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Richard Wagner


Wagner Portrait

            Richard Wagner was one of the most important and ingenious composers of all time.  He was also one of the most controversial.  Known for his contribution to the genre of opera, Wagner is a giant of creative expression.  He believed it was his destiny to create the “work of art of the future” and tried inexhaustibly to create “Gesamtkunstwerk”, total work of art, which united all artistic forms, including music, poetry, dance, painting, and drama.    

Wagner was born on May 22, 1813, in Leipzig, Germany, into a family of actors, singers, painters, and writers.  He composed a symphony at the age of 19.  When Wagner went to Paris, he met composers such as Meyerbeer, Berlioz, and Liszt.  Because of his participation in the May Revolution in Germany, he was banished from his home country.  Wagner eventually married Franz Liszt's daughter, Cosima.  The two moved to Bayreuth where they were to await the construction of the Festival Theater intended to solely perform Wagner's works.  Wagner died in Venice on February 13, 1883.

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            Wagner's revolutionary approach to music was based in his belief that music must be “the handmaid of the drama.”  Wagner believed that all things German were great and that his work could unify Germany culturally and politically.

            Wagner's operas break with the traditional structure of arias and recitatives.  Instead, his operas contain endless melodic and dramatic lines, both in the vocal and orchestral components of the work.  Wagner used “leitmotivs”, or leading motives, to represent characters, scenes, ideas, and themes throughout the opera.

            All of Richard Wagner's famous works are operas.  In 1834 he completed his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies).  In 1840 he completed Rienzi, and a year later he finished Der fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman).  Wagner is most famous for his monumental work Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-part operatic cycle which contains over 15 hours of music.  The components of The Ring are Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung.  Others of his works include Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and Parsifal.  As a whole, Wagner's works are epic, concerning myth, gods and goddess, and very long.

            Wagner PortraitWagner was one of history's most zealous German nationalists.  Wagner revered Beethoven as perhaps the world's greatest composer who brought great expressive power to orchestral music.  Through his own great work, Richard Wagner managed to assess a very similar reputation himself: one of the greatest composers of all time who raised music to new levels of potency, beauty, and grandeur.


Barth, Herbert.  Wagner A Documentary Study; Oxford, University Press, NY.  1975

Culshaw, John. Reflections on Wagner's Ring, Viking Press, NY.  1976

Culshaw, John.  Ring Resounding.  Account of the First Recording of Wagner's Ring.  Viking Press, NY 1976

Meyer, Hans. Richard Wagner in Bayreuth; Rizzoli, NY.  1976

Edited, Researched and Written by: 
Aaron Zimmerman
May 18, 2000

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