Richard Wagner’s Greatest Accomplishments and Most Famous Works

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner – Facts and accomplishments

In a career that stretched for more than forty years, German composer and theatre director Richard Wagner was able to accomplish a lot of outstanding things. Some of his major accomplishments and most famous operas are as follows:

Wagner’s first creative work – Leubald

With ambitions of being a playwright, Wagner was also influenced by the works of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616), German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), and German poet and theatre director Johann Wolfgang van Goethe (1749-1832).

Written around 1827, the Leubald, a tragic drama in the Shakespearean genre, is considered Wagner’s first creative work. The young Wagner took a lot of inspiration of Shakespeare’s works, including Richard III, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

To this day it remains unknown how Wagner planned to set the tragic drama to music. This determination was perhaps the reason why Wagner began taking music lessons. Another point worth mentioning is that no music score of Leubald has survived.

Fused drama with music in opera

Richard Wagner grew up reading works of writers such as Shakespeare, Schiller, and Goethe. | Image: Richard Wagner c. 1840, by Ernest Benedikt Kietz

After the German operatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, Wagner set about to work on blending drama and music in opera. Schröder-Devrient’s performance, which Wagner described as a “profoundly human and ecstatic performance”, ignited in the young mind of Wagner a kind of determination that he described as “almost demonic fire”.

The Symphony in C major (1832) and other early works by Richard Wagner

The Symphony in C major, which comes in four movements, is the only completed symphony of Richard Wagner. He used about a month and a half to compose the symphony, which was greatly influenced by symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. Wagner also took a bit of inspiration from Weber’s style. In November 1832, the symphony was performed at the Prague conservatory by a student orchestra. Dionys Weber was the conductor of the performance. A year later, it was performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Two years after composing the Symphony in C major, he began working on Symphony in E major. What survives of that symphony is the first movement and some parts of the second movement.

Following the Symphony in C major, Wagner started working on an opera titled Die Hochzeit (The Wedding) which he never completed. He did finish the libretto, leaving the music unfinished. It is said that he Wagner tore the libretto to shreds after his sister’s negative review of the story. What is left of Die Hochzeit today are just three pieces from the opera.

Richard Wagner

Clara Wieck (later Clara Josephine Schumann), a German pianist and composer, describing Richard Wagner’s performance of Symphony in C major to her future husband Robert Schumann. At the time that Wagner wrote Symphony in C major he was less than 20 years.

He composed his first complete opera at the age of 20

In 1833, with the aid of his brother Albert, he became a choirmaster at the theatre in Würzburg (presently in the north of the German state of Bavaria).

Wagner composed Die Feen(The Fairies) during his time as a choirmaster at the theatre in Würzburg (presently in the north of the German state of Bavaria). It is a German Romantic opera based on the musical style of Carl Maria von Weber.

When Richard Wagner completed the opera Die Feen (The Fairies), he was still at the young age of 20. The opera drew heavily on the style of Carl Maria von Weber, one of Wagner’s greatest influences. The opera comes in three acts. In typical fashion, Wagner wrote the libretto himself. In writing the libretto, he based it on the style of Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s La donna serpent.

Interestingly, the opera was not produced until about fifty years later. About a few months after the death of Wagner, Die Feen made its premiere on June 29, 1888 in Munich, Germany.

Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)

In 1834, he worked for a short time as the musical director at an opera house in Magedburg (presently in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt). During this time he wrote Das Liebesverbot, a comic opera in two acts based on William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It premiered on March 29, 1936 at the Stadttheater Magdeburg. Due to the financial struggles of the theatre company, Das Liebesverbot did not get a second performance.

Did you know: It is one of two opera comedies by Wagner, the other being Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (“The Master-Singers of Nuremberg”)?

Rienzi – Wagner’s third opera

Bedeviled by mounting debt, Wagner and his wife Minna settled in Paris, France, between 1839 and 1842. It was during this time that completed two operas of his – Reinzi and Der fliegende Holländer, his third and fourth operas respectively. Rienzi comes in five acts. The libretto of Rienzi was written by Wagner himself. It was based on the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel titled Rienzi. The full title of this opera is Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the last of the tribunes; WWV 49). The opera premiered at the Königliches Hoftheater (Royal Court Theatre) in Dresden, Saxony, on October 20, 1842.

Rienzi follows the story of a medieval Italian populist politician Cola di Rienzo who uses his political acumen to defeat the nobles and put the people of his region back in power. In the course of crushing the nobles’ rebellion, Rienzo incurs the wrath of his own people and gets killed by an angry mob.

Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman)

Similar to Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) premiered in Dresden at at the Königliches Hoftheater (Royal Court Theatre). It premiered on January 2, 1843. Inspiration to write the opera, whose central theme is love, came when he was fleeing Riga to Paris via London with his wife, who suffered a msicarriage.

He then based the story on German poet and writer Christian Johan Heinrich Heine’s 1833 satirical work The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski.

In 1842, he returned to Dresden, where he took up work as the conductor of the Royal Saxon Court. His operas Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannhäuser were staged in Dresden in 1943 and 1945 respectively.

Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser  – full title Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, “Tannhäuser and the Minnesängers’ Contest at Wartburg”) : an 1845 opera whose music and text were composed by Richard Wagner. The opera, which was influenced by German legend Tannhäuser, contains theme of sacred love and redemption.

Tannhäuser’s music and text were written by Wagner. The opera, which is composed of three acts, premiered on October 19, 1845 in the Königliches Hoftheater Dresden.

Did you know: Made of Bulwer-Lytton’s novels were made into operas. One of them, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (1842) by Richard Wagner, ultimately became more popular than the novel?

