Richard Wagner

Thomas S. Grey

in Music

ISBN: 9780199757824
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:
Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner (b. 1813–d. 1883) was one of the most significant composers of the 19th century—or any era for that matter—and, as he would have been the first to point out, much more than that. The Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork,” one of his most famous coinages, referred initially to the model of ancient Greek drama he wished to emulate in reforming opera as a fully integrated union of the arts. His own claim to such creative “totality” rested initially with the fact that he produced the librettos for his own operas (Germany lacked a professionalized tradition of libretto writing as existed in Italy or France). Like other composers, Wagner trained himself as a conductor, but he also went on to establish and largely design his own theater for the premiere of his magnum opus, the four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) in 1876. This “festival” theater in Bayreuth, Germany, was carried on by his wife, Cosima Wagner, and his son, Siegfried Wagner, whose own British-born wife, Winifred, notoriously allied the festival with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The freely structured, dramatically inflected, harmonically adventurous, and brilliantly orchestrated idiom Wagner pioneered in the Ring cycle and in later works, such as Tristan und Isolde (1857–1859, premiered 1865), undeniably changed the face of composition in the 19th century. The emphatic claims for art’s role in shaping the society and the nation embodied in the Bayreuth festival and developed in volumes of prose essays contributed equally to Wagner’s cultural celebrity. In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868) he integrated contemporary debates over “tradition and the individual talent,” so to speak, within a timely monument to German national identity. Christian mysticism, Buddhist-Schopenhauerian ideas of compassion and recurring cycles of life, modern psychology, and a lifelong obsession with the “redeeming” powers of art all merge in his final work, Parsifal (1882), contributing to the cultlike phenomenon of “Wagnerism” that flourished at the end of the 19th century.

Article.  23120 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy

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