"I am the most German of men; I am the most German of spirits. Question the incomparable enchantment of my works, compare them with all the rest: you can say nothing but — this is German."
—Richard Wagner, in his Brown Book, being characteristically modest.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 — 13 February 1883), German composer of the Romantic era, primarily of opera (though he also produced a distinguished, melancholy song-cycle, the Wesendonck-Lieder). Wagner was highly influential in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, promoting a great increase in full orchestration and chromaticism in musical language (leading to the typically "lush" Late Romantic sound), the development of nationalistic styles, and the popularizing the use of themes and motifs (Leitmotif) to represent ideas and characters. His copious writings also promoted developments in the stagecraft of his period, developing the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk or "total art work" as a fusion of all elements of a performance, words, dance, music, staging, and so on, to form a single unified experience. Being a man of consequences, eventually he wrote, composed, stage-designed, directed AND conducted his operas himself.His principal "music-dramas" (he scorned the term "opera") include
Besides serving as models for composers of dramatic music (such as Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Max Steiner) up to the present, these works have themselves been frequently adapted for use in dramatic productions — as, for example, the Bridal Chorus „Treulich geführt‟ from Lohengrin, which has become a Standard Snippet synonymous with weddings, and his "Ride of the Valkyries" from Walküre, ubiquitous in contexts of war and flying. Though Wagner was by no means incapable of delicacy, his compositions have typically been used in contexts of Sturm und Drang. Classic Looney Tunes cartoons seem particularly addicted to Wagner's music — and two of the composer's greatest works were gloriously parodied in the famous short What's Opera, Doc?.His extreme nationalism caused him to be adopted very soon as a symbol of Germany, particularly in its most militaristic andimperialist modes, and his virulent anti-Semitism and the fact that Adolf Hitlerloved his music has made Wagner the ideal musical symbol of the Nazi Reich: depictions of the downfall of Nazi Germany are almost automatically accompanied by "Siegfried's Funeral March" from (naturally) Götterdämmerung.note It is highly unlikely that Wagner would have returned Hitler's admiration, not least because Wagner was a socialist for most of his life and befriended the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and participated in the Dresden May Uprising, which resulted in his exile by the Saxon government. Anyone actually familiar with the texts of his works will note that one of the major themes running through his work is "power is evil, love is good" - not a Nazi-friendly message in the slightest, and really much closer to anarchism. (Wagner's anti-Semitism may have been a case of Boomerang Bigotry, as Ludwig Geyer, the man whom he suspected of being his biological father, was also (apparently incorrectly) reputed to be of Jewish ancestry.) Was once close friends with Friedrich Nietzsche before they had a huge falling out.Wagner was the subject of a 1954 Biopic, Magic Fire, and of Wagner, a 1983 TV mini-series starring Richard Burton.
Other works by Richard Wagner provide examples of:
Added Alliterative Appeal: Common in Wagner, as in these lines from Tannhäuser:„Wenn wir den grimmen Welfen widerstanden,/Und den verderbenvollen Zwiespalt wehrten...‟note "If we withstood the grim Guelphs, and warded off disastrous division...
This is likely based on the fact that alliteration was the standard verse-form in Germanic poetry.
At the Opera Tonight: Wagner's operas are among the favorites for characters to attend, as in the 1931 Dracula film (Meistersinger) or in Nicholas Meyers' Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven Per Cent Solution (Siegfried).
Bad To The Bone: Wagner is very popular as an ominous cue in film; the Looney Tunes series is very fond particularly of the Nibelung and Giant motifs in heralding any sinister doings.
Banned in China: Owing to the associations with Nazi Germany and Wagner's notorious anti-Semitism, Wagner's music is more or less farbotn in Israel.
This is starting to change; his music has been performed in Israel, to a mixed reception. Half the crowd loved it, the other half hated it.
Ironically, Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism and a major figure in the creation of Israel, was a Wagner fan. To the point of using Wagnerian imagery at the First Zionist Congress. Which is really just one of those things...
In the 2001, Conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Israel Philharmonic in a Wagner concert. A number of the musicians refused to perform, some even showing Barenboim Holocaust number tattoos on their arms before leaving.
In fact, during WW 2, his music was banned even in English speaking countries like America and Britain.
Big Screwed-Up Family: Wagner's own descendants (including those who married into the family) were (and still are) constantly denouncing each other as egomaniacs, charlatans, traitors, perverts, Jewish sympathizers, Nazi sympathizers, Communist sympathizers, and bad business managers.
BSOD Song: Usually, for some reason, sung by a bass-baritone.
Boomerang Bigot: It has been speculated that the peculiar vehemence of Wagner's anti-Semitism may have been fueled by fears that Ludwig Geyer, whom he suspected of being his biological father, was of Jewish descent. (Later investigation, insisted on by the Nazis, proved him of "pure Aryan origin," for what it's worth.)
And let's not forget that the young Wagner was both artistically and financially dependent on Jewish musicians like Meyerbeer or Hiller, convinced he was a self-made genius Wagner had to disassociate himself with his former benefactors.
Combat by Champion: When Elsa is accused by murder, Lohengrin shows up to serve as her champion and defeat her accuser Telramund in single combat and thereby establish her innocence.
Common Time: For example, the Festival March from Tannhäuser.
Completely Different Title: Most European nations translate the title of Der fliegende Holländer directly. The French always thought this sounded silly, and so gave it the title Le Bateau Fantôme (The Ghost Ship) or Le Vaisseau Fantôme (The Ghost Vessel).
As did Russians. In USSR, Der fliegende Holländer was performed under the title The Wandering Sailor. Now, though, they have returned to the original.
Cool Sword: As Lohengrin tells Elsa of the blade he gives her for Gottfried, „In wildem Kampf, dies' Schwert ihm Sieg verleit.‟
Siegmund's sword Notung, shattered by Wotan and reforged by Siegfried.
Curbstomp Battle: The combat between Lohengrin and Telramund lasts perhaps two minutes, and is set to rather perfunctory music.
Dreadful Musician: Wagner was a horrible pianist, but he said that he played it "a great deal better than Berlioz" — who couldn't play the piano at all.
Engagement Challenge: In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner, Walther must win the Nuremberg's Got Talent song contest at the feast of St. John before he gets the hand of Eva.
Evil Sounds Deep: As with Telramund and Klingsor (even in his...er...condition, which should have him singing soprano).
On the other hand, Landgrave Hermann, Henry the Fowler, Hans Sachs, Gurnemanz, and Titurel are all deep-voiced goodies; and on the other other hand, Ortrud is a mezzosoprano/soprano.
Famous Last Words: „Meine Uhr!‟ ("My watch!") — He had had a heart attack note possibly brought on by a violent quarrel with his wife Cosima over a pretty young "Flower Maiden" in Parsifal, and was dying in his wife's arms when the watch fell from his pocket onto the floor.
Fanfare: Several of Wagner's Leitmotifs (e.g., Lohengrin's motif) have the character of fanfares; more conventional examples introduce the Overture to Rienzi and the Festival March from Tannhäuser. At Bayreuth, certain motifs are played as fanfares from the balcony of the Festspielhaus to announce the beginning of an act.
Faust: The subject of an overture by the composer.
Flame War: Bringing up Wagner in any opera discussion forum will lead to some very heated remarks on both sides. As if his "revolutionary music" wasn't controversial enough, his anti-Semitic rants and the whole Hitler angle guarantee that Godwin's Law is inevitable. One music historian said, "I never discuss politics, religion, orWagner. It always makes for bad blood and originates quarrels."
German Language: While Leitmotiv was actually coined rather by Hans von Wolzogen rather than by Wagner, we do owe to Richard that suitably impressive Teutonic term, Gesamtkunstwerk — the "total art work" or combinations of all forms of art, music, theater, painting, dance, and so on, to make up one unified art-form.
Tristan und Isolde, and its prelude especially, is often cited as the Ur Example of the modernist departure from tonality. While the work is still rooted in the traditions of German music, Wagner stretched the tonal system well beyond the limits of many listeners and critics in his day - often delaying the resolutions to dominants or not giving them at all.
