Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 – 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or “music dramas”, as they were later called). Wagner’s compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works.
Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”). This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. However, his thoughts on the relative importance of music and drama were to change again and he reintroduced some traditional operatic forms into his last few stage works including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. Wagner’s influence spread beyond music into philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants. Wagner’s views on conducting were also highly influential. His extensive writings on music, drama and politics have all attracted extensive comment; in recent decades, especially where they have antisemitic content.