Richard Wagner Introduction - Essay


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.