Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 in LeipzigFebruary 13, 1883 in Venice) was an influential German composer, conductor, music theorist, and essayist, primarily known for his groundbreaking symphonic-operas (or "music dramas"). His compositions are notable for their continuous contrapuntal texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and elaborate use of leitmotifs: themes associated with specific characters or situations. Wagner's chromatic musical language prefigured later developments in European classical music, including extreme chromaticism and atonality. He transformed musical thought through his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ("total art-work"), epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). His concept of leitmotif and integrated musical expression was a strong influence on many 20th century film scores. Wagner is also an extremely controversial figure, both for his musical and dramatic innovations, and for his anti-semitic views.




Wagner's operas are his primary artistic legacy. These can be divided chronologically into three periods.

Wagner's early-stage began at age 19 with his first attempt at an opera, Die Hochzeit (The Wedding), which Wagner abandoned at an early stage of composition in 1832. Wagner's three completed early-stage operas are Die Feen (The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), and Rienzi. Their compositional style was conventional, and did not exhibit the innovations that marked Wagner's place in musical history. Later in life, Wagner said that he did not consider these immature works to be part of his oeuvre. These works are seldom performed, though the overture to Rienzi has become a concert piece.

Wagner's middle-stage output is considered to be of remarkably higher quality, and begins to show the deepening of his powers as a dramatist and composer. This period began with Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), followed by Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. These works are widely performed today.

Wagner's late-stage operas are his masterpieces that advanced the art of opera. Many regard Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) as Wagner's greatest single opera. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is Wagner's only comedy (apart from his early and forgotten Das Liebesverbot) and one of the lengthiest operas still performed. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring cycle, is a set of four operas based on German and Scandinavian mythology. Spanning roughly 16 hours in performance, the Ring cycle has been called the most ambitious musical work ever composed. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, is a contemplative work based on the Christian legend of the Holy Grail.

Through his operas and theoretical essays, Wagner exerted a strong influence on the operatic medium. He was an advocate of a new form of opera which he called "music drama", in which all the musical and dramatic elements were fused together. Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems". Most of his plots were based on Northern European mythology and legend. Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra's role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra's dramatic role includes its performance of the leitmotifs, musical themes that announce specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interleaving and evolution illuminates the progression of the drama.

Wagner's musical style is often considered the epitome of classical music's Romantic period, due to its unprecedented exploration of emotional expression. He introduced new ideas in harmony and musical form, including extreme chromaticism. In Tristan und Isolde, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system that gave keys and chords their identity, pointing the way to atonality in the 20th century. Some music historians date the beginning of modern classical music to the first notes of Tristan, the so-called Tristan chord.




Non-operatic music

Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a single symphony (written at the age of 19), and some overtures, choral and piano pieces, and a re-orchestration of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide. Of these, the most commonly performed work is the Siegfried Idyll, a chamber piece written for the birthday of his second wife, Cosima. The Idyll draws on several motifs from the Ring cycle, though it is not part of the Ring. The next most popular are the Wesendonck Lieder, properly known as Five Songs for a Female Voice, which were composed for Mathilde Wesendonck while Wagner was working on Tristan.

After completing Parsifal, Wagner apparently intended to turn to the writing of symphonies. However, nothing substantial had been written by the time of his death.

The overtures and orchestral passages from Wagner's middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote short passages to conclude the excerpt so that it does not end abruptly. This is true, for example, of the Parsifal prelude and Siegfried's Funeral Music. A curious fact is that the concert version of the Tristan prelude is unpopular and rarely heard; the original ending of the prelude is usually considered to be better, even for a concert performance.

One of the most popular wedding marches played as the bride's processional in English-speaking countries, popularly known as "Here Comes the Bride", takes its melody from the "Bridal Chorus" of Lohengrin.

Other works

Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring hundreds of books, poems, and articles, as well as a massive amount of correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses (often mutually contradictory) of his own operas. Essays of note include "Oper und Drama" ("Opera and Drama", 1851), an essay on the theory of opera, and "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Jewishness in Music", 1850), a polemic directed against Jewish composers. He also wrote an autobiography, My Life (1880).

