Richard Wagner

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Performers and composers; Poetry & Opera

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner ( May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883) was a German composer, conductor, music theorist, and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or " music dramas" as he later came to call them). Unlike most other great opera composers, Wagner always wrote the scenario and libretto for his works himself.

Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with specific characters, locales, or plot elements. Wagner pioneered advances in musical language including extreme chromaticism and atonality which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.

He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). Wagner even went so far as to build his own opera-house to try to stage these works as he had imagined them.


Early life

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, who was a clerk in the Leipzig police service. Wagner's father died of typhus six months after Richard's birth, following which Wagner's mother, Johanna Rosine Wagner, began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, who had been a friend of Richard's father. In August 1814 Johanna married Geyer, and moved with her family to his residence in Dresden. For the first 14 years of his life, Wagner was known as Wilhelm Richard Geyer. Wagner in his later years may have suspected that Geyer was in fact his biological father, and furthermore speculated (wrongly) that Geyer was Jewish.

Geyer's love of the theatre was shared by his step-son, and Wagner even took part in performances. In his autobiography Wagner recalled on one occasion playing the part of an angel. The boy Wagner was also hugely impressed by the Gothic elements of Weber's Der Freischutz. At the end of 1820, Wagner was enrolled at Pastor Wetzel's school at Possendorf, near Dresden, where he received some piano instruction from his Latin teacher, but could not manage a proper scale and mostly preferred playing theatre overtures by ear. Geyer died in 1821, when Richard was eight. Following this, Wagner was sent to the Kreuz Grammar School in Dresden, paid for by Geyer's brother. The young Wagner entertained ambitions as a playwright, his first creative effort being a gruesome tragedy, Leubald und Adelaide begun at school in 1826, which was strongly influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. Wagner determined to set this to music and persuaded his family to allow him music lessons.

By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner's first lessons in composition were taken between 1828-31 with Christian Gottlieb Müller, but it was Beethoven who would first inspire him. In January of 1828 he first heard Beethoven's 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven's 9th Symphony performed in the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Beethoven became his muse, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony as well as piano sonatas and orchestral overtures. In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote:

If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced so profound an impression upon me.

Wagner claimed to have seen Schröder-Devrient in the title role of Fidelio, however it seems more likely that he saw her performance as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. He enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831, however his formal music training was brief, comprising a few months with Christian Theodor Weinlig, the music director at the Leipzig Kreuzkirke. Weinlig was so impressed with Wagner's musical ability that he refused any payment for his lessons, and arranged for one of Wagner's piano works to be published. A year later, Wagner composed his Symphony in C major, a Beethovenian work which gave him his first opportunity as a conductor in 1832. He then began to work on an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which was never completed.

In 1833, Wagner's older brother Karl Albert managed to obtain Richard a position as chorusmaster in Würzburg. In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer's death in 1883.

Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second opera was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but closed before the second performance, leaving the composer (not for the last time) in serious financial difficulties.

On November 24, 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer. They moved to the city of Riga, then in the Russian Empire, where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer who then abandoned her, penniless. Wagner took Minna back; however, this was but the first debâcle of a troubled marriage that would end in misery three decades later.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for most of his life). During their flight, they and their Newfoundland dog, Robber, took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner drew the inspiration for Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Wagners spent 1840 and 1841 in Paris, where Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer during this time.


Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Largely through the agency of Meyerbeer, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre (Hofoper) in the German state of Saxony. Thus in 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable acclaim. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-period operas.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for constitutional freedoms and the unification of the weak princely states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a head in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris and then to Zürich. Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and endured long terms of imprisonment.

Exile, Schopenhauer and Mathilde Wesendonck

Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into the mammoth work Der Ring des Nibelungen, seemed to have no prospects of being performed. His wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner's primary published output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: The Art-Work of the Future (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; Judaism in Music (1850), a tract directed against Jewish composers; and Opera and Drama (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.

By 1852 Wagner had completed the libretto of the four Ring operas, and he began composing Das Rheingold in November 1853, following it immediately with Die Walkure in 1854. He then began work on the third opera, Siegfried in 1856, but finished only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner had two independent sources of inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to what he understood to be Schopenhauer's philosophy - a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in "Opera and Drama", that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle, which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person).

Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852. Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde.

Richard and Cosima Wagner.
Richard and Cosima Wagner.

Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story.

The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice. The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to the efforts of Princess de Metternich. The premiere of the Paris Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by members of the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.

