Richard Wagner: 11 Interesting Facts You Might Not Know

Written by Dan Farrant
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If you are a fan of classical music, you have probably heard of Richard Wagner. He was one of the greatest German composers who wrote some of the most famous operas in history, including “Ride of the Valkyries,” “Bridal Chorus,” and “Tristan and Isolde.”

Wagner is considered one of the greatest composers of all time, and his work has had a profound impact on the development of classical music. Richard Wagner’s operas and music dramas revolutionized opera, while his anti-Semitic writings caused a scandal that has overshadowed his legacy. 

If you want to know more about him, here are 11 interesting facts about Richard Wagner and his music that you may not know. Let’s get started!

1. He wrote both the music and the libretto for his works

Richard Wagner was a pioneer in the way he wrote his music.

Unlike many composers of his time, who would write a melody and then find someone to write the words to fit it, Wagner wrote both the music and libretti for his operas.

This gave him more control over his works and created a more unified artistic vision.

While this approach was unusual at the time, it has since become more common, and Wagner’s influence can be seen in many modern composers.

2. He was a German nationalist

Wagner was not only a revolutionary composer, but he also had radical political views.

He was an advocate for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. These views led to him being exiled from Germany for many years.

One of his most famous works, the opera “The Ring of the Nibelung,” is steeped in German mythology and espouses many of Wagner’s nationalist ideals.

This opera, along with Wagner’s other works, would have a significant influence on the development of Nazi ideology.

He also wrote an essay called “Jewishness in Music,” which was highly critical of Jewish composers. This essay caused a great deal of controversy and made Wagner even more unpopular with the mainstream music establishment.

However, his music was so popular that he could eventually return to his homeland and continue composing.

3. His operas are very long

Richard Wagner’s operas are famous for their length. Many of his works are over four hours long, and some, like the “Ring Cycle,” can last up to 15 hours when performed in its entirety.

Wagner believed that music should be an immersive experience that takes the listener on a journey. He also believed that opera should be a “total work of art” that included all aspects of the arts, from music to drama to set design.

His operas are often complex and multi-layered and require a lot of time and attention to appreciate fully.

Wagner’s lengthy works were often met with criticism, but they were also praised for their grandeur and scope.

4. He had a unique composing style

One of the things that makes Wagner’s music so unique is his use of leitmotifs.

He is credited with popularizing the leitmotif technique. This is a musical device where a short melody is associated with a particular character, object, or idea.

Wagner used them to great effect, creating elaborate musical motifs that helped develop his operas’ plots and characters.

This allowed him to have more control over the sound of his orchestra and helped to create a more unified sound.

The leitmotif technique would go on to be used by many other composers, and it is one of Wagner’s most lasting contributions to the world of music.

Today, leitmotifs are used in many different types of music, from film scores to video games.

5. He wrote his first drama at the age of 15

Wagner began writing dramas at a very young age and wrote his first play when he was just 15 years old.

This early work already demonstrated Wagner’s talent for storytelling and creating complex characters. The work also showed the influence of his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Wagner would go on to write many more operas and dramas throughout his career.

6. His first opera was not performed during his lifetime

Wagner’s first opera, “Die Feen,” was not performed while he was still alive. It wasn’t until 20 years after it was composed that the work finally received its premiere.

“Die Feen” is a complex and ambitious work, and it is clear that Wagner was still finding his voice as a composer.

7. He was married twice

Minna Planer

Wagner was married twice in his life.

His first wife, Minna Planer, was a singer and actress who worked with Wagner early in his career. However, the two had a tumultuous relationship and eventually divorced.

Wagner’s second wife was Cosima Liszt, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt. The two were very close and remained married until Wagner’s death.

8. His second wife was also a composer

Cosima Wagner (Né Liszt)

Cosmina was also a successful female composer in her own right. She wrote many works for piano and orchestra, including an opera based on the life of Joan of Arc.

She also helped Wagner realize his vision for his operas and acted as his musical collaborator. The two worked closely on many of Wagner’s most famous works, including the “Ring Cycle.”

She also took over as conductor of the Bayreuth Festival after Wagner’s death and helped to keep his legacy alive.

The Bayreuth Festival is still held annually and is considered one of the most critical opera festivals in the world.

9. He was a great pianist and conductor

Wagner was not only a great composer, but he was also an accomplished pianist. He performed many solo concerts and even wrote a few pieces for piano.

His skills as a performer helped him better understand the music he was writing and gave him insights into how his works should be interpreted.

His skills as a pianist were highly praised by critics and helped to establish him as a major figure in the world of music.

As well as his piano playing he was also an accomplished conductor and even founded his own opera company.

He was quite known for his innovative approaches to conducting and his ability to evoke strong emotions from his audiences.

10. His operas are still performed today

Despite being written over a century ago, Wagner’s operas are still performed regularly worldwide.

His operas are some of the most ambitious ever written and have been adapted to new styles and settings.

They continue to be some of the most popular operas in existence, inspiring new generations of composers and performers.

11. He died of a heart attack

Wagner died of a heart attack in 1883 at the age of 69. He was survived by his wife, Cosima, and their children.

Wagner’s legacy is firmly entrenched in classical music history, and he remains one of the most important figures ever written about in a musical context.

Wrapping Up Our List Of Facts About Richard Wagner

These are just a few of the fascinating facts about Richard Wagner that you might not know.

Wagner was a complex and fascinating figure whose music inspires new generations of listeners and composers. His operas are some of the most ambitious ever written and continue to be performed regularly worldwide.

His music would have a lasting impact on the development of classical music and opera.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.