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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Richard Wagner was born May 22, 1813 into the family of a municipal court clerk, he spent his childhood in Dresden. He regarded himself as “the most German of men”, “the German spirit” and is not only known because of his 13 operas and numerous other compositions but also because of his influence on our understanding of German culture and history. As a youth Wagner was fascinated by literature, particularly the plays of William Shakespeare. Through his teens he was more and more attracted to composing.

His first opera, based on the novel “Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes,” was produced in Dresden in 1842, and was a success. His next production, “The Flying Dutchman” (1843), was also a hit. From 1839 to 1842 he tried in vain to gain a place in the Parisian music community. After the performances of his operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman , he was appointed as the Royal Saxon music director of the court orchestra for life in 1843. After the completion of Lohengrin in May 1848, Wagner became very involved in the revolution.

He thought that the revolution would bring a through-going democratization and renewal of society, a unified nation-state, and basic reforms in the sphere of culture and the arts that should put in practice his theoretical ideas on art, especially his conception on the complete work of art. Near the end of the 1840s Wagner began work on his monumental cycle of four musical dramas collectively titled “Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs).

This cycle, made up of “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Die Gotterdammerung,” took 22 years to complete, and stands as one of the most remarkable and influential achievements in Western music. The foundation of Wagner’s philosophy of musical drama is the concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “universal artwork. ” He said that music in a dramatic setting was best used to reinforce dramatic content and expression.

His characters addressed the philosophical issues that Wagner considered vital to society: the tension between good and evil, between the physical and spiritual, and between selfishness and redemptive love. Wagner is known as the master of German opera, and one of the most progressive composers in history. He has been named an anarchist and socialist, and simultaneously, a fascist, nationalist, and anti-semite.

His name has been connected to almost all the major trends in German history of the 19th and 20th centuries. More books have been written about the German composer Richard Wagner and his works than any historical figure other than Christ. Wagner’s epic music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is thought by many to be the greatest single artistic achievement in the history of Western culture, some say it does more than holding its own against Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

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