This article concerns the revolutionary operatic compositions of the enigmatic German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
However, it is the view of the Music Historian-in-Residence with the San Francisco Performance, Professor Robert Greenberg, that any review of Wagner the composer must begin with a consideration of a fellow German composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Greenberg believes that Weber’s opera, Der Freischutz, “almost single-handedly spawned a German nationalist opera tradition”. This opera was a major influence on the late romantic operas of Richard Wagner.
Not only considered to be “a superb composer, brilliant pianist, and conductor, as well as a sharp and perceptive music critic”, Weber pre-dated Wagner in his determination to instigate “a desire for nationhood” into the German musical style. The result was Der Freischutz, “a self-sufficient work of art.” The title of this work is translated into English as “The Magic Bullets”. However, in German, it is more accurately called “The Free Shooter”. As for the opera itself, the reader can agree with Philip Spitta, the German musicologist, when he said that “the German nation had found its musical voice”. This discovery was to have ramifications beyond the realm of music.
Echoes of the style, if not the content, of Der Freischutz can be heard in the early operatic works of Richard Wagner, notably Die Feen (The Fairies). As with the latter, Der Freischutz is about “the collision of the mortal and spirit worlds, an opera in which myth mixes freely with newly invented dramatic situations”. The foregoing elements combine to produce an opera which has an overall theme of “redemption and triumph over evil”. This was to become a major theme in romantic German opera, used firstly in the work of Weber, and then extensively featuring in the operas of Richard Wagner.
It is instructive at this point to mention the place of “Recitative” in the development of the operatic tradition. Recitative is a half-sung, half-spoken, simply accompanied, syllabically set passage in which words and the actions they represent are of primary importance. As such, recitative is an essential part of high romantic opera – as it was in all opera during Weber’s lifetime. These dialogue sections can, however, be somewhat intrusive on the flow of the music in the romantic opera tradition
The non-stop musical accompaniment to operatic drama, without the dialogue, was not to flower until Richard Wagner’s arrival on the European musical scene. Therefore, the recitative sections of Weber’s opera, as well as the early Wagner operas, need to be judged on their own merits. In the case of Der Freischutz, the recitative is easy on the ear, limited in duration, and provides something of a preparation for the ongoing enjoyment of the music, and, peremptorily, for the operas of Wagner.
Richard Wagner brought a revolution into the arena of operatic composition. Music replaces dialogue; drama replaces the spoken voice. Not only a composer of great music. Wagner was also a theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who is chiefly known for his operas. Unlike most opera composers, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works.
With Wagner, nothing was to be permitted that would impinge upon the dramatic narrative his operas were composed to tell. The “music drama” operatic form was created by Wagner and refers to “a thoroughly composed operatic work that stresses dramatic and psychological content, and in which voices and orchestra are completely intertwined and of equal importance” (Greenberg, The Music of Richard Wagner, 2010). The music served the story being told, and, increasingly, this story focused on the development and importance of the German nation.
In time, this aspect of Wagner’s compositions would assume not only a major importance in music, but also in the shaping of the consciousness of the German people, with major effects on German literature, the psychological and religious attitudes of the German people, Germany’s developing militarism, and, eventually, on the direction of world history.
In the view of Robert Greenberg, Richard Wagner was “a composer of the greatest genius, a poet, a self-styled theorist, and a rabid German nationalist.” He is primarily known for his major operatic output – The Flying Dutchman (1841), Tannhauser (1845), Lohengrin (1848), Tristan and Isolde (1865), The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867), Parsifal (1882), and the four music dramas that constitute the “Ring cycle” (Das Rheingold, 1869; Die Walkure, 1870; Siegfried, 1876; and Gotterdammerung, 1876). Each of these is massive in proportion, detailed in their story-telling, and inspirational in their musical dimensions and emotional depths.
