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Richard Wagner

Biography

Born: May 22, 1813; Germany   Died: Feb 13, 1883; Italy   Period: Romantic
Richard Wagner was one of the most revolutionary figures in the history of music, a composer who made pivotal contributions to the development of harmony and musical drama that reverberate even today. Indeed, though Wagner occasionally produced successful music written on a relatively modest scale, opera -- the bigger, the better -- was clearly his milieu, and his aesthetic is perhaps the most grandiose that Western music has ever known. Early in Read more his career, Wagner learned both the elements and the practical, political realities of his craft by writing a handful of operas which were unenthusiastically, even angrily, received. Beginning with Rienzi (1838-40) and The Flying Dutchman (1841), however, he enjoyed a string of successes that propelled him to immortality and changed the face of music. His monumental Ring cycle of four operas -- Das Rheingold (1853-54), Die Walküre (1854-56), Siegfried (1856-71) and Götterdämmerung (1869-74) -- remains the most ambitious and influential contribution by any composer to the opera literature. Tristan and Isolde (1857-59) is perhaps the most representative example of Wagner's musical style, which is characterized by a high degree of chromaticism, a restless, searching tonal instability, lush harmonies, and the association of specific musical elements (known as leitmotifs, the flexible manipulation of which is one of the glories of Wagner's music) with certain characters and plot points. Wagner wrote text as well as music for all his operas, which he preferred to call "music dramas."
Wagner's life matched his music for sheer drama. Born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813, he began in the early 1830s to write prolifically on music and the arts in general; over his whole career, his music would to some degree serve to demonstrate his aesthetic theories. He often worked as a conductor in his early years; a conducting engagement took him to Riga, Latvia, in 1837, but he fled the country in the middle of the night two years later to elude creditors. Wagner as a young man had some sympathy with the revolutionary movements of the middle nineteenth century (and even the Ring cycle contains a distinct anti-materialist and vaguely socialist drift); in the Dresden uprisings of 1849 he apparently took up arms, and he had to leave Germany when the police restored order. Settling in Zurich, Switzerland, he wrote little for some years but evolved the intellectual framework for his towering mature masterpieces. Wagner returned to Germany in 1864 under the protection and patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria; it was in Bayreuth, near Munich, that he undertook the construction of an opera house (completed in 1876) built to his personal specifications and suited to the massive fusion of music, staging, text, and scene design that his later operas entailed. Bayreuth became something of a shrine for the fanatical Wagnerites who carried the torch after his death; it remains the goal of many a pilgrimage today. His attitude toward Jews was deeply ambivalent (he believed, mistakenly, that his stepfather was Jewish), but some of his writings contain anti-Semitic elements that have aroused considerable controversy among opera lovers, especially in view of Adolf Hitler's apparent predilection for the composer's music. Read less
Richard Wagner - Great Recordings
Release Date: 02/26/2013   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 543504   Number of Discs: 40
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Wagner at The Met
Release Date: 04/09/2013   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 542717   Number of Discs: 25
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Toscanini Conducts Wagner
Release Date: 04/30/2013   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 541193   Number of Discs: 5
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Wagner: Parsifal / Kaufmann, Pape, Gatti, Met
Release Date: 04/01/2014   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 372558   Number of Discs: 2
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Wagner: Parsifal / Pape, Denoke, Finley, Pappano, Royal Opera
Release Date: 11/18/2014   Label: Opus Arte  
Catalog: 1158   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Act 1 Prelude

 

About This Work
One man's opium-assisted nap on a summer afternoon in 1797 -- and its consequences -- provided a most memorable and picturesque bellwether for the impending century's most pervasive aesthetic movement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge awakened and, likely in Read more turns groggy and ecstatic, set his immortal poem "Kubla Khan" to paper. With this partial, fleeting account of his midsummer afternoon's dream, the poet introduced to the annals of Romantic legend and imagination the mythic locale Xanadu. Coleridge's vaporous Utopia endured even into the twentieth century as a metaphoric paradise revisited in contexts ranging from the foreboding personal reserve of tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane, 1941) to a gaudily neon-lit, roller rink/nightclub (Xanadu, 1980). Indeed, the motifs of "Kubla Khan" and its creation--dreams, mythology and mythic places, and imagination itself -- are recurrent throughout all of Romantic thought, in music as in literature and the visual arts. They find particular significance in the works of Richard Wagner, whose operatic catalogue clearly suggests a preoccupation with such sources of creative impulse. Even in the case of the composer's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1867), which was inspired by actual personages and events, the spirit of its genesis echoes the fantastic circumstances and scenario that bore "Kubla Khan." Of the origin of the Prelude, Wagner himself wrote:

"As from the balcony of my flat, in a sunset of great splendor, I gazed upon the magnificent spectacle of 'golden' Mayence, with the majestic Rhine flooding its outskirts in a glory of light, the Prelude to my Meistersinger again suddenly made its presence closely and distinctly felt in my soul. Once before I had seen it rise before me out of a lake of sorrow, like some distant mirage. I wrote down the Prelude exactly as it appears today in the score, containing the clear outlines of the leading themes of the whole drama."

The nobility of character that Wagner ascribes to Meistersinger's dramatis personae is suggested at the outset of the Prelude, which opens with a heraldic theme in which the prominence of the brass foreshadows its prevalent use throughout. The treatment (including later development) of this theme and those that follow demonstrate the masterful handling of orchestral balance, color, and virtuosity that have come to be identified as hallmarks of Wagner's compositional style. Particular beats are set into relief by the whizzing upward sweep of unison strings, while the winds are exploited individually for particular timbral characteristics and en masse for sheer volume and incisiveness of attack. The largely chordal and sonorous nature of Wagner's treatment is interspersed with more overtly contrapuntal episodes, effecting a gradual buildup of force that reaffirms the initial grandeur and sense of purpose as the Prelude segues into the opera's dramatic action.

-- Michael Rodman
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