Wilhelm Richard Wagner

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (/ˈvɑːɡnər/; German: <ˈʁiçaʁt ˈvaːɡnɐ>; 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 cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).

You are watching: Wagner pushed major-minor tonality to extreme limits with his style of chromatic harmony.

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 Ring and 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.


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Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer (1835), by Alexander von Otterstedt 

In 1833, Wagner’s brother Albert managed to obtain for him a position as choir master at the theatre in Würzburg.  In the same year, at the age of 20, Wagner composed his first complete opera, Die Feen (The Fairies). This work, which imitated the style of Weber, went unproduced until half a century later, when it was premiered in Munich shortly after the composer’s death in 1883.

Having returned to Leipzig in 1834, Wagner held a brief appointment as musical director at the opera house in Magdeburg during which he wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. This was staged at Magdeburg in 1836 but closed before the second performance; this, together with the financial collapse of the theatre company employing him, left the composer with serious money problems. Wagner had fallen for one of the leading ladies at Magdeburg, the actress Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer. After the disaster of Das Liebesverbot he followed her to Königsberg where she helped him to get an engagement at the theatre.  The two married in Tragheim Church on 24 November 1836.  In May 1837, Minna left Wagner for another man; this was but the first débâcle of a troubled marriage. In June 1837, Wagner moved to Riga (then in the Russian Empire), where he became music director of the local opera; having in this capacity engaged Minna’s sister Amalie (also a singer) for the theatre, he presently resumed relations with Minna during 1838.

By 1839, the couple had amassed such large debts that they fled Riga to avoid their creditors; debt would plague Wagner for most of his life.  Initially they took a stormy sea passage to London, from which Wagner drew the inspiration for Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), with a plot based on a sketch by Heinrich Heine.  The Wagners arrived in Paris in September 1839 and stayed there until 1842. Richard made a scant living writing articles and arranging operas by other composers, largely on behalf of the Schlesinger publishing house. He also completed during this stay his third and fourth operas Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer.

Dresden (1842–49)


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Warrant for the arrest of Richard Wagner, issued on 16 May 1849 

Wagner was to spend the next twelve years in exile from Germany. He had completed Lohengrin, the last of his middle-period operas, before the Dresden uprising, and now wrote desperately to his friend Franz Liszt to have it staged in his absence. Liszt conducted the premiere in Weimar in August 1850.

Nevertheless, Wagner was in grim personal straits, isolated from the German musical world and without any regular income. In 1850, Julie, the wife of his friend Karl Ritter, began to pay him a small pension which she maintained until 1859. With help from her friend Jessie Laussot this was to have been augmented to an annual sum of 3000 Thalers per year; but this plan was abandoned when Wagner began an affair with Mme. Laussot. Wagner even planned an elopement with her in 1852, which her husband prevented. Meanwhile, Wagner’s wife Minna, who had disliked the operas he had written after Rienzi, was falling into a deepening depression. Wagner fell victim to ill-health, according to Ernest Newman “largely a matter of overwrought nerves”, which made it difficult for him to continue writing.

Wagner’s primary published output during his first years in Zürich was a set of essays. In “The Artwork of the Future” (1849), he described a vision of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), in which the various arts such as music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stagecraft were unified. “Judaism in Music” (1850) was the first of Wagner’s writings to feature antisemitic views. In this polemic Wagner argued, frequently using traditional antisemitic abuse, that Jews had no connection to the German spirit, and were thus only capable of producing shallow and artificial music. According to him, they composed music to achieve popularity and, thereby, financial success, as opposed to creating genuine works of art.