Genre Popularizer: The modern idea of opera - as a serious, thought-provoking art form, as full of fat ladies in horned helmets - comes largely from Wagner. Besides creating modern opera, his writings on the Gesamtkunstwerk also played a huge role in the development of The Musical and film scoring (the latter of which was also influenced by his ideas about orchestration).
Ghost Ship: Wagner's interpretation of the Flying Dutchman legend had the ship filled with a phantom crew.
The Heavy: Klingsor in Parsifal is perhaps a typical example.
Historical-Domain Character: Real people continually show up in the operas: Herman, Landgrave of Thuringia; Walter von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the title-character himself in Tannhäuser; King Henry the Fowler in Lohengrin; Hans Sachs and the other Mastersingers in Meistersinger.
Hot-Blooded: Walther in Meistersinger „flammt auf‟ when Sachs suggests that Beckmesser may be his rival for Eva's hand.
Idiot Hero: Parsifal, „der reine Thor‟ ("the pure fool"). Also Siegfried who is too stupid to learn what fear is.
Kill 'em All: Wagner started on the path of Everyone Dies early. His boyhood tragedy Leubald featured twenty-four deaths; by the last act, he had killed off so many that he had to bring some characters back as ghosts.
Played out to a very literal and final conclusion in Götterdämmerung. The world is destroyed and literally everyone except the Rhine Maidens (Yes even the Gods) is killed.
King Arthur: Parsifal is somewhat loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Arthurian romance Parzival. Wagner's earlier Lohengrin also tangentially touches the Grail myth. Note that Wagner moves the action from the 5th to the 10th century A.D.
In fact, if you're not a gigantic ham, you have no place in Wagnerian opera. Period. (SeeWorld of Ham, below.)
Leitmotif: The Leitmotif technique, if not invented by Wagner, was certainly perfected by him. In his operas, not only would every character have his/her own motif, but also objects, places, and even abstract ideas, all of which would be woven into a complex symphonic whole, in which the variations of the motifs have a psychological effect far more significant than a mere announcement of a character's presence.
Light Is Not Good: For a Romantic like Wagner, light was associated with the order, reason, and civilization of the previous century's Classicism, while Romanticism invoked chaos, emotions, nature or savagery, and darkness. This is seen in Tristan und Isolde, where the eponymous lovers meet in dark forests to proclaim their irrational love for each other, while Isolde's husband King Marke is associated with the light, civilization, and reason.
Among music theory circles, the first three bars of Tristan und Isolde is one of the most widely analysed and debated moments in Wagner's whole output, mostly due to the infamous "Tristan chord." These bars have been subsequently quoted by many composers, either seriously or in jest, i.e. Debussy in "Golliwog's Cakewalk. Peter Schickele also parodied it in Last Tango in Bayreuth.
Nice Hat: Besides popularizing winged (and horned) helmets, the composer's own characteristic large, slouched beret (see pic, above) is actually called a Wagnerkappe in German.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: Besides Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, who is modeled on (but not identified with) the historical St. Elisabeth of Thuringia, it is said that the character of Beckmesser in Meistersinger was meant as a caricature of the Viennese music critic, Eduard Hanslick.
No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: It has been asserted that when composing the Ring, Wagner at one point intended for the operas to be performed three times in a purpose-built opera house. Afterward, all copies of the score and all the props were to be burned, along with the entire opera house. Obviously this did not happen.
Norse Mythology: Wagner has hugely affected the popular perception of it. This is despite the fact that very little of The Ring actually comes straight from Norse legends; Wagner made plenty of it up and took artistic license with the rest.
Old Shame: His first two works, Die Feen ("The Fairies") and Das Liebesverbot ("The Ban on Love"). The third, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen ("Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes"), suffered Creator Backlash, but is still sometimes performed today.
Only the Chosen May Wield: The sword in the ash tree, which can be only pulled out by Siegmund, as he does in Die Walküre Act I.
Opera: Uh...yeah. Wagner did compose a few other works, such as the Wesendonck-Lieder and the Siegfried-Idyll — but the music-dramas constitute the composer's most extensive and important achievement.
