Wagner was reared in a theatrical family, had a classical education, and began composing at 17. He studied harmony and the works of Beethoven and in 1833 became chorus master of the theater at Würzburg, the first of a series of theatrical positions. Die Feen (composed 1833), his first opera, was in the German romantic tradition begun by Weber; Das Liebesverbot (1835–36) demonstrated his assimilation of the Italian style. In Paris he completed Rienzi (1838–40) but was unable to have it performed there. Its production in Dresden in 1842 was highly successful, and in 1843 Wagner was made musical director of the Dresden theater.
Der Fliegende Holländer (1841) was less successful. It was based on Heine's version of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a legendary phantom ship, and it foreshadows the idea, developed in Tannhäuser (1843–44) and prevalent in later works, of redemption by love. Tannhäuser, based in part on the actual life of Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin (1846–48) brought the German romantic opera to culmination. In Lohengrin, Wagner for the first time is more interested in his characters as symbols than as actual personages in a drama.
Wagner participated in the Revolution of 1848, fled Dresden, and with the help of Liszt escaped to Switzerland, where he stayed eight years. There he wrote essays, including Oper und Drama (1851), in which he began to articulate aesthetic principles that would guide his subsequent work.
Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74), his tetralogy based on the Nibelungenlied (see under Nibelungen), embodies the most complete adherence to his stated principles. In 1857, having completed the composition of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold (1853–54) and Die Walküre (1854–56), and two acts of Siegfried (1856–69), Wagner laid the Ring aside without hope of ever seeing it performed and composed Tristan und Isolde (1857–59) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862–67), his only comic opera. Tristan, based on the legend of Tristram and Isolde, was so utterly in opposition to the operatic conventions of the day that it required the intercession and support of Louis II of Bavaria to have it produced (1865) in Munich.
In 1872 Wagner moved to Bayreuth, where in 1874 he completed the third act of Siegfried and all of Götterdämmerung, the last work of the Ring cycle. There he was able to build a theater, Das Festspielhaus, adequate for the proper performance of his works, in which the complete Ring was presented in 1876. At Bayreuth, Wagner entertained the great musicians of his day. Parsifal (1877–82) was his last work.
Wagner indulged in much financial foolishness and in the end enjoyed considerable critical success. Although during his lifetime opposition to him and to his ideas went to fantastic lengths, Wagner's operas held a position of complete dominance in the next generation, retaining their enormous popularity in the 20th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.