In “Opera and Drama” (1851), Wagner described the aesthetics of drama that he was using to create the Ring operas. Before leaving Dresden, Wagner had drafted a scenario that eventually became the four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. He initially wrote the libretto for a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), in 1848. After arriving in Zürich he expanded the story with the opera Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), which explored the hero’s background. He completed the text of the cycle by writing the libretti for Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and revising the other libretti to agree with his new concept, completing them in 1852. The concept of opera expressed in “Opera and Drama” and in other essays effectively renounced the operas he had previously written, up to and including Lohengrin. Partly in an attempt to explain his change of views, Wagner published in 1851 the autobiographical “A Communication to My Friends”. This contained his first public announcement of what was to become the Ring cycle:

I shall never write an Opera more. As I have no wish to invent an arbitrary title for my works, I will call them Dramas …

I propose to produce my myth in three complete dramas, preceded by a lengthy Prelude (Vorspiel). …

At a specially-appointed Festival, I propose, some future time, to produce those three Dramas with their Prelude, in the course of three days and a fore-evening .

Wagner began composing the music for Das Rheingold between November 1853 and September 1854, following it immediately with Die Walküre (written between June 1854 and March 1856). He began work on the third Ring opera, which he now called simply Siegfried, probably in September 1856, but by June 1857 he had completed only the first two acts before deciding to put the work aside to concentrate on a new idea: Tristan und Isolde, based on the Arthurian love story Tristan and Iseult.


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Portrait of Ludwig II of Bavaria about the time when he first met Wagner, by Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865 

In Biebrich, Wagner at last began work on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only mature comedy. Wagner wrote a first draft of the libretto in 1845, and he had resolved to develop it during a visit he had made to Venice with the Wesendoncks in 1860, where he was inspired by Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin.  Throughout this period (1861–64) Wagner sought to have Tristan und Isolde produced in Vienna. Despite numerous rehearsals, the opera remained unperformed, and gained a reputation as being “impossible” to sing, which added to Wagner’s financial problems.

Wagner’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn in 1864, when King Ludwig II succeeded to the throne of Bavaria at the age of 18. The young king, an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, had the composer brought to Munich.  The King, who was homosexual, expressed in his correspondence a passionate personal adoration for the composer, and Wagner in his responses had no scruples about counterfeiting a similar atmosphere. Ludwig settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and proposed to stage Tristan, Die Meistersinger, the Ring, and the other operas Wagner planned. Wagner also began to dictate his autobiography, Mein Leben, at the King’s request. Wagner noted that his rescue by Ludwig coincided with news of the death of his earlier mentor (but later supposed enemy) Giacomo Meyerbeer, and regretted that “this operatic master, who had done me so much harm, should not have lived to see this day.”

After grave difficulties in rehearsal, Tristan und Isolde premiered at the National Theatre Munich on 10 June 1865, the first Wagner opera premiere in almost 15 years. (The premiere had been scheduled for 15 May, but was delayed by bailiffs acting for Wagner’s creditors, and also because the Isolde, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, was hoarse and needed time to recover.) The conductor of this premiere was Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had given birth in April that year to a daughter, named Isolde, a child not of Bülow but of Wagner.

Cosima was 24 years younger than Wagner and was herself illegitimate, the daughter of the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Franz Liszt. Liszt initially disapproved of his daughter’s involvement with Wagner, though nevertheless the two men were friends.  The indiscreet affair scandalised Munich, and Wagner also fell into disfavour with many leading 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 to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him.


Ludwig installed Wagner at the Villa Tribschen, beside Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Die Meistersinger was completed at Tribschen in 1867, and premiered in Munich on 21 June the following year. At Ludwig’s insistence, “special previews” of the first two works of the Ring, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, were performed at Munich in 1869 and 1870, but Wagner retained his dream, first expressed in “A Communication to My Friends”, to present the first complete cycle at a special festival with a new, dedicated, opera house.

Minna had died of a heart attack on 25 January 1866 in Dresden. Wagner did not attend the funeral. Following Minna’s death Cosima wrote to Hans von Bülow on a number of occasions asking him to grant her a divorce, but Bülow refused to concede this. He only consented after she had two more children with Wagner; another daughter, named Eva, after the heroine of Meistersinger, and a son Siegfried, named for the hero of the Ring. The divorce was finally sanctioned, after delays in the legal process, by a Berlin court on 18 July 1870.  Richard and Cosima’s wedding took place on 25 August 1870.  On Christmas Day of that year, Wagner arranged a surprise performance (its premiere) of the Siegfried Idyll for Cosima’s birthday.  The marriage to Cosima lasted to the end of Wagner’s life.

