Wagner was born in Leipzig on 22 May 1813, ninth child of a police clerk who died six months later. His mother took up with Ludwig Geyer, an actor and playwright, and they moved to Dresden. He began learning the piano aged seven, but was drawn more towards theatre under Geyer’s influence. When Geyer died, Wagner was sent to board at an established choir school at the expense of Geyer’s brother. By 1827, the family had returned to Leipzig, where Wagner first heard several of Beethoven’s later symphonies. Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures are said to date from this period.
In the early 1830s, Wagner studied at the University of Leipzig, and in 1833, aged but 20, he was appointed choir master at the theatre in Würzburg. The same year he finished his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). Thereafter he flit through various appointments as musical director, in Magdeburg, Königsberg and Riga (Russian Empire), but kept getting into debt by staging his own works. His marriage to the actress Christine (Minna) Planer in 1836, though it lasted 30 years, was troubled from the beginning. From 1839, the couple lived in Paris where Wagner’s income depended on writing articles and staging other composers’ operas.
In 1842, Wagner’s first operatic success, Rienzi, brought him back to Dresden, where it was performed at the Court Theatre. He stayed for six years, during which time he composed Lohengrin; and he served as the Royal Saxon Court Conductor for a while. With the German revolution of 1848-1849, and, in particular, the May Uprising in Dresden, Wagner was implicated as a left-wing radical and forced to flee. He spent more than a decade in exile, first in Switzerland, then Venice and Paris. Love affairs left him further estranged from Minna, and debt troubles were never far away. During his time in Zurich, he published prose works such as The Artwork of the Future and Opera and Drama, he wrote Tristan und Isolde, and he began writing what would eventually become his famous Ring cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).
Wagner returned to Germany in 1862, when the exile ban was lifted, and settled in Biebrich where he was visited by Minna for the last time. Efforts to produce Tristan und Isolde in Vienna failed, but, in 1864, when the young King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria, he brought Wagner to Munich and offered to pay for the staging of several of the composers operas. Tristan und Isolde finally premiered at the National Theatre in Munich in 1865, conducted by Hans von Bülow. Earlier that year his wife, Cosima, had given birth to a daughter, named Isolde, fathered by Wagner. The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner fell into such disfavour that Ludwig finally asked him to leave Munich. Nevertheless, Ludwig installed him at the Villa Tribschen, by Lake Lucerne, and there Wagner finished Die Meistersinger, and continued with the Ring cycle. Von Bülow eventually allowed Cosima a divorce after she had had two more children with Wagner. They married in 1870, and the year after moved together to Bayreuth.
Wagner’s ambitious plans to build a new opera house in Bayreuth were finally brought to fruition - after many financing delays - with the first festival in 1876, at which Wagner premiered the complete Ring cycle for the first time. It was to be another six years before he could put together a second festival, in 1882, and this one saw the premiere of Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera. He died the following year. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, Gramophone, Music Academy, or the comprehensive fan websites run by Vincent Vargas or Per-Erik Skramstad.
After Wagner had settled in Munich, in 1864, Cosima gave him a calf leather bound journal to write about his thoughts of her when they were separated, which, in the early years of their relationship, was often. He kept up the journal, somewhat intermittently, from 1865 until the year before his death, though after 1868 the couple were together permanently so Wagner wrote of other matters. It is worth noting that Cosima herself kept a diary which was largely meant to be a record of Wagner’s life - see The Diary Review: Music was sounding.
Wagner’s journal was scrupulously guarded after his death by Cosima on account of its confidential contents. However, in her 70th year she gave it into the care of her daughter, Eva, who later presented it to the town of Bayreuth. Its contents were only published fully for the first time in English in 1980 by Victor Gollancz as The Diary of Richard Wagner 1865-1882 - The Brown Book. The text was ‘presented and annotated’ by Joachim Bergfeld (and translated by George Bird).
10 August 1865 [Wagner went to stay in King Ludwig’s mountain hut on Hochkopf and was ill almost constantly.]
‘Late yesterday evening during the wearisome ascent, I was gazing - dog-tired - longingly upwards to discern at last the goal of our march, when, above the edge of the mountain, I caught sight of the first brightly twinkling star. Not bothering much about the direction, I took it for the evening star, and hailed it loudly - ‘Cosima’. That gave me heart. It was quite wonderful. The star got ever brighter - quite alone, no other star. It was completely dark by the time I go up there far ahead of all the men, with a big bunch of keys to open the lodge. Luckily I got the last one to fit, tried to find my way about in the dark, found the King’s sleeping place, and stretched out bathed in sweat, dog-tired. The men arrived. God, before Franz [manservant] produced a light! There was marvellous confusion. Now alone with Franz. Completely in the wilds. No water to be found. Where is there a spring? We hadn’t asked. Much groping about mountain and forest. In vain. Laborious changing of clothes - ah, what a muddle. Finally, bread, wine, sausage. But no water. So mineral water - brought for the cure - had to be unpacked. Arrival of good mood.’
18 August 1865
‘Sick and wretched. Bad cold: fever! Lonely here - Can’t so much as move. Franz lamenting. You know how quick I am to take the extreme view!
But I wanted to write at least one line in the book. It ought to help, complaining to you. Let’s see. Hope so - Ah, how wretched man is! - Even the sky is bleak.’
16 April 1867 [on being separated from Cosima, a separation that would last 15 months]
‘In my whole life I do not think I have ever been so sad as I am now!! - How easily that is said, and how unspeakable it is -
I walked home, and sank down from exhaustion. A brief, leaden sleep such as often drives out a cold fetched up all the misery of my life as if from the depths of my soul. I yearn for major illness and death. I have no inclination any more, no will!
Would there an end to it, an end!
Today she has left, - What this leaving has said!
What is the use of any seeing each other again?
The leaving remains. It is wretched!’
26 October 1865
‘Leafing through the Brown Book just now, I read a bit of Parzival. How that time lies once more like a sacred dream - once more like a lost paradise behind me - Oh Cosima! Will it ever come to my quietly completing my works and entering with you the promised land of peace? How storms rage ever and ever anew! I desire - so it seems - the most unnatural state of affairs which the world just will not accede to. My trouble is great. Always something new hounds and oppresses. From within and without.’