Most descriptions of Wagner the man do not paint a pretty picture. There are many reports of his extreme anti-semitism, massive ego-mania, wanton gambling and womanising, and his ruthless exploitation of anyone in order to achieve his ambitions. While these character traits severely taint any biography of Wagner, let's put them to one side, describe the key events in his life and concentrate on his musical development and his place in musical history.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, and it is thought that his real father was not the man who gave him his surname (Karl Friedrich Wagner who died when Richard was 6 months old) but the actor Ludwig Geyer who was then to become Wagner's stepfather and influence his early development. Geyer knew the composer Weber, but it was his literary interest that drew Wagner initially towards Classical and Shakespearean drama. The young Richard was called Richard Geyer, but reverted to Richard Wagner a few years after the death of his stepfather, by which time he had discovered the world of music and Beethoven in particular. Wagner received very little formal musical education, yet with complete self-absorption threw himself into a musical career which involved conducting posts in opera houses while composing operas with his own libretti, frequently based on stories from German mythology. He was later to form a friendship with Nietzsche, with whom he shared certain ideas (some misguided certainly) including a desire to base writings on timeless allegorical myths.
While Wagner was to pursue that latter occupation of writing Opera with single-minded determination, his personal life took him in several directions. He fled Germany in exile for a while after he had vociferously supported political revolution there. He was frequently in debt, in part because of failed attempts to have his early operas performed, but also due to his excessive gambling habit. He also progressed through no less than three wives, the last relationship proving to be the most stable. This was to Cosima (daughter of Franz Liszt) who was at the time of their meeting already married to the respected conductor and student of Liszt, von Bulow. Wagner was also married at the time, but several years later the couple were able to marry, and Cosima devoted her life to supporting and promoting Wagner's work and survived him by many years until her death in 1930. This shows true devotion, given Wagner's temperament. Marriage did not stop him from having affairs and he could become totally absorbed, obsessed even, in his musical projects to the extent that it deeply affected his own life and relationships.
As a young man Wagner composed some concert overtures and a symphony before turning his attention to opera. He was occasionally to create other concert works, but it was with his operas that he was to build his reputation. Although his early works in this field were not successful, and resulted in debts, it wasn't long before the sought-after success arrived with "Rienzi". This opera was influenced by Meyerbeer who was one of the leading opera composers of the day, and gave Wagner much support. The work's success helped to secure for its composer a more prestigious conducting post at the Dresden Opera, sending Wagner's career on an upward spiral of success and ambition.
However his period of exile in Zurich intervened, and so it was that while unwelcome in his native Germany, he nevertheless composed operas to be performed there to great acclaim (often conducted by Franz Liszt) building his fame on "Lohengrin", "Tristan and Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" while all the time working on his magnum opus, the Ring Cycle. He moved to Paris where his relationship with Cosima von Bulow (nee Liszt) blossomed, and once the domestic situation had eased, he returned to Munich in his native land. There the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria was an influencial patron providing further impetus to the composer's career. Afterwards Wagner was to set up home at Villa Wahnfried near Lake Lucerne. While staying there he took upon himself a massive four-year project to build a specially designed theatre in Bayreuth, where he gave the first complete performance of the four operas of the Ring Cycle. He died aged 70 in Venice where he was staying to seek some rest.
So it was that Wagner's name became synonymous with grand German Opera of gigantic theatrical proportions, the characters being larger-than-life architypes rather than everyday people, but often displaying very human needs and concerns. His music stretched the boundaries of the Romantic Era, using large orchestras and "lietmotifs" (melodic fragments associated with a character or idea) bringing a sense of unity even over a large time-span.
Wagner's music is full of passion and, despite the flaws in his own character, he was able to move people and convey great emotion and love in music. "Tristan and Isolde" about a doomed relationship is especially moving, the music stretching the boundaries of established tonality and looking towards Modernism. This also features the famous "Tristan chord" whose lack of resolution maintains an ongoing tension. The equally moving (though much less tortured) Siegfried Idyll, using melodies from the opera of the same name, was composed as a gift to Cosima. One of their children had recently been born and named Siegfried after the opera character. (One of the couple's daughters was named Isolde for similar reasons.) On Christmas day 1870, Wagner arranged for 15 musicians to play this present for her on the stairs outside her bedroom! The young Siegfried was later to become a composer in his own right.
Wagner formulated an idealist view of opera, where all the facets of the production assumed equal status, the orchestra itself playing a significant role. His operas did not comply with the former rigid traditions, but the lietmotif idea allowed for continuous and flexible development throughout the production. It is fair to say that some find certain aspects (including the duration) of Wagnerian opera to be overblown and tedious. However no-one can deny that there are moments of hair-raising intensity. Wagner's music became a benchmark setting the standard for many composers to aspire to, such as Bruckner, Berg, Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss among others. Wagner's music deserves a major place in history for its continuing influence. It can even be argued that Wagnerian opera become a role model for early film music with its grand sweeping themes (or short leitmotifs), continuous presence as backdrop to the visual action, the expression of powerful emotions, and with the flexibility to alter mood realistically from scene to scene while retaining consistency. The leitmotif method was used in early film scores by composers such as Max Steiner (e.g. in "Gone with the Wind"), but also by later composers including John Williams (in the "Star Wars" films) and Howard Shore (in the "Lord of the Rings" films).
Of course it wasn't long before the artistic backlash arrived with various schools heading off into other directions. But that is always the way with music. There is no doubt that Wagner, whether you like him or hate him, changed the course of music. He even invented a musical instrument, the Wagner tuba, with a tone designed to assist in the presentation of his works. Some other composers have also used this instrument in concert works.
Concert or Chamber Works:
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle):