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Richard Wagner in 1871

Wilhelm Richard Wagner ( , ; 22 May 1813 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his works.

Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with particular characters, locales or plot elements. Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.

He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). To try to stage these works as he imagined them, Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhausmarker.

Early life

Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born at No. 3 ('The House of the Red and White Lions'), the Brühl, in Leipzigmarker on 22 May 1813, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, who was a clerk in the Leipzig police service. Wagner's father died of typhus six months after Richard's birth, following which Wagner's mother, Johanna Rosine Wagner, began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, who had been a friend of Richard's father. In August 1814 Johanna Rosine married Geyer, and moved with her family to his residence in Dresdenmarker. For the first 14 years of his life, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer. Wagner may later have suspected that Geyer was his biological father, and furthermore speculated incorrectly that Geyer was Jewish.

Geyer's love of the theatre was shared by his stepson, and Wagner took part in his performances. In his autobiography, Wagner recalled once playing the part of an angel. The boy Wagner was also hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Weber's Der Freischütz. In late 1820, Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel's school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received some piano instruction from his Latin teacher. He could not manage a proper scale but preferred playing theatre overtures by ear. Geyer died in 1821, when Richard was eight. Consequently, Wagner was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, paid for by Geyer's brother. The young Wagner entertained ambitions as a playwright, his first creative effort (listed as 'WWV 1') being a tragedy, Leubald begun at school in 1826, which was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. Wagner was determined to set it to music; he persuaded his family to allow him music lessons.

By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner's first lessons in composition were taken in 1828–1831 with Christian Gottlieb Müller. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven's 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven's 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhausmarker. Beethoven became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony, piano sonatas and orchestral overtures.

In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, "If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced so profound an impression upon me." Wagner claimed to have seen Schröder-Devrient in the title role of Fidelio; however, it seems more likely that he saw her performance as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. He enrolled at the University of Leipzigmarker in 1831 where he became a member of the Studentenverbindung Corps Saxonia Leipzig. He also took composition lessons with the cantor of Saint Thomas church, Christian Theodor Weinlig. Weinlig was so impressed with Wagner's musical ability that he refused any payment for his lessons, and arranged for one of Wagner's piano works to be published. A year later, Wagner composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenesque work which gave him his first opportunity as a conductor in 1832. He then began to work on an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which he never completed.

In 1833, Wagner's older brother Karl Albert managed to obtain Richard a position as choir master in Würzburgmarker. In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munichmarker shortly after the composer's death in 1883.

Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburgmarker and Königsbergmarker, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second opera was staged at Magdeburgmarker in 1836, but closed before the second performance, leaving the composer (not for the last time) in serious financial difficulties.

On 24 November 1836, Wagner married the actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer. In June 1837 they moved to the city of Rigamarker, then in the Russian Empiremarker, where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterwards, Minna ran off with an army officer who then abandoned her, penniless. Wagner took Minna back; however, this was but the first debâcle of a troubled marriage that would end in misery three decades later.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for most of his life). During their flight, they and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner claimed to draw the inspiration for The Flying Dutchman (—it was actually based on a sketch by Heinrich Heine). The Wagners spent 1839 to 1842 in Paris, where Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman during this time.


Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Largely through the agency of Giacomo Meyerbeer, it was accepted for performance by the Dresdenmarker Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the German state of Saxonymarker. Thus in 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable acclaim. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he staged The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-period operas.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in leftist politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German Statesmarker, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of the weak princely states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house who included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a head in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris and then to Zürichmarker. Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and endured long terms of imprisonment.

Exile, Schopenhauer and Mathilde Wesendonck

Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend indeed, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimarmarker in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. Before leaving Dresden, he had drafted a scenario that would eventually become his mammoth cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He initially wrote the libretto for a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death) in 1848. After arriving in Zürich he expanded the story to include an opera about the young Siegfried. He completed the cycle by writing the libretti for Die Walküre and Das Rheingold and revising the other libretti to agree with his new concept. Meanwhile, his wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he himself fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner's primary published output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: The Art-Work of the Future (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; Judaism in Music (1850), a tract directed against Jewish composers; and Opera and Drama (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.

