Richard Wagner Essay - Critical Essays

Wagner, Richard

Introduction

Richard Wagner 1813-1883

German dramatist, composer, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Wagner from 1984 through 1999. For further information on Wagner's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 9.

Recognized as an outstanding nineteenth-century composer, Wagner also distinguished himself as a dramatist and theoretician whose works profoundly influenced modern literature. Wagner's many operas and innovative dramatic theories, as well as his powerful personality, have consistently elicited substantial commentary. Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853; The Ring of the Nibelung), his most widely acclaimed work, embodies many of his theories, including the use of cyclic structure, leitmotiv, and myth. Wagner's conception of Greek tragedy and interpretation of the pessimistic and materialistic philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Feuerbach also inform his operas. Like the ancient Greek dramatists, Wagner combined myths, symbols, and various art forms to express human and social aspirations. His primary goals were to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, or unity of the arts, through a synthesis of music, poetry, and dance, and to portray the ideal human being.

Biographical Information

Wagner was born in Leipzig, Germany. His father died when Wagner was six months old, and a year later his mother married the actor and artist Ludwig Geier, whose theatrical background influenced the young boy. Wagner was schooled in the liberal arts at the Dresden Kreuzschule, where he displayed a keen appreciation for Greek drama and, by the age of fourteen, had already attempted to write a classical tragedy. In 1828, Wagner began an independent study of harmony and composition. Three years later, he entered Leipzig University as a music student. By his early twenties, Wagner had already earned a reputation as an eccentric and egocentric musician. His marriage to the German actress Christiane Planer in 1836 was the first of a series of tumultuous affairs and liaisons that would deeply affect his art and life, and it was at this time also that Wagner's extravagance resulted in unmanageable debts that would continue to plague him. He had begun composing operas while a student, and in 1837 traveled to Paris, hoping to attract financial backing for future operas with a successful staging of Rienzi (published in 1842). Unable to find a producer, and as a result of his careless spending, Wagner was imprisoned briefly before moving to the Parisian suburb of Meudon. There he wrote Der fliegende Holländer (1843; The Flying Dutchman), the first opera for which he composed both the libretto and music. Between 1848 and 1853 Wagner served as the court choir director in Dresden, and during this period he wrote many of his most significant theoretical works on dramatic art and music. During Wagner's last creative period, in which he produced such operas as The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan und Isolde (1865; Tristan and Isolde), and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868; The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), his theoretical interests began to encompass political as well as aesthetic concerns. He saw himself as a hero who would redeem the materialistic and base through art. Attracted to socialism as a means of reform, he befriended the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin. During the 1849 Dresden uprising, Wagner was in the center of revolutionary activity that later prompted his escape to Switzerland. There he began writing the dramatic poem that gradually evolved into the work that most fully embodied his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, his masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung. Wagner's poetic texts for the Ring operas were published collectively in 1853, however, he did not complete the accompanying music until much later. In 1862, Wagner was pardoned for his revolutionary political activities and returned to Saxony. He found a sympathetic patron in King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who offered to subsidize his artistic efforts. Wagner then settled in Munich and concentrated on writing and composing. Estranged from his wife since his exile, Wagner embarked on a liaison with Cosima von Bülow, daughter of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt and wife of Hans von Bülow. They lived together openly for some time, and eventually married after the death of Wagner's first wife in 1866 and Cosima's subsequent divorce. In 1872, with the patronage of Ludwig II, Wagner supervised the construction of the innovative Bayreuth Festspielhaus, in which opera boxes were eliminated, musicians were relegated to an orchestra pit, and the best available stage machinery was installed. The premiere of the Ring cycle in 1876 inaugurated the first Bayreuth Festival, and by 1883, with the first production of Parsifal, a tradition of yearly performances had been established. Shortly after Parsifal ended its original run, Wagner, declaring it his last work, traveled to Venice, where he died of a heart attack.

