Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

[wag-ner for 1, 4, 5; vahg-ner or, Ger., vahg-nuhr for 2, 3]
Wagner, Richard, 1813-83, German composer, b. Leipzig.

Life and Work

Wagner was reared in a theatrical family, had a classical education, and began composing at 17. He studied harmony and the works of Beethoven and in 1833 became chorus master of the theater at Würzburg, the first of a series of theatrical positions. Die Feen (composed 1833), his first opera, was in the German romantic tradition begun by Weber; Das Liebesverbot (1835-36) demonstrated his assimilation of the Italian style. In Paris he completed Rienzi (1838-40) but was unable to have it performed there. Its production in Dresden in 1842 was highly successful, and in 1843 Wagner was made musical director of the Dresden theater.

Der Fliegende Holländer (1841) was less successful. It was based on Heine's version of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a legendary phantom ship, and it foreshadows the idea, developed in Tannhäuser (1843-44) and prevalent in later works, of redemption by love. Tannhäuser, based in part on the actual life of Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin (1846-48) brought the German romantic opera to culmination. In Lohengrin, Wagner for the first time is more interested in his characters as symbols than as actual personages in a drama.

Wagner participated in the Revolution of 1848, fled Dresden, and with the help of Liszt escaped to Switzerland, where he stayed eight years. There he wrote essays, including Oper und Drama (1851), in which he began to articulate aesthetic principles that would guide his subsequent work.

Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853-74), his tetralogy based on the Nibelungenlied (see under Nibelungen), embodies the most complete adherence to his stated principles. In 1857, having completed the composition of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold (1853-54) and Die Walküre (1854-56), and two acts of Siegfried (1856-69), Wagner laid the Ring aside without hope of ever seeing it performed and composed Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862-67), his only comic opera. Tristan, based on the legend of Tristram and Isolde, was so utterly in opposition to the operatic conventions of the day that it required the intercession and support of Louis II of Bavaria to have it produced (1865) in Munich.

In 1872 Wagner moved to Bayreuth, where in 1874 he completed the third act of Siegfried and all of Götterdämmerung, the last work of the Ring cycle. There he was able to build a theater, Das Festspielhaus, adequate for the proper performance of his works, in which the complete Ring was presented in 1876. At Bayreuth, Wagner entertained the great musicians of his day. Parsifal (1877-82) was his last work.

Wagner indulged in much financial foolishness and in the end enjoyed considerable critical success. Although during his lifetime opposition to him and to his ideas went to fantastic lengths, Wagner's operas held a position of complete dominance in the next generation, retaining their enormous popularity in the 20th cent.

Assessment

Wagner's operas represent the fullest musical and theatrical expression of German romanticism. His ideas exerted a profound influence on the work of later composers. For the principle of sharply differentiated recitative and aria, Wagner substituted his "endless melody" and his Sprechgesang [sung speech], calling his operas music-dramas to signify the complete union of music and drama that he sought to achieve. He thought that music could not develop further with the resources it had employed since Beethoven's time, and he maintained that the music of the future must be part of a synthesis of the arts.

Adapting German mythology to his dramatic requirements, Wagner applied to it an increased emotional intensity, derived from the harmonic complexity and power of Beethoven's music, to produce what he termed a "complete art work." He achieved a remarkable dramatic unity due in part to his development of the leitmotif, a brief passage or fragment of music used to characterize an episode or person and brought in at will to recall it to the audience. At the same time, Wagner greatly increased the flexibility and variety of his orchestral accompaniments. He was responsible for the productions of his works from libretti to details of sets and costumes.

Family Members

Wagner's second wife, Cosima Wagner, 1837-1930, was the daughter of Liszt and the comtesse d'Agoult. From 1857 to 1870 she was the wife of Hans von Bülow. In 1870 she married Wagner. After his death she was largely responsible for the continuing fame of the Bayreuth festivals.

