1813-1883 (mid- to late Romantic)
b. Leipzig; d. Venice
Who? – Stepson (and possibly actually son) of a small-town actor, Wagner’s first creative impulse was as a playwright; the desire to set music to his plays seems to have led him to take up music as a teenager, and almost all his compositions are in the field of opera, to libretti he wrote himself. He lived a peripatetic life: debt, political exile (Wagner was a socialist who took part in an attempted revolution as a young man), and public moral outrage (over his relationships with women; not only did the married Wagner sleep with the wife of the conductor of ‘Tristan and Isolde’, his opera about adultery, but when he impregnated her he had her name the resulting daughter ‘Isolde’ just to rub salt in the wound) forced him to move home repeatedly. [his travels spanned London, Venice and Riga, but he's particularly associated with Paris, Dresden, Munich, a villa on Lake Lucerne, and finally Bayreuth]. Against this insecurity, his greatest weapon was his unparalleled personal magnetism, which reduced otherwise intelligent men and women to obsequious submission, at least for a period of time (many of his adoring disciples, most famously Friedrich Nietzsche, later turned against him); he required his followers to refer to him as “Master”. Most important of his entourage was the gay, teenage King of Bavaria, whose enthusiasm was extreme even among Wagnerians – “O Holy One, I worship you!”, the king gushed; Wagner prevailed upon him to cancel his outstanding debts and provide large ‘loans’ (these, allied to other extravagancies, drove the king into debt, leading to his removal from power and possible murder). The culmination of Wagner’s improbable financial power – funded jointly by the infatuated monarch and by a mass-crowdfunding initiative by worldwide ‘Wagner societies’ – was the construction of Wagner’s own opera house in Bayreuth, dedicated to performing music by Wagner, with words by Wagner, in costumes designed by Wagner, in front of sets designed by Wagner, in a building designed and built by Wagner.
In his early career, however, he was penurious, forced to borrow money from Jewish composers who were more successful than him. Bitterness over this, combined with constant fears (and attacks by others) over his own ancestry (born in the Jewish quarter, possibly illegitimate; some speculated that his stepfather, who may have been his real father, may have been of Jewish ancestry) seems to have inspired a lifelong, passionate antisemitism; Wagner largely saw malign Jewish influence, and the dilution of Aryan blood through miscegenation, as imperilling the purity and strength of the German nation, and called for the Jews to commit “self-annihilation”. [oddly, this did not weaken the ardour of his many Jewish disciples, and he was even a favourite with early Zionists, until his posthumous adoption by the Nazis made him politically poisonous]. For most of his life, he was himself an ardent follower of Schopenhauer, with his philosophy of universal and inescapable suffering only temporarily relieved through contemplation of the transcendental works of the great composers; this philosophy and his nationalism lead him to an interest in pagan myth. Late in life, however, he increasingly embraced a mystical form Christianity, which he came to see as the unifying, salvific force in European nationhood.
What? – Wagner wrote opera. He wrote a couple of other things too, but they aren’t important. Early on, he attempted French-style Grand Opera, but grew increasingly convinced that music must be only the servant of drama. Accordingly, he later denied writing opera, and instead claimed to write “Total Music Works” or “Music Drama”: opera shorn of such decadent fripparies as memorable tunes (in his last works he backed off slightly from this extreme view) – instead, he developed on an unprecedented scale the use of ‘leitmotifs’, recurring thematic fragments that musicaly linked disparate parts of the whole, and provided narrative subtext to the listener (an approach that has gone on to dominate modern film scoring). This was only one aspect of his relentless innovation: he modernised orchestras (bigger!), instruments (deeper and louder!), singers (bigger and louder!), and structures (less structured!) but also, more importantly, harmony itself. Wagner led the drive to expand the Romantic musical language to functionally incorporate more and more ‘chromatic’ and ‘discordant’ sounds; this drive eventually lead to the total collapse of the three-century-old Common Practice. He is thus considered by many the father or grandfather of modernism, and 20th century music, from Serialism to Jazz, is deeply indebted to his experiments.
