Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was nothing if not controversial. Composer, conductor, firebrand as a leftist politician in the May Uprising in Saxony, Wagner’s life was not easy. Born in Leipzig, he worked in Paris and Dresden and then, on fleeing the aftermath of the May Uprising in Dresden, he lived in Zurich and Venice.
Impressed at a young age by theatre, he began studying music in his early teens and this combination was to result in his theatrical and all-encompassing art or Gesamtkunstwerk. Beethoven was perhaps his first inspiration, and he was soon writing piano sonatas and orchestral overtures as well as his Symphony which was performed in Prague in 1832. He studied at the University of Leipzig and in 1833 completed his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). He never saw that one on the stage, since Die Feen had its premiere performance in Munich shortly after his death. Other operas were Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman, both of which he completed in Paris. This was followed by Tannhäuser and then Lohengrin. In exile, he completed Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four part cycle which includes Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung. Tristan und Isolde was written in between. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was written in 1867. Parsifal was his last opera, completed in 1882.
Returning to Germany in 1861, Wagner soon attracted the patronage of King Ludwig of Bavaria which brought him financial security as the king settled his debts.
His dream to have his Ring cycle performed in his own opera house was realised in Bayreuth, a pretty Bavarian town which today sees thousands of Wagnerians converge for the annual festival in the Festspielhaus, Thanks to King Ludwig, the theatre was completed and the Wagners, living in the Villa Wahnfried, were finally settled. The Festspielhaus was inaugurated in 1876 with a production of Das Rheingold.
Controversy also dogged his personal life. His first marriage to Minna Planer collapsed after many years which included her desertion for a while and his infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck. He fathered children with Cosima von Bulow, illegitimate daughter of Liszt and wife of the conductor Hans von Bulow. Two more children were to follow before they were able to marry. He died in Venice at the age of 69 on February 13, 1883. He is buried in the grounds of the Villa Wahnfried, a place of pilgrimage for people around the world.