Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883), best known for his operas, was a German composer. Since his father died when he was a year old and his mother quickly remarried an actor, Ludwig Geyer, he is also known the surname Geyer. There have been some claims that Geyer was Wagner’s biological father, but these claims have yet to be proven. Geyer died when he was only six years old.
Wagner showed an early interest in music and could improvise a number of theatrical tunes. He wasn’t a great pianist, though, and his teacher was frustrated that he couldn’t even play the most basic scales. He preferred to write plays and saw music as merely a means of heightening the drama of the stories he wanted to tell.
His interest in music appears to have begun around the age of eighteen.
. He “discovered” Beethoven during this period. He composed his first opera, Die Feen, or The Fairies, two years later, but it was never performed during his lifetime.
Wagner worked feverishly on his next opera while also serving as music director for several theaters and was frequently in debt. Christine “Minna” Planer, his wife, had a tumultuous marriage. She had several affairs with other men, and the two had gotten into so much debt that they had to flee from Riga, Russia, to England to avoid their creditors.
His ship voyage inspired him to write Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), which would become one of his best-known operas, while he was traveling to England. Wagner and Planer were living in Paris 1840, and he spent his time arranging operas other composers.
He was able to stage both The Flying Dutchman and Rienzi, his third opera, once he returned to Germany. However, when the German nationalist movement was crushed, he was forced to flee the country due to his political position and minor participation in various staged uprisings.
His years of exile were made more difficult his wife’s deepening depression and his own bouts of erysipelas, a bacterial infection that causes skin and fatty tissue inflammation. Despite these circumstances, he composed his great work, Der Ring des Nibelungan, or The Ring of the Nibelungs, during this period. Five years later, Tristan und Isolde was written.
In the midst of creating operas, he unfortunately began to develop anti-Semitic philosophy. His pamphlet “Jewry in Music,” published in 1850, is a scathing attack on Jewish composers. Given his support for several Jewish composers, his anti-Semitism is called into question. Later reviews of his work come to the contradictory conclusions that he was virulently anti-Semitic and that his operas contain multiple layers of anti-Semitic references. Others believe that claims of anti-Semitism are exaggerated because Hitler appropriated Wagnerian music as proper Nazi music.
Wagner’s marriage ended in later life after he had numerous affairs. Cosima von Bülow, Franz Liszt’s illegitimate daughter, was his most scandalous liaison. The affair was carried out in full view of his former friends, further aggravating their displeasure. Even after he married Cosima, Liszt refused to speak to him.
Wagner’s later works include Parsifal, The Valkyrie, and Siegfried, which are among his most well-known works. He is also known for the Wedding March, which is how English speakers refer to his composition. He is also said to have had a significant influence on film scoring. Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, and John Williams have all cited him as an influence.
After his death, his work remained influential, and Modern British authors such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Auden praised him. His views on death are very similar to those of Sigmund Freud, but they predate Freud. Though some today find his operas heavy-handed, others adore them, and their influence on modern composition cannot be denied.