Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) was without question the most popular and influential German opera composer in the second half of the 19th century, who introduced numerous innovations in operatic conventions while writing in a highly original musical style. Most of his operas are still in the repertoire of major opera houses, with Tristan und Isolde and the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen being some of his most characteristic.
Wagner was also a prolific writer and orator, and was keenly interested in philosophy and mythology. His preferred philosopher was Arthur Schopenhauer, and he shared a stormy acquaintanceship with Friedrich Nietzsche (30 years his junior) as well. Most of his mature operas take their stories and symbology from old German and Norse myths.
Wagner's posthumous legacy has long been complicated by his music's association with the Third Reich, and it is well-known Hitler was a fan. Wagner's rabidly anti-semitic views and writings have given this association verisimilitude, but the question of how great an influence his ideas were on the Nazis, and how much of this can be blamed on Wagner, has remained a controversial one in Wagner studies.
Having relatively little formal musical training, Wagner was very well-read and wrote the libretti for all of his mature operas. In his early career, Wagner moved to Paris, where he unsuccessfully tried to make his mark composing grand operas, a scene dominated by the now mostly forgotten composer Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner moved to Dresden, where he was involved in the failed 1849 revolution, having written political tracts in its support, and was forced to flee his native Germany for Switzerland for 10 years. After spending a short while in Vienna where his extravagant financial habits forced him to flee yet again, he luckily found an ardent patron in King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig, who was obsessed with Wagner's music and likely with Wagner himself, paid off the composer's debts and eventually built an opera house at Bayreuth specially designed for performances of Wagner's operas.
Unique among the world's opera houses, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus has several special acoustic features designed by Wagner himself, including a hooded orchestra pit (to allow the large orchestra required in his operas to be able to play at full volume without overwhelming the singers). Since its opening in 1876, the Festspielhaus has hosted an annual festival of Wagner's operas, especially the Ring cycle, a massive undertaking of four interconnected operas traditionally performed over four evenings.
Wagner married Cosima Liszt, Franz Liszt's daughter.
Artistic Philosophy and Innovative Musical Features
Wagner's main philosophical contribution to opera was the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." In articles he wrote while in exile, he explained that in opera, the orchestra, singers, text, and scenery were all crucial elements of the total artistic impression and should therefore be given equal weight. What this meant in practice was that the orchestra took on an even greater role than before, and the musical flow became completely uninterrupted from the beginning to the end of an act. This also meant that the aria, traditionally a showpiece for the singer, practically disappeared to be replaced by a more constant stream of musical ideas.
To give order to this new concept of opera, Wagner invented the leitmotiv, which is a relatively short melodic idea that represents a certain character, thing, or idea. A leitmotiv associated with a particular character often appears in the orchestra while being mentioned by another character, effectively acting as a stand-in. More complex leitmotivs include the "Tristan chord," a particularly memorable harmonic progression in Tristan und Isolde first heard in the prelude which comes to symbolize the love and death of the two title characters. While Wagner never used the word leitmotiv to describe his own operas, it is a clearly discernible technique in his music which has influenced many other composers. It has been recognizably used since then in film scores.
Wagner and Anti-Semitism
After fleeing to Zurich in 1849, Wagner wrote a series of essays, most of them about the "Artwork of the Future" (Die Kunst der Zukunft) and what form it would take. He also wrote an essay, published in 1850 under a pseudonym (see K. Freigedank), which quickly would become infamous. The essay in question was "Jewishness in Music" (Das Judenthum in der Musik), and in it he railed against Jews as representing a cancerous influence on German culture, incapable of creating any real art. About Jewish religious music, he wrote "Who has not had feeings of repulsion, horror, and amusement on hearing that nonsensical gurgling, yodelling and cackling which no attempt at caricature can render more absurd than it is?" Specifically, his harshest condemnations were for the most prominent living Jewish composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer.
The article's vitriol shocked many, at a time when anti-semitism was prevalent. His friends were dismayed, including the composer Franz Liszt, who apparently quipped, "If only Richard had written a novel instead!" While this is the strongest statement of Wagner's anti-semitic rage, it is also clear that much of the hatred expressed was personal in origin. Wagner still bore a grudge against Meyerbeer from his days of poverty in Paris. When the young unknown composer wanted to break into the Paris opera scene, he took every opportunity to flatter the older composer, often in the most humiliatingly obsequious terms, and received little help in return. His other anti-semitic rants specifically complained about Meyerbeer and what he believed to be a cabal of other Jews who controlled the opera world internationally, and worked to keep non-Jews out. In short, all evidence paints Wagner as a German nationalist and a conspiracy theorist, and as with many conspiracy theorists he still counted members of his hated group among his best friends. 