By 1852 Wagner had completed the libretto of the four Ring operas, and he began composing Das Rheingold in November 1853, following it immediately with Die Walküre in 1854. He then began work on the third opera, Siegfried in 1856, but finished only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner had two independent sources of inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer's philosophy, a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts. He claimed that music is the direct expression of the world's essence, which is blind, impulsive will. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in Opera and Drama, that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle, which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found their way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person). Schopenhauer asserted that goodness and salvation result from renunciation of the world and turning against and denying one's own will.

Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852. Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde.

Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner . Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and began work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.

The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venicemarker. The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to the efforts of Princess Pauline von Metternich. The premiere of the Paris Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by members of the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.

In 1861, the political ban against Wagner in Germany was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrichmarker, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Despite the failure of Tannhäuser in Paris, the possibility that Der Ring des Nibelungen would never be finished and Wagner's unhappy personal life, this opera is by far his sunniest work. Wagner's second wife Cosima would later write, "when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose." In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.

Between 1861 and 1864 Wagner tried to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Viennamarker. Despite over 70 rehearsals the opera remained unperformed, and gained a reputation as being "unplayable", which further added to Wagner's financial woes.

Patronage of King Ludwig II

Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavariamarker at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munichmarker. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new operas produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatremarker in Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner premiere in almost 15 years. The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife Cosima had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, the child not of von Bülow but of Wagner.

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d'Agoult who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. The indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavour amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the king. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Tribschenmarker, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucernemarker. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premièred in Munich on 21 June the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce, but not before having two more children with Wagner, another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. Minna Wagner had died the previous year and so Richard and Cosima were now able to marry. The wedding took place on 25 August 1870. On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life.


Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.

In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuthmarker as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhausmarker ("Festival Theatre") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner Societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were raised only after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfriedmarker ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German).

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festivalmarker ever since.

Final years

Following the first Bayreuth festival Wagner spent a great deal of time in Italy where he began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.

Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on 29 August, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.

After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venicemarker for the winter. On 13 February 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack at Ca' Vendramin Calergimarker, a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canalmarker. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried.

Franz Liszt's memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner's remains over the Grand Canal.



Wagner's music dramas are his primary artistic legacy. These are normally chaacterised as belonging chronologically to three periods.

The first of these began when Wagner was 19 with his first attempt at an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which was abandoned at an early stage of composition in 1832. Wagner's three completed early-stage operas are Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Their compositional style was conventional, and did not exhibit the innovations that marked Wagner's place in musical history. Later in life, Wagner said that he did not consider these immature works to be part of his oeuvre; he was irritated by the ongoing popularity of Rienzi during his lifetime . These works are seldom performed, though the overture to Rienzi is an occasional concert piece.

Wagner's middle stage output begins to show the deepening of his powers as a dramatist and composer. This period began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. These works are widely performed today.

Wagner's late stage operas are considered his masterpieces. Some are of the opinion that Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Iseult) is Wagner's greatest single opera. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is Wagner's only comedy still in the repertoire (his early Das Liebesverbot is forgotten) and one of the lengthiest operas still performed. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Teutonic myth, particularly from later period Norse mythology. Taking 26 years to complete, and requiring roughly 15 hours to perform, the Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious musical work ever composed .

Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, which was written especially for his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth and which is described in the score as a "Bühnenweihfestspiel" (festival play for the consecration of the stage), is based on the Christian legend of the Holy Grail.

Wagner drew largely from Northern European mythology and legend, notably Icelandic sources such as the Poetic Edda, the Volsunga Saga and the German Nibelungenlied. Through his operas and theoretical essays, Wagner exerted a strong influence on the opera world of the later nineteenth century. He was an advocate of what he called "music drama", in which all musical poetic and dramatic elements were to be fused together. Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems". Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra's role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra's dramatic role, in the later operas, includes the use of leitmotifs, musical themes that can be interpreted as announcing specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interweaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama.

Wagner's musical style is often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, due to its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression . He introduced new ideas in harmony and musical form, including extreme chromaticism. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, the so-called Tristan chord.

Early stage

Middle stage

Late stage

Non-operatic music

Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a single symphony (written at the age of 19), a Faust symphony (of which he only finished the first movement, which became the Faust Overture), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces, and a re-orchestration of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide. Of these, the most commonly performed work is the Siegfried Idyll, a piece for chamber orchestra written for the birthday of his second wife, Cosima. The Idyll draws on several motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. The next most popular are the Wesendonck Lieder, properly known as Five Songs for a Female Voice, which were composed for Mathilde Wesendonck while Wagner was working on Tristan. An oddity is the "American Centennial March" of 1876, commissioned by the city of Philadelphiamarker (on the recommendation of conductor Theodore Thomas, who was subsequently disgusted with the work when it arrived ) for the opening of the Centennial Exposition, for which Wagner was paid $5,000.

