Wilhelm Richard Wagner

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Wagner, Wilhelm Richard


Born May 22, 1813, in Leipzig; died Feb. 13, 1883, in Venice. German composer, conductor, writer on music, and active figure in the theater.

Wagner was born into an official’s family. His early interest in art was encouraged by his stepfather, the actor L. Geyer, and he was exposed to music from the age of one. During the early period of his musical creativity (1828-32), Wagner composed a number of instrumental works, including a symphony (1832) and the overture Polonia (1832; final version, 1836). In 1831, Wagner became a student at the University of Leipzig, and at the same time he took private lessons in composition from T. Weinlig. From 1833 he worked as a theater chorus master in Würzburg, then as a conductor in music theaters in Magdeburg (1834-36), Königsberg (1837), and Riga (1837-39). During the 1830’s, Wagner wrote the operas Die Feen (based on a work by C. Gozzi, 1833-34; staged in 1888), Das Liebesverbot (based on a play by Shakespeare; staged in 1836), and Rienzi (based on a work by E. Bulwer-Lytton, 1838-40; staged in 1842).

From 1839 to 1842, Wagner lived in Paris, where he composed his first mature works—the overture Faust (based on Goethe’s work, 1840; final version, 1855) and the opera Der fliegende Holländer (based on folk legends and H. Heine’s novella, 1841; staged in 1843). Between 1843 and 1849 he worked as a conductor at the court theater in Dresden, and it was there that he wrote two operas on medieval legends: Tannhäuser (1843-45; staged in 1845) and Lohengrin (1845-48; staged in 1850 at Weimar). Wagner participated in the Dresden uprising in 1849, and after its suppression he immigrated to Switzerland. From 1849 to 1858 he lived mainly in Zürich. In 1852 he completed the literary text of his operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (initially conceived in 1848), which was based on the Edda, a Scandinavian epic of the eighth-ninth centuries, and The Song of the Nibelungs, a medieval German epic of the 13th century. From 1852 to 1856, Wagner wrote the music for the first two parts of the tetralogy: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Between 1857 and 1859 he composed the opera Tristan und Isolde (based on an epic tale by Gottfried von Strassburg; staged in 1865 in Munich). After several years of wandering (1859-64), Wagner moved to Munich at the invitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It was here that the opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (based on the late 17th-century Nürnberg Chronicle) was staged in 1868. Between 1871 and 1874 he completed the last two parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen—Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. A production of the entire tetralogy was presented in 1876 at the Bayreuth Theater, which had been built according to Wagner’s plans. The last years of Wagner’s life were spent at Bayreuth, where his mystic opera Parsifal (based on a medieval Christian legend) was staged in 1882.

Works by Wagner that are not connected with the theater are rare in the period of his mature creative art. Among them are Fünf Gedichte for female voice and piano (with words by M. Wesendonck, 1857-58) and the Siegfried Idyll, written for a small symphony orchestra (1870).

Wagner’s creative development was complex and contradictory. In his youth the composer was influenced by various trends in German romanticism, and his first opera, Die Feen, belongs to a type of German romantic opera. His closeness to the leaders of the bourgeois liberal Young Germany movement in the mid-1830’s led Wagner to a reconsideration of his views on opera. The influence of Italian and French art was manifested in the opera Das Liebesverbot, with its theme drawn from real, everyday life and its ridicule of hypocritical morality. The opera Rienzi, written under the influence of the historical heroic works of G. Spontini and G. Meyerbeer, reflected Wagner’s liberating revolutionary moods and revealed his brilliant talent as a playwright as well as a composer of symphonic music. Der fliegende Holländer marked Wagner’s return to the problems of German romantic opera; in it he interwove the fantastic and the realistic. The composer made important innovations in the traditional musical means of romantic art, indicated the path toward the creation of continuously developing stage action, and paid great attention to revealing the psychology of his heroes. In Wagner’s musical dramaturgy the role of leitmotivs was heightened.

To a great degree, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were related to German romantic operas with chivalrous plots. (There is a continuity here with Weber’s Euryanthe.) In developing the romantic theme of the “dual world” (in this case, the clash between sensuality and asceticism), Tannhäuser expresses a protest against hypocritical bourgeois morality and asserts the right of free human emotion. The theme of protest in this work is linked with the idea of redemption—a sacrificial deed. In Lohengrin the forces of light are opposed to the forces of evil. The composer affirms the higher mission of the artist and demonstrates in allegorical form his solitude in the contemporary society. However, this protest has a passive character. In Lohengrin Wagner deepened the symphonic qualities of opera and strengthened the dramatic role of the leitmotivs. Thus, the elements of the future Wagnerian music drama gradually matured.

During the Revolution of 1848-49 in Germany, Wagner was influenced by Feuerbach’s materialistic philosophy as well as Bakunin’s anarchistic rebelliousness. In his theoretical works Wagner put forth the thesis that art is a “product of social life”; he was sharply critical of capitalism, the Christian church, and the bourgeois theater. He called for a democratization of art and believed that true art would be possible only after a revolution. However, Wagner’s political ideals were vaguely and abstractly expressed in these works.