In 1861, the political ban against Wagner in Germany was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Despite the failure of Tannhäuser in Paris, the possibility that Der Ring des Nibelungen would never be finished and Wagner's unhappy personal life, this opera is by far his sunniest work. Wagner's second wife Cosima would later write: "when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose." In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.

Between 1861 and 1864 Wagner tried to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna. Despite over 70 rehearsals the opera remained unperformed, and gained a reputation as being "unplayable", which further added to Wagner's financial woes.

Patronage of King Ludwig II

Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new operas produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the National Theatre in Munich on June 10, 1865, the first Wagner premiere in almost 15 years.

In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. In April 1865, she gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the king. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce, but not before having two more children with Wagner. They had another daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried. Richard and Cosima were married on August 25, 1870. (Liszt would not speak to his new son-in-law for years to come.) On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life.


Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Liszt, who was also his father-in-law, can be seen at the piano.
Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Liszt, who was also his father-in-law, can be seen at the piano.

Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.

In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, " Wagner societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were only raised after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German).

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.

Final years

Memorial bust of Richard Wagner in Venice.
Memorial bust of Richard Wagner in Venice.
Grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth
Grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth

In 1877, Wagner moved to Acireale in Italy where he began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.

Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.

After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried.

Franz Liszt's memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner's remains over the Grand Canal.



Wagner's music dramas are his primary artistic legacy. These can be divided chronologically into three periods.

Wagner's early stage began at age 19 with his first attempt at an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which Wagner abandoned at an early stage of composition in 1832. Wagner's three completed early-stage operas are Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Their compositional style was conventional, and did not exhibit the innovations that marked Wagner's place in musical history. Later in life, Wagner said that he did not consider these immature works to be part of his oeuvre; he was irritated by the ongoing popularity of Rienzi during his lifetime. These works are seldom performed, though the overture to Rienzi has become a concert piece.

Wagner's middle stage output is considered to be of remarkably higher quality, and begins to show the deepening of his powers as a dramatist and composer. This period began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. These works are widely performed today.

Wagner's late stage operas are his masterpieces that advanced the art of opera. Some are of the opinion that Tristan und Isolde ( Tristan and Iseult) is Wagner's greatest single opera. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is Wagner's only comedy (apart from his early and forgotten Das Liebesverbot) and one of the lengthiest operas still performed. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Teutonic myth, particularly from later period Norse mythology. Taking around 20 years to complete, and requiring roughly 15 hours to perform, the Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious musical work ever composed. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, which was written especially for the opening of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth and which is described in the score as a "Bühnenweihfestspiel" (festival play for the consecration of the stage), is a contemplative work based on the Christian legend of the Holy Grail.

Wagner drew largely from Northern European mythology and legend, notably Icelandic epics such as the Poetic Edda, the Volsunga Saga and the later German Nibelungenlied. Through his operas and theoretical essays, Wagner exerted a strong influence on the operatic medium. He was an advocate of a new form of opera which he called "music drama", in which all the musical and dramatic elements were fused together. Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems". Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra's role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra's dramatic role includes its performance of the leitmotifs, musical themes that announce specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interleaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama.

Wagner's musical style is often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, due to its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression. He introduced new ideas in harmony and musical form, including extreme chromaticism. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, the so-called Tristan chord.

Early stage

  • (1832) Die Hochzeit (The Wedding) (abandoned before completion)
  • (1833) Die Feen (The Fairies)
  • (1836) Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)
  • (1837) Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes)

Middle stage

  • (1843) Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)
  • (1845) Tannhäuser
  • (1848) Lohengrin

Late stage

  • (1859) Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde)
  • (1867) Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg)
  • Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), consisting of:
    • (1854) Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
    • (1856) Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
    • (1871) Siegfried (previously entitled Jung-Siegfried or Young Siegfried, and Der junge Siegfried or The young Siegfried)
    • (1874) Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) (originally entitled Siegfrieds Tod or The Death of Siegfried)
  • (1882) Parsifal

Non-operatic music

Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a single symphony (written at the age of 19), a Faust symphony (of which he only finished the first movement, which became the Faust Overture), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces, and a re-orchestration of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide. Of these, the most commonly performed work is the Siegfried Idyll, a piece for chamber orchestra written for the birthday of his second wife, Cosima. The Idyll draws on several motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. The next most popular are the Wesendonck Lieder, properly known as Five Songs for a Female Voice, which were composed for Mathilde Wesendonck while Wagner was working on Tristan. An oddity is the "American Centennial March" of 1876, commissioned by the city of Philadelphia for the opening of the Centennial Exposition, for which Wagner was paid $5,000.

