needs: it would take an enormously rich banker or a reigning prince with millions at his disposal.” He could hardly have imagined that such a possibility could be realized. But it was in May 1864, when Ludwig II, King of Bavaria notified Wagner that he intended to become his patron. The king, who had been thrilled by a performance of Lohengrin, had also come across the libretto of the Ring that Wagner had published along with a desperate call for the financial support needed to see the work completed.

Ludwig II settled Wagner’s debts, granted him a generous yearly allowance and provided him with a house near Munich. There, at the end of June 1864 Wagner entered into a liaison with Cosima, wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow and the daughter of composer Franz Liszt. They kept the matter secret at first, and Cosima continued to live with her husband, while acting as Wagner’s secretary. The nature of their relationship became clear, however, when her first child with Wagner, Isolde, was born on April 10, 1865.

Musically, the first effects of Ludwig’s patronage were Wagner’s return to his work on the Ring in the fall of 1864 and the premiere of Tristan in June 1865 under the direction of von Bülow. Wagner, at the request of the king, also resumed his activity as essayist  and wrote "Über Staat und Religion" (On the State and Religion) and "Was ist Deutsch?" (What is German?), and made plans for a new school of music in Munich (the project was never completed). Wagner also started to dictate his autobiography to Cosima. He would regularly send a “new episode” of this autobiography to the king for the following fifteen years.

Although Wagner had all the enthusiastic support of Ludwig, he also had bitter enemies among the members of the king’s council of ministers and the Munich aristocracy. After several attempts to discredit Wagner, the council was successful in convincing Ludwig that he had to choose between the loyalty of his subjects and the friendship of Wagner.

Thus, in December 1865, Wagner had to leave Munich but kept the king’s financial support. After a new period of wandering, during which he was nevertheless able to carry on his work on Die Meistersinger, Wagner took a year’s lease on a villa on the Tribschen peninsula, on the lake of Lucerne, Switzerland, in April 1866. In the meantime, Bavaria became involved in the Austro-Prussian war, and Wagner used his influence on the king to orient the latter’s decisions.

Between 1866 and 1868, Wagner busied himself with political matters and with the completion of Die Meistersinger. The work was finally premiered under von Bülow’s direction at the court theater of Munich, on June 21, 1868, in the presence of King Ludwig. The same year, Cosima moved to Tribschen. Her second daughter with Wagner was born there in February 1867. But it was only after the birth of their third child, Siegfried, that Cosima requested a divorce from von Bülow, in June 1869. She married Wagner on August 25, 1870.  

It was in Tribschen that Wagner met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He also befriended the writer Judith Mendès, daughter of the French literary figure Théophile Gautier. In March 1869, Wagner resumed his work on the Ring, taking over where he had left off twelve years before. 

The Bayreuth Festival; Wagner’s Death

It was his desire to create a festival outside of the existing world of opera in large cities that led Wagner to Bayreuth. Following a visit in April 1871, Wagner, unsatisfied by the local concert hall, decided to initiate the building of a new opera house based on his own ideas. Shaped as an amphitheater the Festspielhaus (Festival Hall) was built with special attention to acoustics and featured a sunken pit for the orchestra, so that all the attention could be focused on the stage and so that the sound of the large orchestra could be efficiently balanced with the voices. The first stone was laid on Wagner’s fifty-ninth birthday (May 22, 1872). Wagner took temporary lodgings with Cosima in Bayreuth; in April 1874, they settled definitively in the “Wahnfried” villa.

On November 22, 1874, Wagner completed the score of Götterdämerung: Der Ring des Nibelungen, which he had started in October 1848. The preliminary rehearsals for the Ring took place during the summer of 1875. By then, funding problems had already become apparent and the festival would have not happened without the help of King Ludwig II, who granted Wagner a large loan. Although Wagner initially wished to make the admission to the festival free of charge, a ticket sale had to be organized. After more rehearsals during the following summer, the work premiered in August of 1876.

In Germany and abroad there was a keen interest in the work, but nevertheless there were debts remaining and some revisions to be made, notably in the interpretation and the staging. After a short vacation, Wagner attempted to cover the deficit with a concert series at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which was, unfortunately, financially disappointing. Eventually, in 1878, the deficit of the festival was covered by the royal treasury of Bavaria, with the agreement that King Ludwig II could be reimbursed by freely producing Wagner’s works in the Hoftheater of Munich and keeping a percentage of the receipts until the debt was repaid.

Following the first festival, Wagner devoted himself to another series of essays, nicknamed the “regeneration writings,” as well as to his last opera Parsifal, which he completed in January 1882, in Palermo, Italy. For about two years, his health had been failing, and in March 1882, Wagner suffered, but survived, a first heart attack. The same year, a second festival was organized in Bayreuth, for which Ludwig II provided his own court orchestra and chorus, under the direction of Hermann Levi. Wagner himself conducted the final scene of the last performance.

In September, the Wagners moved to the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice. A few months later, on February 13, 1886, he succumbed to a heart attack. His body was brought back to Bayreuth to be buried in the garden of Wahnfried.


Millington, Barry: '(Wilhelm) Richard Wagner', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 February 2006), <>

Newman, Ernest. The Life of Richard Wagner. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1933.

Wagner, Richard. The Diary of Richard Wagner, 1865-1882:  The Brown Book. Annot. Joachim Bergfeld. Trans. George Bird.  London : V. Gollancz, 1980.

Westernhagen, Curt von. Wagner : A Biography. Trans. Mary Whittall. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.