Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner, born May 22, 1813, into the family of a municipal court clerk, spent his childhood in Dresden, studied music in Leipzig from 1831 to 1833 and worked later as a chorus and music director in several towns, last in Riga. From 1839 to 1842 he tried in vain to gain a place in the Parisian music community. After the performances of his operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman in Dresden, he was appointed as the Royal Saxon music director of the court orchestra for life in 1843. After the completion of Lohengrin in May 1848, Wagner passionately engaged himself in the revolution. Under the influence of his friend August Röckel, who introduced him to the utopian-socialist ideas, he supported the democratic-republican movement. He thought that the revolution would bring a through-going democratization and renewal of society, a unified nation-state, and basic reforms in the sphere of culture and the arts that should put in practice his theoretical ideas on art, especially his conception on the complete work of art. His "Proposal for the Organization of a German National Theater for the Kingdom of Saxony" remained, however, unnoticed. At a meeting of the Dresden fatherland union on June 14, he lectured on the subject "What about the character of the republican efforts vis-à-vis the kingdom?" in which he appealed to the Saxon king to renounce the throne and to place himself at the head of the Free State of Saxony as a president. After this incident Wagner was defamed and snubbed in the court circles and by noble society in Dresden.

In Vienna where he took a trip in July he search in vain to find interest in his plans of theater reform or for performances of his operas. In autumn 1848, under the influence of the revolutionary events and the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach and Pierre-Jean Proudhon, Wagner conceived the fable that was later set to music in the tetralogy in his music festival, The Ring of the Nibelungen, the intellectual content was based on the concepts of "true socialism" and symbolically dealt with the struggle of humanity against the rule of gold. In personal contact with the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin in the spring of 1849, his democratic views had become more radical. He published several articles in the Volksblätter edited by August Röckel propagating anarchist colored, utopian-socialist concepts and established the necessity of a new revolutionary uprising.

Wagner was actively engaged in the Dresden uprising from May 3-9, 1849. He supported the provisional government, took part in the information service of the insurgents, and called upon the Saxon military to fraternize with the insurgents. Together with the leaders of the uprising, he left Dresden on May 9 for Chemnitz, from which the music director avoid the warrant for his arrest by flight to exile in Switzerland.

During the first years of his exile Wagner still hoped that the revolution would break out again in Germany. For his own ideological self-awareness and to define the objectives of his artistic creation he wrote several works based on the ideas of his last months in Dresden, among others Art and Revolution (1849), The Work of Art of the Future (1850) and Opera and Drama (1851). After 1854, under the influence of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, he modified his belief in progress, championed pessimistic and fatalistic views, and saw the sense of his art as the moral refinement of humanity. In Switzerland Wagner created many of his musical works which made him the greatest German musical dramatist of the 19th century and established his world-wide reputation. In 1862 Wagner was granted an amnesty by the Saxon government. Wagner acquired in 1864 the Bavarian King Ludwig II as his patron, with whose support he could carry out his idea of a festival theater for the performance of his operas in Bayreuth in 1876.
Rolf Weber


Richard Wagner, Mein Leben 2 vols. Leipzig 195 8.

Richard Wagner Ausgewählte Schriften Esther Drusche (ed.) Leipzig 1982.

_______. Briefe Werner Otto (ed.) Berlin 1986.

Martin Gregor-Dellin, Richard Wagner: Sein Leben, sein Werk, sein Jahrhundert Berlin 1984.

Table of Contributors   Table of Contents   Return to Encyclopedia Home Page

JGC revised this file ( on October 27, 2004.

Please E-mail comments or suggestions to

© 1999, 2004 James Chastain.