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Richard Wagner - Composer

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He was ugly, he was opinionated and he dominated the music of the late 19th Century. He was Richard Wagner. His followers revered him as a god, calling him the 'Master'. His enemies considered his music to be long-winded sentimental drivel. More books have been written about him and his music than about any other composer. Love him or hate him, you just can't ignore him.

Opera Composer

Wagner was a composer. He composed operas. Long ones. Depending on your point of view, his operas are either the most sublime pieces of music ever written or the most long-winded boring pieces of rubbish. Opinions about Wagner rarely take the middle ground. But both sides will agree that his operas are long. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is about 4 hours, all told. The first act of Parsifal alone is nearly two hours. And his most famous work, The Ring of the Nibelung, is so big that it is split up into four separate operas, three of which are about four hours long. Rossini said of Wagner that 'he had some good moments but some dreadful quarter-hours'.

A Short Biography

Born in 1813 in Leipzig, Germany into a theatrical family, Wagner studied music at school but taught himself composing by studying opera scores and the symphonies of Beethoven. He started work as a choir master and moved from job to job, becoming conductor, then opera director. From the age of 20, he wrote operas and dedicated his life to the cause of opera.

In 1849, he was involved in an attempted revolution in Dresden and had to flee to Switzerland, where he stayed for 11 years.

In 1864, he was in danger of being imprisoned for his debts, but was rescued by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was a great admirer. The King set him up in Munich with facilities for opera production. Here he fell in love with Cosima von Bülow (daughter of the pianist Franz Liszt) who was married to the conductor Hans von Bülow. When Cosima abandoned her husband and married Wagner, the subsequent scandal forced him to flee to Switzerland again. He soon returned to Germany and settled in Bayreuth, a small town in Bavaria, where he built his own opera theatre.

He died in 1873, while on a trip to Venice.

A New Type of Music

German is Best

Although orchestral music at the time was dominated by German-speaking composers, opera was much more in the hands of the French and Italians. Even the great Mozart, 100 years earlier, had written most of his operas in Italian. Wagner decided that this wasn't good enough. He set about establishing a new kind of opera which was German through and through. He wrote the words and music himself and based them on old German or Northern European legends. He outlawed the word 'opera' in his presence, preferring the term 'music-drama'.


Opera at the time of Wagner consisted mainly of songs accompanied by an orchestra. These songs were known as arias and had a definite beginning, middle and end to them. The audience would applaud at the end of the song. Wagner changed all that. His operas have no definite songs. Instead, short snippets of tunes are assigned to different characters, as well as to concepts such as good and evil and objects such as the Holy Grail and the Rhine river. These are then entwined together to make a huge tapestry of music in which the singers play a part but the orchestra is equally important. These tune fragments are called leading motives or Leitmotif (in German, Leitmotive).

Play it Loud

Although other composers before him had experimented with big orchestras, particularly Berlioz, Wagner was the first to take loud music really seriously. He demanded huge orchestras to increase the volume, and he asked for new instruments to be designed to fill in gaps in the texture. The Wagner Tuba, a type of large French horn, is still used in some works.


Wagner was probably the big-head to end all big-heads. Being adored encouraged him. He did outrageous things, made outrageous statements and was applauded for them. When composing, he surrounded himself with silks and perfumes, as the sensual delights encouraged his creativity.

He married Cosima Liszt, despite the fact that she was already the wife of one of his devotees, Hans Von Bulow. (Von Bulow never criticised him for this, as anything the Master did was OK by him). He once danced through an entire performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, to illustrate his point that the symphony was 'the embodiment of dance'. He insisted that there should be no applause at the end his opera Parsifal, because the last scene depicted a sacred rite; the audience should leave in silence.

Many of Wagner's outrageous acts were accepted so completely that they are now considered the norm; he was definitely a man ahead of his time. He insisted that there should be no applause in the middle of pieces of music such as symphonies, and that the audience should be silent during the performance. Up to this time, it was normal for the audience to chat and engage in the 19th Century equivalent of eating popcorn. Wagner wouldn't allow any of this; he considered the music to be sacred and the opera house a temple of music.

Another thing he did was to change the speeds at which Beethoven's 9th Symphony was performed, to make it more dramatic. This practice became standard and was passed on from conductor to conductor right down to the present day. Only in the last few years has anyone attempted to reconstruct what Beethoven, rather than Wagner, really wanted the symphony to sound like.

