Born Leipzig 22 May 1813
Died Venice 13 February 1883
“…perhaps the greatest genius that ever lived.”
– W.H. Auden
While not everyone might agree with the poet W.H. Auden’s declaration, which reflects Richard Wagner’s dominant influence on the culture of his time, everyone would probably agree that he is arguably the most controversial composer who ever lived. And without doubt, one of the greats.
Wagner believed it was his destiny to create the “Work of Art of the Future”. This he would achieve by uniting the most inexhaustibly expressive art with what he thought to be the most perfect: music with drama, creating as composer-poet-dramatist, what he called “music of the future.”
He developed musical ideas that defied the conventions of his day. But he was no radical iconoclast either – he loved Weber, revered Mozart and Gluck, and worshipped Beethoven whom he believed brought great expressive power to orchestral music. He would take 19th century music to new heights, freeing it from the restraints of the 18th century. In lieu of discrete musical parts, he developed the concept of continuous musical flow. Dispensing with the then characteristic patterns of musical ornamentation, he introduced the extensive use of the leitmotif (or leading motive)–musical theme associated with a character, an event, a thought, or an object–of which there are hundreds of excellent examples in his RING CYCLE.
View a VIDEO CLIP of members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s brass section demonstrating Wagner’s use of leitmotifs in the RING CYCLE:
It was his life ambition to create a “Gesamtkunstwerk” (or total work of art) that unites all art forms – music, poetry, dance, painting, drama – into one great artwork. The vehicle he used was opera. But he took it a step further. Through the interweaving of dramatic poetry with leitmotifs and continuous unending melody, he transformed opera into his music-drama: long, bigger-than-life, epic, the poetry sung against a most complex orchestration that created “sound-pictures”, defining the moods and colors as effectively as the sets of the story being enacted on stage. Oddly, Wagner’s music of the future invariably harked back to olden times, dramatizing either Christian tales of the Middle Ages or the the lives and loves of the gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, and villains of ancient mythology. Perhaps it is because as a dramatist steeped in the traditions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, he saw these ancient stories which told timeless truths not as tales of fantasy but as fitting allegories of the human condition.
Watch a documentary on Wagner – an analysis of the man, the artist and his music (with a particular focus on the RING CYCLE) by the contemporary British composer of musicals, choral works, and music for television, Howard Goodall:
Though his life spanned the greater part of the 19th century, the controversy surrounding his persona persisted well into the 20th century. He created discord as much by his music as by his personal life. A towering artistic genius he saw the cultural elite of his day polarized into Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerites. He was beloved by Liszt but belittled by Berlioz; and while Baudelaire and Nietzsche (until he turned against him, for reasons that remain contentious to this day) found him enthralling, Wilde thought him boring. To his detractors, he was an arrogant profligate, anarchist, racist, megalomaniac, adulterer, anti-Semite… arguably a frightfully despicable man. Yet there was a spiritual quality to the man that is–more often than not–ignored or denied by the experts. Drawn to philosophy all of his life, Wagner pondered the ultimate questions of existence, staunchly believing in the redemptive power of love and the ultimate unification of the dualities ever present in human nature. He gave expression to his ideas in writings that filled sixteen volumes, but best of all and most profoundly in his magnificent music. Toward the end of his life, being the work-in-progress that he always was, he became interested in Buddhism and the ideas of Eastern philosophy (just as Schopenhauer, the philosopher who influenced him most) and arguably could, had he lived longer, have become a mystic.
To this day, more than a century after his death, Richard Wagner still provokes debate and argument. More books have been written about him than perhaps any other composer, and purveyors of controversy are as compelled today as ever to delve deeper into his life and art, partly because of a sustained fascination with the complexities of the man and partly because of his posthumous link with Nazism (he was Hitler’s artist-hero and Bayreuth – Wagner’s musical shrine to his art – Hitler’s haven at the height of the war), but unarguably because of the beauty and power of his music.
The fact remains that Wagner is a giant among composers.
He alone was the composer/dramatist/librettist/set designer of every one of his works. His sweeping music has not ceased to win the hearts and minds of many, and of his thirteen principal operatic works, ten remain staples of the contemporary repertory. His titanic efforts culminated in the great operatic tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Employing elements of Nordic and Germanic mythology, it is a powerful allegory of life, its conflicts, triumphs and tragedies. It took all of twenty-five years to complete. It is a great work of art indeed, unparalleled in history, and as close to approaching the ideal of “Gesamtkunstwerk” as any artist even today can ever get. – © GCajipe / FanFaire