It was Beethoven who dominated the sensibilities and aspirations of music in the first half of the nineteenth-century, but in the second half a new colossus emerged from the land of the Master and imprinted himself upon the Romantic mind, changing the course of music forever. This man was Richard Wagner.Few figures in the history of Western music have cast as large a shadow on the world as did Wagner, whose bicentennial we celebrated on May 22. Indeed, it has been said that only Hitler, Napoleon, and Jesus have been written about more. In Wagner we encounter one of art history’s most colorful—and insane—prodigies.
By all accounts the man himself, though of short stature, gave off an aura of frightening power, genius, and egocentric self-confidence. He lived a shockingly hedonistic, amoral (and public) life characterized throughout by racism, anti-Semitism, and a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement. In Wagner’s mind, he was the preeminent embodiment of the Romantic artist-as-hero, the new Beethoven, and naturally the world owed him its love. The closest Wagner seems to have gotten to anything resembling a religion or spirituality was his temporary belief (inspired by a flirtation with the works of Schopenhauer) in renunciation of the material world and redemption through art and asceticism—at best a superficial belief, for throughout most of his life Wagner was pursued by creditors as he insisted on living a life of luxury and had no qualms about running up enormous debts to do so.
One of Wagner’s greatest admirers, frequent guests, and fellow Schopenhauerians (though he later distanced himself from both Wagner and Schopenhauer) was a young German philologist and budding philosopher by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche. Wagner’s music directly influenced Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872) and it is likely that Wagner’s persona played at least some role in Nietzsche’s conception of the Übermensch, an association which led to a Nazi appropriation of Wagner and one which has cast a shadow over the composer’s works ever since. Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a passionate Wagnerian from youth: “Wagner’s lines of thought are intimately familiar with me. At every stage of life I come back to him.” Small wonder then that we are told Dr. Josef Mengele use to whistle Wagner tunes as he conducted his medical experiments at Auschwitz.
If Wagner as man is shrouded in controversy, there nevertheless remains the striking beauty and daring of Wagner’s music. What Beethoven did for the symphony, Wagner did for opera.
Earlier operas like Rienzi (1842), Der fliegende Holländer (1843) and Tännhauser (1845) are imbued with the same sense of Teutonic spirituality and mythopoetic German nationalism that pervade all his works. But it is not until Lohengrin (1850) that Wagner truly comes into his own, for it was with the premiere of Lohengrin that Wagner felt he had at long last approached the realization of his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a ‘total art work’ which draws on folk sources and unifies all other arts and presents them through theater.
Thus in the cycle of four operas known as Der Ring des Nibelung, written from 1848 to 1874, we find Wagner’s librettos written using Stabreim—in the same rhythmic, alliterative style of poetry employed by the old Norse sagas. The music of the operas makes use of leitmotifs: musical mottoes, themes that represent characters or ideas. These leitmotifs are then developed and manipulated throughout the work, serving to drive the dramatic narrative . The use of leitmotifs has become ubiquitous in contemporary film music (John Williams, Hans Zimmer, etc.). Here is Wagner’s music at its finest: constant drama expressed in constant music. Wagner’s so-called ‘endless melody’ took the artistic world of the latter nineteenth century by storm and continued to loom over composers like Richard Strauss well into the twentieth.
While Beethoven has effortlessly kept his position as the Master, the Romantic hero par excellence, the Wagnerian frenzy has noticeably receded, hurt by the rise of neoclassicism a la Stravinsky, atonality, and modern serialist music. In his day, Wagner was lambasted by musical purists for his innovations; today, his music is sometimes sneered at by the avant-garde as being too old-fashioned and thick—too clunky, in short. Even so, two hundred years after his birth audiences today continue to be spellbound by works like the Ring cycle. Wagner remains a titan in the world of opera.
“I am not made like other people,” Wagner once declared, “I must have brilliance and beauty and light.” Love or hate the man, Wagner’s music certainly radiates all three.