The Power of Love: In Holländer Vanderdecken is saved from eternal maritime damnation by Senta's faithful love; in Tannhäuser, Heinrich is saved from eternal intramontane damnation by Elisabeth's faithful love. On the other hand, in Lohengrin Elsa's love for the eponymous swan-knight brings causes her to ask the fateful question which drives him away. Though Walther and Eva love each other, of course, it is rather The Power of Art than The Power of Love that brings about the happy ending in Meistersinger. Tristan and Isolde's love brings destruction upon them. Parsifal actually rejects the love (if one can call it that) of the Flower Maidens and Kundry to become the hero. Invoked in Wagner's earlier works, this trope is more often subverted in his later ones.
Prequel: Parsifal can be thought of as a prequel to Lohengrin.
Wagner's greatest spate of Prequelitis came during the crafting of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Originally, he'd envisioned only a single opera, Siegfrieds Tod (the Death of Siegfried), but realized while writing it that there was too much back-story he needed to get out of the way, so he began work on a prequel named Siegfried. Then he realized that this opera also had a large amount of back-story, so he began writing a prequel to it named Die Walküre. Finally, he realized that this, too, had too much back-story the audience needed to know, so he started in on a prequel to it named Das Rheingold. Decades later, Siegfrieds Tod had become Goetterdämmerung, and he had a four-opera mega-epic on his hands.
Public Domain Artifact: The Grail in Lohengrin and Parsifal; the Holy Spear in Parsifal. (The Ring (or rather, any of its prototypes) was not a well-known artifact before Wagner.)
Sadly Mythtaken: Or sometimes Willfully Mythtaken. Wagner has enraged folklorists from his own time to the present for adapting ancient myths and legends with abandon, and in the process, ousting the originals from the minds of most of the public.
Space Jews: Klingsor from Parsifal is generally considered to be one of these. Some would also include the Nibelungs, specifically from Mime, from the Ring, though there's less evidence of that.
Standard Snippet: Besides the obvious Lohengrin wedding and Walküre bombing examples, storms at sea have very commonly invoked the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer.
Star-Crossed Lovers: Senta and The Dutchman die (but go to Heaven); Elisabeth and Heinrich die (and probably go to Heaven); Elsa and Lohengrin are parted forever (until they meet in heaven?); Tristan is mortally wounded, Isolde falls dead onto his body (Liebestod). Falling in love is generally not a good idea in a Wagner opera.
Stylistic Suck: As with Beckmesser's ludicrous serenade in Meistersinger.
Take That: As mentioned previously (SeeNo Celebrities Were Harmed, above) Sixtus Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger was reputed to be a thinly-veiled caricature of Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick. More directly, Wagner mocked rival composers such as Meyerbeer and Rossini in his prose works.
Tenor Boy: Erik, Lohengrin, Walther, Siegfried and Parsifal — the more "boyish" Wagnerian rôles. Perhaps subverted in Tannhäuser, in which the more sensual Heinrich is a tenor, the more innocent Wolfram a baritone.
Throwing Out The Script: In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, when Walther starts singing his prize song at the contest (after Beckmesser made a travesty out of it), Kothner unconsciously drops the music sheet. Walther sees this and turns his song into a more elaborate one than what he had set down earlier.
Those Wacky Nazis: Hitler loved the music of Wagner (he wasn't his favorite composer, though, contrary to popular misconception - that was Anton Bruckner). He was also, as transmitted through Wagner's English son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of his favorite racial theorists. Ironically, Hitler's attempts to inculcate Wagnerian obsession into his thuggish followers were not particularly successful.
Transvestite: He liked to wear ladies' underwear so much that an entire room in his house was dedicated to storing lingerie.
Trial by Combat: Lohengrin fights a judicial combat for Elsa of Brabant in his eponymous opera.
Übermensch: Nietzsche saw Siegfried (and, indeed, Wagner himself) as the type of the new man who would transcend outworn moralities. Then he and Wagner quarreled, and (on the basis of Parsifal) he accused the composer of being a Christian.
Valkyries: It is Wagner's version that most people think of when imagining these mythological "Gatherers of the Slain" — however, it is worth noting that unlike the popular conception, Wagner's original Valkyries did not wear horned helmets, but winged ones; did not ride winged horses, though they were aerial ones; and, though intended to be rather manly, ungentle women, were intended to be statuesque in the 19th century manner, rather than grossly obese.
