Richard Wagner was born Wilhelm Richard Wagner on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany. His father, Friedrich, worked for the city but died while Richard was still a baby. In late 1814, his mother, Johanne, married an actor named Ludwig Geyer and the family moved to the city of Dresden. Geyer died in 1819, leaving Richard fatherless once again. Consequently, Richard was primarily raised by his mother for the remainder of his youth.
In 1822, Richard enrolled in classes at the Kreuzschule. There, he was given his first lessons in music by his Latin teacher, but at this stage preferred to play by ear rather than by music sheets. He aspired to become a playwright and found an initial interest in music since it naturally complemented the acting in plays. By the end of the 1820s, however, he had gravitated more towards music.
In 1831, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig, where he majored in music theory. He frequently attended classical performances, declaring that one of his favorite composers was Ludwig Beethoven. In 1833, he composed his first opera, Die Feen, which was based on the style of Carl Maria von Weber.
After graduating from college, Richard was given positions as musical director at various opera houses in the cities of Magdeburg and Konisberg. In his free time, he wrote an opera named Das Liebesverbot, which was derived from Shakespeare's play "Measure for Measure". He was able to get it staged at the opera house in Magdeburg, but it was canceled after the second performance. The failure of the opera cost Wagner a great deal of money and left him in heavy debt.
On November 24, 1836, he married an actress named Christine Wilhelmine Planer. The couple moved to the city of Riga, where Wagner was able to get appointed as musical director at the local opera house. A scandal erupted when his wife ran away with a soldier, only to return to him broke. In spite of the embarassment, he accepted her back and their troubled marriage continued.
In 1839, Richard realized that his debt had grown so enormous that he had to escape the city. He left abruptly with his wife and sailed to London. They moved to Paris in 1940, staying there until 1941. During his time in Paris, Wagner wrote articles and arranged operas, including Rienzi.
Wagner's play "Rienzi" was chosen for performance at the Dresden Court Theatre in the city of Dresden, Germany. In 1842, Wagner moved with his wife to Dresden, where he oversaw the staging of his opera to great success. He continued writing operas and staging them in the city, including "Der fliegende Hollander" and "Tannhauser". He was also appointed to the position of Royal Saxon Court Conductor.
Around this time, Wagner started getting involved in a nationalist movement that sought to unite the German states into a single nation. He hosted dinners for members of the movement, including August Rockel, the editor of a radical paper called "Volksblatter" and a Russian anarchist named Mikhail Bakunin. In April of 1849, King Frederick Augustus II dissolved the parliament and an uprising broke out. After the uprising was stopped by the military, a warrant was issued for Wagner's arrest and he fled to Paris. After a short while, he moved to Zurich, in Switzerland.
Wagner had escaped the imprisonment suffered by his friends Rockel and Bakunin, but he was now an exile. He contacted his friend Franz Liszt in an attempt to have his latest opera, "Lohengrin", staged and was successful. The opera premiered in the city of Weimar in August of 1850, but Wagner was unable to attend due to his exile. At this time, Wagner was in dire financial straits and began to suffer from erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin, which made it hard for him to work.
In 1849, he wrote a set of essays called "The Art-Work of the Future". These essays described opera through his eyes as the culmination of art through music, song, dance, and stagecraft. In 1850, he published an essay called "Jewry in Music", an anti-Semitic work that decried the work of Jewish composers. In 1851, he also published an essay called "Opera and Drama", which described his use of aesthetics in upcoming operas.
In 1852, Wagner met a woman named Mathilde Wesendonck, who was the wife of a silk merchant. She was a poet and Wagner became infatuated with her. She served as the primary inspiration for an opera called "Tristan und Isolde", which was based on the love story of a knight and lady in King Arthur's time. In 1858, they were denied further contact after his wife found an intimate letter addressed to Mathilde. They had a large argument that ended with Wagner leaving for Venice alone.
In 1859, he moved to Paris, where he oversaw the staging of his opera "Tannhauser" in 1861. The premiere was a disaster and later performances were cancelled. Wagner left the city in disgust, moving to the city of Bibrich in Prussia. There, he began work on a new opera named "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg". In 1862, he officially separated from his wife Minna, but continued to lend her financial support when he could.
In 1864, Ludwig II became king of Bavaria and invited Wagner to Munich. There, he offered to take care of Wagner's debts and finance the production of his new opera. Wagner readily accepted and staged "Tristan und Isolde" with a premiere in Munich on June 10, 1865. The opera was a massive success and elevated him to celebrity status in Germany.
Wagner soon found himself engaged in another romantic affair, this time with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of one of his conductors. He managed to impregnate her and she gave birth to a daughter in April of 1865, whom she named "Isolde". The affair caused a scandal and in December of 1865, Ludwig asked Wagner to leave Munich.
Afterwards, Ludwig allowed Wagner to live in a villa along Lake Lucerne, where he was able to work without much interruption. He completed his opera "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" and had it staged in Munich on June 21, 1868. In October of that year, Cosima divorced her husband and she married Wagner on August 25, 1870.
Wagner continued working on his operas, completing "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure", which would become part of a series called the "Der Ring des Nibelungen". In 1871, he arranged the construction of a new opera house called the "Bayreuth Festspielhaus" in the city of Bayreuth for his new operas. In 1874, he was given a large grant by Kind Ludwig and the opera house was finally completed in 1876.
In 1877, he started working on his final opera, "Parsifal". It was completed in January of 1882 and he arranged for it to be staged in his special opera house later that year. Despite being ill from a series of heart attacks, Wagner personally conducted Act 3 during one of the performances. On February 13, 1883, he died following a heart attack in the city of Venice. He was buried in the city of Bayreuth.