Wagner, Richard

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Composer of the Ring cycle: discover the life and work of opera's colossus

Richard Wagner



Nationality German

Wagner revolutionised opera during the 19th century with his theory of Gesamtkunstwerk – a music drama in which the music, poetry, and dramatic elements were completely inseparable. He popularised the use of leitmotifs – musical phrases which represented specific characters – wanting a listener to be able to hear the physical dramatic action in the orchestral score.

Most notable works

De Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring cycle) was completed in 1876. It was an epic story of a magic ring told in four full-length operas.

Trsitan und Isolde (1865). This was based on the classic tale of two lovers.

A life in brief……

1813 Born in Leipzig, Germany. He is the ninth child of Johanna Rosine, the daughter of a baker, and Carl Friedrich Wagner, a police actuary.

1822 The family move to Dresden and Wagner starts school. He shows little interest in academic study, preferring poetry and music. He begins taking harmony lessons (initially in secret) at around age fifteen.

1831 Enrols at Leipzig University to study music. He also begins private tuition with Christian Theodor Weinlig (Kantor of the Thomaskirche) for a short time

1834 Meets and falls in love with Christine Wilhemine ‘Minna’ Planer, a much in demand stage actress, while working with Heinrich Bethmann’s travelling theatre company. They marry two years later. Though both have affairs the couple’s marriage lasts thirty years until Minna’s death in 1866.

1836 A new post brings him to Riga, Latvia where he shares a tiny apartment with Minna, her sister and a wolf cub!

1939 In debt and without passports, he and Minna make their way to Paris, the home of grand opera. Unfortunately, their two and a half years there are not terribly successful. Wagner is forced to make a living by way of uninspiring arrangements and music journalism.

1848 Starts work on the text for what will become ‘The Ring’, an epic opera cycle of unprecedented scale and grandeur. Wagner envisions a music-drama linking that intrinsically links the libretto with the music.

1864 Begins a romantic involvement with Cosima von Burlow, daughter of Franz Lizst and wife of conductor Hans von Burlow. Their first child, Isolde, is born the following year. After Minna’s death in 1870 Cosima divorces her husband to marry Wagner.

1868 Die Meistersingers von Nurumberg premieres at Königliches Hof- und National-Theater in Munich to considerable audience acclaim.

1872 The foundation stone is laid at the theatre for what will become the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner’s own opera gala. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is played and the first official festival is announced for the following year.

1882 After the second Bayreuth Festival and a major heart attack, Wagner and his family relocate to the Palazzo Vendramin,Venice.


1883 A further heart attack proves fatal and Wagner dies on the 13 February. His body is taken by gondola to the train station and back to Bayreuth where he is buried in a private ceremony in the grounds of his home.