He was responsible for several theatrical innovations developed at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, an opera house specially constructed for the performance of his operas. These innovations include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is the venue of the annual Richard Wagner Festival, which draws thousands of opera fans to Bayreuth each summer.


Early life

Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany, on May 22, 1813. His father, a minor city official, died six months after Richard's birth, and in August 1814 his mother married the actor Ludwig Geyer. Geyer, who is rumored to have actually been the boy's father, died when Richard was six, leaving him to be brought up by his mother.

Young Richard Wagner entertained ambitions to be a playwright, and first became interested in music as a means of enhancing the dramas that he wanted to write and stage. He soon turned toward studying music, for which he enrolled at the University of Leipzig in 1831. One of his early musical influences was Ludwig van Beethoven.

In 1833, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen. This opera, which clearly imitated the style of Carl Maria von Weber, would go unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer's death in 1883.

Meanwhile, Wagner held brief appointments as musical director at opera houses in Magdeburg and Königsberg, during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot, based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. This second opera was staged at Magdeburg in 1836, but met with little acclaim.

On November 24, 1836, Wagner married actress Christine Wilhelmine "Minna" Planer. They moved to the city of Riga, where Wagner became music director of the local opera. A few weeks afterward, Minna ran off with an army officer, who later left her penniless. Wagner accepted Minna back, but this was the beginning of a troubled marriage that ended in misery three decades later.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to escape from creditors (debt would plague Wagner for the rest of his life). During their flight, they took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner obtained the inspiration for Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). The Wagners lived in Paris for several years, where Richard made a living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers.


Wagner completed writing his third opera, Rienzi, in 1840. Fortuitously, it was accepted for performance by the Dresden Court Theatre in the German state of Saxony. In 1842, the couple moved to Dresden, where Rienzi was staged to considerable success. Wagner lived in Dresden for the next six years, eventually being appointed the Royal Saxon Court Conductor. During this period, he wrote and staged Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the first two of his three middle-stage operas.

The Wagners' stay at Dresden was brought to an end by Richard's involvement in left-wing politics. A nationalist movement was gaining force in the independent German States, calling for increased freedoms and the unification of the weak states into a single nation. Richard Wagner played an enthusiastic role in this movement, receiving guests at his house that included his colleague August Röckel, who was editing the radical left-wing paper Volksblätter, and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Widespread discontent against the Saxon government came to a boil in April 1849, when King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony dissolved his Parliament and rejected a new constitution pressed upon him by the people. The May Uprising broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. The incipient revolution was quickly crushed by an allied force of Saxon and Prussian troops, and warrants were issued for the arrest of the revolutionaries. Wagner had to flee, first to Paris, and then to Zürich. Röckel and Bakunin failed to escape and were forced to endure long years of imprisonment.

Exile, Schopenhauer, and Mathilde Wesendonk

Wagner spent the next twelve years in exile. He had completed Lohengrin before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt, who proved to be a friend in need, eventually conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner found himself in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any income to speak of. The musical sketches he was penning, which would grow into the mammoth work Der Ring des Nibelungen, seemed to have no prospects of seeing performance. His wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Finally, he fell victim to erysipelas, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner's primary output during his first years in Zürich was a set of notable essays: "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849), in which he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft were unified; "Judaism in Music" (1850), an anti-Semitic tract directed against Jewish composers; and "Opera and Drama" (1851), which described ideas in aesthetics that he was putting to use on the Ring operas.

In the following years, Wagner came upon two independent sources of inspiration, leading to the creation of his celebrated Tristan und Isolde. The first came to him in 1854, when his poet friend Georg Herwegh introduced him to the works of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner would later call this the most important event of his life. His personal circumstances certainly made him an easy convert to Schopenhauer's philosophy, which was centered on a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. He would remain an adherent of Schopenhauer for the rest of his life, even after his fortunes improved.

One of Schopenhauer's doctrines was that music held a supreme role amongst the arts, since it was the only one unconcerned with the material world. Wagner quickly embraced this claim, which must have resonated strongly despite its direct contradiction with his own arguments, in "Opera and Drama", that music in opera had to be subservient to the cause of drama. Wagner scholars have since argued that this Schopenhauerian influence caused Wagner to assign a more commanding role to music in his later operas, including the latter half of the Ring cycle which he had yet to compose. Many aspects of Schopenhauerian doctrine undoubtedly found its way into Wagner's subsequent libretti. For example, the self-renouncing cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, generally considered Wagner's most sympathetic character, is a quintessentially Schopenhauerian creation (despite being based on a real person).

Wagner's second source of inspiration was the poet-writer Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck. Wagner met the Wesendoncks in Zürich in 1852. Otto, a fan of Wagner's music, placed a cottage on his estate at Wagner's disposal. By 1857, Wagner had become infatuated with Mathilde. Though Mathilde seems to have returned some of his affections, she had no intention of jeopardising her marriage, and kept her husband informed of her contacts with Wagner. Nevertheless, the affair inspired Wagner to put aside his work on the Ring cycle (which would not be resumed for the next twelve years) and begin work on Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story of the knight Tristan and the (already-married) Lady Isolde.

The uneasy affair collapsed in 1858, when Minna intercepted a letter from Wagner to Mathilde. After the resulting confrontation, Wagner left Zürich alone, bound for Venice. The following year, he once again moved to Paris to oversee production of a new revision of Tannhäuser, staged thanks to efforts of Princess de Metternich. The premiere of the new Tannhäuser in 1861 was an utter fiasco, due to disturbances caused by aristocrats from the Jockey Club. Further performances were cancelled, and Wagner hurriedly left the city.

In 1861, the political ban against Wagner was lifted, and the composer settled in Biebrich, Prussia, where he began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Remarkably, this opera is by far his sunniest work. (His second wife Cosima would later write: "when future generations seek refreshment in this unique work, may they spare a thought for the tears from which the smiles arose.") In 1862, Wagner finally parted with Minna, though he (or at least his creditors) continued to support her financially until her death in 1866.

Patronage of King Ludwig II

Richard and Cosima Wagner
Richard and Cosima Wagner

Wagner's fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II assumed the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young King, an ardent admirer of Wagner's operas since childhood, had the composer brought to Munich. He settled Wagner's considerable debts, and made plans to have his new opera produced. After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered to enormous success at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865.

In the meantime, Wagner became embroiled in another affair, this time with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner's most ardent supporters and the conductor of the Tristan premiere. Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the famous Countess Marie d'Agoult, and 24 years younger than Wagner. Liszt disapproved of his daughter seeing Wagner, though the two men were friends. In April 1865, she gave birth to Wagner's illegitimate daughter, who was named Isolde. Their indiscreet affair scandalized Munich, and to make matters worse, Wagner fell into disfavor amongst members of the court, who were suspicious of his influence on the King. In December 1865, Ludwig was finally forced to ask the composer to leave Munich. He apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.

Ludwig installed Wagner at the villa Triebschen, beside Switzerland's Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Triebschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on June 21 the following year. In October, Cosima finally convinced Hans von Bülow to grant her a divorce. Richard and Cosima were married on August 25, 1870. (Liszt would not speak to his new son-in-law for years to come.) On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima's birthday. The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner's life. They had an additional daughter, named Eva, and a son named Siegfried.

It was at Triebschen, in 1869, that Wagner first met the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who quickly became a firm friend. Wagner's ideas were a major influence on Nietzsche, who was 31 years his junior. Nietzsche's first book, Die Geburt der Tragödie ("The Birth of Tragedy", 1872), was dedicated to Wagner. The relationship eventually soured, as Nietzsche became increasingly disillusioned with various aspects of Wagner's thought, such as his pacifism and anti-Semitism. In Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner", 1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (Nietzsche vs. Wagner, 1895), he would condemn Wagner as decadent and corrupt, even criticizing his earlier adulatory views of the composer.


Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Liszt, who was also his father-in-law, can be seen at the piano.
Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Liszt, who was also his father-in-law, can be seen at the piano.

Wagner, settled into his newfound domesticity, turned his energies toward completing the Ring cycle. At Ludwig's insistence, "special previews" of the first two works of the cycle, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich, but Wagner wanted the complete cycle to be performed in a new, specially-designed opera house.

In 1871, he decided on the small town of Bayreuth as the location of his new opera house. The Wagners moved there the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus ("Festival House") was laid. In order to raise funds for the construction, "Wagner societies" were formed in several cities, and Wagner himself began touring Germany conducting concerts. However, sufficient funds were only raised after King Ludwig stepped in with another large grant in 1874. Later that year, the Wagners moved into their permanent home at Bayreuth, a villa that Richard dubbed Wahnfried ("Peace/freedom from delusion/madness", in German).

The Festspielhaus finally opened in August 1876 with the premiere of the Ring cycle and has continued to be the site of the Bayreuth Festival ever since.

Final years

Memorial bust of Richard Wagner in Venice.
Memorial bust of Richard Wagner in Venice.
Grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner in the Garden of House Wahnfried
Grave of Richard and Cosima Wagner in the Garden of House Wahnfried

In 1877, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, during which he also wrote a series of increasingly reactionary essays on religion and art.

Wagner completed Parsifal in January 1882, and a second Bayreuth Festival was held for the new opera. Wagner was by this time extremely ill, having suffered through a series of increasingly severe angina attacks. During the sixteenth and final performance of Parsifal on August 29, he secretly entered the pit during Act III, took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi, and led the performance to its conclusion.

After the Festival, the Wagner family journeyed to Venice for the winter. On February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner died of a heart attack in the Palazzo Vendramin on the Grand Canal. His body was returned to Bayreuth and buried in the garden of Wahnfried.

Anti-Semitism and Nazi appropriation

During the 20th century, the public perception of Wagner increasingly centered on his anti-semitism, partly due to the appropriation of his music by elements of the Nazi hierarchy. Although Hitler was a Wagner enthusiast long before his rise to power, few party officials shared his taste in music. Still, Hitler held many of the composer's original scores in his Berlin bunker. Despite the pleadings of Wieland Wagner to have these important documents put in his care, Hitler kept the scores, even as the allied army was advancing on Berlin. The scores perished in the final days of the war.

Wagner promulgated many anti-semitic views over the course of his life, through both conversation and numerous writings. He frequently accused Jews, and in particular Jewish musicians, of being a harmful foreign element in Germany, and called for the abandonment of Jewish culture and their assimilation into German culture. Some scholars have argued that his operas also contain hidden anti-Semitic messages, but this claim is disputed. The arguments that purport to show that certain characters are anti-Semitic stereotypes are often so convoluted that one wonders how operagoers could possibly have been expected to recognise them as such. (The fact that many of these "hidden messages" in the operas were not discovered until the late 20th century in itself speaks volumes.) Furthermore, it seems significant that a composer who throughout his life published pamphlets explaining his thinking on many subjects (including his anti-Semitism) in great detail, and whose every casual conversation with his second wife was recorded in her diary and later published, never wrote or said anything to the effect that particular characters in his operas were meant to be understood in this way.

Wagner's first and most controversial anti-Semitic essay was "Das Judenthum in der Musik" ("Jewishness in Music"), which Wagner originally published under the pen-name "K. Freigedenk" ("free thought") in 1850 in the Neue Zeitschrift . The essay purported to explain "popular dislike" of the music of Jewish composers such as Wagner's contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their alien appearance and behavior — "freaks of Nature" blabbering in "creaking, squeaking, buzzing" voices — so that "with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them." He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, a parroting of true music, for they had no connection to "the genuine spirit of the Folk". In the conclusion to the essay, he wrote of the Jews that "only one thing can redeem you from the burden of your curse: the redemption of Ahasuerus — going under!" Although this has been taken to mean actual physical annihilation, in the context of the essay it refers to the eradication of Judaism and the conversion of Jews to Christianity; in essence he called for the complete assimilation of the Jews into mainstream German culture. The initial publication of the article attracted little attention, but Wagner republished it as a pamphlet under his own name in 1869, leading to several public protests at performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner attacked the Jews in several other essays. In "What is German?" (1878), for example, he wrote that

