Wagner is one of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of Western Music. Many music-lovers approach Wagner's operas with a quasi-religious fervor, while others loathe his work with equal ardor. Wagner was a prolific writer or words as well as music, and his many inflammatory articles increased his reputation. Wagner's personality has not make matters any easier. For starters, he was a megalomaniac and an rabid anti-Semite. His intense nationalism, coupled with his anti-Semitism, later made him a hero of the Nazis. Although we have no way of knowing whether or not Wagner would have approved of Nazism (he died before Hitler was even born), there are those for whom this association is still strong.
Wagner was a precocious child. He wrote his first play at the age of 15, followed by his first musical works the following year. His first opera, Die Feen ("The Fairies") was written in 1833 when the composer was only twenty years old. This opera was not performed until after Wagner's death, but his next opera, Das Liebesverbot (based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure), was performed in 1836, the same year he married the singer Minna Planer.
Wagner made his living as a conductor, directing opera houses in small cities. He and Minna eventually moved to Paris, where he struggled to make a name for himself, only to end up in debtor's prison. In Paris we wrote two works. Rienzi, was a large, five act work in the grand style made popular by composers such as Meyerbeer. Der fliegende Holländer ("The Flying Dutchman") was more adventurous, and shows Wagner's desire to create a more realistically-flowing sense of drama. Rienzi was premiered in Dresden in 1842 to considerable success. Der fliegende Holländer was less successful when first heard in 1843, but increased the composer's reputation. He was appointed as music director of the Dresden court, a prestigious position.
Wagner remained in Dresden until 1849 where he composed Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). 1848 was a crucial year in Wagner's life. He wrote the libretto for an opera titled Siegfried's Tod ("Siegfried's Death") which was the genesis of what was to become Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelungs")--his most awesome musical achievement. He also became involved in a revolutionary political movement. When his group was crushed by the government, he fled to Switzerland, beginning twelve years of exile.
It was during these years of exile that Wagner wrote Jewishness in Music, a polemic in which he attacked Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer (who had helped him during his years in Paris). He also wrote Opera and Drama, in which he set out his concepts about the possibilities inherent in music drama. These ideas, involving a return to the pure ideals of Classical drama, were incorporated into Der Ring des Nibelungen and his later operas.
The Ring, a cycle of four operas, occupied Wagner for almost twenty-five years. The text was completed in 1853, at which point he began work on the music. He wrote the first two installments, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre within three years--a remarkable achievement considering the scope of these works. Around the time he completed Die Walküre, Wagner fell in love with Mathilde Wesendonk, the wife of a wealthy businessman who had generously loaned the composer money. Wagner and Mathilde had a passionate affair, to the consternation of Wagner's wife, Minna. Wagner's passion for Mathilde inspired him to write an opera based on the legend of the ill-fated lovers, Tristan and Isolde. So, although he had completed more than half of Siegfried, the third opera of the Ring cycle, Wagner put the work aside to write Tristan.
Tristan und Isolde was completed in 1859. In 1862, Wagner was finally allowed back into Germany and was invited to join the court of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig, known as "the mad King," loved Wagner's music, and helped the composer to settle his many debts. Ludwig also paid for the first performance of Tristan, which was conducted by the renowned Hans von Bülow. Just as Wagner repaid Otto Wesendonk's generosity by having an affair with his wife, Wagner repaid von Bülow's support by running off with his wife, Cosima.
Wagner and Cosima went to Switzerland, and following Cosima's divorce from von Bülow, the two were married (Wagner's first wife, Minna, had died in 1866). Wagner composed yet another massive opera before returning to work on the Ring: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg ("The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," 1867) is the composer's only comedy.
The Ring cycle was finally finished in 1874. With the financial assistance of King Ludwig, Wagner was able to build a special opera house designed specifically for the presentation of his music-dramas. It was in this "Festival Hall" in the small town of Bayreuth, that Der Ring des Nibelungen was first performed in 1876.
Wagner's last opera was Parsifal, a quasi-religious story, which was also first performed at Bayreuth in 1882. He died in Venice the following winter.
Despite the many controversies and ugly aspects of Wagner's life and career, he was a great composer. His innovations in the realms of harmony, orchestration, and dramatic form completely changed the altered the musical landscape of the late Romantic period.