A vocal and instrumental piece which is not often performed and somewhat forgotten, Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love Feast of the Apostles) is a piece for male choruses and orchestra, composed in 1843. Wagner had just successfully played Rienzi in Dresden. However, The Flying Dutchman witnessed a bitter failure. Wagner, who had been elected at the beginning of the year to the committee of a cultural association in the city of Dresden, received a commission to evoke the theme of Pentecost. The premiere took place at the Dresdner Frauenkirchemarker on 6 July 1843, and was performed by around a hundred musicians and almost 1,200 singers. The concert was very well received.

After completing Parsifal, Wagner apparently intended to turn to the writing of symphonies. However, nothing substantial had been written by the time of his death.

The overtures and orchestral passages from Wagner's middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote short passages to conclude the excerpt so that it does not end abruptly. This is true, for example, of the Parsifal prelude and Siegfried's Funeral Music. A curious fact is that the concert version of the Tristan prelude is unpopular and rarely heard; the original ending of the prelude is usually considered to be better, even for a concert performance.

One of the most popular wedding marches played as the bride's processional in English-speaking countries, popularly known as "Here Comes the Bride", takes its melody from the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin. In the opera, it is sung as the bride and groom leave the ceremony and go into the wedding chamber. The calamitous marriage of Lohengrin and Elsa, which reaches irretrievable breakdown twenty minutes after the chorus has been sung, has failed to discourage this widespread use of the piece.


See also :Category:Essays by Richard Wagner.

Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence, throughout his life. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses of his own operas. Essays of note include Art and Revolution (1849), Opera and Drama (1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and Das Judentum in der Musik ("Jewishness in Music", 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers in general, and Giacomo Meyerbeer in particular. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880).In his later years Wagner became a vociferous opponent of experimentation on animals and in 1879 he published an open letter, ' Against Vivisection ', in support of the animal rights activist Ernst von Weber.

Theatre design and operation

Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhausmarker, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas (for the design of which he appropriated many of the ideas of his former colleague, Gottfried Semper, which he had solicited for a proposed new opera house at Munich). These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuthmarker each summer.

The orchestra pit at Bayreuth is interesting for three reasons:

  1. The first violins are positioned on the right-hand side of the conductor instead of their usual place on the left side. This is in all likeliness because of the way the sound is intended to be directed towards the stage rather than directly on the audience. This way the sound has a more direct line from the first violins to the back of the stage where it can be then reflected to the audience.
  2. Double basses, cellos and harps (when more than one used, e.g. Ring) are split into groups and placed on either side of the pit
  3. The rest of the orchestra is located directly under the stage. This makes communication with the conductor vital as most of the players are unable to see or hear the singers, but creates the huge, rich sounds Wagner sought to compose.

Influence and legacy

In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion. His compositions, in particular Tristan und Isolde, broke important new musical ground. For years afterward, many composers were inclined to align themselves with or against Wagner's music. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf were indebted to him especially, as were César Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner and dozens of others.Gustav Mahler said, "There was only Beethoven and Wagner". The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (tonal and atonal modernism, respectively) have often been traced back to Tristan. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owed much to Wagnerian reconstruction of musical form.

Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay On conducting (1869) advanced the earlier work of Hector Berlioz and proposed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. The central European conducting tradition which followed Wagner's ideas includes artists such as Hans von Bülow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan.

Wagner also made significant changes to the conditions under which operas were performed. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during dramatic performances, and it was his theatre at Bayreuth which first made use of the sunken orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth entirely conceals the orchestra from the audience.

Wagner's influence on literature and philosophy is significant. Friedrich Nietzsche was part of Wagner's inner circle during the early 1870s, and his first published work The Birth of Tragedy proposed Wagner's music as the Dionysian rebirth of European culture in opposition to Apollonian rationalist decadence. Nietzsche broke with Wagner following the first Bayreuth Festivalmarker, believing that Wagner's final phase represented a pandering to Christian pieties and a surrender to the new demagogic German Reich. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived", while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. He is discussed in some of the works of James Joyce. Wagner is one of the main subjects of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which contains lines from Tristan und Isolde and refers to The Ring and Parsifal. Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine worshipped Wagner. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death (or Eros and Thanatos) in Tristan, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.

Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions, Wagner's supporters and those of Johannes Brahms; the latter, with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick, championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations. They were supported by the conservative leanings of some German music schools, including the Conservatorymarker at Leipzigmarker under Ignaz Moscheles and that at Köln under the direction of Ferdinand Hiller. Even those who, like Debussy, opposed him ("that old poisoner"), could not deny Wagner's influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers, including Tchaikovsky, who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was so unmistakable and overwhelming. Others who resisted Wagner's influence included Gioachino Rossini ("Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour").

Many of Wagner's followers (known as Wagnerians) have formed many Societies dedicated to the life, works, and operas of Wagner. Societies include: The Toronto Wagner Society, the Wagner Society of New York, the Wagner Society of the United Kingdom, The Wagner Society of New Zealand, The Wagner Society of Northern California, etc.

Films about Wagner

The 1913 silent film Richard Wagner was directed by Carl Froelich and had Giuseppe Becce in the lead role who also wrote the musical score as Wagner's music was going to be too expensive. A documentary with the same title was made in 1925.

The 1955 film Magic Fire was about some significant events in Wagner's life. It starred Alan Badel as Wagner. A film of the composer's life, Wagner, was made in 1983 for a TV mini-series by the director Tony Palmer. The cast included Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave.

Wagner was portrayed by Lyndon Brook in the 1960 film Song Without End.

The 1975 Ken Russell film Lisztomania portrayed Wagner (played by Paul Nicholas) as a vampiric Nazi. Wagner was the antagonist of the film, which starred Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt.

The 1986 film Wahnfried was about Wagner and was screened out of competition at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.

Influence on film music

Wagner's concept of leitmotif and integrated musical expression has been a strong influence on many 20th and 21st century film scores, including such examples as Max Steiner's score for King Kong, John Williams's music for Star Wars and Howard Shore's soundtracks for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Adapted versions of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries are used in the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now and by Ennio Morricone in the western My Name is Nobody. Most of Trevor Jones's soundtrack to John Boorman's Arthurian film Excalibur is from Wagner's operas.

Influence on popular music

The rock composer Jim Steinman created what he called Wagnerian Rock. Heavy metal music is also said by some to show the influence of Wagner (as well as other classical composers). Joey DeMaio, the bassist and main composer for the heavy metal band, Manowar, has attested to Wagner's influence on his music as has Andy DiGelsomina, composer of the heavy metal opera project, Lyraka. In Germany Rammstein and Joachim Witt who has named three of his albums Bayreuth, claim inspiration from Wagner's music. German electronic composer Klaus Schulze dedicated his 1975 album Timewind to Wagner's death (two 30-min tracks, "Bayreuth Return" and "Wahnfried 1883"). He also used the alias Richard Wahnfried for a part of his discography. Slovenianmarker avant-garde group Laibach created the sonic suite VolksWagner in 2009 in collaboration with the Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra and composer-conductor Izidor Leitinger, using material from Tannhäuser, the Siegfried Idyll" and The Ride of the Valkyries.


Wagner's operas, writings, his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. In September 1876, Karl Marx complained in a letter to his daughter Jenny: "Wherever one goes these days one is pestered with the question: what do you think of Wagner?" Following Wagner's death, the debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th century, continued to make him politically and socially controversial in a way that other great composers are not. Much heat is generated by Wagner's comments on Jews, which continue to influence the way that his works are regarded, and by the essays he wrote on the nature of race from 1850 onwards, and their putative influence on the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler.

Opinion on Jews and Judaism

Under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Wagner published "Das Judenthum in der Musik" in 1850 (originally translated as "Judaism in Music", by which name it is still known, but better rendered as "Jewishness in Music.") The essay attacks Jewish contemporaries (and rivals) Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and accused "Jews" of being a harmful and alien element in German culture. Wagner stated the German people were repelled by Jews' alien appearance and behavior: "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that because "Jews" had no connection to the German spirit, Jewish musicians were only capable of producing shallow and artificial music. They therefore composed music to achieve popularity and, thereby, financial success, as opposed to creating genuine works of art.

