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: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Barenboim
Release Date: 10/25/2011   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 4755   Number of Discs: 11
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Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen / Barenboim, Bayreuth [Blu-ray]
Release Date: 10/30/2012   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 4755   Number of Discs: 4
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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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Richard Wagner: Die Walkure / Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth
Release Date: 09/09/2014   Label: Walhall  
Catalog: 247   Number of Discs: 3
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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: Lohengrin: Act 1 Prelude

 

About This Work
In 1853, Richard Wagner wrote an "explanatory Program" for the overture to his sixth opera, Lohengrin, which he had completed in 1848. In his program, Wagner describes a vision of the Holy Grail, guided from out the heavenly mists by a host Read more of angels. The Grail is the symbol of the all-embracing love of the Savior, who offers those priviledged to see it eternal redemption from the evil-corrupted world.

Indeed, armed with this authorial interpretation of the overture, it is not difficult to recognize images of sanctity and eternity in Wagner's music. The orchestration of the overture's opening, featuring divisi violins, playing at ethereal heights of the register and colored by chords in the flutes and oboes, swaddles the main thematic idea in a gossamer web of shimmering sound. The theme unfolds over the course of the overture as though in a single extended breath, each potential cadence point diverted into continuation or reiteration of the theme, filling the timeless expanse of eternity. The orchestration gradually increases in weight of instrumental forces and fills out the bottom of the register leading to the overture's triumphant climax, and then gradually returns to the glistening violins to bring the overture to an end: perhaps a musical manifestation of the revelation of the grail to the earthly select and its immediate retreat to the heavenly realm.

Fulfilling the traditional function of an opera overture, the overture to Lohengrin introduces some of the opera's most important musical material, and begins the task of plotting associations between the music and the characters and ideas. More specifically, throughout the opera the overture theme is consistently associated with the opera's two most pious characters--the Grail knight Lohengrin and Elsa (in some of her moments of deepest faith)--and the redemptive power of the Grail itself. The single theme of the Lohengrin prelude is recognized in Act I scene 2 when Elsa, accused of murdering her brother in order to secure her succession to the throne of Brabant, makes her first appearance, before her judge, King Heinrich. The woodwinds quote sections of the overture's theme, and essentially speak for Elsa, accompanying her non-verbal responses to the King's questions. The theme, complete with its orchestration for high violins as at the overture's opening, returns immediately before Elsa sings of the knight who approaches to redeem her from the charge that Friedrich has brought against her. The association of this theme with the saintly Lohengrin himself is made yet more explicit when it returns later in Act II scene 2, as the music for Lohengrin's first monologue, after his arrival in a boat drawn upon the river by a swan. In the fourth scene of Act II, brief allusions are made to the overture's theme in the instrumental music that accompanies the action of the procession of ladies advancing toward the cathedral for Elsa's wedding to Lohengrin. In Act Two's final scene, a portion of the overture theme is cited as the chorus of men and noble men and women sing "Hail to thee, Elsa of Brabant!" The climactic usage of the overture theme occurs in Act III, scene 3, in which, through the so-called Grail narration, Lohengrin reveals his lineage as son of Parsifal, the priviledged one who guards the mystical Holy Grail, and as Lohengrin frees the boat-drawing swan-which transforms itself into Elsa's long-lost brother--from the fetters that bind it into servitude.

-- Jennifer Hambrick
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