An anticapitalist trend marks the concept of the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, in which the personification of worldly evil is the power of gold, opposed by the power of love and heroic deeds. Summoned to do battle with evil, the ideal folk hero Siegfried symbolized, in Wagner’s scheme, the “socialist redeemer.” Like Wagner’s other operas, the tetralogy contains vivid embodiments of the nation’s mythological and legendary figures, as well as scenes from German history and nature. During his prolonged work on the tetralogy, reactionary tendencies in Wagner’s world view became stronger. (This was indicated by his attraction to the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.) The tetralogy also mirrored a weakness and reaction that were typical of German intellectuals during the postrevolutionary period, as well as their lack of faith in revolution. Der Ring des Nibelungen contained the final expression of Wagner’s reformist principles, which had already been partly manifested in his operas of the 1840’s.

In his theoretical works of 1849-51, especially Opera and Drama, Wagner sharply criticized the old opera, its conventions, and the rift between its dramatic content and music; he put forth the idea of creating a musical drama in which music would become one of the most important means of embodying the content. In order to achieve successfully a synthesis of music and dramatic action, Wagner considered it necessary that the composer and librettist be one person. (Wagner was the author of the librettos for his own operas.) In transforming opera into musical drama, the composer strove for an ideological fullness of the presentation and a harmonious interrelationship of all its elements. Wagner achieved a continuous type of musical dramatic development by overcoming the dismemberment of operas into separate numbers (arias and ensembles), which he replaced with freely constructed monologues and dialogues. He paid a great deal of attention to the expressiveness of vocal declamation, demanding from the performers a deeper penetration into the content of the character by vocal means and acting.

Wagner’s work was very important for the symphonic transformation of opera. He not only expanded the orchestra but also treated its possibilities and the role of separate groups (especially the brass wind instruments) innovatively. He was a great master of orchestral color. In Wagner’s operas the orchestra became an active component, revealing the inner meaning of what was happening on the stage. Character leitmotivs appearing throughout the opera and sometimes even in the vocal parts are an important element in the orchestral parts of his operas. They characterize the heroes, themes, and phenomena and reflect the cause and effect relationship among them; thus they ensure the work’s musical unity.

In the music of the Ring a psychologically saturated lyricism and profound dramatic quality are combined with a vivid pictorial quality. The orchestra is striking in its richness of timbres, force of expression, brilliance, and abundance of shadings. At the same time there are reflections of contradiction and one-sidedness in Wagner’s creative method. At times the balance between the vocal and orchestral parts is destroyed; the composer’s attention is concentrated primarily on the orchestra, and the expressive possibilities of the human voice are not used in a sufficiently varied manner. The complicated system of leitmotivs, the extreme abundance of harmonic and orchestral colors, the verbosity of the text, the surfeit of distracting digressions, and the replacement of action by narration reduce the dynamism and tension of the musical dramaturgy.

The symphonic treatment of opera is manifested to the highest degree in Tristan und Isolde, where the external action is reduced to a minimum, and the composer’s entire attention is directed to the experiences of the heroes. Extreme tension is reached in the harmonic idiom of the orchestral part. The tragedy of love and death is uniquely revealed in the music, with great force and psychological depth.

Wagner departed from the extremes of his late style in the opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, based on a historical subject of everyday life (the manners and customs of Nürnberg artisans). The music is marked by realism in its depiction of folk types and the vividness of its comic and dramatic situations. The opera contains songs, ensembles, and choruses written in the spirit of the folk song. The work’s main idea is the struggle for a progressive national art, as opposed to dull pedantry and routine. The opera is imbued with a joyful acceptance of life and faith in the creative powers of the people.

Wagner’s conversion to religion at the end of his life found expression in the “ceremonial stage mystery” Parsifal. The music of this opera, which is distinguished on the whole by a luminous lucidity, tranquillity, and steadiness, contains brilliant dramatic moments. In addition to these elements, there is an abstract symbolism and a static quality.

Wagner played an outstanding role in reforming operatic art; this led to the solution of new, complex artistic problems. The most important representatives of national operatic schools—including Bizet, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—creatively assimilated Wagner’s achievements and at the same time opposed the extremes of Wagnerian reform. Wagner’s reforms had a considerable influence on the style of operatic performance. The special declamatory expressiveness of his operas’ vocal parts and the complexity of their orchestral accompaniments posed new problems for the singers.

Wagner was one of the prominent representatives of the art of conducting. During the 1850’s and 186C’s he appeared several times in various European cities, including St. Petersburg and Moscow (1863), with performances of excerpts from his own operas, Beethoven’s symphonies, and other works.

