Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • Wagner unpacked: A guide to one of opera's greatest composers

Wagner unpacked: A guide to one of opera's greatest composers

Though always a controversial figure, this German composer revolutionized music.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

19 November 2014 at 12.25pm | 3 Comments

Early works: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi

Wagner never heard his first completed opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), and his next, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), was performed only once in his lifetime, where it was an unmitigated disaster. His first success was Rienzi, first performed in Dresden in 1842 after Wagner returned from a dire interlude in Paris. Six hours long, replete with ballets, grand choruses, processions and marches, and with possibly the most terrifying tenor part in Wagner's canon, Rienzi is Wagner's bid to out-grand opera French grand opera. While for modern audiences that might be something of a Pyrrhic victory, in the 19th century Rienzi was Wagner's most performed opera – somewhat to the composer's embarrassment.

Arriving into maturity: Der fliegende Holländer

Der fliegende Holländer’s premiere in Dresden a few months later didn't match Rienzi's success at the time, but musically it marks Wagner’s maturity. Wagner had sold his scenario to Léon Pillet, director of Paris Opéra, in 1841, but to the composer’s horror Pillet commissioned the score from Pierre-Louis Dietsch instead. The premiere of Dietsch's Le Vaisseau fantôme in Paris, just as rehearsals for Der fliegende Holländer began, prompted Wagner to introduce some late revisions, including a speedy relocation from Scotland to the Norwegian coast. Wagner had conceived the opera as a single-act curtain opener for Paris; though he later expanded it into three scenes he continued to think of it as one continuous whole. He was convinced to insert two intervals for the premiere, but in Cosima Wagner's 1901 Bayreuth production she ran the opera without break – a practice followed by many modern productions, including The Royal Opera's. Throughout his life Wagner returned to Der fliegende Holländer. Today, opera houses tend to use either the earliest version or the most definite revisions of 1860.

Understanding 'melos': Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser has the dubious honour of two failed premieres. It was received with bewilderment on its first showing in Dresden on 19 October 1845 – largely because the singers were not up to the score’s singular demands. By now Wagner had refined his ideas of melos (a unique melody essential to each composition) and the result was a particularly challenging role for the titular hero. When in 1861 Napoleon III invited Wagner to stage Tannhäuser in Paris the composer took the opportunity to introduce some significant revisions, including the orgiastic Venusberg ballet that opens the opera. But the riotous Jockey Club de Paris, political opponents of Wagner's patrons and offended at Wagner’s relocation of the ballet from its traditional place after the first interval, were rowdily disruptive, and after three mortifying performances Wagner cancelled the run. He made further revisions to the ‘Paris’ version for an 1875 performance in Vienna, keeping the ballet and dovetailing the overture into the opening of the opera. It’s this version that is most often performed today – though to his death Wagner remained dissatisfied with the work.

King Ludwig II and the Swan Knight: Lohengrin

Lohengrin was first performed on 28 August 1850, though Wagner, exiled in Switzerland after backing the losing side in a political coup, didn't hear it performed until 1861. The premiere was conducted instead by Liszt and was received well, despite the perennial problem of singers not up to their parts. Lohengrin, begun in the winter of 1841–2, was the first fruit of Wagner's obsession with the legend of the Holy Grail. The opera was to have a massive influence – including on Bavarian architecture. Wagner's later patron, the beyond-eccentric King Ludwig II, was inspired in part by Lohengrin to term himself the Swan Knight and build the unfinished fantasy palace Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone), which he dedicated to Wagner.

Epic opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen

A cycle of four operas, clocking in at 15 hours in total, Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of the most challenging works for an opera company to perform. In it Wagner created a new form of music drama, based on the principles he set out in his 1851 book-length essay Oper und Drama. Condemning what he saw as the commercialism of his contemporaries, he proposed a pure art modelled on his understanding of Ancient Greek theatre, through which society would be served and bettered. In the Ring this philosophy becomes a union between music and text now known as the leitmotif structure. Wagner completely eschewed the number-based format of traditional opera, associating short melodies with dramatic icons and emotions, weaving them together in a continuous composition. The plots are based on Icelandic, Scandinavian and German myths, though Wagner significantly reworked numerous legends to create an entirely original story in which the themes of redemption and sacrifice, constants throughout his mature work, loom large. Though he composed the four operas in order, starting with Das Rheingold in 1853 and finishing Götterdämmerung in 1872, Wagner prepared the texts in reverse, beginning Siegfrieds Tod (which eventually became Götterdämmerung) as early as 1848. At the order of Ludwig II and deeply against Wagner's wishes Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were performed in 1869 and 1870 in Munich, in performances that fell far below Wagner's expectations. The complete Ring cycle was first performed at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876 on four consecutive nights.

