Richard Wilhelm Wagner was born in Leipzig. Karl Friedrich Wagner, a local police official, was married to Wagner's mother, Johanna, at the time, but there is much evidence that a close family friend, Ludwig Geyer, was in fact Richard's father. Karl Wagner died when Richard was six months old. Geyer married Johanna within the year, and six months later a daughter, C&aauml;cilie, was born. In addition to a letter written by Wagner to C&aauml;cilie in later years, referring to "our father, Geyer," Wagner's close physical likeness to Geyer and their mutual devotion and attachment lent credence to the Geyer paternity.
Geyer, an actor, writer, portrait painter and lover of great literature, had a profound influence on Wagner. Richard's formative years were spent in a household filled with love of culture and the arts. Literature, rather than music, was his first love. His interest in the Homeric epics caused him to study Greek in order to read them in the original. His love of Shakespeare induced him to learn English. At age eleven, he was writing poetic drama filled with characters that die and reappear as ghosts.
Wagner began composing, completing two orchestral overtures. He tried to write an opera. The overtures were received with either anger or derision, and his second attempt at opera was not to be performed until five years after his death.
In debt from gambling and involved in troublesome love affairs, he escaped to the small town of Magdeburg and became conductor of the local opera house. It was a theater with poor facilities and on the brink of bankruptcy, but Wagner stuck to it because he was in pursuit of an attractive actress, Minna Planer. It took him two years to overcome her apathy toward him, but in the end he was victorious; they were married in 1836. From the moment the marriage was sealed Wagner regretted the act. She was pretty, but he said her bourgeois mentality bored him.
The lives of Richard and Minna Wagner were constantly beset by creditors, who confiscated his passport. He and Minna fled the country by a smugglers' route. They ended up in Paris, living in abject poverty and sometimes on the verge of starvation. On two occasions he was imprisoned for debts. Wagner was humiliated as a man, rejected as a composer, and Minna was reduced to taking in boarders and shining shoes.
In 1841, Wagner began work on Der fliegende Holl&aauml;nder (The Flying Dutchman). Later he wrote, "Everything went easily, fluently. I actually shouted for joy, as I felt through my whole being that I was still an artist." Soon after this time, the Dresden Opera presented his opera Rienzi. Wagner left Paris on borrowed funds to attend the premiere. Following its huge success, Dresden agreed to present The Flying Dutchman under Wagner's direction. It was a complete failure.
Wagner always lived in grand style far beyond his means. In 1843 he was appointed Kapellmeister of the Dresden Opera at a comfortable salary, but his creditors from all over Europe descended on him, and he was unable to pay. He continued to write operas during this period, completing Tannha&uauml;ser and, three years later, Lohengrin. The Dresden Opera, however, turned down Lohengrin, and Wagner was unable to attend its 1850 premiere, in Weimar. An extreme political radical, Wagner took part in the abortive Revolution of 1848 and was forced to flee his homeland, first to Paris and then Zurich.
In Zurich he became acquainted with a wealthy merchant, Otto Wesendonck, and his wife, Mathilde. Wesendonck provided Wagner and Minna a house to live in on his estate. Wagner immediately began a wild love affair with Wesendonck's wife, and it was during this passionate episode that he wrote the score of Tristan und Isolde. Minna left him in 1861 and returned to Dresden, where she died in 1866.
Wagner subsequently began a relationship with Cosima von B&uauml;low, the daughter of Franz Liszt. Her husband, Hans von B&uauml;low, a pianist and conductor, was a great admirer of Wagner's musical genius. The love affair was carried on openly. Cosima gave birth to two daughters and a son fathered by Wagner before she left von B&uauml;low and went to live with Wagner. She finally divorced von B&uauml;low in 1871 and married Wagner.
During the years in which Wagner lived in exile, he began to formulate his new ideas about opera. He rejected the old and formal traditions and wrote numerous articles and pamphlets attacking the obsolete techniques of Italian opera, at the same time organizing his own theories of music and drama. He then began the monumental task of executing his ideas musically: Der Ring des Nibelungen. The massive project would absorb his energy and efforts for a quarter of a century.
Upon completion of the Ring cycle, no venue for presentation could be found to meet Wagner's grandiose specifications. A plot of land in Bayreuth, which Wagner described as being "unsurpassably beautiful," was given to him on which to build an opera house worthy of his music. The erratic King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a steadfast friend and patron, contributed large amounts of money to the project. Richard Wagner societies sprang up in all the principal cities of Germany and soon spread to Milan, Brussels, London, and New York. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus was completed in 1876, and in the month of August Wagner saw the dream of his life, the staging of his complete four-opera cycle, become reality.
Cosima and Richard had 13 years and two months together before his death. She admired, adored and applauded him, and devoted her life to serving his needs until the day he died. Life with this musical genius was not always easy for Cosima, although Wagner loved her and told her repeatedly that she alone gave him the strength and the will to continue his work. "The only God I believe in is my love for you," he said.
Toward the end of his life Wagner suffered from frequent illnesses, stomach pains, swollen legs, insomnia, eczema and a series of heart attacks. On February 13, 1883 he died of a heart attack in Venice, where he had taken Cosima and the children. His body was brought back to Bayreuth and he was buried to the music of Siegfried's death.