Wagner: Totalizing Master of Endless Melodies

Gundula Kreuzer at the TLS:

This focus on drama was fostered by Wagner’s upbringing, which included relatively little musical education. A painter and actor, his step-father Ludwig Geyer had taken young Richard to the theatre. Wagner did for a short while study composition in his home town of Leipzig. But he was never a proficient instrumentalist, which narrowed his path to a musical career. With what became his typical mixture of determination and cunning, he made a virtue out of necessity and simply declared the orchestra the grandest of instruments. (Indeed, he later wrote one of the first modern conducting manuals.) Above all, though, he learned on the job. In early 1833, at the age of nineteen, he began a series of seasonal engagements as chorus master and music director at various minor theatres as well as a touring company. These gave him valuable insights into the state of provincial opera performances, introduced him to the actress Minna Planer (soon to become his first wife), and opened the opportunity to mount a first operatic attempt. But he could not support the comfortable, silk-bedecked lifestyle he craved. Escaping his creditors, he spent two poverty-stricken but formative years in Paris, then the centre of the operatic world.

more here.