Greenberg is again instructive when he says that “Wagner brought together the diverse strands of his political and philosophical beliefs, musical iconography, and compositional technique, to create an artistic legacy wholly his own. There’s nothing else remotely like it in the history of western music.” (The Music of Richard Wagner, 2010)
It is over two hundred years since Richard Wagner was born. In all that time, his first three completed operas have not found a firm place in the repertoire. This is surprising, as each of these compositions has its appeal, particularly so in the case of Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, 1840). The other two operas are, in order of their date of date of composition, Die Feen (The Fairies, 1834), and Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836).
Die Feen has to do with the interacting world of fairies and mortals, hidden identities, betrayal, underworld punishment, and reconciliation through the power of music. Das Liebesverbot is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It is set in Palermo, Italy, and focuses on the Regent Friedrich who has banned sexual immorality from his kingdom. But he himself is guilty of the same and, when his hypocrisy is revealed, he reverses his decision. Rienzi, the most successful of Wagner’s early operas, is based on the Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. Set in 4th century Rome, Rienzi, a dedicated republican, refuses to become the king of Rome. He is conspired against by a rival family and is excommunicated from the city, eventually dying with his sister in a fire which destroys the Capitol.
As these early operas show, from the outset Wagner had a “cosmopolitan view of opera and its sources”. Already with The Fairies, Wagner revealed that his operatic material would be drawn from a “strange amalgam of myth, history, and fairy-tale”. His operas increasingly drew on Germanic folklore as, building on a foundation laid by Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz (see above), Wagner constructed a musical edifice to manifest the further development of German nationalism.
Each of the first three operas have their distinctive features. Wagner never saw a performance of the complete Die Feen, and the world premiere of Das Liebesverbot was a not a success. Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, was different, it was one of the most successful of his operas during his lifetime, making it the more surprising that it has not since found favour amongst operagoers. However, the later operas of Wagner contain echoes of these early compositions, for example, in the Overture to Tannhauser we can hear expansive echoes of the Overture to Die Feen.
Notwithstanding, the first three above-named operas never quite reached the heights of popularity obtained by Wagner’s other ten completed opera compositions. Today, this can be seen, not only in the absence from opera house productions of the first three operas, but also in the paucity of available recordings of the same. Nevertheless, in the later operas there can be seen some of the motifs that first appeared in earlier works – a noticeable one being the redemption of a man through the love of a woman, as well as those that prefigured Wagner’s German nationalism.
It is arguable as to whether Wagner’s version of German nationalism was expressed through his music, or whether the music’s characters and background developed his nationalism. It was, nevertheless, in his later operatic compositions that Wagner’s version of German nationalism can be most emphatically seen, starting with The Flying Dutchman (1840-41) and ending with Parsifal (1877-1882). In between there were the music dramas of a visionary genius, albeit emanating from a person who was once described as “perhaps the most unattractive human being in the history of Western music, and many would prefer to ignore his character and instead focus on the music he composed.”
Richard Wagner is often criticised for being a main contributor to the 19th century formation of German anti-Semitism, and this was one factor in Wagner losing the admiration of and friendship with the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. However, to forensically dissect the character of Richard Wagner would seem to be an impossible task, as it was Wagner’s “attitude and beliefs that gave him the strength to survive the [personal] crises of his life and the experiential grist from which he created his theatrical production.” (Greenberg, 2010).
Richard Wagner, the enigmatic man, is certainly not above criticism; Wagner, the revolutionary musician, is another matter!
(For readers who may wish to follow-up the recorded output of the operas of Weber and Wagner, the following recommendations may be of service.
Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischutz: Nicholas Harnoncourt, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Berlin Radio Chorus. This is a digital recording on the Teldec label from 1996, reissued on Warner Classics in 2016. The recording is as good as they come, with a roll call of well-known Wagnerian singers.
Ricard Wagner: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes: Wolfgang Sawallisch, conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, with the Bavarian State Opera Chorus. This is a 9 CD box set, originally digitally recorded from 1983 live concerts, and now on the ORFEO label from 2013. Again, singers and recordings are from the top drawer of contemporary Wagnerian artists.
The later opera productions of Wagner are all available on CD and DVD, from a large variety of major recording labels, with highly praised singers, conductors, orchestras, and choruses, all of which are ample testimony to the musical genius that was Richard Wagner).