In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Richard Wagner

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • Philosophical and Aesthetic Studies
  • Literary Studies
  • Iconography and Visual Arts
  • Cinema
  • Criticism and Interpretation to 1900
  • Criticism and Interpretation, 1900–1945
  • Criticism and Interpretation since 1945
  • Sources and Influences for Dramatic Texts
  • Musical Language and Compositional Method
  • Musical Analysis
  • Production and Performance Studies
  • Bayreuth Festival
  • Instrumental Works

Music Richard Wagner
Thomas S. Grey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0066


Richard Wagner (b. 1813–d. 1883) was one of the most significant composers of the 19th century—or any era for that matter—and, as he would have been the first to point out, much more than that. The Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork,” one of his most famous coinages, referred initially to the model of ancient Greek drama he wished to emulate in reforming opera as a fully integrated union of the arts. His own claim to such creative “totality” rested initially with the fact that he produced the librettos for his own operas (Germany lacked a professionalized tradition of libretto writing as existed in Italy or France). Like other composers, Wagner trained himself as a conductor, but he also went on to establish and largely design his own theater for the premiere of his magnum opus, the four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in 1876. This “festival” theater in Bayreuth, Germany, was carried on by his wife, Cosima Wagner, and his son, Siegfried Wagner, whose own British-born wife, Winifred, notoriously allied the festival with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The freely structured, dramatically inflected, harmonically adventurous, and brilliantly orchestrated idiom Wagner pioneered in the Ring cycle and in later works, such as Tristan und Isolde (1857–1859, premiered 1865), undeniably changed the face of composition in the 19th century. The emphatic claims for art’s role in shaping the society and the nation embodied in the Bayreuth festival and developed in volumes of prose essays contributed equally to Wagner’s cultural celebrity. In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) he integrated contemporary debates over “tradition and the individual talent,” so to speak, within a timely monument to German national identity. Christian mysticism, Buddhist-Schopenhauerian ideas of compassion and recurring cycles of life, modern psychology, and a lifelong obsession with the “redeeming” powers of art all merge in his final work, Parsifal (1882), contributing to the cultlike phenomenon of “Wagnerism” that flourished at the end of the 19th century.

General Overviews

While many biographies also include commentaries on the major operas, the items listed here focus on the oeuvre (music, librettos, writings), including its broader significance and historical legacy. Newman 1924 is the closest in conception to a life-and-works study but offers a surprisingly good introduction to the composer’s theoretical writings, while Newman 1983 is still the most substantial overview of the operas themselves. Dahlhaus 1979 avoids synopses or a review of dramatic sources by working outward from small, representative details while remaining accessible to nonscholars possessing some familiarity with the works. Burbidge and Sutton 1979, Müller and Wapnewski 1992, and Grey 2009 are all somewhat more scholarly in conception, while Millington 1992 offers something closer to a reference guide for the general reader. Grey 2008 features essays synthesizing late-20th- and early-century scholarship also for a general audience or students, and Tanner 1996 offers a personal appreciation of Wagner’s achievement with an emphasis on the intellectual and psychological dimensions of the dramas.

  • Burbidge, Peter, and Richard Sutton, eds. The Wagner Companion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    A collection of essays, sometimes quite lengthy, by English, American, and German authors treating Wagner as a figure in modern intellectual history and introducing some concerns of postwar musicology (the semiotics of Wagner’s musical language, the analysis of compositional methods based on sketches and drafts) but largely bypassing biography, reception, or political issues.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas. Translated by Mary Whittall. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

    Pithy, essayistic treatment of the Wagner canon highlighting interesting details and interpretive cruxes in the genesis, literary and dramatic conception, compositional idiom, mythic motifs, and dramatic characters of the operas in individual chapters. Original German text published in 1971.

  • Grey, Thomas S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Wagner. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521642996

    Short chapters on biography, politics, individual operas, the Ring cycle (dramatic and musical conception), the writings, staging, Wagnerism, anti-Semitism, and a review of modern scholarship. Includes detailed biographical chronology.

  • Grey, Thomas S., ed. Wagner and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    Essays on aspects of the works and milieu together with source documents relating to biography, early performances, and critical reception.

  • Millington, Barry, ed. The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

    Brief but relatively detailed entries on many facets of the biography, historical background, intellectual and musical context, Wagner’s writings and ideas, his compositional style and method, and performance issues plus reference-style listings of names, terms, and compositions.

  • Müller, Ulrich, and Peter Wapnewski, eds. Wagner Handbook. Translated by John Deathridge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    First published in German (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1986). Translation includes new material on Wagner singing, Wagner and psychoanalysis, and Wagner scholarship. Essays rather than reference-style entries. No discussion of individual works per se but does include a useful annotated inventory of Wagner’s main writings.

  • Newman, Ernest. Wagner as Man and Artist. 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1924.

    This insightful monograph (first published in 1914) was begun in the wake of the first official publication of the composer’s autobiography, Mein Leben, in 1911 (Munich: Bruckmann). Three sections contain essay-like chapters on biographical issues, musical-aesthetic themes in the writings, and critical assessment of the works as such. Remains a remarkably substantial and accessible introduction to Wagner’s life, thought, and artistic achievements.

  • Newman, Ernest. The Wagner Operas. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

    Like the Newman 1933–1946 biography (cited under Biographies), this series of ample introductions to the Wagner canon remains an essential standard. The literary sources of each work are carefully sorted through, followed by a detailed synopsis of Wagner’s dramatic treatment with glosses on the musical settings based primarily on the role of leitmotifs. Originally published in one volume as Wagner Nights (New York: Knopf, 1949).

  • Tanner, Michael. Wagner. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

    A short appreciation of the Wagner oeuvre from aesthetic, psychological, and literary perspectives, resistant to the rising politicization of Wagner criticism since the 1980s.

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