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Composer Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. He began to study music in earnest in 1828, turning away from his initial interest in literature. His first complete opera was Die Feen, completed in 1834 and based on the legend of Orpheus. Die Feen was not performed until five years after Wagner’s death.
Wagner’s reputation as a conductor began to grow after he was appointed music director of a small theatre troupe in Magdeburg. It was here that he met and married one of the singers, Christine Wilhelmine (Minna) Planer. This marriage lasted for 25 years, and was filled with multiple indiscretions, flights from Wagner’s creditors and political exiles.
He had his first operatic successes with Rienzi (1842), Der fliegende Holländer (1843), Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850), for which he wrote both the music and the libretti.
In 1849 Wagner participated in a political uprising in Dresden. To avoid imprisonment he fled to Zürich. There, his fortunes improved considerably, in part because he had made the acquaintance of several wealthy patrons who were willing to help him out of debt. Particularly significant was Otto Wesendonck who, among other things, introduced Wagner to his young wife Mathilde, with whom Wagner quickly became infatuated. Out of their relationship grew Wagner’s towering monument to love, Tristan und Isolde. He set several of Mathilde’s poems to music and these works have come to be known as the Wesendonck lieder.
By 1858, tensions were high at the Wesendoncks, as Wagner’s wife (Minna) clearly knew of Mathilde's involvement with her husband. In August, Wagner and Minna separated.
In 1864, the new 18-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a fervent admirer of Wagner’s work, became the composer’s royal patron. Wagner was at the same time grateful for Ludwig’s support yet somewhat resentful that he was dependent upon royal patronage.
Wagner moved to a villa owned by the king, and was eventually joined by Cosima von Bülow, who would remain his companion for the next 15 years. Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, was married to the conductor Hans von Bülow, who continued to champion Wagner’s music even after learning of the affair. Wagner and Cosima had three children (Isolde, Eva and Siegfried) and eventually married. She was utterly devoted to him and, after his death, worked to establish the Bayreuth festival as one of international reputation.
Wagner was able to complete Die Meistersinger in 1867 from his home at Tribschen. Ludwig, however, was anxious to see Das Rheingold performed, and rehearsals began in Munich in 1869. It premiered in September and was followed by Die Walküre in June of the following year.
The final instalment of the Ring Cycle was completed in November of 1874, 26 years after its initial conception.
Throughout his life, Richard Wagner worked to revolutionize the structures of opera to create a distinctively German artform and to raise the union of music and drama to new heights.
Wagner died on Feb. 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy.
Video still by Bill Viola, from the Opéra national de Paris production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: Kira Perov © 2005
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