BORN: 22 May 1813 (Leipzig)

DIED: 13 Feb 1883 (Venice)


Wilhelm – known as Richard – was a 19th Century musician and composer, and a very controversial figure. He is credited with the ‘birth of modern music’.

About the composer

As a child, Wagner wanted to be a playwright and his first play, which he wrote at school in 1826, was a tragedy called . Wagner was determined to set this play to music and in order to fulfil his dream he persuaded his parents to allow him music lessons. And so his musical career began.

After taking an intense course of composition lessons at university, Wagner began to write operas. It turned out he was a natural. In the following years he took various professional musical jobs and did a lot of travelling around Europe – some voluntarily, some enforced...like when he had to run away in the dead of night from his debts and from prison threats. In his 20s, Wagner also had a failed marriage, several love affairs and a brief stint of sharing an apartment with a wolf cub. He loved a drama!

Wagner returned to Germany in 1842 with a pretty established musical reputation. He was appointed as a musical director in the city of Dresden, where he stayed until 1849 writing music for the King of Saxony. His comfy royal set-up was interrupted by his involvement in the 'May Uprising', though. Wagner wrote articles in a left-wing newspaper encouraging people to revolt, and when fighting broke out he took a very active part in it by making hand grenades. As a result he had to flee for his life (again) to Sweden, using a fake passport.

Wagner had an incredible talent for composing ground-breaking music but there is no doubt he was a controversial figure. Whilst in exile he began to write a series of essays laying out what he thought the art- work of the future should be like – he certainly wasn't shy about representing his opinions as facts. One of those essays is considered anti-Semitic as it falsely claimed that Jewish people were responsible for the poor quality of contemporary art and music. This was particularly damning and damaging as some of his teachers and early supporters of his work were Jewish.

Wagner was finally able to return to his homeland in 1862 where he continued work on his biggest undertaking: The Ring Cycle – a set of four operas or "Music Dramas" (he hated the word 'opera' because it reminded him of stuffy, boring people and pretty tunes sung in Italian by warbling sopranos). Wagner wanted his music dramas to be total art works which combined the worlds of theatre, literature and music. With this approach, Wagner revolutionised opera and changed the path of musical history.

About the music

Ride of the Valkyries comes at the beginning of Act 3 of Die Walküre, the third of the four operas that make up or The Ring Cycle. The whole thing took 27 years to compose and takes over 15 hours to perform. If you want to settle in and listen to the whole thing, make sure you've got plenty of snacks and drinks!

His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration and the elaborate use of leitmotifs - musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. If he was still alive today he would probably be the biggest film composer around.