Wagner’s literary activity was extensive and diverse. He was the author of operatic libretti, plays, poems, works on music theory, reviews, essays on composers, research studies on the history of art, articles on problems of politics and philosophy, and so forth. In his works on music theory, especially Art and Revolution (1849), The Art of the Future (1850), Opera and Drama (1851), and A Communication to My Friends (1851), Wagner strove to link artistic phenomena to the life of society, regarding bourgeois culture as a decline of civilization. Summarized in these works were the depth and seriousness of the ideological and aesthetic demands that composers should make on their art, which was defined by Wagner as an important means of educating the people.

The first productions of Wagner’s operas in Russia date to the 1860’s (Lohengrin, at the St. Petersburg Mariinskii Theater, 1868, and others.) In 1889 a German company presented the Ring tetralogy in St. Petersburg and Moscow. (The entire cycle was staged in Russian at the Mariinskii Theater during 1907-10.) Wagner’s other operas were also performed, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Parsifal (at the St. Petersburg Theater of Music Drama, 1913). Among Russian musicians A. N. Serov was a connoisseur and propagandist of Wagner’s music; penetrating analyses of Wagner’s creative art were provided by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and others. In the USSR Wagner’s operas have been staged at the most important opera theaters in Moscow, Leningrad, Riga, and other cities.

I. V. Ershov and F. V. Litvin were especially outstanding among Russian performers of the heroic roles in Wagner’s operas. The performance of the principal roles in the opera Lohengrin by A. V. Nezhdanova and L. V. Sobinov was a great event. Outstanding among Soviet performing singers in Wagner’s operas have been I. S. Kozlovskii, K. G. Derzhinskaia, M. O. Reizen, Zh. Heine-Wagner, and A. Frin-berg. Among the most distinguished Russian and Soviet conductors of Wagner’s works are V. I. Suk, E. F. Napravnik, N. S. Golovanov, E. A. Mravinskii, S. A. Samosud, and E. Tons.


Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, vols. 1-10. Leipzig, 1871-83.
Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 6th ed., vols. 1-16. Leipzig, 1912-14.
In Russian translation:
Rikhard Vagner: Izbrannye stat’i. Edited with notes and an introduction by R. I. Gruber. Moscow, 1935.
Opera i drama. Moscow, 1906.
“Khudozhestvennoe proizvedenie budushchego.” Russkaia muzykal’naia gazeta, 1897, nos. 1-3, 5-12; 1898, nos. 1, 3-10.
Moia zhizn’: Memuary, Pis’ma, Dnevniki, vols. 1-4. Moscow, 1911-12. (Vol. 4— Pis’ma: Dnevniki: Obrashchenie k druz’iam.)
Betkhoven [1870]. Moscow-St. Petersburg, 1911.
Nibelungi: Vsemirnaia istoriia na osnovanii skazaniia. Moscow, 1913.


Druskin, M. Rikhard Vagner. Moscow, 1958; 2nd ed., 1963.
Gruber, R. Rikhard Vagner (1883-1933). Moscow, 1934.
Kapp, J. Rikhard Vagner. Moscow, 1913. (Translated from German.)
Glasenapp, K. C. F. Das Leben Richard Wagners, vols. 1-6, 6th ed. Leipzig, 1908-23.
Istel, E. Das Kunstwerk R. Wagners. Leipzig-Berlin, 1918.
Westernhagen, C. von. Richard Wagner: Sein Werk, sein Wesen, seine Welt. Zürich, 1956.
Lunacharskii, A. V. “Rikhard Vagner.” In lubilei: Sb. iubileinykh rechei i statei (1931-1933). Moscow, 1934.
Stasov, V. V. “Iskusstvo XIX veka.” Izbr. soch., vol. 3. Moscow, 1952. Pages 677-706.
Serov, A. N. “Rikhard Vagner i ego reforma v oblasti opery.” Izbr. stat’i, vol. 2. Moscow, 1957.
Serov, A. N. “Nibelungov persten’: Muzykal’no-dramaticheskaia poema Rikharda Vagnera.” In Kriticheskie stat’i, vol. 3. St. Petersburg, 1895.
Rimsky-Korsakov, N. A. “Vagner: Sovokupnoe proizvedenie dvukh iskusstv ili muzykal’naia drama.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2. Moscow, 1963. Pages 47-60.
Tchaikovsky, P. I. “Baireitskoe muzykal’noe torzhestvo.” In Muzy kal’ no-kriticheskie stat’i. Moscow, 1953. Pages 302-30.
Sollertinskii, I. I. “Moriak-Skitalets Vagnera, O Kol’tse nibelunga Vagnera.” In M uzy kal’no-istoricheskie etiudy, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1963. Pages 205-23.
Pfordten, H. von der. Handlung und Dichtung der Bühnenwerke R. Wagners … , 4th ed. Berlin, 1908.
Kurth, E. Romantische Harmonik und ihre Kriese in Wagners Tristan, 3rd ed. Berlin, 1953.
Lorenz, A. Das Geheimnis in der Form bei Richard Wagner, vols. 1-4. Berlin, 1924-33.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.