Born to a German family in the city of Leipzig, Richard Wagner was the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the local police service, and his wife, Johanna Paetz, who was the daughter of a baker. But six months after the young Richard’s birth, Carl would die of typhus. His mother Johanna would then live with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer, who was a friend of her late husband.
Johanna and Geyer probably got married In August of 1814, though there’s no proof of this in the Leipzig church records. But it is widely known that she and her children moved to Geyer’s home in Dresden, where Wagner almost certainly thought that Geyer was his biological father. In fact, until he turned 14, he went by the name Wilhelm Richard Geyer.
As a young boy, Wagner actually didn’t show an affinity for music. In fact, his piano teacher thought he was so bad at the instrument. But he was nothing if not ambitious, even at a young age. When he was nine years old, he became enamored with the Gothic elements of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. At this time, Wagner had dreams of becoming a playwright. His first work was titled Leubald, which he started writing while at school in 1826. Eventually, the young man was determined to set it to music, convincing his family to allow him to take music lessons.
In 1831, Wagner attended Leipzig University. Two years later, his first symphony was performed for the first time. The work was largely inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven (specifically Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) that the audience thought his skills were almost Beethoven-esque. The following year, Wagner joined the Würzburg Theater as its chorus master. It was also during this time when he wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), though it was never staged by Würzburg.
Despite this, Wagner would still find success a few years later. In 1842, he composed Rienzi, a political opera set in Ancient Rome. It premiered to critical and commercial acclaim, catapulting him to widespread recognition. The following year, he would produce another massively successful opera, titled The Flying Dutchman. Due to this, he would be considered a musical genius, with him being given the Prussian Order of the Red Eagle. He would also be named director of the Dresden Opera.
Wagner won’t really produce new works until 1858. By this time, he was living in Zürich, focusing mostly on writing treatises, and conducting. His first new work in years would be the operatic poem Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), which is obviously based on the Siegfried legend and several Norse myths.
Did You Know?
Wagner wrote an opera that is 18 hours long. You read that right. It was titled The Ring Cycle, which wouldn’t be performed in its entirety until 1876.
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