Major Works

Scholars generally divide Wagner's operas into three categories: early, Romantic, and mature. The use of a librettist and the traditional Italian operatic style characterize such early works as Die Feen (composed in 1834; The Fairies), Das Liebesverbot; oder, Die Novize von Palermo (1836) and Rienzi. A somewhat later opera, The Flying Dutchman is recognized as a transitional piece between the early and Romantic phases, and is the first for which Wagner incorporated the mythic sources that became a hallmark of his Romantic and mature works. Due to their poetic themes, sensual appeal, and dynamic dramatic construction, Tannhäuser (1845; Tanhauser) and Lohengrin (1850) are considered Wagner's most Romantic operas. Tanhauser recounts the medieval legend of a knight's love for a beautiful woman, while Lohengrin portrays the saga of a mysterious lover whose identity must be hidden from the beloved. The most fecund phase of Wagner's theoretical writing also belongs to his Romantic period, with his principal aesthetic theories appearing in three works: Die Kunst und die Revolution (1849; Art and Revolution), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1850; The Artwork of the Future) and Oper und Drama (1852; Opera and Drama). In Art and Revolution, Wagner maintained that all art is a revelatory expression of communal joy, and asserted that it should be accessible to everyone. He considered classical Greek tragedy the most perfect art form; like the Greeks, he wished to inspire an intense emotional response that would be enhanced by the union of drama and music. In The Artwork of the Future, Wagner developed his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. He contended that the artist should strive, through a synthesis of artistic forms, to represent perfected human nature, and he explained that the “music-drama,” as he called his operas, was the most effective vehicle. In Opera and Drama, Wagner elaborated on his conception of music-drama. Since he found mythology continually relevant and universal in its ability to move an audience, he theorized that it was the most suitable source for dramatic themes. These themes were enhanced through the use of leitmotivs, melodic phrases associated with recurring ideas, characters, and verbal patterns, which could be combined, juxtaposed, and developed to provide structural unity and psychological nuances. The works of Wagner's creative maturity are crowned by The Ring of the Nibelung, which comprises four operas: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Written in reverse order beginning with Götterdämmerung and ending with Rheingold, the Ring cycle is primarily based on the Scandinavian Edda, a collection of ancient myth and legends, and the Volsunga Saga, a medieval Icelandic epic. Wagner's rendition of these tales depicts a struggle among gods, giants, men, and dwarfs, and is imbued with epic elements: characters of heroic proportions, the evocation of legendary action of national and historical importance, and supernatural forces. Another work of Wagner's late period, Tristan and Isolde is derived from the Arthurian legend of Tristan de Leonis, and displays Wagner's theme of redemption as well as the influence of Schopenhauer's philosophy of the denial of the will. Differing from the majority of Wagner's works in its depiction of history rather than myth, the comic opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg nevertheless reflects the same dramatic principles. It features the figure of Hans Sachs who, critics note, resembles Wagner in his espousal of revolutionary musical ideas. The hero of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal evolves from the Arthurian Grail-seeker found in a version of the legend written by the thirteenth-century German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. The work itself is considered one of Wagner's most prophetic, and links themes of love and death.

Critical Reception

Wagner's operas and aesthetic theories have consistently inspired great critical controversy. During his lifetime, Wagner was simultaneously rejected as a modernist whose operas and aesthetics were incomprehensible and untenable and hailed as a prophetic dramatist and composer whose works would revolutionize modern art. Several periodicals were founded exclusively to discuss his works, and by the early twentieth century, more than ten thousand books and articles had been written about him. Wagner's popularity steadily increased until World War I, when anti-German sentiment prevented the performance of his works outside his native land. In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler's friendship with Wagner's daughter Eva and the use of his works as propaganda for the Nazi movement contributed significantly to the decline of the composer's international reputation. Criticism of this period noticeably reflects commentators' repugnance for Wagner's nationalism and anti-Semitism. While these subjects continue to elicit commentary, most modern literary scholars largely deem the parallels between Wagner and the Nazi movement extraliterary and focus instead on the works' dramatic qualities and philosophical sources. Through the end of the twentieth century, Wagner has been recognized as a foremost nineteenth-century dramatist and composer whose works have influenced myriad artists and artistic traditions, musical and literary.