Wagner, settled into his new-found domesticity, turned his energies towards completing the Ring cycle. He had not abandoned polemics: he republished his 1850 pamphlet “Judaism in Music”, originally issued under a pseudonym, under his own name in 1869. He extended the introduction, and wrote a lengthy additional final section. The publication led to several public protests at early performances of Die Meistersinger in Vienna and Mannheim.

Bayreuth (1871–76)

In 1871, Wagner decided to move to Bayreuth, which was to be the location of his new opera house.  The town council donated a large plot of land—the “Green Hill”—as a site for the theatre. The Wagners moved to the town the following year, and the foundation stone for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (“Festival Theatre”) was laid. Wagner initially announced the first Bayreuth Festival, at which for the first time the Ring cycle would be presented complete, for 1873, but since Ludwig had declined to finance the project, the start of building was delayed and the proposed date for the festival was deferred. To raise funds for the construction, “Wagner societies” were formed in several cities, and Wagner began touring Germany conducting concerts.  By the spring of 1873, only a third of the required funds had been raised; further pleas to Ludwig were initially ignored, but early in 1874, with the project on the verge of collapse, the King relented and provided a loan.  The full building programme included the family home, “Wahnfried”, into which Wagner, with Cosima and the children, moved from their temporary accommodation on 18 April 1874. The theatre was completed in 1875, and the festival scheduled for the following year. Commenting on the struggle to finish the building, Wagner remarked to Cosima: “Each stone is red with my blood and yours”.


For the design of the Festspielhaus, Wagner appropriated some of the ideas of his former colleague, Gottfried Semper, which he had previously solicited for a proposed new opera house at Munich. Wagner was responsible for several theatrical innovations at Bayreuth; these include darkening the auditorium during performances, and placing the orchestra in a pit out of view of the audience.

The Festspielhaus finally opened on 13 August 1876 with Das Rheingold, at last taking its place as the first evening of the complete Ring cycle; the 1876 Bayreuth Festival therefore saw the premiere of the complete cycle, performed as a sequence as the composer had intended. The 1876 Festival consisted of three full Ring cycles (under the baton of Hans Richter).  At the end, critical reactions ranged between that of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who thought the work “divinely composed”, and that of the French newspaper Le Figaro, which called the music “the dream of a lunatic”.  Amongst the disillusioned were Wagner’s friend and disciple Friedrich Nietzsche, who, having published his eulogistic essay “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” before the festival as part of his Untimely Meditations, was bitterly disappointed by what he saw as Wagner’s pandering to increasingly exclusivist German nationalism; his breach with Wagner began at this time. The festival firmly established Wagner as an artist of European, and indeed world, importance: attendees included Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, Anton Bruckner, Camille Saint-Saëns and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Wagner was far from satisfied with the Festival; Cosima recorded that months later, his attitude towards the productions was “Never again, never again!” Moreover, the festival finished with a deficit of about 150,000 marks. The expenses of Bayreuth and of Wahnfried meant that Wagner still sought additional sources of income by conducting or taking on commissions such as the Centennial March for America, for which he received $5000.

Last Years (1876–83)

Following the first Bayreuth Festival, Wagner began work on Parsifal, his final opera. The composition took four years, much of which Wagner spent in Italy for health reasons.  From 1876 to 1878 Wagner also embarked on the last of his documented emotional liaisons, this time with Judith Gautier, whom he had met at the 1876 Festival.  Wagner was also much troubled by problems of financing Parsifal, and by the prospect of the work being performed by other theatres than Bayreuth. He was once again assisted by the liberality of King Ludwig, but was still forced by his personal financial situation in 1877 to sell the rights of several of his unpublished works (including the Siegfried Idyll) to the publisher Schott.


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

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 Ring operas 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 Ring becomes 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.

