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Richard Wagner is best known for creating several complex operas, including Tristan and Isolde and Ring Cycle, as well as for his anti-semitic writings.
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Wagner was part of the quasi-revolutionary "Young Germany" movement, and his leftist politics were reflected in Rienzi; unable to produce Rienzi in Paris, he sent the score to the Court Theatre in Dresden, Germany, where it was accepted. In 1842, Wagner's Rienzi, a political opera set in imperial Rome, premiered in Dresden to great acclaim.
The following year, The Flying Dutchman was produced to critical acclaim. Considered a great talent by this time,
Wagner was given the Prussian order of the Red Eagle and appointed director of the Dresden Opera. In 1845, Wagner completed Tannhäuser and began working on Lohengrin. In 1848, while preparing for a production of Lohengrin in Dresden, the revolutionary outbreak in Saxony occurred and Wagner, who had always been politically vocal, fled to Zurich.
Unable to enter Germany for the next 11 years due to his political stances, Wagner wrote the notoriously anti-semitic Jewishness in Music, as well as other criticisms against Jews, composers, conductors, authors and critics. He also wrote Opera and Drama and began developing what would become his famous Ring Cycle, which consisted of four separate operas tied together by leitmotifs, or recurring musical themes which link plot elements.
The Ring Cycle was ahead of its time in that it combined literature, visual elements and music in a way that would anticipate the future of film. Film composers, including John Williams, were inspired by Wagner's use of leitmotifs. His work would later influence modern film scores, including those of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film series.
After falling in love with his second wife, Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner was inspired to write Tristan and Isolde.
In 1862, Wagner was finally able to return to Germany. King Ludwig II, a fan of Wagner's work, invited Wagner to settle in Bavaria, near Munich, and supported him financially. Wagner didn't stay long in Bavaria, once it was discovered that he was having an affair with Cosima, the wife of the conductor Hans van Bülow, and Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter. Bülow, who apparently condoned the affair, directed Tristan and Isolde in 1865. Wagner and Cosima had two children together before finally marrying in 1870.
The first two operas of The Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were presented in Munich in 1869 and 1870. The Ring Cycle was finally performed in its entirely—all 18 hours—in 1876. Wagner completed his last opera, Pasifal, in January 1882, and it was performed at the Bayreuth Festival that same year.
Wagner died of a heart attack on February 13, 1883, at age 69, while vacationing in Venice, Italy for the winter. His body was shipped by gondola and train back to Bayreuth, where he was buried.
In the 20th century, Adolf Hitler was a fan of Wagner's music and writings, only making Wagner's legacy more controversial.
New York Times writer Anthony Tommasini wrote of Wagner in 2005: "How did such sublime music come from such a warped man? Maybe art really does have the power to ferret out the best in us."
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