Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany on May 22, 1813. The German operatic composer was the most important inspirational figure in 19th century music and cultural history for both his criticism and polemical writing.
Wagner's musical training was left to chance until he was 18, when he studied with Theodor Weinlig in Leipzig for a year. He began his career in 1833 as choral director in Wurzburg and composed his early works that imitated German romantic compositions.
In 1839 Wagner set off for Paris where he hoped to make his fortune. However, while there, he developed an intense hatred for French musical culture that lasted the remainder of his life. Disillusioned by his lack of success, in 1842 Wagner returned to Dresden, Germany where he was in charge of the music for the court chapel. In 1845 Tannhauser was premiered in Dresden and proved to be the first success of Wagner's career. In 1849, Wagner had to flee Dresden, the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution. He settled in Switzerland where he remained for the next 15 years without steady employment. During this time he worked on the Ring, which dominated his creative life over the next two decades.
In 1860 Wagner received permission to reenter Germany. He was granted full amnesty in 1862. That year he began the music for The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. In 1865 he resumed composition of Siegfried and began sketching Parsifal. Meistersinger was completed in 1867 and then he resumed to work on the Ring and Act III of Siegfried. The first entire Ring cycle (Rheingold, Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung) was presented at the Festspielhaus in 1876, 30 years after he first thought of the idea. He finished Parsifal, his final drama, in 1882.
The Ring is central to Wagner's career. He wanted to present new ideas of morality and human activity that would completely alter the course of history. He believed that the source of all human activity was fear, which must be purged so that man can live the perfect life. In the Ring he tries to set forth the standards for superior humans. In turn, lesser mortals would recognize their own inferior status and yield to the perfect hero. The implications of moral and racial purity are at the center of the Ring.
Wagner's creativity did not parallel the complications of his personal life. He was a charismatic figure who overcame all adversities. He relied on the charity of others through his manipulation of the people who helped him. However, Wagner's accomplishments outweigh both his personal behavior and his legacy for the 20th century. He created such an effective, unique musical language, especially in Tristan and Parsifal, that the beginnings of modern music are often dated from these scores.
Richard Wagner died on February 13, 1883 in Venice, Italy.