Richard Wagner

LEIPZIG, 1813 — VENICE, 1883

From the time he was a young child, his family travelled frequently, living for the theatre; in fact, you could say that Wagner was practically born in a theatre. In Dresden, he had a walk-on role in Der Freischütz by Weber, a close family friend at the time. From that point on, Wagner knew he would be a man of the theatre. And like many German Romantics, he cultivated a love for the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, and Goethe. At the same time, he shared his contemporaries’ love for the Middle Ages—legends that, for him, represented a rediscovery of Norse heritage, in contrast to Italianate tendencies. It should come as no surprise that Wagner became his own librettist, seeing himself as much a poet as a composer, a complete man of the theatre who would make the “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art) his life’s goal. His first true success came in 1842, in Dresden, with Rienzi; Wagner was director of the opera house. He already had two works under his belt: The Fairies and The Ban on Love. The Flying Dutchman also premiered in Dresden, the following year. Wagner embraced every socialist idea floating around. He was also at the barricades alongside Bakunin during the uprising of 1848, leading to his imprisonment and exile. He had already begun his main work: The Ring of the Nibelung, better known as the Tetralogy or simply The Ring. He put a great deal of thought into musical theatre, taking on a mammoth theoretical task, which he set forth in Opera and Drama and A Communication to My Friends. Brought up on the French grand opera of Meyerbeer and Halévy, Wagner composed his first masterpieces—Tannhäuser and Lohengrin— back to back. The first premiered in Dresden in 1845; the second, in absentia due to exile, in Weimar in 1850, under the baton of his friend and unwavering defender, pianist and composer Franz Liszt! He experienced some financial trouble, which was somewhat lessened thanks to his friendship with young prince Louis II of Bavaria, who adored him. Wagner then found himself in Munich where his Tristan and Isolde (1865) and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1868) premiered. In 1876, the Tetralogy, a work 25 years in the making, inaugurated his first Festival in Bayreuth, in his theatre that revolutionized the milieu: with the orchestra under the stage, the audience was directly face-to-face with the singers. As he wrote: “music is the template, theatre is the engine.” Finally, in 1882, came Parsifal, the only opera truly designed for his now sacred temple. He died in Venice less than a year after the premiere of his final opus.