Wagner – from minor to major

While Richard Wagner’s lasting fame rests on his groundbreaking operas, he was evidently quite fond of his youthful Symphony in C major from 1832. Near the end of his life, he conducted a performance in Venice on 24 December 1882 for the birthday of his wife, Cosima Wagner; her father Franz Liszt also performed in the same concert.

It comes as a surprise to many that Wagner wrote a symphony at all (in fact he wrote one other, a two movement Symphony in E major). But throughout his life he wrote other orchestral pieces (including marches and overtures), arrangements, songs and choral works, and piano music. Most of this music pales in comparison with his operas and at times it is difficult to detect the same revolutionary spirit at work, but they are not mere curiosities as they sometimes give an intriguing insight into the development of this most radical and divisive of nineteenth century composers.

It is startling to hear the youthful Wagner imitating Beethoven’s style in his early orchestral works, such as his Symphony in C major and the overture to the play König Enzio (1832). While he was yet to develop his own unmistakeable style, he demonstrated a natural affinity for orchestral writing. Years later he would say of this period “I could still detect in my work a tendency towards imitation and contemplated only with great anxiety my chances of developing into an independent original creator.”

Wagner’s first three completed operas, Die Feen (1834), Das Liebeseverbot (1836) and Rienzi (1840), also show the contemporary influences at work on both the form and style of his music. They are so worlds apart from his mature works that he would later disown these early outings. But before Wagner revolutionised the field, there were essentially three popular styles of opera in vogue: German Romantic opera (especially by Weber and Marschner), lyrical Italian opera (famously by Bellini, Donzietti and Rossini) and French grand opera (exemplified by Meyerbeer, Auber and others). Wagner essentially wrote an opera in each of these styles, and as with all his operas, he wrote the librettos himself. These operas also contain many literary devices which feature in his later works.

Die Feen (‘The Fairies’) is deeply influenced by Weber and the prevailing German Romantic fascination with the supernatural. With its convoluted plot based on Carlo Gozzi’s play La donna serpente, it was never performed in his lifetime but it already contains many Wagnerian tropes: magic shields and swords, the renunciation of immortality for love and the appeal of something beyond the realm of the senses.

Das Liebeseverbot (‘The Ban on Love’) is Wagner’s Italianate opera based on Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure. It has rarely been performed since its disastrous first performance. In his memoirs Mein Leben (1870) he relates how the second performance had to be called off, not for the virtually empty auditorium but because the young lead tenor was assaulted by the jealous husband of the prima donna. Around that time he also composed the two rather lightweight overtures Rule Britannia and Polonia, the latter composed using themes he had developed after a night’s carousing with Polish exiles.

Wagner’s first critical success was with Rienzi, a work in the French grand opera tradition, based on the life of the 14th century Italian populist leader Cola di Rienzi. It was well-received in often glowing terms, although Hans von Bülow did quip that it was “Meyerbeer’s greatest opera”(Charles Rosen much later disagreed, saying it was “Meyerbeer’s worst opera”). His most ambitious opera yet, it contains more Wagnerian tropes: brother-sister relationships, revolution, and fiery destruction. While rarely performed today, its stirring overture is sometimes heard in concert performances.

Feeling that the French and Italian models had reached an artistic dead end, and with growing confidence as a dramatist and composer, for his next three operas Wagner decided to further develop and extend the German Romantic opera tradition by producing three perennially popular masterpieces based on legends: Der fliegende Holländer (1841), Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1850). These are his earliest works to appear in the so-called ‘Bayreuth canon’, the list of operas which are performed at the Bayreuth festival.

In spite of the popularity of these operas, Wagner felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of the German Romantic opera tradition: what was needed was nothing less than a fundamental reimagining of the entire operatic form. Following his dramatic flight from Dresden in 1849, he spent the first few years in exile contemplating the nature of opera and its future direction. He would pour his revolutionary ideas into a number of influential publications, notably The Artwork of the Future (1849) and Opera and Drama (1850-51).

Having articulated in detail his bold and ambitious vision, he set about writing music-drama (as he called it) which was quite unlike anything seen before. These operas are bathed in a starkly original sound world in which the conventional forms of aria and recitative are dissolved into a continuous musical narrative capable of great expression and emotional depth, with the orchestra playing a decisive role. Years later at the inauguration of the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner would publicly acknowledge the influence of Franz Liszt in the development of his daring musical style.

Wagner’s crowning achievement was, of course, the monumental tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen comprising Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdämerung, a masterly synthesis and reworking of Norse myths and medieval poems which he composed between 1848 – 1874. That he ever finished this epic cycle is a testament to his tenacity and unwavering vision as he was sidetracked into writing two astonishing masterpieces which are steeped in the ideas of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Firstly, the hugely influential Tristan und Isolde (1859) a tragedy based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (c. 1210) and, secondly, a comedy set in 16th century Nuremberg Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867), whose closing praise of German art has had commentators wringing their hands ever since.

Wagner referred to his final visionary opera Parsifal (1882) as a sacred festival drama (Bühnenweihfestspiel) and he intended that it should only be performed at Bayreuth, as if to seal Bayreuth’s future as a place of pilgrimage for his music. A sombre work, it was inspired by a 13th century poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach on the Arthurian legend of the quest for the Holy Grail. It remains his most frequently performed work at Bayreuth.

Wagner’s non-operatic works written while he was at the height of his powers are a decidedly mixed-bag. Apart from the beautiful Siegfried Idyll (1870) for chamber orchestra, written for Cosima Wagner’s birthday, and the ravishing Wesendonck Lieder for voice and piano (1869) and later orchestrated, his other pieces remain oddities. It is hard to believe when listening to the Kasiermarsch (1871) and the American Centennial March (1876) that these were written while he was completing Parsifal as they are fairly uninspiring hack-work; even the organisers of American Centennial Exposition expressed their disappointment at the results of their $5,000 commission.

Most intriguing of all are perhaps his piano compositions. Written throughout his life, these often slight pieces seem hermetically sealed from the rest of his works and show little of the arresting originality and drama of his operas or the dazzling virtuosic and declamatory pianistic style of his friend and champion Franz Liszt. Many of the later pieces are affectionate and charming Lieder ohne Worte (‘songs without words’) written as private gifts to friends, the last being the Albumblatt für Frau Betty Schott (1875). This delightful work was composed for the widow of the publisher Franz Schott and alludes to the magnificent Preislied (‘prize song’) from his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

 In his final years Wagner was contemplating a return to writing symphonies and so it is perhaps not surprising that he should conduct his youthful and optimistic Symphony in C major  for his wife’s birthday in the enchanting Teatro La Fenice in Venice. With his untimely death in 1883, it was left to a new generation of composers to take up the challenge to build upon and extend his extraordinary musical legacy.

Kevin Painting

Written for the collector’s edition of the Wagner Ring Cycle on Pentatone, released May 2016. 


PTC5186581_3D_viewRichard Wagner
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Marek Janowski, conductor
Catalogue number PTC5186581
Format SACD
No. of discs 13
Packaging Slipcase with book and 8 pages CD carrier approx. 300 x 300 x 40 mm
Barcode 0827949058165