Tannhauser, like many of Wagner's operas, is based on Medieval legends. In this case, the scenario conflates two legends, that of Tannhauser himself and the Singer's Contest. As always, the libretto was written by Wagner. The music for Tannhauser was composed between 1843-5, though Wagner continued to revise the opera; weeks before he died in 1883 he told his wife he still owed the world Tannhauser.
The first performance of the opera took place in Dresden on 19 October 1845. Like The Flying Dutchman before it, it was not a great success, Wagner maintaining his artistic aims were misunderstood. Nevertheless he embarked on the revising process that still occupied his mind at his death.
The story, paralleling other Wagner operas, is one of redemption through sacrificial death. The relationship between Tannhauser and Elisabeth was entirely invented by Wagner as the means of linking the Medieval scenarios; yet it provides the backbone of the drama, the original material merely contributing the settting.
Wagner wrote operas on a vast scale telling tales of tragic love and epic stories of battles between the gods. With wars, a revolution and a scandalous love affair, his own life saw its fair share of turmoil too, and not necessarily on a smaller scale.
There is some doubt as to exactly who Wagner’s father was. Officially, his father was Friedrich Wagner, a police actuary who died soon after his son’s birth. In August 1814, though, Wagner’s mother married her friend Ludwig Geyer, an actor, poet and painter, and there is speculation that he was actually Richard Wagner’s father.
Regardless of this question over his parentage, the young Wagner went to school in Dresden and then Leipzig. His first creation was not musical, but a play, which he wrote when he was 15. The next year he started to write music. In 1831 he went to Leipzig University, also studying music with the Thomaskantor C. T. Weinlig, and in 1832 he wrote a symphony, which was also performed.
At the age of 20, in 1833, Wagner became the Chorus Master at the Würzburg theatre and wrote his first opera, Die Feen. It wasn’t performed, but his next opera (written in the same year), Das Liebesverbot, was staged in 1836.
Wagner made his début as an opera conductor with a small company which went bankrupt soon after performing his opera. Despite this failure, he married the singer Minna Planer in 1836 and moved with her to Königsberg where he became Musical Director at the theatre. He soon left and took a similar post in Riga where he began his next opera, Rienzi. In Riga, he did a lot of conducting, especially of Beethoven. However, Wagner’s financial situation was bad, and when creditors demanded their money in 1839, he and his wife escaped by boat to London and then to Paris. Here he worked for publishers and theatres, and continued to write. In 1842, Rienzi was performed in Dresden, and was a great success. Wagner was appointed joint Kapellmeister at the Dresden court, and in 1845 Tannhäuser was performed, and Lohengrin started.
In 1849, Wagner fled revolutionary Paris and went to Weimar, where he was helped by the composer Franz Liszt. He was very anti-Semitic and spent time in France and Switzerland, as he was unable to enter Germany for 11 years. He began sketching the text and music of a series of operas on the Nordic and Germanic sagas - The Nibelung's Ring. Among the friends to whom Wagner showed the operas was a rich patron named Otto Wesendonck. Wesendonck’s wife Mathilde, who loved him, wrote poems that he set, and inspired Tristan und Isolde (written between 1857 and 1859).
In 1855 he conducted in London, and by 1860 was in Paris, where his views made him unpopular. In 1862 he returned to Germany, and separated from his wife Minna, who was ill. Wagner gave concerts all over Europe, and in 1864 King Ludwig II invited him to settle in Bavaria, near Munich. The King settled Wagner’s debts and provided him with an income.
In the later part of his career Wagner enjoyed the support of King Ludwig II. There was some scandal at the court when it became known that Wagner was having an affair with Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, who was married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. However, Bülow didn’t seem to mind, and conducted several of Wagner’s operas, including the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865. In 1868, Cosima moved in with Wagner at his home in Tribschen, near Lucerne, and by the time they got married in 1870, they had two children. By 1876, Wagner was finally able to establish his own theatre and festival at the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, and it was there that The Ring was premiered. The performance of this 18-hour epic was an artistic success, but a financial disaster.
In order to try and earn some money, Wagner spent the next few years conducting in London and throughout Italy, as well as writing more operas. In Venice, Wagner experienced a worsening of the heart trouble he had suffered from for some years, and he died there in February 1883. His body was returned to Bayreuth to be buried.
Wagner’s influence on harmony, large scale works, and opera in particular is considerable. He developed the use of the Leitmotiv (leading motif). He was a remarkable innovator both in harmony and in the structure of his work. It can be said that his Prelude to the love tragedy Tristan und Isolde led to a new world of harmony. Wagner was a remarkable innovator both in harmony and in the structure of his work. He created his own version of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a type of dramatic composition in which all the arts (music, poetry, the visual arts, dance etc.) were brought together into a single unity. His political ideas sometimes overshadow his real significance as a composer.