Principal Works

Das Liebesverbot; oder, Die Novize von Palermo (opera) 1836

Rienzi (opera) 1842

Der fliegende Holländer [The Flying Dutchman] (opera) 1843

Tannhäuser [Tanhauser] (opera) 1845

Die Kunst und die Revolution [Art and Revolution] (essay) 1849

Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft [The Artwork of the Future] (essays) 1850

Lohengrin (opera) 1850

Oper und Drama [Opera and Drama] 2 vols. (essays) 1852

*Der Ring des Nibelungen [The Ring of the Nibelung] (librettos) 1853

...

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Criticism

Northrop Frye (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Frye, Northrop. “The World as Music and Idea in Wagner's Parsifal.Carleton Germanic Papers 12 (1984): 37-49.

[In the following essay, Frye surveys the literary and mythological sources of Wagner's opera Parsifal, and associates the work's theme and music with the concepts of Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy.]

On the subject of Wagner I have to speak as a pure outsider. I am interested in Wagner as a creative figure with an immense cultural influence, but I have never been to Bayreuth: I have seen very few Wagner operas, and the whole spectacular side of Wagner, the spears that freeze over the heads of the virtuous, the swans and doves and...

(The entire section is 6533 words.)

David C. Large and William Weber (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Large, David C., and William Weber. Introduction to Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics, edited by David C. Large and William Weber, pp. 15-27. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpted introduction, Large and Weber consider the extensive influence of Wagner's music and thought in the social, political, and intellectual movements known collectively as ‘Wagnerism.’]

The name of a great artist may earn immortality, but such a name is not often adopted to form the title of a social movement. Much of what was extraordinary about the support for Richard Wagner can be seen most simply in the widespread use of the English...

(The entire section is 5943 words.)

Thomas D. O'Sullivan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: O'Sullivan, Thomas D. “The Perfect Wagnerite: Shaw's Reading of the Ring.English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 30, no. 1 (1987): 39-47.

[In the following essay, O'Sullivan critiques George Bernard Shaw's interpretation of Wagner's Ring as a political allegory.]

George Bernard Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite1 is generally recognized as a lucid, witty, and informative introduction to Richard Wagner's tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. Shaw's allegorical exegesis of the Ring has often been characterized as unbalanced, however, because of its heavy emphasis on political economy. Robert Donington, for example,...

(The entire section is 3887 words.)

L. J. Rather (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Rather, L. J. “On the Quality of Wagner's Poetry and Prose.” In Reading Wagner: A Study in the History of Ideas, pp. 32-58. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rather chronicles Wagner's development as a prose writer and as a poet (particularly in regard to his Ring librettos). Rather concludes by noting Wagner's theories on the decline of language.]

Wagner's writings, including the nine volumes of collected works published during his lifetime, together with his voluminous correspondence and huge autobiography, constitute a formidable bulk of material, much of it still available only in German. William Ashton...

(The entire section is 10935 words.)

M. Owen Lee (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lee, M. Owen. Wagner's ‘Ring’: Turning the Sky Round, pp. 47-79. New York: Summit Books, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Lee probes the mythic, musical, and psychological elements of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried.]

DIE WALKüRE

act i: In a forest storm, Wotan's mortal son, Siegmund, finds shelter, not knowing that he has come to the house of the very enemy he has been fleeing from, Hunding. He is befriended by Hunding's wife, the gentle Sieglinde, but he keeps his name from her. Hunding, according to primitive rites of hospitality, will shelter the fugitive for the night, then fight him...

(The entire section is 8770 words.)

Mark Poster (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Poster, Mark. “What Does Wotan Want?: Ambivalent Feminism in Wagner's Ring.New German Critique 53 (spring 1991): 131-48.

[In the following essay, Poster addresses several sociopolitical interpretations of the Ring and argues that the work should also be viewed in terms of its representation of gender.]

In the four operas of the Ring cycle, Wagner presents a world in crisis and undergoing change but a coherent, rule-governed world nonetheless. Using as his raw material the medieval saga of the Nibelungenlied,1 Wagner works up a presentation of a world in which the central character, Wotan, ruler of this world,...