Parsifal

Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal (1882), which was his only work written especially for his Bayreuth Festspielhaus and which is described in the score as a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” (“festival play for the consecration of the stage”), has a storyline suggested by elements of the legend of the Holy Grail. It also carries elements of Buddhist renunciation suggested by Wagner’s readings of Schopenhauer. Wagner described it to Cosima as his “last card”.  It remains controversial because of its treatment of Christianity, its eroticism, and its expression, as perceived by some commentators, of German nationalism and antisemitism. Despite the composer’s own description of the opera to King Ludwig as “this most Christian of works”, Ulrike Kienzle has commented that “Wagner’s turn to Christian mythology, upon which the imagery and spiritual contents of Parsifal rest, is idiosyncratic and contradicts Christian dogma in many ways.”Musically the opera has been held to represent a continuing development of the composer’s style, and Barry Millington describes it as “a diaphanous score of unearthly beauty and refinement”.

Non-operatic music


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André Gill suggesting that Wagner’s music was ear-splitting. Cover of L’Éclipse 18 April 1869 

Apart from his operas, Wagner composed relatively few pieces of music. These include a symphony in C major (written at the age of 19), the Faust Overture (the only completed part of an intended symphony on the subject), some overtures, and choral and piano pieces. His most commonly performed work that is not an extract from an opera is the Siegfried Idyll for chamber orchestra, which has several motifs in common with the Ring cycle.  The Wesendonck Lieder are also often performed, either in the original piano version, or with orchestral accompaniment. More rarely performed are the American Centennial March (1876), and Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love Feast of the Apostles), a piece for male choruses and orchestra composed in 1843 for the city of Dresden.

After completing Parsifal, Wagner expressed his intention to turn to the writing of symphonies, and several sketches dating from the late 1870s and early 1880s have been identified as work towards this end.  The overtures and certain orchestral passages from Wagner’s middle and late-stage operas are commonly played as concert pieces. For most of these, Wagner wrote or rewrote short passages to ensure musical coherence. The “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin is frequently played as the bride’s processional wedding march in English-speaking countries.

Prose writings

Wagner was an extremely prolific writer, authoring numerous books, poems, and articles, as well as voluminous correspondence. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including autobiography, politics, philosophy, and detailed analyses of his own operas.

Wagner planned for a collected edition of his publications as early as 1865; he believed that such an edition would help the world understand his intellectual development and artistic aims. The first such edition was published between 1871 and 1883, but was doctored to suppress or alter articles that were an embarrassment to him (e.g. those praising Meyerbeer), or by altering dates on some articles to reinforce Wagner’s own account of his progress. Wagner’s autobiography Mein Leben was originally published for close friends only in a very small edition (15–18 copies per volume) in four volumes between 1870 and 1880. The first public edition (with many passages suppressed by Cosima) appeared in 1911; the first attempt at a full edition (in German) appeared in 1963.

There have been modern complete or partial editions of Wagner’s writings, including a centennial edition in German edited by Dieter Borchmeyer (which, however, omitted the essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” and Mein Leben). The English translations of Wagner’s prose in eight volumes by W. Ashton Ellis (1892–99) are still in print and commonly used, despite their deficiencies. A complete edition of Wagner’s correspondence, estimated to amount to between 10,000 and 12,000 items, is still under way under the supervision of the Institute for Music Research at the University of Würzburg. As of November 2014, 21 volumes have appeared, covering the period to 1870.

Influence and Legacy

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.


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 Tristan and 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 group Laibach 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.

Influence on Literature, Philosophy and the Visual Arts


Wagner’s influence on literature and philosophy is significant. Millington has commented:

protean abundance meant that he could inspire the use of literary motif in many a novel employing interior monologue; … the Symbolists saw him as a mystic hierophant; the Decadents found many a frisson in his work.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a member of Wagner’s inner circle during the early 1870s, and his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, proposed Wagner’s music as the Dionysian “rebirth” of European culture in opposition to Apollonian rationalist “decadence”. Nietzsche broke with Wagner following the first Bayreuth Festival, believing that Wagner’s final phase represented a pandering to Christian pieties and a surrender to the new German Reich. Nietzsche expressed his displeasure with the later Wagner in “The Case of Wagner” and “Nietzsche contra Wagner”.

Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine worshipped Wagner.Édouard Dujardin, whose influential novel Les Lauriers sont coupés is in the form of an interior monologue inspired by Wagnerian music, founded a journal dedicated to Wagner, La Revue Wagnérienne, to which J. K. Huysmans and Téodor de Wyzewa contributed.  In a list of major cultural figures influenced by Wagner, Bryan Magee includes D. H. Lawrence, Aubrey Beardsley, Romain Rolland, Gérard de Nerval, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Rainer Maria Rilke and numerous others.

In the 20th century, W. H. Auden once called Wagner “perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived”, while Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust were heavily influenced by him and discussed Wagner in their novels. He is also discussed in some of the works of James Joyce.  Wagnerian themes inhabit T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which contains lines from Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung and Verlaine’s poem on Parsifal.

Many of Wagner’s concepts, including his speculation about dreams, predated their investigation by Sigmund Freud. Wagner had publicly analysed the Oedipus myth before Freud was born in terms of its psychological significance, insisting that incestuous desires are natural and normal, and perceptively exhibiting the relationship between sexuality and anxiety. Georg Groddeck considered the Ring as the first manual of psychoanalysis.

Influence on Cinema

Wagner’s concept of the use of leitmotifs and the integrated musical expression which they can enable has influenced many 20th and 21st century film scores. The critic Theodor Adorno has noted that the Wagnerian leitmotif “leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmotif is to announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily”. Amongst film scores citing Wagnerian themes are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which features a version of the Ride of the Valkyries, Trevor Jones’s soundtrack to John Boorman’s film Excalibur, and the 2011 films A Dangerous Method (dir. David Cronenberg) and Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier). Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 1977 film Hitler: A Film from Germany’s visual style and set design are strongly inspired by Der Ring des Nibelungen, musical excerpts from which are frequently used in the film’s soundtrack.

Opponents and supporters


Not all reaction to Wagner was positive. For a time, German musical life divided into two factions, supporters of Wagner and supporters of Johannes Brahms; the latter, with the support of the powerful critic Eduard Hanslick (of whom Beckmesser in Meistersinger is in part a caricature) championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations. They were supported by the conservative leanings of some German music schools, including the conservatories at Leipzig under Ignaz Moscheles and at Cologne under the direction of Ferdinand Hiller. Another Wagner detractor was the French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who wrote to Hiller after attending Wagner’s Paris concert on 25 January 1860 at which Wagner conducted the overtures to Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser, the preludes to Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde, and six other extracts from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin: “I had imagined that I was going to meet music of an innovative kind but was astonished to find a pale imitation of Berlioz… I do not like all the music of Berlioz while appreciating his marvellous understanding of certain instrumental effects… but here he was imitated and caricatured… Wagner is not a musician, he is a disease.”

Even those who, like Debussy, opposed Wagner (“this old poisoner”) could not deny his influence. Indeed, Debussy was one of many composers, including Tchaikovsky, who felt the need to break with Wagner precisely because his influence was so unmistakable and overwhelming. “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” from Debussy’s Children’s Corner piano suite contains a deliberately tongue-in-cheek quotation from the opening bars of Tristan. Others who proved resistant to Wagner’s operas included Gioachino Rossini, who said “Wagner has wonderful moments, and dreadful quarters of an hour.”  In the 20th century Wagner’s music was parodied by Paul Hindemith and Hanns Eisler, among others.

Wagner’s followers (known as Wagnerians or Wagnerites) have formed many societies dedicated to Wagner’s life and work.

Film and Stage Portrayals

Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream (2007) intertwines the events surrounding Wagner’s death with the story of Wagner’s uncompleted opera outline Die Sieger (The Victors).

Bayreuth Festival

Since Wagner’s death, the Bayreuth Festival, which has become an annual event, has been successively directed by his widow, his son Siegfried, the latter’s widow Winifred Wagner, their two sons Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, and, presently, two of the composer’s great-granddaughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner. Since 1973, the festival has been overseen by the Richard-Wagner-Stiftung (Richard Wagner Foundation), the members of which include a number of Wagner’s descendants.