Tristan und Isolde

In the middle of composing the Ring Wagner set aside Siegfried to write Tristan und Isolde, which in the 20th century became arguably his best-known and most influential work – Wagner himself quoted it explicitly in later operas Die Meistersinger and Parsifal. His chief inspiration was his love for Mathilde Wesendonck, poet and the wife of Wagner's generous patron Otto, who in 1857 had given Wagner the villa in which he wrote Tristan. The premiere was serially delayed; one performance had to be postponed at a few hours’ notice after the twin disasters of Isolde losing her voice and bailiffs arriving to confiscate Wagner's possessions. On its eventual premiere on 10 June 1865 Tristan und Isolde created musical history, from the very start of the Prelude with its famous ‘Tristan chord’ (in jazz, a half-diminished 7th). It wasn’t the chord itself that shocked but Wagner's entirely original manipulation of harmony; responding to Tristan and Isolde's yearning and tragedy he creates an aching score where musical resolution is continually evaded, in a language far removed from the diatonic traditions that had governed Western music for centuries.

A return to comedy: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner had conceived of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his only comic work beside Das Liebesverbot, in 1845 as a pendant to Tannhäuser, following the Greek model of pairing a tragedy with a satyr play. Recurring musical motifs, as in all Wagner's mature operas, still form the foundation of the melodic material, but quite unlike Tristan and the Ring the opera is structured largely in traditional numbers. The score is coloured with an archaic, modal twist, and for long stretches the vocal lines seem almost improvisatory. In the 1860s Wagner had further developed his ideas of the purity and superiority of German culture, which ultimately would be codified in his 1871 tract Über die Bestimmung der Oper (The purpose of opera). It's partly this that inspired him to meld the innovations of his musical language with more historic forms. Wagner also continued to develop his response to the work of the philosopher Schopenhauer and the renunciation of the will, most fully expressed in Hans Sachs's Act III monologue 'Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn'.

A final masterpiece: Parsifal

Wagner's final work, Parsifal, was the only of his operas to be written with direct experience of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Its staging demands are extraordinary even for Wagner, calling for tiers of choirs arranged over a high dome. Wagner's source was Wolfram von Eschenbach's setting of the legend of Perceval, knight of the Grail, which he began to adapt into a libretto as early as 1845. The verse is his freest, and in it the scenario's explicitly Christian context merges with Buddhist ideals and Schopenhauerian self-abnegation into a meditation on compassion. Wagner’s text allows no simple interpretation, and neither does his score. The vocal lines range from declamatory recitative to expansive melody; the use of motifs is infinitely subtle and yields different interpretations with each listening. As with Meistersinger, the tonality is broadly diatonic and incorporates elements of ancient music: the ‘Dresden Amen’, a common congregational response, here becomes a transcendent expression of the Grail, and a simple four-note bell motif signaling the Grail chamber provides material for two immense transition scenes. Wagner called the opera a Bühnenweihfestspiel – a stage-consecrating festival play – and intended it only for Bayreuth. Ludwig II was the first to break the 30-year embargo in a private performance in Munich just a few years after the premiere. The next performance outside Bayreuth was by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1903.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Wagner’s mature works on the course of music. But his music never seems to become familiar. His operas – complex, immersive and astonishingly entertaining – continue to entrance.

Tim Albery's production of Tannhäuser runs 26 April—15 May 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Simon and Virginia Robertson, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, the Tannhäuser Production Syndicate and the Wagner Circle.

Tristan und Isolde  is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, Bertrand and Elisabeth Meunier and Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson.

Der fliegende Holländer is given with generous philanthropic support from Marina Hobson OBE and the Wagner Production Syndicate.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Beware of getting too technical in an article aimed at General readers. In what sense is Meistersingers 'diatonic'?
    You link to an article saying of diatonic and chromatic 'These terms may mean different things in different contexts" , so I find myself none the wiser !

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 21 November 2014 at 9:55am

      Hi Roy,

      Thanks for your comment and apologies I was unclear. What I wanted to mean by 'diatonic' was that in Die Meistersinger, broadly speaking, there are fewer 'wrong notes', i.e. notes not included in the established key. Perhaps though I was trying to do too much in too short a space – I've amended accordingly.

      All best,

  2. Artem Wahrhaftig responded on 15 February 2019 at 6:16am Reply

    ......there are fewer black keys actually :)
    And much more white ones - especially compared to stories like Tristan & Isolde :)

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional