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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R: Ultimate Opera Album (The)
Wagner’s epic music dramas revolutionised the operatic repertoire, drawing upon famous legends and history to create a completely new art form of unprecedented spectacle and intense psychological power.
The Ultimate Wagner Opera Album
Few of the world’s great musical geniuses have polarised opinion more strongly than Richard Wagner (1813—1883). Wagner, a remarkable innovator in terms of the harmonies and structure of his works, was a tireless promoter of his own view of music’s historical destiny and his own pre-eminent place within its historical development. His highly tendentious writings, which comprise several densely-written volumes, promoted, among other things, the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) as a combination of every aspect of textual, musical, visual and plastic art to create a new culturally powerful art form which his immense operas would exemplify. Of course, such a synthesis of separate art forms is at least as old as opera itself—think of a Renaissance masque or Baroque opera, for instance—but Wagner’s conception was of a theatrical art that would transform rather than merely entertain those who experienced it, rather as did ancient Greek tragedy (a religious as well as a social phenomenon).
As a man he was prepared to sacrifice his family and friends in the cause of his own music, and his overt anti-semitism and extreme nationalistic chauvinism have attracted well-justified criticism while at times detracting from an accurate appreciation of his significance as arguably the most influential composer, in both positive and negative senses, between Beethoven (1770–1827) and Schoenberg (1874–1951).
During the later part of his career Wagner enjoyed the support of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and established his own opera theatre and festival at the Bavarian town of Bayreuth for the presentation of his own works. Without the king’s generous patronage Wagner’s grand project to create Zukunftsmusik ‘music of the future’, as the advocates of the ‘progressivist’ New German School with which his and his father-in-law Franz Liszt’s names were associated called it, would have remained unfulfilled. Although in his 1849 essay The Artwork of the Future Wagner explained why the term Zukunftsmusik is inadequate, or inappropriate, for his attitude, the term has stuck.
While embodying some of these ideas, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (1840–41), Tannhäuser (1842–60) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) (1845–67) remained fairly close to mid-19th-century operatic conventions. Their relatively long gestation periods take into account the fact that Wagner wrote his own libretti and sometimes interrupted work on one to begin another project before returning, often with new ideas to include.
His opera Tristan und Isolde is often cited as leading to a ‘new world’ of harmony, but, as with so many aspects of Wagner’s life and work, careful consideration shows that in a purely musical sense it did no such thing. However, the influence of this remarkable work on subsequent musical developments was, indeed, immense and quickly became highly politicised. ‘The poet’s greatness is mostly to be measured by what he leaves unsaid, letting us breathe in silence to ourselves the thing unspeakable,’ he wrote. ‘It is the musician who brings this untold mystery to clarion tongue, and the impeccable form of his sounding silence is endless melody.’ The purpose of ‘endless melody’ was not to demolish the ‘old world’ of harmony. How could that be when it actually depends on it? The famous ‘Tristan chord’ is a case in point. The four notes F-B-D♯-G♯ can be construed as a conventional ‘half-diminished seventh’ chord (don’t worry too much about the jargon). What matters is what follows, or rather what doesn’t follow: the dissonant ‘Tristan chord’ doesn’t lead to a consonant chord, the harmony remains ‘open’ rather than being neatly ‘closed’. And Wagner keeps the harmonies as ‘open’ as possible throughout the entire opera!
The whole purpose of ‘endless melody’ (perhaps we should say ‘endless harmony’) was to defer as long as possible, beyond anything previously achieved, harmonic closure or fulfillment in order to generate an almost unbearable desire in the listener for harmonic fulfillment that mirrors Tristan and Isolde’s unfulfillable desire for each other. Wagner would later employ ‘endless melody/harmony’ to traverse much longer musical timescales.
In the mythic cycle of music dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Niebelung) (1848–74) Wagner developed leitmotifs (leading or guiding motifs)—recognisable short melodic fragments, chord progressions or distinctive rhythms—as a way of cross-referencing particular characters, places, incidents or ideas throughout the evolving epic. It is sometimes claimed that these leitmotifs serve as a principle of musical unity, his dramatic musical structure depending on their interweaving. However, this is also something of a misapprehension. A leitmotif rarely has a structural function, any more than a plaque applied to a building holds up the edifice. But like plaques they do help to identify someone or something as significant, even, or rather especially, when that someone or something isn’t actually visible on stage at the time. (John Williams’s music for the Star Wars saga is a good recent example of this type of technique.) Wager didn’t invent leitmotifs, either. They were previously used in opera, though less extensively, by early Romantic composers including Grétry, Méhul and Weber. Indeed, the three ‘Masonic’ chords in Mozart’s The Magic Flute have a leitmotif-like character. Nor did Wagner approve of the term leitmotif, preferring instead Grundthema (basic idea) or Hauptmotiv (principal motif). But the way Wagner uses, modifies and interrelates these leitmotifs within the stream of ‘endless melody/harmony’ which flows from the first notes of Das Rheingold to the end of Götterdämmerung some fourteen and a half hours (four nights) later, does generate a gigantic self-referential web of significations scarcely paralleled in Western music. You can hear many of these leitmotifs on CD1 tracks 8–14.
Like many of Wagner’s works, the Bühnenweihfestspiel (Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) Parsifal (1865–79) has attracted highly mixed reactions. Friederich Nietszche, once Wagner’s ardent champion, loathed it: ‘Parsifal is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life—a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature: I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics.’ Yet he had to admit that the music was sublime: ‘Has Wagner ever written anything better?’ In his essay Religion and Art Wagner defended his use of Christian imagery: ‘When religion becomes artificial, art has a duty to rescue it. Art can show that the symbols which religions would have us believe as being literally true are actually figurative. Art can idealise those symbols, and so reveal the profound truths they contain.’ But when art becomes religiose, does it ‘rescue’ such ‘profound truths’? If so, from what? And are artistic ‘truths’ any more or less ‘figurative’ than religious ones?
Art and ideology have complex, ever-changing relationships. The names of many familiar ‘isms’—Classicism, Romanticism, Modernism, Post-modernism, Nationalism, Totalitarianism, Consumerism, Liberalism, Neo-conservatism, Catholicism, Protestantism, to cite just a few—attempt to characterise some of these ideological stances. However, such was, and remains, the singular importance of the man, his ideas and his art that the author of the words and music on this album is the only major composer of Western classical music to have an ‘ism’ all to himself—Wagnerism—though, as with the others, coming to terms with this ‘ism’ is no simple matter. It is an important task of musical historiography to explore and try to explain the myriad interrelationships that entangle aesthetics and ethics, art and politics, reality and representation, production and reception.
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WAGNER, R: Ultimate Opera Album (The)