The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner wrote a self-justifying letter about it to Franz Liszt in 1851, claiming that his "long-suppressed resentment against this Jewish business" was "as necessary to me as gall is to the blood". Wagner republished the pamphlet under his own name in 1869, with an extended introduction, leading to several public protests at the first performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner repeated similar views in later articles, such as "What is German?" (1878, but based on a draft written in the 1860s), and Cosima Wagner's diaries often recorded his comments about "Jews". Although many have argued that his aim was to promote the integration of Jews into society by suppressing their Jewishness, others have interpreted the final words of the 1850 pamphlet (suggesting the solution of an Untergang for the Jews, an ambiguous word, literally 'decline' or 'downfall' but which can also mean 'sinking' or 'going to a doom') as meaning that Wagner wished the Jewish people to be destroyed.

Some biographers have suggested that antisemitic stereotypes are also represented in Wagner's operas. The characters of Mime in the Ring, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and Klingsor in Parsifal are sometimes claimed as Jewish representations, though they are not explicitly identified as such in the libretto. Moreover, in all of Wagner's many writings about his works, there is no mention of an intention to caricature Jews in his operas; nor does any such notion appear in the diaries written by Cosima Wagner, which record his views on a daily basis over a period of eight years.

Despite his very public views on Jews, throughout his life Wagner had Jewish friends, colleagues and supporters. In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner refers to many friendships with Jews, referring to that with Samuel Lehrs in Paris as "one of the most beautiful friendships of my life."

Racism and Nazi appropriation

Some biographers have asserted that Wagner in his final years came to believe in the racialist philosophy of Arthur de Gobineau, and according to Robert Gutman, this is reflected in the opera Parsifal, Other biographers such as Lucy Beckett believe that this is not true. Wagner showed no significant interest in Gobineau until 1880, when he read Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal by 1877, and the original drafts of the story date back to 1857. Wagner's writings of his last years indicate some interest in Gobineau's idea that Western society was doomed because of miscegenation between "superior" and "inferior" races.

Wagner's writings on race and his antisemitism reflected some trends of thought in Germany during the 19th century. Houston Stewart Chamberlain expanded on Gobineau's and Wagner's ideas in his 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a work proclaiming the superiority of Aryan races, which had a wide circulation and later became required reading for members of the Nazi Party. Chamberlain greatly admired Wagner's work and married Wagner's daughter, Eva, thus contributing to the association of Wagner's name and works with racism and anti-semitism. (See also article Bayreuth circle).

Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner's music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation. There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced Nazi thinking. As with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, the Nazis used those parts of Wagner's thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest. For example, Joseph Goebbels banned Parsifal in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, due to the perceived pacifistic overtones of the opera. Although Hitler himself was an ardent fan of "the Master," many in the Nazi hierarchy were not and, according to the historian Richard Carr, deeply resented the prospect of attending these lengthy epics at Hitler's insistence.

As a consequence of this appropriation by Nazi propaganda, Wagner's operas were not performed in the modern state of Israelmarker until 2001. Although his works are broadcast on Israeli government-owned radio and television stations, attempts to stage public performances in Israel have been halted by protests in the past, including protests from Holocaust survivors,
such as the controversy around Daniel Barenboim conducting Wagner in Israel. The first documented public Israeli Wagner concert was in August 2001 and conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

See also

  • Articles on Wagner's essays:
*Art and Revolution
*Das Judenthum in der Musik
*Music of the Future
*Opera and Drama
*The Artwork of the Future


  1. Wagner, Richard "Mein Leben" English translation at: This sketch is referred to alternatively as Leubald und Adelaide.
  2. Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0-02-871359-1 p. 133.
  3. See Barry Millington, The Wagner Compendium, London, 1992, rev. ed. 2001, p. 277.
  4. Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). ibid pp. 174–177.
  5. Scruton (2003)
  6. See articles on these composers in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
  7. see Grove, Hiller, Ferdinand
  9. [1]
  10. Release on Volkswagner
  11. Selected Letters, ed. Millington and Spencer: letter of 18 April 1851, pp. 221–2
  12. Collins German Dictionary, London, 1988
  13. Terry Teachout, "Why Israel Still Shuts Wagner Out," Wall Street Journal, W1, 31 January – 1 February 2009.
  14. Gutman, Robert (1968, revised 1990). Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind and His Music. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich ISBN 0-14-021168-3 pbk (1971), ISBN 0156776154 pbk (1990)
  15. Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). ibid page 164.
  16. Wagner , Mein Leben, Gutenberg project text
  17. Gutman, Robert (1990) ibid page 418 ff
  18. Beckett, (1981)
  19. Gutman (1990), ibid, page 406
  20. See e.g. Katz (1986) and Rose (1996) passim. See also article Wagner controversies
  21. BBC report of Daniel Barenboim's concert in Jerusalem, 8 July 2001
  22. Mazelis, Fred. "Daniel Barenboim conducts Wagner in Israel" 1 August 2001. World Socialist Web Site.