Such As? – It’s hard to point out the unmissable bits in Wagner, for two reasons: the first is that I’ve never been a Wagner fan and don’t know much about individual numbers in his works; the second is that he almost entirely composed large, through-written operas, from which it is is intentionally difficult to extract individual ‘pieces’ for tasting – most of the operas are not even divided into ‘numbers’, but only into huge indivisible ‘acts’.
The canon is easy enough to list. The core of his work is the goliath ‘Ring Cycle’, a fifteen hour epic pagan fantasy opera composed over decades and divided into four componant part (The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and The Twilight of the Gods. To this must be added his divisive final major work, the Christian-mystic ‘Parsifal’ (Max Reger reported: “I cried for two weeks and then became a musician”; Mark Twain noted, “I was not able to detect... anything that might with confidence be called rhythm, or tune, or melody”; Nietzsche opined, “I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics”), and the epochal, modernising ‘Tristan and Isolde’. In addition, there is the fellow late, lighter-hearted ‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’, and the three main earlier, more traditiona works: ‘Tannhauser’, ‘The Flying Dutchman’, and ‘Lohengrin’. The overture from his early attempt at grand opera, ‘Rienzi’, is also sometimes heard (particularly in Nazi Germany, where Hitler commanded it be played to open the Nuremberg Rallies).
As for individual parts of these works, two of the more conventional short fragments have entered the public consciousness: Lohengrin’s [ye god, why is that version sung by giant translucent-faced rats!? Presumably only to give people nightmares!], which has become the most common bridal march in Protestant ceremonies, and Valkyrie’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (note how that piece never actually ends, but just turns into something else...).
Anyway, a random bit from The Valkyrie – note both how this isn’t a coherent ‘song’, an aria, but a continually changing dramatic scene set to music, and also note the valkyrie leitmotifs in parts (shared with the ‘Ride’ music linked above). the death and funeral of Siegfried, a popular excerpt for orchestra – would John Williams, Howard Shore or Hans Zimmer exist without it? And a Romantic ending to put something like Star Wars to shame (of course, the Star Wars ending also doesn’t follow a world-destroying self-immolation, because Star Wars may be epic, but it’s not Wagner...).
And then there’s the most revolutionary work since the Eroica: [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L44Ml8K_mDg[/url]Tristan and Isolde[/url]. Composed after the first two parts of the Ring, but before the latter two, it is the piece that most famously and clearly demonstrates the decisive turn that Wagner imposed upon classical music. It contains music’s most controversial moment, the Tristan Chord – the fourth note heard in that link. It’s not particularly dissonant – certainly when compared to later controversies like the Electra Chord or the Petrushka Chord – but it has baffled theorists every since, and is seen as having heralded a reconfiguration of the classical tradition. Essentially, it clearly works in context, but nobody really knows why – what its “function” is in conventional harmonic theory. It appears to indicate a movement away from conventional harmonic progression toward an appreciation of sound itself – the chord recurs throughout the opera – or toward (back toward, perhaps, in the longer historical context) a harmony that arises from the concerns of melody. Wagner appears to have intended it as incorporating a functional duality – different chords, with different functions, played at the same time. Equally remarkable, however, is its “resolution” into another dissonance. This is a microcosm of how Tristan works as a whole: instead of the conventional alternation of (tension-raising) dissonance and (tension-relaxing) consonance, Tristan constantly “resolves” tension into tension, its cadences (like those of The Representation of Chaos decades earlier, on a grander scale) are all subverted, either through false resolutions or simply through interruption. This creates intense tension. The prelude, for example, continually builds tension for ten minutes – but does not resolve it, instead merely dying away. Tristan is, in effect, the transformation of music into a tantric sex practice: Wagner gives his audience cycles of mounting arousal, continually broken or diverted, continually delaying orgasm (no, literally – the clandestine lovers almost achieve a musical climax during the second act, but are interrupted at the last moment). Release is only granted four hours later, in the , where Isolde finally achieves the “supreme bliss” of death – four hours of music finally reach their first cadential resolution in the final chord of the opera, as the curtain is already descending...
No wonder people felt enraptured. No wonder others felt bewildered...
But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping
as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh
I'se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!