Wagner’s music has had tremendous influence on modern day classical music and film scoring

Wagner had tremendous influence on Austrian composer and organist Josef Anton Bruckner and Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. It’s also a known fact that he influenced French composers like Jules Massenet and Ernest Chausson.

Similarly German conductors and composers like Alexander von Zemlinsky and a known anti-modernist Hans Pfitzner drew considerable inspiration from Wagner.

Famous Austro-German Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an ardent follower of Richard Wagner. Mahler went on to become a renowned Wagner conductor. Mahler religiously studied the sound of the music Wagner used in his operas.

Wagner’s influence on other disciplines

Wagner’s works and essays have inspired many renowned people in literature, philosophy and the visual arts. | Image: Richard Wagner in Paris, 1861

Richard Wagner’s stage works and essays had influence beyond music; they influenced philosophy, literature, drama, visual arts, and even politics.

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s the Birth of Tragedy, the famous German philosopher described many of Wagner’s operas as a Dionysian “rebirth” of European culture. Nietzsche praised Wagner’s style for how it went against the Apollonian rationalist culture. However, Nietzsche became critical of Wagner after he felt out with the composer.

There have also been a number of poets all across Europe that drew some bit of inspiration from Wagner’s music dramas. For example, French poets like Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine had complete admiration of the works of composer. Similarly, French writer Edouard Dujardin was inspired to some extent Wagner’s works. The writer even established a journal called La Revue Wagnérienne in honor of Wagner.

Anglo-American poet Wystan Hugh Auden described Wagner as possibly the “greatest genius that ever lived”.

Advanced the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’)

The music dramas that Wagner wrote in his latter musical career are regarded by many as his greatest masterpieces, especially Der Ring des Nibelungen (also known as the Ring or Ring cycle). Wagner heavily applied his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, commonly referred to as “total work of art”.

By using a technique known as Gesamtkunstwerk –“total work of art” – Richard Wagner is most famous composing masterpieces like Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold) and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), both of which were part of the music drama series Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung). He was able to revolutionize the music drama environment by delicately synthesizing the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts to make a captivating music drama. He promoted these ideas in a number of essays during his exile in Zürich, Switzerland.

Wagner’s greatest achievement – Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung)

Der Ring des Nibelungen

The Ring cycle or The Ring comprises four well-crafted music dramas – Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). | Image; Scene 1 of Das Rheingold from the first Bayreuth Festival production of the Bühnenfestspiel in 1876

Determined to put his concept of “total work of art”, Wagner began writing a series of four music dramas called Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung). Also the Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung) is without a shred of doubt Richard Wagner’s greatest composition.

The series were inspired by characters from Germanic heroic legend and Norse legendary sagas and the Nibelungenlied (also known as The Song of the Nibelungs which was written around 1200).

The four German-language music dramas are Rhiengold. Walkure, Siengfried, and Götterdämmerung. The drama series follow the story of the a ring made from the Rhine Gold by Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who stole gold from Rhine maidens in the river Rhine to make the ring. In the ensuing drama, gods, heroes and other mythical creatures begin to quest for the magic ring, which professes on the bearer domination over the entire world.

Primarily inspired by stories from Old Norse Edda and Germanic legends, Wagner’s The Ring of Nibelung are a series of four German-language epic music dramas that follows the story of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich’s magical ring.

It’s been stated that Richard Wagner used almost thirty years (from 1848 to 1874) in writing the libretto and music for the Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung).

Richard Wagner had his own opera house built to support his “total work of art” concept

Richard Wagner

Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1882

Das Rheingold, the first performance in the Ring series, was staged at Bayreuth Festival in on August 13, 1876. Götterdämmerung, the last of the Ring opera series was staged on August 17.

Wagner personally supervised the design and the construction of the theatre, Bayreuth Festspielhaus. In the construction of the opera house, Wagner introduced a number of new design features that ultimately made the staging of the Ring Cycle even more epic and memorable in 1876. Wagner’s composition Parsifal was also staged at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Even to this day, supporters and admirers of Wagner and his stage works at continue to have annual festival at the Festspielhaus, where his most famous music dramas are performed in his honor.

Did you know?

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

  • When he began his musical career, he took a lot of inspiration from German romantic opera composers like Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer. The latter was a German composer of Jewish birth known for his grand opera style of composing.
  • Uncharacteristic of opera composers of his era,Wagner actually wrote the libretti and music for his music dramas.
  • Due to his involvement during the Dresden Uprisings in 1849, Wagner was in exile from Germany for about twelve years, from 1849 to 1858. While in exile, he wrote a number of essays, including “The Artwork of the Future” (1849), “Art and Revolution” (1849), “Opera and Drama” (1851), and “Judaism in Music” (1850). The first essay basically contained Wagner’s vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates as “total work of art” – the incorporation of the many art forms like music, song, dance, visual arts, stagecraft and poetry.
  • His essay “Judaism in Music” was perhaps the most controversial, as it contained anti-Semitic views, including abuses thrown at the Jewish community. In the essay, Wagner opined Jewish composers produced inferior and shallow music, describing them as commercial-centric and incapable of producing real works of art.
  • Wagner was an ever-evolving music composer who always wanted to advance drama to the levels that he reasoned the ancient Greeks had. In his latter stage works – for example Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), he took a slightly traditional style which was different for the style he used in Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung).
  • He married twice; first to an actress called Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer and then second to a Cosima. His second wife was the ex-wife of Hans Guido von Bülow (1830 – 1894), a German conductor and composer of the Romantic era. Together with Cosima, Wagner had three children – Eva, Isolde, and Siegfried.

Richard Wagner

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