A vocal and instrumental piece which is not often performed and somewhat forgotten, "das Liebesmahl der Apostel" (The Love-Meal of the Apostles) is a piece for male choruses and orchestra, composed in 1843. Wagner had just successfully played Rienzi in Dresden. However, Der fliegende Holländer witnessed a bitter failure. Wagner, who had been elected at the beginning of the year to the committee of a cultural association in the city of Dresden, received a commission to evoke the theme of Pentecost. The premiere took place at the Dresdner Frauenkirche on 6 July 1843, and was performed by around a hundred musicians and almost 1,200 singers. The concert was very well received.

After completing Parsifal, Wagner apparently intended to turn to the writing of symphonies. However, nothing substantial had been written by the time of his death.

The overtures and orchestral passages from Wagner's middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote short passages to conclude the excerpt so that it does not end abruptly. This is true, for example, of the Parsifal prelude and Siegfried's Funeral Music. A curious fact is that the concert version of the Tristan prelude is unpopular and rarely heard; the original ending of the prelude is usually considered to be better, even for a concert performance.

One of the most popular wedding marches played as the bride's processional in English-speaking countries, popularly known as "Here Comes the Bride", takes its melody from the " Bridal Chorus" of Lohengrin. In the opera, it is sung as the bride and groom leave the ceremony and go into the wedding chamber. The calamitous marriage of Lohengrin and Elsa, which reaches irretrievable breakdown twenty minutes after the chorus has been sung, has failed to discourage this widespread use of the piece.


Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence, throughout his life. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often mutually contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include "Oper und Drama" ("Opera and Drama", 1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and " Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Judaism in Music", 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers in general, and Giacomo Meyerbeer in particular. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880).

Theatre design and operation

Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas (for the design of which he appropriated many of the ideas of his former colleague, Gottfried Semper, which he had solicited for a proposed new opera house at Munich). These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth each summer.

The orchestra pit at Bayreuth is interesting for two reasons:

  1. The first violins are positioned on the right-hand side of the conductor instead of their usual place on the left side. This is in all likeliness because of the way the sound is intended to be directed towards the stage rather than directly on the audience. This way the sound has a more direct line from the first violins to the back of the stage where it can be then reflected to the audience.
  2. Double basses, 'cellos and harps (when more than one used, e.g. Ring) are split into groups and placed on either side of the pit.

Wagner's influence and legacy

Richard Wagner's bust in "Festspielpark Bayreuth"
Richard Wagner's bust in "Festspielpark Bayreuth"

Wagner made highly significant, if controversial, contributions to art and culture. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion amongst his followers, and was occasionally considered by them to have a near god-like status. His compositions, in particular Tristan und Isolde, broke important new musical ground. For years afterward, many composers felt compelled to align themselves with or against Wagner. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf are indebted to him especially, as are César Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner and dozens of others. Gustav Mahler said, "There was only Beethoven and Wagner". The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (tonal and atonal modernism, respectively) have often been traced back to Tristan. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owes much to Wagnerian reconstruction of musical form.

Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practise of conducting. His essay On conducting (1869) advanced the earlier work of Hector Berlioz and proposed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. The central European conducting tradition which followed Wagner's ideas includes artists such as Hans von Bulow, Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert von Karajan.

Wagner also made significant changes to the conditions under which operas were performed. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during dramatic performances, and it was his theatre at Bayreuth which first made use of the sunken orchestra pit, which at Bayreuth entirely conceals the orchestra from the audience.

Wagner's concept of leitmotif and integrated musical expression has been a strong influence on many 20th century film scores such as John Williams' music for Star Wars. American producer Phil Spector with his " wall of sound" was strongly influenced by Wagner's music. Wagner also heavily influenced rock composer Jim Steinman and led him to create what he called Wagnerian Rock. The rock subgenre of heavy metal music also shows a Wagnerian influence with its strong paganistic stamp. In Germany Rammstein and Joachim Witt (his most famous albums are called Bayreuth for that reason) are both strongly influenced by Wagner's music. The movie "The Ring of the Nibelungs" drew both from historical sources as well as Wagner's work, and set a ratings record when aired as a two-part mini-series on German television. It was subsequently released in other countries under a variety of names, including "Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King" in the USA.