Their son, Siegfried Wagner, 1869-1930, composed 11 operas, orchestral and chamber music, and some vocal pieces, but was known chiefly as a conductor. With his wife, Winifred Williams Klindworth, he directed the Bayreuth festivals, a tradition carried on by their sons Wieland and Wolfgang from 1951 until 2008 (jointly until Wieland's death in 1967) and Wolfgang's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, from 2008.

Bibliography

See Wagner's prose works (8 vol., tr. 1892-99); his letters (ed. by J. N. Burk, 1950, repr. 1972); his autobiography, My Life (tr. 1911, repr. 1974); biography by E. Newman (4 vol., 1933-46); studies by G. Skelton (1976, repr. 1982) and B. Millington (rev. ed. 1992, repr. 1999). See also biographies of C. Wagner by R. M. F. du Moulin-Eckart (2 vol., tr. 1930) and A. H. Sokoloff (1969); W. Wagner, Acts (1994); G. Wagner, Twilight of the Wagners: The Unveiling of a Family's Legacy (1999); N. Wagner, The Wagners: The Dramas of a Musical Dynasty (2001); J. Carr, The Wagner Clan (2008).

(born May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Ger.—died Feb. 13, 1883, Venice, Italy) German composer. His childhood was divided between Dresden and Leipzig, where he had his first composition lessons; his teacher refused payment because of his talent. His first opera, The Fairies (1834), was followed by The Ban on Love (1836); the premiere performance was so unprepared that the event was a fiasco, and he henceforth determined not to settle for modest productions. The success of Rienzi (1840) led him to be more adventurous in The Flying Dutchman (1843) and even more so in Tannhäuser (1845). Caught up in the political turmoil of 1848, he was forced to flee Dresden for Zürich. During this enforced vacation, he wrote influential essays, asserting (following G.W.F. Hegel) that music had reached a limit after Ludwig van Beethoven and that the “artwork of the future” would unite music and theatre in a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”). In 1850 he saw Lohengrin produced. He had begun his most ambitious work, The Ring of the Nibelung, a four-opera cycle. The need for large-scale unity brought him to the concept of the leitmotiv. He ceased work on the Ring's third opera, Siegfried, in the throes of an adulterous love with Mathilde Wesendonk and wrote an opera of forbidden love, Tristan und Isolde (1859), which also seemed to break the bonds of tonality. He published the Ring librettos in 1863, with a plea for financial support, and Louis II of Bavaria responded, inviting Wagner to complete the work in Munich. From the late 1860s to the early 1880s, Wagner completed work on Die Meistersinger, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and the long-deferred Parsifal, as he also oversaw the building of the great festival theatre at Bayreuth (1872–76) that would be dedicated to his operas. His astonishing works made Wagner one of the most influential and consequential figures in the history of Western music and, indeed, of Western culture. In the late 20th century his undoubted musical stature was challenged somewhat by the strongly racist and anti-Semitic views expressed in his writings, and evidence of anti-Semitism in his operas was increasingly documented.

Learn more about Wagner, (Wilhelm) Richard with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Richard-Wagner-Platz is an Berlin U-Bahn station located on the in the Charlottenburg district.

The original station opened on May 14, 1906 under the name Wilhelmplatz, together with Deutsche Oper the first of several U-Bahn stations designed by Alfred Grenander. It then was the western terminus of the first Berlin U-Bahn line (Stammstrecke) after the line's extension from Knie (today Ernst-Reuter-Platz) to the Charlottenburg town hall. Nevertheless further extensions in 1908 branched off at Deutsche Oper straight westwards to Reichskanzlerplatz (today Theodor-Heuss-Platz) and the affluent Westend area, so the track to Wilhelmplatz remained a stub. In 1935 the station was renamed after the composer Richard Wagner.

A short-distance train from Deutsche Oper served the station until it was finally closed and demolished in 1970. A new Richard-Wagner-Platz station opened on April 28, 1978 with the extension of the U7 line from Fehrbelliner Platz. As the old tunnel has been preserved there is still a direct connection to the at Deutsche Oper, mainly used for maintenance purposes.

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