German born composer Richard Wagner is best known for his operas. Before composing his own works, he was a theatrical and operatic producer. He was also a conductor and wrote articles and essays on drama and music, something he continued to do throughout his lifetime.
Wagner was largely self-trained as a musician, but had tremendous talent. In 1837 he composed Rienzi, his first successful operatic work. This was followed by The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and Lohengrin. His masterpiece, however, is the Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four operas that tells the story of mythological German gods and beings. Composition of this series took over twenty-five years. The use of leitmotifs helps to unite these four operas. A leitmotif is a musical phrase that is related to some aspect of the drama – perhaps a character, place, thought or thing. Another important aspect of his music is infinite melody; in his Ring operas, the music never stops until the final curtain has dropped. And, the orchestra is equally as important as the singers and drama. Wagner wanted a theatre that would meet the considerable needs of these operas and eventually built Bayreuth, a theater in which his works are still performed today.
As is the case with many geniuses, Wagner could be a difficult person. He ran up enormous debts, which he expected others to pay off. When he did have money, he spent it recklessly. He had a huge ego and once asked a man whom he barely knew for money. When this was denied, he was incensed and replied, “It probably will not happen again that a man like me will apply to you.”
Wagner’s music was loved by some and hated by others, but it had, and continues to have, a tremendous effect on all audiences and musicians.