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). Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his works.
Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for contrapuntal texture, rich chromaticism, harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with particular characters, locales or plot elements. Wagner pioneered advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, which greatly influenced the development of European classical music.
He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total artwork"), the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). To try to stage these works as he imagined them, Wagner built his own opera house, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.
In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival Theatre") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner Societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were raised only after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German).
The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.
Following the first Bayreuth festival Wagner spent a great deal of time in Italy where he began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.
Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on 29 August, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.
After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On 13 February 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack at Ca' Vendramin Calergi, a 16th century palazzo [today the winter gambling Casino] on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried.
Franz Liszt's memorable piece for pianoforte solo, La lugubre gondola, evokes the passing of a black-shrouded funerary gondola bearing Richard Wagner's remains over the Grand Canal.
I joined the Northern California chapter of the Wagner Society a few years ago primarily so that I might be able to go to Bayreuth some day. Otherwise, it would be totally out of reach.