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The greatest composer of German opera, Richard Wagner was the youngest of nine children of Friedrich and Johanna Wagner. His father, a police registrar, died 6 months after Wagner was born, and his mother was remarried the following year to Ludwig Geyer, an actor and portrait painter, who moved the family to Dresden. Geyer died in 1821, and in 1827 the family returned to Leipzig.
Wagner was attracted to the theater at an early age. His first creative effort was a spoken tragedy, Leubald and Adelaide (1828), which was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. He decided at once, however, that he must also write music, and he proceeded to teach himself the rudiments of composition, supplementing them with the study of scores. His formal training was brief--about 6 months in 1831-32 with the Leipzig cantor C. T. Weinlig. During the 1830s, Wagner held a series of conducting posts with small theatrical companies, and he wrote two operas, Die Feen (The Fairies, 1834) and Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love; after Shakespeare's Measure for Measure); the latter was performed without much success in 1836 in Magdeburg.
In 1839 Wagner sailed to London. During the tempestuous voyage across the North Sea, he conceived the idea for his second major opera, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, completed in 1841). After eight days in London, he traveled to France, settling eventually in Paris, where he became acquainted with the music of Hector Berlioz. He remained in Paris until April 1842, at times reduced to the direst poverty. On October 20, 1842, Rienzi was produced at the Court Theater at Dresden, Germany. Its success led to the production of Der fliegende Holländer at Dresden on January 2, 1843. In the same month Wagner moved to Dresden, where he became one of the conductors at the Court Theater. His romantic opera Tannhäuser was produced at Dresden on October 19, 1845. This work, with innovations in structure and technique, perplexed audiences accustomed to the conventional opera of the day and elicited a storm of adverse criticism. Nevertheless, Tannhäuser was produced at Weimar, Germany, three years later by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who afterward became an enthusiastic proponent of Wagnerian music drama. The meeting of Liszt and Wagner in 1848 resulted in a lifelong friendship. In the same year the romantic opera Lohengrin was completed, but the management of the Court Theater at Dresden, apprehensive of public and critical reaction to another work by the composer of Tannhäuser, declined to produce it. Liszt once more came to the rescue and produced Lohengrin at Weimar on August 28, 1850. These years of success ended when his participation in revolutionary political activities forced him to flee to Switzerland.
Wagner's exile from Germany, which lasted until 1860, marks the start of a new period in his career. For a few years he devoted himself almost entirely to speculation about the nature of opera which led to his most ambitious work, a cycle of four operas known collectively as Der Ring des Nibelungen, based on the 12th-century Middle High German epic poem of the Nibelungenlied. The texts of the Nibelung dramas were written in reverse order. Finding that certain narrative episodes in Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods), the final work of the tetralogy, required elaboration and dramatic exposition to make the story altogether comprehensible, Wagner wrote the third part, Siegfried. Still not satisfied, however, he wrote Die Walküre and, as a further explanatory prelude, Das Rheingold. Wagner began work on the score of Das Rheingold in November 1853, completing it in May of the following year. By the end of December 1856, the score of Die Walküre was finished.
Meanwhile, in 1852, Wagner had made the acquaintance of the wealthy merchant Otto Wesendonck and his wife Mathilde. The former placed at the disposal of Wagner and Minna a small cottage, the Asyl (German, "Asylum"), on the Wesendonck estate near Zürich; this situation furnished the composer with the inspiration for some of his finest music. Close association between Wagner and Mathilde soon developed into love, which they were forced to renounce. Their romance eventually found expression, however, in Wagner's passionate score of Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), which is one of the longest and the most difficult to produce of all the Wagnerian music dramas. Its first performance was on June 10, 1865, at Munich, under the auspices of Louis II, king of Bavaria, who had become Wagner's patron.
In 1861 the political ban against Wagner was lifted. Upon his return to Prussia the composer settled in Biebrich, where he began work on his only comic opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, completed in 1867. The work was produced on June 21, 1868, at Munich, where in 1869 and 1870 Das Rheingold and Die Walküre also were given by command of the king.
Immediately after the production of Die Meistersinger Wagner resumed work on the score of Siegfried, completing it in February 1871. At the same time he began the composition of Götterdämmerung. Meanwhile, on August 25, 1870, the composer, who had been separated from his first wife for nine years, married Cosima von Bülow, the divorced wife of the pianist and conductor Hans Guido von Bülow and the daughter of Liszt. Wagner's orchestral work Siegfried Idyll (1870) was written for Cosima. In the summer of 1872, Wagner composed the last part of Der Ring des Nibelungen, and by November 1874, orchestration of Götterdämmerung had been completed. On August 13-17, 1876, the premiere performance of the whole tetralogy took place at the Festspielhaus, a theater in Bayreuth designed and constructed especially for the presentation of Wagnerian music dramas. In 1877 Wagner began work on Parsifal, based on legends of the Holy Grail. The last of the Wagnerian music dramas, Parsifal was produced for the first time on July 26, 1882.
In 1882 the composer's health began to fail. Thinking he might benefit from a change of climate, Wagner rented the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal in Venice; he died there suddenly on February 13 of the following year. Five days later his body was interred in the mausoleum of his Bayreuth villa.
Although Wagner's early training was slight by the standards of most major composers, he had an uncanny ability to copy the various styles he encountered in the music of his time. The basic gestures and the orchestral sound (although not the large-scale architecture) of Beethoven are reflected in early instrumental works such as the Symphony in C, which Wagner completed in 1832. When he turned to opera he moved easily from the German romantic style of Weber and Marschner (in Die Feen) to the Italian style of Rossini and Bellini (in Das Liebesverbot) to the grand opera style of Spontini and Meyerbeer (in Rienzi). In the three works of the 1840s, however--Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin--a more distinctive personal style emerged. The use of legendary sources and the gradual reduction in contrast between aria and recitative in these operas anticipate the new music drama that Wagner was to propose in his book Oper und Drama (1850-51). The guiding principles of his theory were naturalism and dramatic truth, which he felt had been compromised by the musical conventions of contemporary opera. He advocated a new synthesis of music, verse, and staging--what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk. The verse, which Wagner always wrote himself, was to be compressed, metrically free, and alliterative, dispensing with the end-rhyme that led to closed musical structures. The open-ended melody of the vocal line was to be supported by a symphonic accompaniment, continuously fluctuating with the sense of the text and unified by a web of motifs associated more or less directly with characters, things, ideas, or events. Wagner called these motifs Grundthemen, but they have become better known as leitmotivs ("leading motifs"). Ensemble singing was to be avoided. This theoretical music drama was exemplified in its purest form in the Ring, the text of which took shape as Wagner was writing the treatises. Later works adhered less strictly to the theories: ensemble singing returns in Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger makes use of end-rhyme, closed musical forms, and a plot set in historical rather than mythological times. Even the later portions of the Ring include scenes in which naturalism is sacrificed for musical effect.
In turning to myth and legend for his dramatic materials, Wagner was seeking themes of lasting symbolic value. In this respect he was pursuing a direction already established by Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner, both of whom had treated themes involving supernatural forces. Particularly Wagnerian was the theme of fall and redemption, which recurs in all of the mature works except the comic Die Meistersinger. Although Wagner varied his treatment in each opera, the means of redemption is typically some combination of increased awareness on the part of the flawed male protagonist and the love and instinctive vision of his female counterpart. Death is celebrated as a step to transfiguration. The philosophical overtones of many of his themes, together with the symbolic nature of much of the dialogue and action, have made Wagner's operas a favorite subject for modern psychological analysis and experimental productions.
The extreme position formulated by Wagner made him the center of controversy even in his own lifetime. Such contemporaries as Berlioz, Brahms, and Verdi were impressed by his works but did not fully understand them. The next generation reacted in various ways: some followed, some sought alternatives, and others adapted aspects of Wagner's musical style to traditional methods. His influence on the mainstream of musical development was above all through Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. Extreme chromaticism, irregular resolution of dissonance, and continuously shifting key centers make Tristan a pivotal work in a progression leading ultimately to the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. Although the impressionists, led by Debussy, favored other expressive goals and found other ways of weakening tonality, they, too, were influenced by Wagner's treatment of orchestral color (especially in Parsifal), his rich chords, and his subtle relation of motif to large-scale structure.
Wagner's other theoretical writings include Über deutsches Musikwesen (On German Music, 1840), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Art Work of the Future, 1849), Religion und Kunst (Religion and Art, 1880), Über das Dirigieren (On Conducting, 1869), Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama (On the Application of Music to the Drama, 1879), and Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A Communication to My Friends, 1851). Wagner also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1865-80; trans. 1911).
Wagner remains a controversial figure long after his death. He was a noted anti-Semite; after his death his second wife continued to promote these views along with his music. Wagner's music came to symbolize German nationalism and the German soul, an image that became increasingly potent after World War I, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler appropriated Wagner's music, using it as a soundtrack to his ideals of Aryan superiority. Because of this association, his music has not been played in Israel since 1938. In late 1991, a proposal to play a concert of Wagner's music provoked a great outcry among concentration-camp survivors, and the idea was shelved.
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