Richard Wagner: Biography, Music & Operas

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) brought opera to a whole new level and even had a special theater built to house his productions. Trace his career, learn about his music and test your knowledge with a quiz.


George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, wasn't the first person to begin writing a story only to realize he was starting in the middle. After completing the original Star Wars trilogy he wrote the prequel trilogy and eventually a sequel trilogy.

Over a century earlier, German composer Richard Wagner had composed a huge four-part drama cycle about widespread corruption and a young hero who would bring redemption. After outlining the initial installment, Wagner realized the need for a preliminary story to help explain events in the first segment. Unlike Lucas, Wagner continued working 'backwards' over several years writing two more prequels to eventually tie his story together. It then took another 20 years to set it all to music. During that period he designed and had built a special theater in which to present his monumental tetralogy, along with writing two other separate operas.

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Early Life and Career

Six months after his birth in 1813, Wagner's father died and his mother soon remarried. Wagner's step-father died eight years later. During this time Wagner received piano instruction, and he began writing poetry and plays. A few years later, Wagner's mother moved to Leipzig and the young Richard began formal study in music composition at age 15. His early works were mostly for piano but also included an overture and a symphony. Wagner was 19 when he made his debut as an orchestral conductor.

Wagner completed his first opera (The Fairies) in 1834 at age 21. That same year he made his debut as an opera conductor. By 1836 he had written a second opera and married. The following year he took an opera conducting position in Riga. Two years later he and his wife settled in Paris. In late 1840 Wagner completed his third opera Rienzi which was his first huge success. Several more operas followed: The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhauser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). After completing Lohengrin, Wagner took the next four years to outline the four dramas that would eventually become the tetralogy known as The Ring Cycle.

Music Drama

Earlier, in 1842, Wagner went to Dresden for the premiere of Rienzi and accepted an offer to be co-music director at the Dresden court. This was a stable period for him and he began thinking about opera in a new way, something he eventually called Gesamtkunstwerk--an all-inclusive art form meant to be a synthesis of music, poetry, drama, philosophy, religion and visual spectacle.

Wagner was already writing the libretto (opera script). In composing, he wanted the music to flow continuously and be symphonic. He also wanted the voices to be more declamatory and be part of the orchestral texture. In addition, Wagner developed the idea of a Leitmotif or brief musical 'name tags' that could be associated with various characters, settings or landscapes, particular objects such as a sword or fire, and even represent ideas and emotions. In what would be very long productions, these Leitmotifs would help listeners make the necessary connections of past events with those currently being portrayed. Wagner eventually came to identify this new art form as music drama.

The Valkyrie Sword Leitmotif
The Valkyrie sword Leitmotif

The Ring Cycle

The Ring Cycle is a complex plot which includes gods, giants, dwarves and nymphs drawn from Norse mythology, along with humans. They all struggle for world power through possession of a ring made from Rhine gold. A curse has been placed on the ring. Returning the ring to the Rhine River brings redemption. Like the Luke Skywalker character in Star Wars, Wagner's young hero was Siegfried. After spending four years writing the stories for his four-drama cycle, Wagner began composing the music in 1853.

Even though the stories were written in reverse, Wagner composed for them in narrative order over the next twenty years. The first installment was The Rhinegold completed in 1854 and the next segment (The Valkyrie) was finished in 1856. He began the third part (Siegfried) but stopped for several years to write Tristan and Isolde (1859) and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867). These two productions were not part of The Ring Cycle.

Bayreuth Festival Theater
Bayreuth Festival Theater

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