Richard Wagner Essay, Research Paper
One of the key figures in the history of opera, Wagner was largely responsible for altering its orientation in the nineteenth century. His program of artistic reform accelerated the trend towards organically conceived, through-composed structures, as well as influencing the development of the orchestra, of a new breed of singer, and of various aspects of theatrical practice. As the most influential composer during the second half of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner’s conception of music remains very much with us even a century after his death.
He was a remarkable innovator both in harmony and the structure of his work, creating his own version of the Gesamtkunstwerk, dramatic compositions in which the arts were brought together in a single unity. In the later part of his career Wagner enjoyed the support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and was finally able to establish his own theatre and festival at the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. He developed the use of the Leitmotiv (leading motif) as a principle of musical unity, his dramatic musical structure depending on the interweaving of melodies or fragments of melody associated with characters, incidents or ideas in the drama. It was not Wagner’s style of vocal composition in his Music Dramas that has remained so influential, but his orchestral language of chromatic tension and release, his brilliant use of instrumental tone color, and his flair for dramatic effects balanced with his long, sensually serene harmonic progressions that have become a mainstay in the arsenal of modern composers.
Wagner won his first operatic success in Dresden with the opera Rienzi, based on a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In Dresden he also gained much experience conducting the symphonies and overtures of Beethoven.
As a published writer, Wagner made his views known not only about music but also about literature, drama, and even political and moral issues. For Wagner, the function of music was to serve the ends of dramatic expression, and all of his most important compositions were composed for the theater. Particularly in Tannhauser, Wagner brilliantly adapted the substance of the German Romantic libretto to the framework of grand opera. The music evoked the opposite worlds of sin and blessedness with great emotional fervor and a luxuriant harmony and color. The Pilgrim’s Chorus from this opera contains what is perhaps Wagner’s most popular and widely known melody. Fatefully, despite his musical successes, things took a bad turn for Wagner when, in 1848, he was caught up in political revolution, and the next year he fled to Weimar where Franz Liszt helped him. Later he fled to Switzerland and France.
Lohengrin was first performed under the direction of Franz Liszt at Weimar in 1850, and it is the last of Wagner’s works that he ever referred to as an “opera.” Lohengrin embodies several changes prophetic of the Music Dramas that were to follow it. The story comes from medieval legend, but Wagner’s treatment is generalized and symbolic. The technique of recurring themes was further developed, particularly with respect to the motives associated with Lohengrin and the Grail. Using Weber’s Der Freisch?tz as a model to a certain extent, Wagner used tonality with his characters to help organize both the drama and the music: Lohengrin’s key is A Major, Elsa’s A-Flat or E-Flat, and the key for the evil personages is F-Sharp minor. Wagner’s use of varying keys in a symbolic manner greatly heightens the dramatic effect of the action on stage as well as the music itself.
In Zurich during his exile of 1850, Wagner wrote his ferociously anti-semitic tract: Jewishness In Music. In addition, he completed his basic statement on musical theater, Opera and Drama. Wagner began sketching the text and music for a series of monumental operas based on the Nordic and Germanic myths. By 1853 the texts for this four-night cycle of Music Dramas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs), were completed and published.
Wagner became involved in an extramarital affair with Mathilde Wesendonck who had fallen in love with him. Mrs. Wesendonck wrote love poems to Wagner that he set to music. This affair inspired the music drama Tristan and Isolde, which was first conceived in 1854 and completed five years later. The basic plot of Tristan is the theme of forbidden love. Wagner believed in the absolute oneness of drama and music: that the two are organically connected expressions of a single dramatic idea. The orchestration, then, is the chief factor in the music, and the vocal lines are part of the musical texture, not arias with accompaniment. The music is continuous throughout each act, not formally divided into the recitatives, arias, and set numbers. Harmonically, Tristan and Isolde stretches functional chromaticism to its very limits, and it is thought by many that Wagner’s intense usage of chromatics in this Music Drama represented for the first time the culmination of tonal harmonic possibilities.
The first two Ring Music Dramas were first performed in 1869 in Munich, on King Ludwig’s insistence, since Ludwig was still providing Wagner with an annual salary years after their first acquaintance. Wagner was very anxious to have a special festival opera house constructed for the complete cycle of The Ring, and he spent much energy trying to raise money for it. Eventually, when he had almost despaired, Ludwig came to the rescue, and in 1874, the year Wagner’s composition of the fourth opera The Twilight of the Gods was finished, King Ludwig provided the necessary funds.
Richard Wagner remains for many the most fascinating figure in nineteenth century music. His life and his music arouse passion like that of no other composer. Wagner’s works are hated as much as they are worshiped in the world, even today. Already at his time, he was a source of debate and controversy. When Wagner died in 1883, over 10.000 books and articles were written about him. The amount of research has multiplied after his death. Wagner inspired not only musicians and composers but artists alike, too. One of the most famous artists to illustrate Wagner’s operas was the noted 19th century German painter Ferdinand Leeke (1859-1925). As a man, Wagner was prepared to sacrifice his family and friends in the cause of his own music, and he will never be known otherwise.