The Jew ... [took] German intellectual labour into his own hands; and thus we see an odious travesty of the German spirit upheld to-day before the German Folk, as its imputed likeness. It is to be feared, ere long the nation may really take this simulacrum for its mirrored image: then one of the finest natural dispositions in all the human race were done to death, perchance for ever.

In spite of his anti-Semitic writings, Wagner had an extensive network of Jewish friends and colleagues. The most notable of these was Hermann Levi, a practicing Jew whom Wagner chose to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, his last opera. Initially, Wagner wanted Levi to become baptized before conducting Parsifal, presumably due to the religious content of the opera, but he later dropped the issue. Levi maintained a close friendship with Wagner, and was asked to be a pallbearer at the composer's funeral. Historian Will Durant pointedly states that Wagner himself was Jewish, however there is no evidence of this. Nevertheless, during his childhood Wagner was known by the surname of his step-father, Ludwig Geyer. Geyer is a common surname among German Jews, though Ludwig himself had no known Jewish ancestors. Wagner may not have known this. His own physiognomy was later caricatured in a manner that resembles anti-Semitic images of the time (hooked nose and over-large head). The possibility that Geyer may have been his real father combined with sensitivity about his looks may have been a motive for Wagner's intense desire to stress his rejection of Jewishness and commitment to Germanness.

Wagner's own religious views are somewhat ambiguous, not in nature or of his devotion, but of what he believed. Wagner was an enthusiast for Jesus Christ, but insisted he was of Greek origin and not Jewish. He also insisted the Old Testament of the Bible had nothing to do with the New Testament, and that the God of Israel was not the same God he believed was the father of Jesus. Wagner criticised the Ten Commandants, claiming it lacked the mercy and love of Christian teachings. But, with some strong Christian values, many Christian friends, and numerous Jewish friends, he did attach himself to many vehement atheists. Most of his atheistic philosopher friends insisted, upon hearing he was working upon an opera titled Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus appear as a weak character. Overall, Richard Wagner is hard not to find anti-Semitic, but had varied religious views over his life and an odd mix of beliefs and friends.

After Wagner's death in 1883, Bayreuth became a meeting place for a group of extreme right-wing Wagner fans that came to be known as the Bayreuth circle, endorsed by Cosima, who was much more anti-Semitic than Richard. After the death of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner in 1930, the operation of the Festival fell to Siegfried's widow, English born Winifred, who was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler, who in turn was a fan of Wagner's music. The Nazis frequently played Wagner during their rallies. Certain scholars have argued that Wagner's views, particularly his anti-Semitism, influenced the Nazis, but these claims remain controversial. Many aspects of Wagner's worldview would certainly have been unappealing to the Nazis, such as his pacifism and calls for assimilation. It is also worth noting that Parsifal was never performed in the Third Reich because the Nazis considered it "ideologically unsound".

It is difficult to criticise someone for the views someone later in history had of him: Hitler's admiration for Wagner could not have been returned because Wagner died six years before Hitler was born (on April 20, 1889). Moreover, the political philosopher Leo Strauss argued, with his famous "Reductio ad Hitlerum", the absurdity of feeling one should dislike something just because Hitler liked it (or vice versa) since this would entail, for example, despising vegetarianism just because Hitler practiced it (and indeed considered it central to his ideas of Aryan purity).

Meanwhile Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim suggested a 614th commandment for Jews - "Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory." Whilst his specific meaning was that Jews should not assimilate (and thereby cease to be Jewish), one might also say one should not grant Hitler the victory of allowing his distorted and self-serving view of Wagner's operas to stand unchallenged.