(The entire section is 7592 words.)

Sandra Corse (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Corse, Sandra. “The Voice of Authority in Wagner's Ring.” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 19-38. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Corse demonstrates “how the voice of authority or power is created and subverted in the Ring,” especially through the technique of quotation.]

The Ring cycle is a mass of quotations. The most obvious, of course, are the musical quotations, the series of musical reminiscences or leitmotifs. Almost as important, however, are the many instances in the text when characters quote, directly or...

(The entire section is 7482 words.)

John Daverio (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Daverio, John. “Wagner's Ring as ‘Universal Poetry.’” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 39-53. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Daverio discusses the unifying structure and technique of the Ring operas.]

The text which serves as the point of departure for this essay is the 116th of the fragments published in the Athenäum (1798), a short-lived but highly influential journal founded by Friedrich Schlegel and his brother August Wilhelm. Although Friedrich Schlegel's name does not surface too often in discussions of music, he is...

(The entire section is 5381 words.)

Ruth Koheil and Herbert Richardson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Koheil, Ruth, and Herbert Richardson. “Why Brünnhilde is the True Hero of the Ring Cycle: An Analysis of Her Psychological Development.” In New Studies in Richard Wagner's ‘The Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Herbert Richardson, pp. 177-89. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Koheil and Richardson present a reading of the Ring as “mythological psychology,” viewing Brünnhilde as the central protagonist of the operas as she undergoes the process of ego development and sacrifice.]

The source of The Ring is myth. This means that although both humans and gods are characters in the drama, the...

(The entire section is 4274 words.)

Peter Morris-Keitel, Alexa Larson-Thorisch, and Audrius Dundzila (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Morris-Keitel, Peter, Alexa Larson-Thorisch, and Audrius Dundzila. “Transgression and Affirmation: Gender Roles, Moral Codes, and Utopian Vision in Richard Wagner's Operas.” In Re-Reading Wagner, edited by Reinhold Grimm and Jost Hermand, pp. 61-77. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Morris-Keitel, Larson-Thorisch, and Dundzila offer a feminist examination of gender in Wagner's operas, concentrating on the traditionally bourgeois-capitalist gender roles of Wagner's characters.]

I

“Our existing opera is a culinary opera. It was a means of pleasure long before it turned into...

(The entire section is 8039 words.)

Jean-Jacques Nattiez (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. “The Theoretical Essays of 1849 to 1851.” In Wagner Androgyne: A Study in Interpretation, translated by Stewart Spencer, pp. 12-42. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Nattiez defines Wagner's mythologized theory of the splintering and reunification of western art.]

Hardly had Wagner completed the full score of Lohengrin on 28 April 1848 when a whole new series of ideas began to clamor for his attention—The Nibelung Legend, the prose draft of “Siegfrieds Tod,” an article on the Wibelungs, the prose draft of Wieland der Schmied, the essays. … [T]heoretical reflections...

(The entire section is 14684 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Wagner's Parsifal between Mystery and Mummery; or, Race, Class, and Gender in Bayreuth.” In The Return of Thematic Criticism, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 261-86. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski provides background to Wagner's opera Parsifal and makes a thematic analysis of its libretto, while noting the “racist, sexist, and elitist” assumptions of the text.]

In the century since its premiere Wagner's Parsifal (1882) has been venerated by its admirers as a semireligious mystery and vilified by its detractors as ideological mummery. The trend toward...

(The entire section is 9028 words.)

Herbert Lindenberger (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Lindenberger, Herbert. “Wagner's Ring as Nineteenth-Century Artifact.” Comparative Drama 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 285-310.

[In the following essay, Lindenberger identifies the Ring as “embedded in the world of its time,” while acknowledging the importance of its poetic experimentalism and epic mode of narration.]

Suppose that Wagner had died in 1853, exactly thirty years before his actual death. At this point he would have left behind at least three operas that count for us as major works, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Most important for the ideas I hope to develop in this paper, he would also have...

