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Richard Wagner

Composer

Biography

Richard Wagner (1813–83) was one of the most significant figures in the history of opera. Through his music dramas he introduced extraordinary innovations that transformed the course of music. His works remain an exhilarating challenge for any opera house, none more so than his 15-hour four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Wagner was born in Leipzig and discovered his genius for music early on. He absconded from his first job when he fell in love with the actress Minna Planer, whom he married in 1836. The tempestuous couple were continually dogged by debt, and twice had to smuggle themselves past border guards to evade warrants for Wagner's arrest. In 1839 they escaped to Paris, where Wagner spent two dismal years failing to get his music performed and developed a profound contempt for the French – but his time in the home of grand opera had an immense influence on his music. Success finally came for Wagner in 1842 with the Dresden premiere of Rienzi, followed soon after by Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. Wagner's involvement in a failed political coup meant he and Minna were on the run again in 1848, and Wagner missed the 1850 premiere of Lohengrin while exiled in Switzerland. The backing of the eccentric King Ludwig II gave Wagner, temporarily at least, a position in Munich from 1864. Although Wagner was forced to leave the city in 1865 when public opinion turned against him, the premieres of Das Rheingold (1869), Die Walküre (1870), Tristan und Isolde (1865) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) were all given in the Bavarian capital. Over several years Wagner scraped together enough funding to realize his great dream, for an opera festival dedicated exclusively to his music. The inaugural Bayreuth Festival was held in 1876 and opened with the first performance of the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, staged in an opera house especially built for it. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, was first performed at Bayreuth in 1882, a few months before his death.

Fiercely political and determinedly outspoken, Wagner was never far from controversy. His personal life was no less tumultuous, but in 1864 he won a kind of stability with Liszt's daughter Cosima von Bülow. The couple had three children, and eventually married in 1870.

Videos

News and features

Debate: Are intervals a frustrating distraction from the drama or a valuable break to gather thoughts?

Debate: Are intervals a frustrating distraction from the drama or a valuable break to gather thoughts?

24 February 2015

Which works do you think could do with an interval tweak?

Operatic magic: Fairytales and magical stories in opera

Operatic magic: Fairytales and magical stories in opera

17 February 2015

Composers have long used magical settings to tell moving, profound and very human stories.

The Shipping Cues: Why ships on stage make great drama

The Shipping Cues: Why ships on stage make great drama

17 February 2015

Building a ship on stage might be a stage designer’s nightmare, but life on or by the sea has made ideal material for some of opera’s greatest stories.

From legend to libretto: What drew Wagner to the myth of the Flying Dutchman?

From legend to libretto: What drew Wagner to the myth of the Flying Dutchman?

9 February 2015

What was it in the tale of a doomed loner that so inspired the composer to create one of his first operatic masterpieces?

Der fliegende Holländer Musical Highlight: ‘Die Frist ist um’ – The Dutchman’s monologue

Der fliegende Holländer Musical Highlight: ‘Die Frist ist um’ – The Dutchman’s monologue

29 January 2015

Wagner’s first great monologue for bass-baritone is a powerful evocation of yearning and despair.

Opera Essentials: Der fliegende Holländer

Opera Essentials: Der fliegende Holländer

27 January 2015

Our quick guide to Wagner's first great work, inspired by the tale of a legendary ghost ship.

Photos