Richard Wagner Turns 200

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)(Photo:
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)(Photo:

I’ve said before that Western music has never recovered from Wagner. He reinvented the tonal language.

His use of chromaticism produced an opera Tristan und Isolde which is nearly musical pornography. The lack of resolution to the very end underlines this erotic story.

Wagner is known today for 13 music dramas, of which 10 are in the repertoire. Little is heard of the earlier Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot or Rienzi. The first two are fairy stories, not a good fit for this composer, and the third shows a heavy French grand-opera influence. Lots of music and little substance.

But beginning with The Flying Dutchman in 1843 to Parsifal nearly 40 years later, Wagner gave the world very long dramas. He called them gesamtkunstwerk works encompassing all of the arts. The four operas of The Ring Cycle are the apex of opera. Nothing surpasses this cycle, the story continuing and on going over 13 hours. Yes, this is where the big ladies with the horned helmets come from, but listen to the hedonistic joy of the young Brunhilde

Wagner’s operas involved forbidden love, erotic love and most spectacularly incestuous love. In Siegfried, the third of the Ring operas, we have not so much love as power.

Power was important to Wagner. He left his first wife, took up with the wife of his closest disciple and had a child by her before they eventually married. He designed and built his own theater and borrowed huge sums from admirers who remained admirers all the way to bankruptcy court.

Wagner enjoyed the patronage of King Ludwig of Bavaria, who became obsessed with the composer. He was an anti Semite to the extent that his writings were adopted by the Third Reich. Hitler was a honored guest at the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. Seventy years later Bayreuth has yet to live this down.

And yet. Wagner’s music is seductive, addictive and spell binding. As a composer he ranks with Monteverdi and Beethoven. As a man, not so much.