Known for his transformation of opera and as the musical antagonist to Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner fame was hard won and his life controversial. Born on May 22, 1813 in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, Richard's father died a mere six months after his birth. The following year, his widowed mother married the playwright Ludwig Geyer and the family moved to Dresden. Geyer no doubt is the reason for Wagner's love of the theater. In 1820, Wagner received some piano instruction while attending a nearby school. He was unable to manage a scale but had no difficulties in playing theater overtures by ear. The following year, Geyer died and Wagner was sent off to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden. It was here that he entertained ambitions of becoming a playwright and produced a tragedy, Leubald, in 1826. Determine to set it to music, Wagner was able to persuade his family into allowing him to receive proper musical instruction. Moving back to Leipzig with his family in 1827, Wagner received his first formal lesson in harmony. He was introduced to the symphonies of Beethoven, who became a lasting influence. In 1831, he entered the University of Leipzig and began composition lessons with the cantor of St. Thomas Church. He composed a Symphony in C major, strongly modeled after the works of Beethoven and his only contribution to the genre, and which later received performances in both Prague and Leipzig.
In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner completed his first opera, Die Feen ("The Faires"). Though a personal success for Wagner, it went unproduced until after his death in 1883. The following year, he met his first wife, Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer, and the two married on November 24, 1836. Securing a position as the music director of a local opera, Wagner and his wife moved in 1837 to the city of Riga, then a part of the Russian Empire. However, within two years the couple had incurred so much debt that they were forced to flee from their creditors. Their escape led them first to London and soon after to Paris. It was the stormy passage by sea to London that led to Wagner's inspiration for his opera, The Flying Dutchman. During his four years in Paris (1839-42), Wagner produced Rienzi (his first successful opera) and The Flying Dutchman.
Joyfully returning to Dresden in 1842, Wagner was able, through the support of Giocomo Meyerbeer, to secure a performance of Rienzi by the Dresden Court Theatre. Further productions included The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser. However, his return to Dresden did not last long. Wagner became increasingly involved with a socialistic movement that sought to unify Germany and the adoption of a new constitution. When discontent finally reached the breaking point in 1849, the uprising was quickly put down by an alliance of Saxon and Prussian troops. Wagner was forced to flee Dresden for fear of being arrested.
The following twelve years were spent in exile in Zurich, Switzerland. During this time he composed Lohengrin and was able to convince his friend, Franz Liszt, to stage the opera in Weimar in August 1850. It was also during this time, and just prior to his flight from Dresden, that Wagner laid the groundwork for his colossal opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. By 1852, the librettos for all four operas were completed and Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were composed in 1853 and 1854, respectively. After completing two acts of the third opera, Siegfried, Wagner set the work aside to pursue an idea that has come to be regarded as a revolutionary point in music history—Tristan und Isolde.
Once again able to return to his native Germany in 1861, Wagner settled in Biebrich in Prussia and work began on Die Meistersinger von Nümberg, his only comedy. For four years, Wagner attempted to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna, but the opera soon gained a reputation as being "impossible." However, it was not long before Wagner's fortunes took a remarkable turn towards the better. In 1864, King Ludwig II ascended to the throne of Bavaria. An admirer of Wagner's music, the king brought Wagner to Munich, settled the composer's outstanding debts and proposed to stage several of his operas. Tristan und Isolde finally premiered in 1865 under the baton of Hans von Bülow. Having separated from his first wife in 1862, Wagner soon fell for von Bülow's wife, Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt. The affair had multiple consequences: it led in part to Wagner finally being forced to leave Munich at the request of the king and, ultimately, to von Bülow giving the weight of his support to a young composer that would soon dominate the Viennese musical world and be viewed by many as the archrival of Wagner—Johannes Brahms.
Despite the unfortunate turn of events, the king secured the Villa Tribschen, on Switzerland's Lake Lucerne, as a residence for Wagner. Once settled in Switzerland, Wagner returned to his Ring cycle, after a remarkable twelve-year delay. Wagner envisioned a specially designed opera house for the premiere of his opera cycle and in 1871 decided on the small town of Bayreuth for its location. Wagner and Cosima, now his wife, moved to Bayreuth in 1872. Wagner raised some funds for the new opera house through tours of Germany but it wasn't until Ludwig II made a generous donation in 1874 that sufficient funds for its construction were met. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus opened on August 13, 1876 with Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring cycle operas. Today, the Festspeilhaus continues to hold the annual Bayreuth Festival, featuring productions of Wagner's operas.
After the success of the premiere of the complete Ring cycle, Wagner set to work on his final opera, Parsifal. It was completed in 1882 and premiered that year in Bayreuth. However, by this time Wagner was growing ill. Wagner and his family left Bayreuth later in the year to spend the winter in Venice, Italy. On February 13, 1883, he died of a heart attack. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of his home.
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