Controversies

Wagner’s operas, writings, politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle made him a controversial figure during his lifetime.  Following his death, debate about his ideas and their interpretation, particularly in Germany during the 20th century, has continued.

Racism and Antisemitism


Wagner’s writings on the Jews corresponded to some existing trends of thought in Germany during the 19th century; however, despite his very public views on these themes, throughout his life Wagner had Jewish friends, colleagues and supporters. There have been frequent suggestions that antisemitic stereotypes are represented in Wagner’s operas. The characters of Mime in the Ring, Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, and Klingsor in Parsifal are sometimes claimed as Jewish representations, though they are not identified as such in the librettos of these operas. The topic of Wagner and the Jews is further complicated by allegations, which may have been credited by Wagner, that he himself was of Jewish ancestry, via his supposed father Geyer.

Some biographers have asserted that Wagner in his final years came to believe in the racialist philosophy of Arthur de Gobineau, notably Gobineau’s belief that Western society was doomed because of miscegenation between “superior” and “inferior” races. According to Robert Gutman, this theme is reflected in the opera Parsifal. Other biographers (such as Lucy Beckett) believe that this is not true, as the original drafts of the story date back to 1857 and Wagner had completed the libretto for Parsifal by 1877; but he displayed no significant interest in Gobineau until 1880.

Other Interpretations

Wagner’s ideas are amenable to socialist interpretations; many of his ideas on art were being formulated at the time of his revolutionary inclinations in the 1840s. Thus, for example, George Bernard Shaw wrote in The Perfect Wagnerite (1883):

picture of Niblunghome under the reign of Alberic is a poetic vision of unregulated industrial capitalism as it was made known in Germany in the middle of the 19th century by Engels’s book “The Condition of the Working Class in England”.

Left-wing interpretations of Wagner also inform the writings of Theodor Adorno among other Wagner critics. Walter Benjamin gave Wagner as an example of “bourgeois false consciousness”, alienating art from its social context.

The writer Robert Donington has produced a detailed, if controversial, Jungian interpretation of the Ring cycle, described as “an approach to Wagner by way of his symbols”, which, for example, sees the character of the goddess Fricka as part of her husband Wotan’s “inner femininity”. Millington notes that Jean-Jacques Nattiez has also applied psychoanalytical techniques in an evaluation of Wagner’s life and works.

Nazi Appropriation

Adolf Hitler was an admirer of Wagner’s music and saw in his operas an embodiment of his own vision of the German nation; in a 1922 speech he claimed that Wagner’s works glorified “the heroic Teutonic nature … Greatness lies in the heroic.” Hitler visited Bayreuth frequently from 1923 onwards and attended the productions at the theatre.  There continues to be debate about the extent to which Wagner’s views might have influenced Nazi thinking. Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927), who married Wagner’s daughter Eva in 1908 but never met Wagner, was the author of the racist book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, approved by the Nazi movement. He met Hitler on a number of occasions between 1923 and 1927 in Bayreuth, but cannot credibly be regarded as a conduit of Wagner’s own views.  The Nazis used those parts of Wagner’s thought that were useful for propaganda and ignored or suppressed the rest.

While Bayreuth presented a useful front for Nazi culture, and Wagner’s music was used at many Nazi events, the Nazi hierarchy as a whole did not share Hitler’s enthusiasm for Wagner’s operas and resented attending these lengthy epics at Hitler’s insistence.

Guido Fackler has researched evidence that indicates that it is possible that Wagner’s music was used at the Dachau concentration camp in 1933–34 to “reeducate” political prisoners by exposure to “national music”. There seems to be no evidence to support claims, sometimes made, that his music was played at Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

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Because of the associations of Wagner with antisemitism and Nazism, the performance of his music in the State of Israel has been a source of controversy.

Sources


Prose works by Wagner

Operas

Writings

Pictures

Scores

Other

Persondata
NameWagner, Richard
Alternative namesWilhelm Richard Wagner
Short descriptionGerman composer, conductor, and essayist
Date of birth22 May 1813
Place of birthLeipzig, Germany
Date of death13 February 1883
Place of deathVenice