Richard Wagner is one of the leading figures in the history of opera, who pushed the boundaries of tonality, established a trend towards through-composed structures and strongly influenced the development of the orchestra. Even during his lifetime, Wagner’s influence was not just prevalent in the musical sphere, but also politically and ideologically. It was rare for a composer to awaken interest to such an extreme degree among connoisseurs and lay listeners alike.
Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813. His first lessons in harmony with Christian Gottlieb Müller started in 1828, which was the year that he first heard Beethoven’s Symphonies 7 and 9 at the Gewandhaus. Wagner became heavily influenced by Beethoven and wrote a piano transcription of his still controversial 9th Symphony. His first professional appointment was at the theatre in Würzburg as chorusmaster at the age of 20. In the same year, he wrote his first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), in which he draws his inspiration from works of the early romantic opera composer Carl Maria von Weber, but it was not performed until shortly after Wagner’s death.
In 1837 he became the musical director of the theatre in Riga, which at that time was a town colonised largely by Germans, part of the Russian Empire. In 1839 Wagner began his Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) while fleeing the country with his wife after amassing huge debts. The dangerous journey from the Baltic sea to London gave him huge creative inspiration for the work. He finally staged it back in the fatherland after spending a dismal, financially impoverished two and a half years in Paris. The premiere took place at the Hoftheatre in Dresden on 2 January 1843. Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, which premiered two years later, and Lohengrin, which was finished around the time of the Dresden uprising, can be referred to as his middle period operas. After fleeing Dresden during the uprising and sheltering with Lizst in Weimar, he then entered Switzerland on a fake passport.