Richard Wagner Biography: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Richard Wagner is known for writing dramatic operas and his use of leitmotifs. Learn about his personal life in this lesson, including his two marriages, his role in the German Revolution, and his travels around Europe.

A Musician From Childhood

Richard Wagner was born in 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. Just a few months after that, his father died. His mother soon remarried a man named Ludwig Geyer, who started off Wagner's career in music.

Geyer was an artist, so he introduced Wagner to music, painting, and the theater. Sadly for Wagner, Geyer also died after a few years, but the young boy was already interested in dramatic stories and the music that went with them.

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Wagner didn't do very well in school; he preferred to learn on his own. He started studying the piano while very young and spent hours reading musical scores, especially music written by the composer Beethoven. He went to Leipzig University for college, but he wasn't very interested in his classes and left without finishing his degree.

Travels and Writing Operas

After leaving school, Wagner tried to make it as an opera composer, but his operas didn't sell very well, and he was in a lot of debt. He moved from country to country for years. Finally, he returned to Germany, settling down in the city of Dresden.

In Dresden, Wagner finally started seeing some professional success. But there he got into even more trouble when he got caught up on the losing side of the German Revolution. In 1849, Wagner had to leave Germany and move to Switzerland to avoid being arrested. Wagner lived in Switzerland for the next several years, writing music and political books.

In Switzerland, Wagner started working on his most famous piece, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring). This massive work is made up of four smaller operas that total 16 hours! Wagner thought that opera should be like poetry for regular people, not just a few rich people. His operas dealt with dramatic stories and themes, like the power of love.

He also developed the idea of the leitmotif. A leitmotif is a short piece of music associated with a single character or theme in the opera. Wagner wrote a total of ten operas (including The Ring), and his music had a huge influence on other composers who lived after him.

After many years, Wagner returned to Germany. He kept writing operas and supervised the construction of a whole new theater in the town of Bayreuth.

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