What Could Have Been: After Parsifal, Wagner planned to spend the rest of his life composing symphonies. Unfortunately, he did not live that long.
On the subject of Parsifal, he planned to rewrite Klingsor for the castrato Domenico Mustafa.
Also, Wagner once planned a music drama on the life of Buddha.
What the Hell, Hero??: Parsifal actually introduces its eponymous hero this way, with him being reprimanded for senselessly killing a swan. Of course, he's The Fool and has a lot to learn — he doesn't even know his name at this point.
Woman Scorned: Kundry's reaction, when Parsifal rejects her allurements, is not understanding.
World of Ham: "Wagnerian" has become practically a synonym for this.
Legend of the Galactic Heroes has a completely classical music soundtrack, and Wagner is among the many composers whose music are used in the background music. Other Wagner's works frequently used in the series include Siegfried Idyll and the Symphony in C major.
Blade Runner: Roy Batty mentions the Tannhauser Gate in his dying speech, though it is not clear whether this is a Shout-Out to Wagner or to the actual thirteenth century Minnesinger. He pronounced it "Tann-howz-er".
The film Excalibur makes use of the Preludes to Tristan and Parsifal, as well as the Siegfried's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung.
In Woody Allen's film Manhattan Murder Mystery, his character Larry Lipton takes several digs at Wagner, such as: "I can't listen to that much Wagner, ya know? I start to get the urge to conquer Poland."
Wagner is also mentioned briefly in Annie Hall, when Alvy is worried that the record store owner was making an anti-Semitic joke by mentioning that he was having a sale on Wagner.
Friedrich Nietzsche: Originally a fan and friend of Wagner, who later broke bitterly with him and wrote a Take Thatessay against him called Der Fall Wagner ("The Case of Wagner"); he later had a collection of essays entitled Nietzsche contra Wagner to prove that this wasn't a one-time thing.
Flying Dutch by Tom Holt has the original Flying Dutchman as the protagonist. It turns out he told his story to Wagner, who never fully recovered and was prone to peals of demented laughter when a specific historical king was mentioned. (The same author's first work, Expecting Someone Taller, is a Lighter and Softer sequel to the Ring, in which the titular McGuffin falls into the hands of a naive and well-meaning Englishman. Notable among other things for the fact that, unlike Siegfried, he has to be bullied into drinking dragon's blood so as to learn the language of the birds, and when he does, it absolutely ruins the countryside for him, since the birds just won't shut up and have nothing very interesting to say.)
Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap series is literally a Space Opera, being an adaptation of the RingIN SPACE!.
In Haruki Murakami's short story "The Second Bakery Attack," the narrator recalls a bakery robbery he and a friend had committed in college, in which the baker had allowed them to take as much as they wanted as long as they agreed to listen to listen to a full Wagner record.
In Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock HolmesPasticheThe Seven Per Cent Solution, Holmes (who adores Wagner), Dr. Watson, and Sigmund Freud all attend a performance of Siegfried; Watson and Freud fall asleep.
Live Action TV
On an episode of Cheers: Rebecca's wealthy boyfriend promises her a wonderful gift and references a "ring." She gets a desk. Convinced that there's an engagement ring hidden inside, she literally tears the desk apart to find it. Then Sam finds the packing slip, explaining that it's the very valuable and historic desk at which Wagner composed Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode "Trick or Threat", when Larry whistles a tune from Wagner, a man accuses him of being a "self-hating Jew", as Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. At the end of the episode, Larry takes revenge on him by hiring an orchestra and conducting them to play Wagner in front of the guy's house.
On Kir Royal, the protagonists use the aliases "Siegfried" and "Wieland", the names of Richard's son and grandson (while posing as the nephews of a Jewish composer, of all things).
In an episode of the short lived series Veritas: The Quest, the protagonists find Albert Speer's secret bunker. One of them starts going through a record collection in the corner: "Wagner...Wagner...Wagner...Best Of Wagner..."
Jim Steinman coined the term "Wagnerian rock" to describe the music he wrote (for an example, listen to any track from the first two Bat Out of Hell albums).