Nevertheless, Wagner's works have been blacklisted in the modern state of Israel, and what few performances have occurred have evoked much controversy. Although they are commonly broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations, attempts at staging public performances have been halted by protests, especially by Holocaust survivors. For instance, after Daniel Barenboim conducted a passage from Tristan and Isolde as an encore at the 2001 Israel Festival, a parliamentary committee urged a boycott of the conductor, and an initially scheduled performance of Die Walküre had to be withdrawn. On another occasion, Zubin Mehta played Wagner in Israel in spite of walkouts and jeers from the audience.

Wagner's influence and legacy

Wagner's contributions to European art and culture are undeniable and monumental. In his lifetime, and for some years after, Wagner inspired fanatical devotion amongst his legions of fans, often considered by them to have a near god-like status. His music, Tristan und Isolde especially, caused a visible rupture in the continuum of music history. For years afterward, many composers felt compelled to consciously align themselves with or against Wagner. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf are indebted to him especially, as are Cesar Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner and dozens of others. Gustav Mahler said, "There was only Beethoven and Wagner". The twentieth century harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg were acknowledged as reactions to Tristan. It was Wagner who first demanded that the lights be dimmed during a dramatic performance of any kind, and it was his theater at Bayreuth which first made use of the orchestra pit.

Wagner's influence on literature and philosophy are also significant. Friedrich Nietzsche, author of the influential The Birth of Tragedy, initially worshipped Wagner, seeing in his music the possible rejuvenation of the European spirit. Nietzsche later broke with Wagner after Parsifal, believing that work represented a pandering to Christian pieties. In the twentieth century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner "perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived", while James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. Wagner is one of the main subjects of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which quotes from his operas. Stephane Mallarme, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire adored him. Many of the ideas his music brought up, such as the association between love and death (or Eros and Thanatos) in Tristan, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud.

As one of the most discussed cultural figures of his time, of course not everyone's reaction to Wagner was positive. Debussy, a generation later, frustrated by Wagner's enduring influence and the lack of public reception to his own works, called Wagner "that old poisoner". Johannes Brahms with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick led the conservative front against his innovations. None, however, could deny his influence. In today's world of space travel, the internet, and motion pictures, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend how Wagner's music could provoke such strong reactions, and some find his operas to be ludicrously grandiose and psychologically distressing. Although his advocates today may lack the absolute devotion he inspired in the past, his operas manage to maintain a strong interest and following. Though some may complain at their considerable length (echoing Gioacchino Rossini's famous comment that Wagner has "wonderful moments but awful quarters of an hour"), his great moments are undeniably great. Even today, many listeners find in Wagner a music of unsurpassed nobility, power, grandeur, and moments of transcendant beauty.

Links and references


Tristan und Isolde: Vorspiel (info)
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Selected readings

  • Magee, B., The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Metropolitan Books (2001)
  • Magee, B., Aspects of Wagner, Oxford University Press, (1988), ISBN 0-19-284012-6
  • Tanner, M., Wagner, Princeton University Press (1995)
  • Lee, M. Owen. Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.
  • Runciman, J.F., Wagner (1913). Project Gutenberg edition here.
  • Dahlhaus, C., Wagners Konzeption des musikalischen Dramas

External links

Wagner and his operas

See also

See also

  • Jim Steinman considers Richard Wagner to be his hero and created his own genre, dubbed Wagnerian Rock.
  • What's Opera, Doc?. A famous cartoon using Wagner's Ring music, in which the Ride of the Valkyries is sung by Elmer Fudd with the words "Kill the wabbit!"
  • Klaus Schulze (German electronic composer and Wagner admirer) dedicated his 1975 album Timewind to Wagner's death (two 30-min tracks, "Bayreuth Return" and "Wahnfried 1883"). He also used the alias Richard Wahnfried for a part of his discography.
  • Wagner tuba, the musical instrument created specially by Wagner

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