Writing a concise biography of one of the all time greats is similar to the task of encapsulating Verdi in a couple of paragraphs; both musicians’ personalities far extend their musical contexts (although in completely different ways), encompassing the culture, literature, customs, ethics and politics of their environments, and so trying to sum up their lives in a short biography is almost impossible. Wagner, the child of a government official, but raised by an actor and playwright, showed a passion for art from childhood; what remained uncertain however, was in which direction this would lead (paintings? sculpture? theater?). At sixteen years of age he heard Beethoven‘s Fidelio and decided to pursue music, and after various stages of transformation, he become one of the leading figures in classical music. Much more than that of Verdi, almost all the human and musical elements of Wagner, at least for his first fifty years, are studded with periods of revolution: suffering and uncertainty, both economic and existential, was alternated with controversy and less than triumphant successes due to his groups of admirers and critics. His personal and artistic development was always supported by numerous patrons and the affection of many admirers, without whom many masterpieces might never have come to light. The early years were very gloomy: his first operas (Die Hochzeit, 1832; Die Feen, 1834; Das Liebesverbot oder Die Novize von Palermo, 1834-6) created debts and lead to years of poverty in Paris. Finally, the first true Wagnerian Opera, Rienzi der letzte der Tribunen, written from 1837 to 1840, earned him success in the French capital and a place as conductor in Dresden. However the lukewarm reception of other debuts in the same city, Der Fliegende Holländer (1843) and Tannhäuser (1845), led the composer to question his motives for writing music: from this personal development blossomed the last of his early works, Lohengrin (1845-48). During this time he met two key characters in his life: Franz Liszt, and the conductor Hans von Bülow, both of whom were fans of his music. In Europe in 1848 the composer became fascinated by anarchist and socialist theories, on the barricades along with Bakunin. He fled from Saxony with the return of the established order, and moved to Switzerland, in Zurich: the Swiss Confederation would always be one of the ‘free zones’ of his wandering life, together with his much loved Italy which he began to visit in 1853. He also had a love hate relationship with Paris where audiences reacted very violently to the first performance of Tannhäuser (this reaction was all too common: one either loved it, as Baudelaire did, or hated it: this was a time where the public were less polite and far more passionate than the audiences we see today and often argued and fought over these sorts of heated topics). This was also the period where the work of the philosopher Schopenhauer became more known, which significantly modified the radical ideas of youth. And so he started over again, all be it now in his fifties, asking for aid and loans from friends and supporters. The adventures were a bit humiliating, dotted with huge expenses, pursuits of financers, luxury hotel stays and hurried exits, all ending with the encounter of young king Ludvig, who had recently came to the throne of Bavaria, who idolized his music.
Thanks to his support, Wagner was finally able to achieve economic stability and to enjoy his fame and success, building the dream that was – and is – the Theatre of Bayreuth. In this theatre, work was staged as a synthesis of all the arts, also known as Gesamtkunstwerk, where all the arts (poetry, painting, music and dramatic arts) come together unanimously; all to enhance the celebration of the mystery of music. Wagner truly reformed Opera, through musical language, systematic use of chromaticism and intelligent harmony, and the use of the Leitmotiv, or Grundtheme, a musical theme that relates specifically to particular characters or situations. In 1865 he presented another masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde and three years later the only comedy composed by Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1845-1867. These were the years in which Wagner married Liszt’s daughter (which distanced him from von Bülow), and where the fateful meeting with Friedrich Nietzsche took place. He completed, in Lucerne, one of the largest Meisterwerk’s in music history which we know today as the Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). It is composed of four parts, or days: a prologue, Das Rheingold, 1851-4; Die Walküre, 1851-6; Siegfried 1851-1871; Götterdämmerung, 1848-1874.
The last few years saw him settled in Bayreuth where he enjoyed immense fame and interspersed trips to Italy for health reasons: in Sicily he presented his last opera, Parsifal, composed from 1877 to 1882, and performed in 1882, six months before the composer’s death.