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'A demonic fire'

The life of Wagner

Created date

May 10th, 2016
Portrait of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, made in Paris in 1861.

Portrait of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, made in Paris in 1861.

Judging by his portraits, Richard Wagner looked more like a stern military man than he did a composer. And perhaps this is an apt comparison considering the force and drama that defined his music.

Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1813, Wilhelm Richard Wagner was weaned on the arts. 

A clerk in the local police department, his biological father Carl died when Wagner was six months old. Shortly thereafter, his mother married the actor, playwright, and painter Ludwig Geyer, who imparted to his stepson a devout love of the theater. 

Geyer, however, passed away when Wagner was eight, but not before making arrangements for his stepson to begin studies at the Kreuzschule, the boarding school for a centuries-old boys’ choir in Dresden. 

Here, Wagner discovered his penchant for the dark and gothic compositions of composers like Carl Maria von Weber. According to his memoir, he actually saw Weber conduct his classic opera Der Freischütz.

While a student, Wagner combined his passion for theater and music, writing his first tragedy, Leubald, in 1828. Insistent on setting the work to music, he persuaded his mother to let him take lessons.

Thus, a composer was born.

Intense and driven

Immediately, Wagner began studies in harmony with Christian Gottlieb Muller, during which time the young pupil drew much of his inspiration from the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and performances by various contemporary opera stars. On seeing soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, he remarked that the “profoundly human and ecstatic performance of this incomparable artist” lit an “almost demonic fire” inside him.

Wagner dove into his work with an intensity that matched his music. In 1831, he enrolled at Leipzig University, where he studied composition under Christian Theodor Weinlig (whose other students included Clara Wieck Schumann). 

Under Weinlig, Wagner excelled. In fact, the instructor was so impressed with his student’s work that he refused to take payment for his lessons; he even had Wagner’s Piano Sonata in B flat major published.

Still a teenager, Wagner composed at a feverish pace, completing his first and only full symphony. Reminiscent of Beethoven, his Symphony in C major was a bright, adventurous piece that bore many of the distinctive hallmarks of Wagner’s later compositions.

A year later, he finished his first complete opera, Die Feen, which, like his Symphony in C major, paid homage to another one of his musical idols, Weber.

In spite of this productivity, the next decade was a fairly troubled one for the composer. 

Through the late 1830s, Wagner wrote a series of operas, serving as the director of theaters and opera houses in the cities of Magdeburg and Riga. He also married the well-known leading lady Christine Wilhelmine Planer. 

Their relationship was turbulent from the start—wracked by the strain of separation and mounting financial problems.

A life spent on the move

Wagner spent many years running from his creditors and earning what money he could producing operas like Rienzi (1840) and Tannhäuser (1845), both of which premiered in Dresden, where he had taken refuge. Yet, it wasn’t long before the nomadic artist was again on the move. 

This time it was due to his involvement in the radical politics of the socialist German nationalists, who, in 1849, launched an unsuccessful uprising aimed at forcing Frederick Augustus II, the king of Saxony, to adopt a constitutional monarchy. Because of his connection to the group, Wagner fled to Paris and on to Zurich.

He devoted his first couple of years in Switzerland to writing essays on art and music in which he revealed his thoughts and views as a composer. In “The Artwork of the Future” (1849), for example, he described opera as a “total work of art,” wherein music, drama, dance, and poetry are all components of a unified product. 

Though exiled from his homeland, Wagner managed to stoke that “demonic fire” he’d kindled as a young man. It was during this period that he wrote his most famous work—a four-opera cycle called Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The second of the four operas, Die Walküre (1856), contains one of the best-known melodies in classical music. To this day, film scores use “The Ride of the Valkyries” as a triumphant theme, thanks largely to its driving strings section and war-like horn blasts.

It was quintessential Wagner—intense, thrilling, and heroic.

Even with Der Ring’s success, fiscal woes continued to plague the composer throughout his final years. Chronically ill, he worked in vain to keep up with his financial obligations until his death from a heart attack in 1883. 

In his 69 years on earth, Wagner produced an impressive 113 compositions. And fitting his view of opera as a “total work of art,” his legacy continues to influence the world of music and beyond.