Richard Wagner

I’m going to make you jump around this article a bit as it is more lengthy and detailed than is necessary for our purposes. That said, if you want to read a biography that makes the latest season of [insert favorite teen angst television drama title here] look like an innocent kindergarten playground, dive right in and read the whole thing. Pay special attention to the impact Wagner’s music has had on film scoring. Wagner has always inspired strong feelings among his supporters and detractors, and you’ll see that clearly in this page.

As a side note, how often would you say the phrase “the father of heavy metal” has appeared in our study of classical composers? Never? Really? Well the wait is over. Read on.


Figure 1. Richard Wagner

Figure 1. Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813–13 February 1883) was a German composer, theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is primarily known for his operas (or, as some of his later works were later known, “music dramas”). Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works in the romantic vein of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner revolutionised opera through his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), by which he sought to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, with music subsidiary to drama, and which was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised these ideas most fully in the first half of the four-opera cycleDer Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

His compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex textures, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs—musical phrases associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. His advances in musical language, such as extreme chromaticism and quickly shifting tonal centres, greatly influenced the development of classical music. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music.

Wagner had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which embodied many novel design features. It was here that the Ringand Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed in an annual festival run by his descendants. His thoughts on the relative contributions of music and drama in opera were to change again, and he reintroduced some traditional forms into his last few stage works, including Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg).

Until his final years, Wagner’s life was characterised by political exile, turbulent love affairs, poverty and repeated flight from his creditors. His controversial writings on music, drama and politics have attracted extensive comment in recent decades, especially where they express antisemitic sentiments. The effect of his ideas can be traced in many of the arts throughout the 20th century; their influence spread beyond composition into conducting, philosophy, literature, the visual arts and theatre.


Starting the Ring

Wagner’s late dramas are considered his masterpieces. Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly referred to as the Ring or “Ring cycle,” is a set of four operas based loosely on figures and elements of Germanic mythology—particularly from the later Norse mythology—notably the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Volsunga Saga, and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. Wagner specifically developed the libretti for these operas according to his interpretation of Stabreim, highly alliterative rhyming verse-pairs used in old Germanic poetry. They were also influenced by Wagner’s concepts of ancient Greek drama, in which tetralogies were a component of Athenian festivals, and which he had amply discussed in his essay “Oper und Drama.”

The first two components of the Ring cycle were Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), which was completed in 1854, and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), which was finished in 1856. In Das Rheingold, with its “relentlessly talky ‘realism’ [and] the absence of lyrical ‘numbers,'” Wagner came very close to the musical ideals of his 1849–51 essays. Die Walküre, which contains what is virtually a traditional aria (Siegmund’s Winterstürme in the first act), and the quasi-choral appearance of the Valkyries themselves, shows more “operatic” traits, but has been assessed by Barry Millington as “the music drama that most satisfactorily embodies the theoretical principles of ‘Oper und Drama.’ . . . A thoroughgoing synthesis of poetry and music is achieved without any notable sacrifice in musical expression.”

Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger

Figure 2. Franz Betz, who created the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, and sang Wotan in the first complete Ring cycle

Figure 2. Franz Betz, who created the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, and sang Wotan in the first complete Ring cycle

While composing the opera Siegfried, the third part of the Ring cycle, Wagner interrupted work on it and between 1857 and 1864 wrote the tragic love story Tristan und Isolde and his only mature comedy Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), two works that are also part of the regular operatic canon.

Tristan is often granted a special place in musical history; many see it as the beginning of the move away from conventional harmony and tonality and consider that it lays the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century. Wagner felt that his musico-dramatical theories were most perfectly realised in this work with its use of “the art of transition” between dramatic elements and the balance achieved between vocal and orchestral lines. Completed in 1859, the work was given its first performance in Munich, conducted by Bülow, in June 1865.

Die Meistersinger was originally conceived by Wagner in 1845 as a sort of comic pendant to Tannhäuser. Like Tristan, it was premiered in Munich under the baton of Bülow, on 21 June 1868, and became an immediate success. Barry Millington describes Meistersinger as “a rich, perceptive music drama widely admired for its warm humanity”; but because of its strong German nationalist overtones, it is also cited by some as an example of Wagner’s reactionary politics and antisemitism.

Completing the Ring

When Wagner returned to writing the music for the last act of Siegfried and for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), as the final part of the Ring, his style had changed once more to something more recognisable as “operatic” than the aural world of Rheingold and Walküre, though it was still thoroughly stamped with his own originality as a composer and suffused with leitmotifs. This was in part because the libretti of the four Ringoperas had been written in reverse order, so that the book for Götterdämmerung was conceived more “traditionally” than that of Rheingold; still, the self-imposed strictures of the Gesamtkunstwerk had become relaxed. The differences also result from Wagner’s development as a composer during the period in which he wrote Tristan, Meistersinger and the Paris version of Tannhäuser. From act 3 of Siegfried onwards, the Ringbecomes more chromatic melodically, more complex harmonically and more developmental in its treatment of leitmotifs.

Wagner took 26 years from writing the first draft of a libretto in 1848 until he completed Götterdämmerung in 1874. The Ring takes about 15 hours to perform and is the only undertaking of such size to be regularly presented on the world’s stages.

Influence on Music

Wagner’s later musical style introduced new ideas in harmony, melodic process (leitmotif) and operatic structure. Notably from Tristan und Isolde onwards, he explored the limits of the traditional tonal system, which 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, which include the so-called Tristan chord.

Figure 3. Gustav Mahler

Figure 3. Gustav Mahler

Wagner inspired great devotion. For a long period, many composers were inclined to align themselves with or against Wagner’s music. Anton Bruckner and Hugo Wolf were greatly indebted to him, as were César Franck, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson, Jules Massenet, Richard Strauss,Alexander von Zemlinsky, Hans Pfitzner and numerous others. Gustav Mahler was devoted to Wagner and his music; aged 15, he sought him out on his 1875 visit to Vienna, became a renowned Wagner conductor, and his compositions are seen by Richard Taruskin as extending Wagner’s “maximalization” of “the temporal and the sonorous” in music to the world of the symphony. The harmonic revolutions of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg (both of whose oeuvres contain examples of tonal and atonal modernism) have often been traced back to Tristanand Parsifal. The Italian form of operatic realism known as verismo owed much to the Wagnerian concept of musical form.

Wagner made a major contribution to the principles and practice of conducting. His essay “About Conducting” (1869) advanced Hector Berlioz’s technique of conducting and claimed that conducting was a means by which a musical work could be re-interpreted, rather than simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. He exemplified this approach in his own conducting, which was significantly more flexible than the disciplined approach of Mendelssohn; in his view this also justified practices that would today be frowned upon, such as the rewriting of scores. Wilhelm Furtwängler felt that Wagner and Bülow, through their interpretative approach, inspired a whole new generation of conductors (including Furtwängler himself).

Amongst those claiming inspiration from Wagner’s music are the German band Rammstein, and the electronic composer Klaus Schulze, whose 1975 album Timewind consists of two 30-minute tracks, Bayreuth Return and Wahnfried 1883. Joey DeMaio of the band Manowar has described Wagner as “The father of heavy metal.” The Slovenian groupLaibach created the 2009 suite VolksWagner, using material from Wagner’s operas. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recording technique was, it has been claimed, heavily influenced by Wagner.