A New Opera House

Wagner searched for a long time for the perfect opera house, where everything would be as he wanted it. He eventually decided that he would have to build it himself. He chose the town of Bayreuth in Bavaria as the setting and the construction was begun. Bayreuth is still the centre of Wagner worship to this day.

Main Works

(The dates show the first production of each opera)

  • Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman - 1843) tells the story of a sea captain who is fated to sail the seas forever, unless he can find love. The opera was written before Wagner had fully developed his leading motive style. It has some great choruses and wonderful storm music.

  • Tannhäuser (1845) features the 'Pilgrim's Chorus'.

  • Lohengrin (1850) has the 'Bridal Chorus', known in the English-speaking world as 'Here Comes the Bride'.

  • Tristan und Isolde (1865) is famous for its last scene in which Isolde dies, while simultaneously singing louder than a 75-piece orchestra

  • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nürnberg - 1868) was intended as a comic opera, but don't expect Gilbert and Sullivan. Wagner's sense of humour leaves a lot to be desired. The story is about a singing competition set in medieval Germany. A wonderful work, but also the longest mainstream opera ever written.

  • Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a huge work comprising four operas. It was intended to be performed on four successive nights. It tells the story of a magic ring made by the dwarf Alberich from gold stolen from the Rhine. The plot is vast and complicated and revolves around the god Wotan, the hero Siegfried and the wild horsewoman of the air, Brünnhilde.

    • Das Rheingold ('The Rhinegold' - 1869). A short (two hour) prelude to the main three operas.
    • Die Walküre ('The Valkyrie' - 1870). This features the famous 'Ride of the Valkyries'
    • Siegfried (1876). The tale continues.
    • Götterdämmerung ('The Twilight of the Gods' - 1876). The gods get their come-uppance.

  • Parsifal (1882) tells a story about the Holy Grail. It is long, slow and loud. More than any other, this opera could be accused of having only one tune. But what a tune!

Wagner and the Nazis

Many people link Wagner's music to the Nazis. This gives music lovers an uneasy feeling when admitting to liking Wagner.

Here are the facts:

  • Wagner died in 1883. The National Socialist (Nazi) Party was not created until around 1920.

  • The Nazis promoted Wagner's music because it was purely German, being sung in German and based on Germanic legends.

  • Wagner, like many other Europeans of the time, did not like Jews.

  • Wagner's anti-Semitism does not appear in any form in his operas. Nor do his operas assert the superiority of the German race.

There is therefore no need to worry about this tenuous link.

Music since Wagner

Wagner had an enormous influence on all music. At first, only his own followers adopted his style, his enemies going out of their way to do quite the opposite. His devotees, Mahler and Bruckner, produced vast symphonies in the Wagnerian style.

One of the greatest Italian opera composers, Verdi, was prompted to come out of retirement and write two great operas in a similar vein, Falstaff and Otello. Puccini, arguably the greatest Italian opera composer, has a style which is very much in the Wagnerian spirit, although he still throws in the occasional aria.

By the 20th Century, the Wagner/anti-Wagner feud had simmered down and composers looked upon the Wagnerian style as one among many, to be used where appropriate. Traces of it can be found in most composers' work, particularly that of Elgar and in Schoenberg's early work.

One final chapter in the history of Wagnerian music must be mentioned - the Hollywood film industry. Composers in the tradition of Wagner wrote the first music for the film industry, in particular Korngold. This became the norm for most action films and the strains of Wagnerian music are familiar to us all through the background music of the films we watch. This explains the comment many people make on first listening to the real Wagner: 'But it's just like film music!'.

Some Quotations About Wagner

The most extraordinary work of the whole of our history of culture - doubly extraordinary because it is miles ahead of our time. - Grieg, on The Ring

When I came out of the 'Festspielhaus', unable to speak a word, I knew that I had experienced supreme greatness and supreme suffering, and that this experience, hallowed and unsullied, would stay with me for the rest of my life. - Mahler on the first performance of Parsifal

A milestone in the history of art. - Tchaikovsky on the first Bayreuth Festival

One cannot judge 'Lohengrin' from a first hearing, and I certainly do not intend to hear it a second time. - Rossini

Richard Wagner was a musician who wrote music which is better than it sounds. - Mark Twain

I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time. - Oscar Wilde

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