(The entire section is 11754 words.)

Marc A. Weiner (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Weiner, Marc A. “Introduction: Wagner and the Body.” In Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, pp. 1-33. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Weiner scrutinizes the racial implications of Wagner's depiction of the body in his operas.]

There is no anti-Semite who does not basically want to imitate his mental image of a Jew, which is composed of mimetic cyphers.

—Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

Gleaming or dripping eyes, a resonant or screeching voice, the bodily aromas of youthful love or the stench of sulfur and...

(The entire section is 11225 words.)

Michael P. Steinberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Michael P. “Music Drama and the End of History.” New German Critique 69 (fall 1996): 163-80.

[In the following essay, Steinberg appraises Parsifal as a cultural and ideological text concerned with the crisis of modernity and the redemption of humanity.]

I. THE END OF MUSIC DRAMA

This essay is about Parsifal. It is about Amfortas's wound, the efforts to close it, and the meaning of the claim that it has finally been closed. That closure involves also the closure of music drama, the redemption of Wagnerian form now raised to the level of pure ideology. The essay's three-part argument involves the...

(The entire section is 7256 words.)

Leonard S. Zegans (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Zegans, Leonard S. “Richard Wagner's Cosmology: Self-Deception, Self-Realization, and the Destruction of Nature.” In The Threat to the Cosmic Order: Psychological, Social, and Health Implications of Richard Wagner's ‘Ring of the Nibelung,’ edited by Peter Ostwald and Leonard S. Zegans, pp. 1-9. Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, Inc., 1997.

[In the following essay, Zegans explores the essentially Romantic cosmology of Wagner's Ring, which he argues emphasizes the struggle between human will and the natural order.]

Audiences arrive at a performance of The Ring with a special sense of anticipation. Most attend not only to hear...

(The entire section is 3388 words.)

R. J. A. Kilbourn (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: R. Kilbourn, J. A. “Redemption Revalued in Tristan und Isolde: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 4 (fall 1998): 781-88.

[In the following essay, Kilbourn discusses the theme of redemption via the “conjunction of love and death” in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.]

This discussion of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde shares with the previous three chapters the recognition of Wagner's propensity to invert and even subvert his materials: formally, logically, musically, and ideologically. And yet, in a seeming contradiction, the ultimate movement of Tristan is one of completion and resolution, in terms of...

(The entire section is 3800 words.)

Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon. “‘Alles was ist, endet’: Living with the Knowledge of Death in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.University of Toronto Quarterly 67, no. 4 (fall 1998): 789-811.

[In the following essay, Hutcheon and Hutcheon interpret Wagner's theme of redemption in the Ring in terms of a modern, psychological acceptance of death.]

PRELUDE

Richard Wagner's best-known work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, is famous for many reasons: its music, its Germanic mythic allegory, its sheer length.1 Called a stage-festival play for three days and a preliminary evening, the...

(The entire section is 10542 words.)

John M. McGlathery (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: McGlathery, John M. “Parsifal.” In Wagner's Operas and Desire, pp. 235-67. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, McGlathery formulates a detailed explication of Wagner's final opera Parsifal with an emphasis on the work's representation of Parsifal's “triumph over desire.”]

In his last opera, Wagner returns to the realm of magic and miracle. This time—more plainly than in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin—it is the world of Christian myth and legend. Parsifal indeed presents us with a community of knights of the Holy Grail, and is to that extent, at least, a drama of piety. Miracles, moreover, take place...

(The entire section is 16515 words.)

John Tietz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Tietz, John. “Conclusion: What Does the Ring Mean?” In Redemption or Annihilation? Love versus Power in Wagner's ‘Ring,’ pp. 141-63. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Tietz sees in Wagner's operatic cycle a thematic “tension between power and love in society,” an emphasis on conflict, and a depiction of the ultimate dissolution of the world.]

1. REDEMPTIVE FIRE

With its great length, The Ring generates such tremendous momentum that it takes quite a while to conclude. There are in fact two long stretches of music in the final version of The Ring, but it could not plausibly have ended...

(The entire section is 11260 words.)