A Richard Wagner biography is that of a true radical. His work sent shock waves across nineteenth century Europe. Each of his mature operas expresses deep insights into the nature of the human condition, influencing fields as diverse as philosophy, politics and psychiatry. They have also spurred emulation and reaction among musicians, writers and many other artists. A charismatic and often capricious figure, Wagner was - and remains - one of the most controversial and influential composers in musical history.
He was born into a family that was devoted to theatre. Wagner himself was a lively child with boundless enthusiasm for the music of Beethoven. Hearing the great diva Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient sparked his ambition to become a composer of opera. He gained experience as a conductor in provincial theatres, and married an actress. His first operas, Die Feen ('The Faries') and Das Liebesverbot ('The Ban on Love'), date from these early years.
Wagner went to Paris with the hope of composing for the Paris Opéra. The plan failed and he was soon living in poverty, making ends meet by writing arrangements and music journalism. His lifelong antipathy to France and all things Gallic stemmed from this experience. He returned to Germany in 1842, producing two operas at Dresden within a few months of each other. The first was Rienzi, a grand opera in the French tradition. Then came Der fliegende Holländer ('The Flying Dutchman'), a more characteristically German Romantic opera with a legendary rather than historical theme, which he set in the fjords of Norway. It was to be the first of Wagner's operas to explore a subject that would become a lifelong obsession: redemption through love.
Wagner was soon appointed to the position of Kapellmeister at Dresden. He worked diligently to improve the city's musical stature. He instituted Palm Sunday performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the work that most perfectly encapsulated his artistic ethos. He was also able to stage a production of Tannhäuser, his most ambitious opera to date, in 1845.
In 1849 revolutionary fervour swept across Saxony. Wagner took an active part in the uprising, manning the barricades in Dresden. This resulted in his exile to Switzerland. In his absence, Lohengrin was premiered in Weimar. It was conducted by Franz Liszt, though Wagner supervised the production by correspondence. In the early years of his exile he wrote a series of lengthy polemical works, most notably Opera and Drama (1850-51). These proposed a new kind of opera with drama as its focus. Music, costumes, lighting and other associated arts would exist solely to enhance the drama.
In the wake of this theorising, he set out on the most ambitious project of his career, the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen ('The Ring of the Niebelung'). The libretto was finished in 1852 but the music for the cycle was not completed until 1874, after its first two operas had already been performed. The Ring broke with the 'number opera' system that until then had dominated the genre. Instead of dividing an opera into alternating sections of plot-driven recitatives and reactive arias, Wagner's vocal writing became more consistently declamatory.
Musical and dramatic continuity was provided by the orchestra, which was 'symphonic' in its size, and in the complexity and subtlety of its music. One of Wagner's innovations was to employ leitmotifs, brief musical themes associated with specific characters, objects or ideas. These are subtly woven into the greater musical fabric. This allows the orchestra not only to illustrate the stage action, but also to 'speak' of motivations and consequences of which the characters remain unaware.
The subconscious, an idea that would gain wider currency a few decades later with Freud, was clearly anticipated in Wagner's use of the leitmotif system. The psychology went deeper still, as Wagner discarded the trappings of plot and outward incident to focus instead on the inner thoughts of his characters. Through mythological settings he was able to create powerful allegories exploring issues with universal resonance, such as love, power, heroism and duty.
Wagner invariably lived beyond his means. In 1864, when his financial situation was at its darkest, he was rescued by the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The king summoned him to Munich in order to produce his works there, among them Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Tristan is a work of startling musical originality. Its sumptuous textures continually evade resolution, and evoke a love so deep it can be fulfilled only in death. Its 'Tristan chord' was also the most advanced and unusual to be heard in opera. Die Meistersinger, by contrast, is the lone comedy among Wagner's mature works. It explores artistic tensions between tradition, creativity and pedantry. But its nationalistic overtones and cruel characterisation of the pedantic Beckmesser can be read as an expression of Wagner's well-known anti-Semitism. As early as 1850, Wagner had published a polemic on 'Judaism in Music' and would continue to expound anti-Semitic rhetoric in his essays.
Towards the end of his life, Wagner built a Festival Theatre in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth for the production of his works. This theatre's sunken and covered orchestra pit makes the stage the sole visual focus. It also allows the singers to be heard over the massive orchestra more successfully than in other theatres. The Ring received its first complete production there in 1876. Six years later, Wagner produced his final opera, Parsifal. In portraying the opera's extremes of penitential chastity and wanton eroticism, Wagner achieved one of the most bewitching scores ever written. Together with Tristan, its rich sonorities were to have a profound influence on later composers, including Debussy and Elgar.
There have always been those who prefer the musical dimension of Wagner's works to their dramatic and philosophical content. Each of his operas contains orchestral passages - whether overtures, preludes, or other excerpts - that have found a place in the concert hall repertoire. Hearing them outside their operatic context reveals just how powerful Wagner's musical gift was. His music has the ability to sweep the listener along in an endless stream of expressively orchestrated sound. But his works are also filled with imaginatively crafted moments of delectable beauty.