(born Leipzig 22 May 1813; died Venice 13 February 1883)
Wagner was one of the key German composers in the history of music. Just as Beethoven altered the course of music in the nineteenth century, so did Wagner for those who came after him.
Without Wagner, the development of late nineteenth- and much twentieth-century music (Richard Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) would have been different.
Wagner was responsible for changing the orientation of opera, through developing organically conceived through-composed works, expanding the orchestral resources, encouraging new types of singers and exploring innovative theatrical practices. He created a new, revolutionary genre, Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), which set to combine all aspects of the arts, and became better known as ‘music drama’.
A towering European artistic figure, he was as active as a theorist and theatrical practitioner as he was a composer. He was astute at cultivating wealthy patrons to finance his plans – notably Ludwig II of Bavaria, who bankrolled the construction of the Bayreuth Festival Theatre and which is still active today as the major centre for performances of Wagner’s operas.
Wagner's Musical Style
Wagner’s mature music dramas all share the same characteristics: an expansion of the musical structures that are governed by the use of leitmotifs (leading motives). These leitmotifs are melodic ideas associated with characters, objects, themes or emotions. Continually evolving and combining in fresh contexts to offer new meanings, the motifs contribute to the sense of symphonic argument in Wagner’s through-composed, fluid structures. The Wagnerian leitmotif expanded beyond the realm of Wagner’s work, and can be seen throughout popular culture, as well as modern music.
The size of the orchestra is vastly increased, with the wind section notably expanded by the inclusion of new instruments such as ‘Wagner’ tubas and rare instruments such as the bass trumpet. The score of Rheingold, for example, requires 6 harps, as well as 18 anvils.
At Bayreuth, Wagner achieved his ideal performing conditions, with the orchestra hidden from view of the audience. The increased size of the orchestral forces has resulted in the development of ‘Wagnerian’ voices, singers with the potential vocal resources to ride the instrumental texture. Among the most taxing of Wagner roles are Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried in the The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal and Gurnemanz in Parsifal.
Wagner’s early career was spent as a composer and conductor, including a spell as music director of the opera house in Riga.
His earliest operas include Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love; 1836), a comedy based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and Rienzi (1842), but it was The Flying Dutchman that established Wagner’s genuine voice. Based on the story of the eternally wandering sea captain, it marks the beginning of Wagner’s fascination with myths and legends of North European origin that would lead to Tannhäuser (1845), Lohengrin (1850), culminating in Tristan und Isolde and the four-opera Ring Cycle.
Made up of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, The Ring occupied Wagner for over a quarter of a century and remains his most celebrated work. 16 hours of music over 4 evenings, the Ring is conceived on an epic scale never previously attempted in the theatre and unequalled since.
While working on the Ring, other projects intervened – notably Tristan, one of the key works of the 19th century, and Meistersinger, which taps into medieval German culture and the figure of the historical Hans Sachs of Nuremberg, and focuses attention on the supreme position of German art.
The extensive diaries of Wagner’s second wife, Cosima von Bülow (Liszt’s daughter), provide us fascinating and illuminating details of the composer’s home life as well as the genesis of many of his greatest music dramas. It was for Cosima’s birthday in 1870 (the year they were married) that Wagner composed his perfect orchestral miniature, the Siegfried Idyll, which premiered on Christmas Day with the musicians gathered on the staircase and landing outside her bedroom.
For more information on this infamous composer, read our Beginner’s Guide to Wagner.
Wagner's Music: Where to Start
- Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
- ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ from Die Walküre
- ‘Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert’ from Siegfried
- ‘Morgenlich leuchtend’ from Dies Meistersinger von Nürnberg
- ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüß’ ich wieder’ from Tannhäuser
- The Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre
- ‘Starke Scheitte schichtet mir dort’ (Brünnhilde’s Immolation) from Götterdämmerung
- Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1843)
- Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)
- Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs) (1876): Das Rhiengold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)
- Parsifal (1882)