Further reading

  • Beckett, Lucy, Richard Wagner: Parsifal, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • Borchmeyer, Dieter 2003, "Drama and the World of Richard Wagner", Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691114972
  • Burbidge, Peter and Sutton, Richard(eds.) 1979, "The Wagner Companion", Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521296571
  • Carr, Jonathan The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany's Most Illustrious and Infamous Family. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. ISBN 0871139758
  • Dahlhaus, Carl (Mary Whittall trans.) 1979, Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521223973
  • Dallas, Ian 1990, The New Wagnerian, Freiburg Books. ISBN 978-8440474759
  • Gregor-Dellin, Martin 1983, Richard Wagner — His Life, His Work, His Century, Harcourt. ISBN 978-0151771516
  • Grey, Thomas S. 2008 The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521644396
  • Gutman, Robert W. 1990, Wagner — The Man, His Mind and His Music, Harvest Books. ISBN 978-0156776158
  • Katz, Jacob The Darker Side of Genius: Richard Wagner's Anti-Semitism, Hanover and London, 1986 ISBN 0874513685
  • Lee, M. Owen 1998, Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802047212
  • Magee, Bryan 2001, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Metropolitan Books. ISBN 978-0805071894
  • Magee, Bryan 1988, Aspects of Wagner, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192840127
  • May, Thomas 2004, Decoding Wagner, Amadeus Press. ISBN 978-1574670974
  • Millington, Barry (Ed.) (1992). The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner's Life and Music. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. ISBN 0028713591
  • Newman, Ernest 1933, The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. ISBN 978-0685148242 (the classic biography, superseded by newer research but still full of many valuable insights)
  • Nicholson, Christopher 2007, "Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner incite Adolf Hitler to commit the Holocaust?", Gefen Publishing House. ISBN 978-9652293602
  • Rose, Paul Lawrence, Wagner:Race and Revolution, London 1996 ISBN 057117888X
  • Runciman, J.F. 1913, Wagner, Project Gutenberg edition. here [4202].
  • Salmi, Hannu 2005, Wagner and Wagnerism in Nineteenth-Century Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic Provinces: Reception, Enthusiasm, Cult, Eastman Studies in Music. University of Rochester Press. ISBN 978-1580462075
  • Salmi, Hannu 2000, Imagined Germany. Richard Wagner's National Utopia, Peter Lang Publishing. ISBN 978-0820444161
  • Scruton, Roger 2003, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde', Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195166910
  • Shaw, George Bernard 1898, The Perfect Wagnerite
  • Spencer, Stewart 2000, Wagner Remembered, Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0571196531
  • Stone, M. 1997, The Ring Disc: An Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle, Media Cafe. ISBN 9780965735704
  • Tanner, M. 1995, Wagner, Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691102900
  • Wagner, Cosima (Geoffrey Skelton trans.), Diaries, 2 vols. ISBN 978-0151226351
  • Wagner, Richard (ed. and trans. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington), Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, Dent, 1987. ISBN 0460046438; W. W. Norton and Company, 1987. ISBN 978-0393025002
  • Wagner, Richard (Andrew Gray trans.) 1992, My Life, Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0306804816 (Wagner's often unreliable autobiography, covering his life to 1864, written between 1865 and 1880 and first published privately in German in a small edition between 1870 and 1880. The first (edited) public edition appeared in 1911. Gray's translation is the most comprehensive available.)
  • Wagner's Ring Motifs, An Audio Guide. Translated by Stewart Spencer. Auricula, ISBN 9783936196054

External links



  • The Wagner Library. English translations of Wagner's prose works, including some of Wagner's more notable essays.
  • My Life at Project Gutenberg, an early, incomplete, and not always accurate translation.




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