After World War II, the backlash in Germany against anything Nazi created an atmosphere where Wagner's anti-semitism was re-evaluated in the context of the Holocaust. Since Hitler was a lover of Wagner's operas, anything associated with the composer became harder to stomach. There is however no historical evidence to support the often-heard notion that Wagner's writings influenced Hitler or the Nazis. In fact, in the early 20th-century Wagner's writings were rarely reprinted or discussed outside of academic literature, making it doubtful that Hitler would have been aware of the article. While many modern attempts have been made to locate anti-semitic caricatures or proto-Nazi symbolism in the operas themselves, this also cannot be corroborated, either in other Wagner writings (which run into the thousands of pages), or in the propaganda of the Third Reich. Moreover, Hitler's love of Wagner was not exactly shared by the Nazi officials and soldiers whom he dragged to performances at Bayreuth, and the performance of Parsifal (often dismissed as a "racist opera") was banned by the Nazis, and its content denounced as "ideologically inacceptable," in 1933.
Performance of Wagner's music is still a sore point in Israel, where it had been taboo since Kristallnacht. However, Daniel Barenboim, one of the world's leading conductors who had grown up in Israel, broke the taboo at a July 2001 concert. He has since been one of the leading Wagnerian advocates, who however doesn't soft-pedal this ugly side of the composer's life: "Wagner, the person, is absolutely appalling, despicable, and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings ... noble, generous, etc.”.
(All years indicate the dates of completion)
- Rienzi (1840)
- Der fliegende Holländer (1841)
- Tannhäuser (1844)
- Lohengrin (1848)
- Der Ring des Nibelungen, cycle of four operas:
- Das Rheingold (1854)
- Die Walküre (1856)
- Siegfried (1871)
- Götterdämmerung (1874)
- Tristan und Isolde (1859)
- Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867)
- Parsifal (1882) (Last Opera)
- Newman, Ernest. The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1933, 1976. (Still the most authoritative English work)
- Westernhagen, Curt von, translated by Mary Whittall. Wagner: a Biography, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978. (Though its credibility on issues relating to Wagner's anti-semitism is rightly in question because of Westernhagen's Nazi associations, this biography nonetheless is invaluable for understanding Wagner's relationship to the German musical tradition.)
- Wagner, Richard, translated by Andrew Gray. My Life (Mein Leben). New York: Da Capo, 1992.(Wagner's autbiography written in 1865, naturally biased but very interesting.)
Wagner and Philosophy
- Goehr, Lydia. The quest for voice: On music, politics and the limits of philosophy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. (Discusses the relationship between philosophy and Wagner's music, and the tangled relationship his music has had with German history.)
- Magee, Bryan. The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001. (The most in-depth English resource about Wagner's knowledge of philosophy, and the philosophy inspired by Wagner, written in a straightforward style accessible to non-musicians. The appendix, entitled "Wagner's Anti-Semitism," is also an excellent and even-handed discussion of this issue.)
- Steiger, Karsten. "Liebe, Tod, Erlösung: Richard Wagners Tristan und der Einfluß Schopenhauers" in Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch 76 (1995), pp. 103-132. (Discusses how Wagner's philosophy diverges from Schopenhauer's.)
- Weismüller, Christoph. Musik, Traum und Medien: Philosophie des musikdramatischen Gesamtkunstwerks--Ein medienphilosophischer Beitrag zu Richard Wagners öffentlicher Traumarbeit (Music, dream, and the media: The philosophy of the musical and dramatic Gesamtkunstwerk--An essay from a philosopher of the media on Richard Wagner’s public processing of his dreams). Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 2001. (Places Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" in the context of the long history of "multimedia," stretching from the Ancient Greeks to present day multimedia conceptions.)
- Winterbourne, Anthony. Speaking to our condition: Moral frameworks in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University, 2000. (Discusses Wagner's Ring Cycle in the context of 19th-century post-Kantian German intellectualism.)
- "Wagner's heir vows to lay bare her family's Nazi history"
- Paraphrased from (Magee 2001), pp. 343-380.
- See Fischer, Jens Malte. Richard Wagners Das Judentum in der Musik. Frankfurt 2000.
- (Magee 2001), 365-66.