Let's start by listening to the first opera, Das Rheingold, of the four that make up his masterwork: Der Ring des Nibelungen. The opening is really spectacular, consisting of 140 measures of an E flat major chord! Philip Glass, eat your heart out:
It is doubtful that there has ever been a more ambitious musical work than Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner not only composed the longest, at around fifteen hours, piece in the repertoire, but he also wrote the libretto and had to have a special theater designed and built to perform it in. It also required some new instruments (Wagner tubas) and a new approach to harmony and orchestration. Not to say that there were not precedents. As David Goldman points out in this article, Why We Can't Hear Wagner's Music, Wagner was, ironically, particularly indebted to Jewish writers and musicians:
Wagner’s first anti-Jewish screed, the 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music,” claimed that Jews could imitate but never create. Given Wagner’s debt to Jewish musicians and writers, this was particularly twisted. In his first opera, Rienzi, Wagner emulated the work of the German-Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, who in 1841 helped Wagner stage the premiere in Dresden. Wagner reserved especially venomous words for Heinrich Heine, from whose novella From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski Wagner copied the scenario for The Flying Dutchman, the first entry in the “Wagnerian” canon. Wagner also drew on a Heine ballad for his next opera, Tannhäuser. When Jewish musicians suited his requirements, moreover, Wagner happily employed them, entrusting the first performance of Parsifal in 1882 to the conductor Hermann Levi.But Goldman, while delving into Wagner's techniques, does not give him enough credit for his musical achievements. The article is fairly long, but certainly worth reading. Here is an interesting passage:
Goldman goes on to mention the connection between the music of Wagner and the Third Reich, but that shouldn't distract us from observing the kind of impact he had on his 19th century listeners. The first performance of the Ring was at the first Bayreuth festival in 1876. By this time the effects and consequences of the French Revolution had truly spread throughout all European society. Yes, the old regime of throne and alter had fallen. And what was to replace them? The new complete artwork of Wagner gives the clue: the old rules, customs, laws, morals and so on are all to be replaced by a vision of a post-Christian progressive paradise. To return to a theme of our previous post, this is a middle-class paradise, one with emotional, sensual appeal. Wagner cloaks this in a kind of pseudo-medieval mythology.That the old regime of throne and altar had fallen, Wagner’s generation could have had no doubt. Wagner told them to celebrate rather than mourn its demise, for in the Twilight of the Gods their impulses would be freed from the fetters of the law. As Nietzsche explained:Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? From “old contracts,” he replied, as all revolutionary ideologists have done. In plain English: from customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests. “How can one get rid of the evil in this world? How can one get rid of ancient society?” Only by declaring war against contracts (traditions, morality). This Siegfried does.
Musically, Wagner is, with the exception of passages in Die Meistersinger, writing against the clear boundaries of the classical forms. His music is all about sensuality, fluidity, long-delayed resolution and sumptuous orchestration. As Goldman points out, we are so far removed from the classical forms that Wagner's music has much less impact than it would have had in the late 19th century. Goldman writes:
Late in the nineteenth century, men and women in apparent possession of their senses heard Richard Wagner’s new operas and announced that their lives had changed forever. Charles Baudelaire saw Tannhäuser in 1861 and gushed, “Listening to this impassioned, despotic music, painted upon the depths of darkness, riven by dreams, it seems like the vertiginous imaginings of opium.” (Baudelaire, author of The Flowers of Evil, meant this as a compliment.) The twenty-three-year-old Gustav Mahler, after hearing Parsifal, wrote, “I understood that the greatest and most painful revelation had just been made to me, and that I would carry it unspoiled for the rest of my life.” For the first time in history, a composer lent his name to a cultural movement with ramifications far beyond music.This kind of over-heated prose is typical of much writing about music in the 19th century--we see it applied to Beethoven as well. But I think the sociology of this is clear: looking at it from the musician's point of view, how are you supposed to attract an audience if you don't amp up the exotic impact of your music? Again, emotional, psychological and sensual elements are emphasized over the detached wit and charm of the Classical Era.
This discussion of Wagner is going to have to go to a third post and that will be delayed a bit. I am in the middle of moving and all my reference books are packed up and inaccessible. In the meantime, I am going to do some listening and you can as well.
David Goldman has another interesting article comparing Wagner with J. R. R. Tolkien.
Let's end with another piece by Wagner. This is almost his only non-operatic work, the Siegfried Idyll, a tone-poem for chamber orchestra. The performers are the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan: