Personalities | Richard Wagner | Late Romantic | Classical

(Rich’-ärd Varg’-na) 1813–83
German composer

Wagner is one of the most influential and controversial composers in the history of classical music. He was born in Leipzig and educated there and in Dresden. His later years were spent in Bayreuth, the home of the festival theatre and the yearly summer festival he founded, which still flourish today.

The idea of Bayreuth, a small German town (now a city) in the north-east of Bavaria, is at the heart of the Wagnerian enterprise. The place was chosen as a peaceful retreat away from the hubbub of modern city life, where audiences could experience musical drama at its most profound level in a theatre specially constructed for the purpose. Wagner realized his vision only after years of struggle, public scandal and moments of near-poverty – a turbulent life that was notorious even before his death. He wrote the texts and the music of 13 operas, at least seven of which are still regarded as towering masterpieces. No one has ever doubted that Wagner’s bold adventures in harmony and orchestration left an indelible mark on later music, instrumental as well as vocal.

Early Years

Wagner was the youngest of seven children born to a police actuary, Carl Friedrich Wagner, and his wife Johanna, a baker’s daughter. His father died six months after his birth. Nine months later his mother married a portrait painter, actor and poet, Ludwig Geyer, who for the next eight years became the only ‘father’ Wagner ever knew. There has been a great deal of speculation about whether Geyer was Wagner’s natural father, as Johanna was acquainted with Geyer long before she married him.

According to all available evidence, however, Wagner’s natural father was Carl Friedrich, though the boy carried the name Geyer until he was almost 15 years old. Coincidentally, Richard’s surname reverted to Wagner in 1828, the year in which he completed his first extant work. It was a sprawling five-act play called Leubald, which blended Shakespeare’s Hamlet with King Lear and with works by German playwrights such as Kleist and Goethe. Wagner later joked that it was so vast and bloody that he ran out of characters before the end and had to bring most of them back as ghosts. The most important thing about it, however, was that it inspired him to compose. He began taking lessons with two local musicians and soon had a series of concert overtures, piano sonatas and even a string quartet and a symphony under his belt. Many of them are still extant. These pieces are technically competent, but haunted by the musical idols of his youth – Mozart, Beethoven and Weber – to such an extent that all traces of originality seem to have been frightened away.

Towards Paris

As Nietzsche later remarked in a positive appraisal of Wagner’s achievements, there has seldom been a great composer who began so late and with so little promise. His first attempts at opera, for which he...

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