Richard Wagner

1813 - 1883



Born in Leipzig on May 22nd 1813, German composer Richard Wagner is possibly one of the most important musical figures of the nineteenth century, with his influence reaching composers through the next 150 years and spreading beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre. Primarily an opera composer with very minimal output in other genres, his works were revolutionary for a number of reasons. His harmonic language entirely rewrote the textbooks of harmony students that followed, due to the extreme chromaticism and rapidly shifting tonal centres to the extent that his music drama (as they later became known) Tristan und Isolde is often hailed as the beginning on modern music. In addition to his contributions to harmony, he also advocated a concept called the Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning total work of art. This concept seeks to marry together the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with drama having priority over music. He fully exemplified these ideas in his operatic, epic, four-opera masterpiece, Der Ring des Nibelungen. His works, particularly in his later period, are also noteworthy for their rich and complex textures and orchestration and the exceptionally complex use of leitmotifs – small musical figures that are associated with a character, place, idea or plot element. Wagner’s controversial ideas were not just limited to the field of composition. He was also a prolific writer of essays and poetry and much of the former have seen extensive comment in recent years, especially those expressing anti-Semitic sentiments. One can, however, trace the roots of his ideas throughout both the twentieth century and different art forms. Many of his controversial ideas, along with his regularly fleeing from his creditors brought Wagner a life spent mostly in exile. He died of a heart attack in a hotel in Venice on February 13th 1883.