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

Wagner: Parsifal / Kaufmann, Pape, Gatti, Met Opera [Blu-ray]
Release Date: 04/01/2014   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 372572   Number of Discs: 1
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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: Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg / Gatti, Volle, Sacca, Gabler, Zeppenfeld
Release Date: 07/29/2014   Label: Euroarts  
Catalog: 72688   Number of Discs: 2
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Wagner: Two Symphonies, Marches, Rienzi Overture / Jarvi, Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Release Date: 03/27/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5097   Number of Discs: 1
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Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander / Selig, Merbeth, Muzek, Thielemann, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Release Date: 07/29/2014   Label: Opus Arte  
Catalog: 1140   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Siegfried Idyll

 

About This Work
The full title on the original manuscript of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll reads, "Tribschen-Idyll, with Fidi-Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a symphonic birthday greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870." The "Siegfried" Read more in the title does not refer to the composer's opera of the same name, as is often supposed, but to his infant son, whose pet name was "Fidi." The "orange sunrise" refers to the color of Cosima's bedroom wallpaper, which brightly reflected the morning light. Though the work is sometimes heard in an arrangement for full orchestra, Wagner originally wrote it for an ensemble of 15 players. Having prepared and rehearsed the work in secret, Wagner gathered his small orchestra on the stairway on Christmas morning, 1870, and awakened Cosima with its first performance (Cosima's birthday was December 24; the Wagner family celebrated that day and the Christmas holiday together). Afterward, Wagner and Cosima's five children presented her with the score.

As is reflected in the uncharacteristically (for Wagner) modest scoring, the Siegfried Idyll is a particularly intimate work, meant to acknowledge and celebrate the year that Wagner and Cosima could finally legitimize their union. Several stressful years had passed since Cosima had left her first husband, the conductor Hans von Bülow, in 1866. The divorce was finalized at last in 1870, and in August of that year Cosima and Wagner wed.

Wagner wrote Siegfried Idyll while he was occupied with the completing and intial staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The music for Siegfried (1856-71), the third part of the cycle, had caused the composer great difficulty; he had set it aside in frustration in 1857, returning to it only in 1869. Wagner borrowed Siegfried Idyll's principal themes from Siegfried and Die Walküre (1854-56), where they have specific meanings within the cycle's system of leitmotives. Within the context in Siegfried Idyll, however, these themes are take on a more general nature as expressions of triumphant love and affection. Wagner had never intended to publish the work, but financial problems forced him to make it public in 1877.

-- Theresa Muir
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