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Timeline: Richard Wagner

U.S. Public Domain
Richard Wagner is one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century.

Even mentioning the name Wagner spawns a dramatic response. He’s one of those figures that’s either loved or hated. It’s been said that more ink has been spilt on the works and life of Richard Wagner than almost another composer. His operas and his essays, his philosophy and his spirit, stand as pillars of German Romanticism.

There is so much drama surrounding Wagner’s early life that it’s difficult to tell what is truth and what is legend. We know that Wagner was the youngest of nine children. According to some accounts, his mother could have been the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Weimar or perhaps even his mistress. The identity of his father is a bit mysterious as well, but these questions, these mysteries never seemed to bother Wagner at all.

Upon his mother’s second marriage, the family moved from Leipzig to Dresden. Here Wagner met composer Carl Maria von Weber for the first time and became fascinated with music. In school, Wagner was obsessed with the works of Mozart and Beethoven and the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller. Nothing else mattered to him. It was Beethoven’s symphonies that drove Wagner to study composition and it was his love of theater that led him to opera.

To Wagner, opera was “deeds of music made visible”. His work introduced several reforms and new techniques. His concept of “unending melody” dismissed the operatic conventions of aria and chorus and instead opted for an ever unwinding string of music and melody in service of the drama. Wagner also introduced “leitmotifs”, themes that follow specific characters, objects or events throughout the story. But his greatest contribution is arguably the aesthetic ideal named “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total/universal art” – the synthesis of many different art-forms into one work.

Wagner’s vision was so focused that if the orchestra was too small to produce the music he envisioned then he would make it bigger. If a singer couldn’t handle the dramatic melody he composed then he would train one who could. If a theater couldn’t handle the size of his work or imagination then he would build his own. Indeed, that’s exactly what he did for his “Ring Cycle”. This 16 hour long epic opera took more than a quarter of a century to compose and demands a huge cast of characters, extravagant sets and an orchestra of tremendous size and skill.

Wagner was so driven that it drove wedges into many of his personal and professional relationships. He is considered to be one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century.

Credit US-PD
The signature of Richard Wagner.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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