Richard Wagner was an exceptionally controversial German
composer who lived from 1813 to 1883. Wagner's lifelong dream was
to combine all facets of art, literature, and music into one
masterpiece. More than just a composer Wagner was also a polemic,
with extreme ideas on all ideas ranging from polygamy to
Although Richard Wagner's true parents are not known with certainty, he was brought up in Leipzig, Germany by his surrogate father, Friedrich Wagner. It is suspected that Wagner's true father was Ludwig Geyer, who was very good friends with Wagner's mother, but this is not known for certain. Indeed, after Friedrich Wagner died in 1814, Richard's mother married Ludwig Geyer.
As Wagner attended school in Dresden and then in Leipzig, he was able to produce a play as well as two piano sonatas and a string quartet. In 1831, Wagner attended Leipzig University and received limited training in piano and composition. Wagner never became a talented pianist, though, and mostly taught himself about music. Richard Wagner soon was able to compose several operas, including Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love).
Soon, though, Ludwig Geyer proved to be an incompetent father and husband by landing his family into serious debt. Wagner was forced to flee, first to London, then to Paris. Suspected by German authorities of political scandals, Richard Wagner was forced to run to Switzerland and France. During Wagner's flight, he was able to befriend many other musicians, including Jakob Meyerbeer and Franz Liszt.
In Wagner's music, he experimented with anti-semitism in his operas. One example of this is Wagner's ferocious opera "Jewishness in Music", which was written in 1850. His anti-semitic ideas, political scandals, and extramarital affairs landed him a reputation as a controversial musician. In fact, Wagner's personality and ideas have often been compared with those of Adolf Hitler.
Wagner's music has been equally controversial as the man himself, provoking both lovers and haters of his style. He was one of the first to use dissonance and chromaticism in his works. Wagner's reason for using these techniques was to create a desire and yearning for the resolution of the dissonance. Many musicians theorize that Wagner's music reflects his desire for perfection and peace in his life.
Another of Wagner's important musical developments is that of
the "leitmotif". Wagner coined this expression, which means a theme
that is used recurringly throughout a piece. For example, Wagner
would often assign a separate leitmotif to each character in his
opera and play it during that character's entrance.
His Famous Compositions
Wagner was a specialist in writing operas and thus his greatest
works all fall into this category. His greatest works include Die
Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersinger of Nuremberg),
Tannhäuser, and Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying
Dutchman). Another of Wagner's greatest works is Der Ring des
Nibelungen (The Nibelung's Ring) which is a huge 18 hour
assemblance of 4 operas which are all interrelated. Perhaps the
"Ring operas" are the closest that Wagner ever got to achieving his
lifelong dream of combining art, literature, and music.
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