Wagner's influence on literature and philosophy is also significant. Friedrich Nietzsche was part of Wagner's inner circle during the early 1870s, and his first published work The Birth of Tragedy proposed Wagner's music as the Dionysian rebirth of European culture in opposition to Apollonian rationalist decadence. Nietzsche broke with Wagner following the first Bayreuth Festival, believing that Wagner's final phase represented a pandering to Christian pieties and a surrender to the new demagogic German Reich. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived", while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. He is discussed in some of the works of James Joyce although Joyce was known to detest him. Wagner is one of the main subjects of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which contains lines from Tristan und Isolde and refers to The Ring and Parsifal. Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine worshipped Wagner. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death (or Eros and Thanatos) in Tristan, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.

Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions, Wagner's supporters and those of Johannes Brahms; the latter, with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick, championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations. Even those who, like Debussy, opposed him ("that old poisoner"), could not deny Wagner's influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers, including Tchaikovsky, who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was so unmistakable and overwhelming. Others who resisted Wagner's influence included Gioachino Rossini ("Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour"), though his own " Guillaume Tell," at over four hours, is comparable in length to Wagner's operas.


Wagner's operas, writings, his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime. In September 1876 Karl Marx complained in a letter to his daughter Jenny: "Wherever one goes these days one is pestered with the question: what do you think of Wagner?" Following Wagner's death, the debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th Century, continued to make him politically and socially controversial in a way that other great composers are not. Much heat is generated by Wagner's comments on Jews, which continue to influence the way that his works are regarded, and by the essays he wrote on the nature of race from 1850 onwards, and their putative influence on the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler.


Prior to 1850 there is little evidence that Wagner held any strong views on Jews. However, in that year he published " Das Judenthum in der Musik" (originally translated into English as "Judaism in Music," by which name it is still known, but better rendered as "Jewishness in Music") under a pseudonym in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The essay began as an attack on Jewish composers, particularly Wagner's contemporaries (and rivals) Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, but expanded to accuse Jews of being a harmful and alien element in German culture. Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their alien appearance and behaviour: "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, because they had no connection to the genuine spirit of the German people.

The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner repeated similar views in several later articles, such as "What is German?" (1878), and subsequent memoirs of him often recorded his derogatory comments on Jews. Although many have argued that he suggested only that Jews should suppress their Jewish-ness, others have interpreted sections of his writing literally, to mean wiping out or burying the Jewish people.

Some biographers have suggested that antisemitic stereotypes also appear in his operas. The characters of Mime in the Ring, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and Klingsor in Parsifal are thought to be Jewish stereotypes, though they are not explicitly identified as such in the libretto. These claims are disputed. In all of Wagner's many writings about his works, there is no mention of an intention to caricature Jews in his operas; nor does any such notion appear in the diaries written by Cosima Wagner, which record his views on a daily basis over a period of 8 years.

Despite his very publicly shared disparaging views concerning Jews, Wagner continued to have Jewish friends, colleagues and supporters throughout his life.

Racism & Nazi appropriation

Some biographers have asserted that Wagner in his final years came to believe in the racist philosophy of Arthur de Gobineau, and that this is reflected in the opera Parsifal. Wagner showed no significant interest in Gobineau until 1880, when he read Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. However, Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal by 1877, and the original drafts of the story date back to 1857.

Despite this lack of chronology, it is sometimes claimed that Parsifal is a racist opera which reflects Gobineau's influence. Wagner's own writings show that he was very interested in Gobineau's idea that Western society was doomed because of miscegenation between "superior" and "inferior" races. However, he does not seem to have subscribed to Gobineau's belief in the superiority of the supposed Germanic or " Nordic" race.

Wagner's writings on race would probably be considered unimportant were it not for the influence of his son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who expanded on Wagner and Gobineau's ideas in his 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a work proclaiming the superiority of Aryan races which later became required reading for members of the Nazi party.

Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner's music, and used it to extol his heroic mythology of the German nation. There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner's views might have influenced the Nazis. As with the works of Nietzsche, the Nazis used those parts of Wagner's thought which were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest. For example Joseph Goebbels banned Parsifal in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, due to the perceived pacifistic overtones of the opera.

As a result of this appropriation by the Nazi party, Wagner's operas have never been staged in the modern state of Israel. Although his works are broadcast on Israeli government-owned radio and television stations, attempts to stage public performances in Israel have been halted by protests, including protests from Holocaust survivors.

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